Leigh and I arrived in Amsterdam’s central train station late in the evening on Saturday, July 31st. Since we were pooped from a long day and couldn’t seem to find a map of the city anywhere (we were playing typical backpacking college students, so of course we didn’t have maps ahead of time), we decided to grab a cab from the train station and let someone else find our hostel for a change. This turned out to be a really good idea, since it was much further from the train station than we had anticipated! When we finally got to the building we were amazed at how gorgeous our “hostel” was – I feel uncomfortable even calling it that, the place was so fancy. The building was a huge, modern, free-standing structure with brand new furniture and huge red paper lanterns overhanging the main lounge. The “hostel” also came complete with a bar, cafeteria (yes, like the ones you find in school), and elevators. Heavenly! For future world travelers, I would highly recommend hostelworld.com – Leigh and I reserved all of our hostels in advance, and we got some great deals because of it! All of our rooms were 2- or 4-person, single-sex (female) rooms, with attached bathrooms, free wireless internet, and free breakfast buffets. And, the most we spent for a hostel was $37/night! There are some perks to being young in Europe :)
Once we checked in and found our rooms we discovered that our roommates were asleep, so Leigh and I went out to dinner around the corner at a very artsy, young coffee shop/restaurant/art gallery. It reminded me very much of Bloomington, and I felt immediately at home in the young, artistic, and liberal-minded city. From our first night there I could already tell that it was going to be a good experience.
On the morning of our first full day in Amsterdam Leigh and I ate breakfast at the hostel’s cafeteria (Seriously! It was awesome), and then headed out early. We decided to walk around the city and Red Light District the first day, and save the second day for renting bikes, seeing the Anne Frank House, and touring the Jordaan neighborhood. We followed Rick Steve’s Amsterdam City Walk, which was recommended in his guidebook to Amsterdam (cliche, I know), and even though I felt ridiculous walking around trying to sneak views of my guidebook in my bag, it turned out to be one of the better decisions we made. Starting from Amsterdam’s Central Station we walked about three miles, heading down Damrak to Dam Square. From there we continued south down Kalverstraat to the Mint Tower (Munttoren), then through the flower market (Bloemenmarkt), before coming to Leidseplein and turning left to the Rijksmuseum.
On Kalverstraat we saw the Begijnhof, one of Amsterdam’s oldest inner squares/neighborhoods. The square was originally built at street level during the Middle Ages, and is therefore more than a meter lower than the rest of the city’s buildings. The courtyard served as a beguinage, or (as Wikipedia puts it) a community of “lay sisterhoods of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in the 13th century in the Low Countries, who sought to serve God without retiring from the world. After the Protestant takeover of 1578, when Amsterdam came under Calvinist rule, the Begijnhof was the only Roman Catholic institution to be allowed to remain in existence because the houses were the beguines’ private property.” The last beguine to live in the Begjinhof died in 1971. And there’s your history lesson for the day!
We ate lunch in the Spui neighborhood, then saw the Mint Tower, flower market, Leidsestraat/Leidseplein, and passed by the “Heineken Experience,” aka the Heineken factory. We finished our walking tour by going through the Red Light District, a neighborhood which was surprisingly tame since it was only about 4 or 5 in the evening at that point. Red lights were starting to glow in windows, and one or two ladies were tidying themselves in mirrors or straightening their chairs, but we could have walked right through without noticing had it not been for the “condomerie” shop we passed selling all sorts of imaginative contraceptives!
After our brief tour of (only slightly) risque Amsterdam we headed back to the Amsterdam Central Train Station where we browsed the mini-mart inside, and then headed back to our hostel for an early night in. Thus we completed our terribly touristy but ever-so-educational first day tour of Amsterdam!
On our second day in Amsterdam Leigh and I again ate breakfast at our hostel, checked out of our rooms, and took the tram to Central Station. Our tram tickets were donated to us by our friendly Swiss roommates at the hostel, who weren’t making use of them – what luck! At the station we dropped off our backpacks in a rented locker – we didn’t want to have to carry them around with us all day – and then headed back into town. We considered renting bikes (“When in Amsterdam…”), but decided to do it later if we had time. Instead, we walked to the Anne Frank House, where Anne and her family lived in a secret annex for two years before they were betrayed to the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. We arrived early, hoping to avoid the long lines that inevitably form at big tourist attractions, but found ourselves at the back of an hour-long line nonetheless. Even so, we waited in line, since we both agreed it was not something we wanted to miss.
The most surprising thing about the Anne Frank House is how extraordinarily small it truly is. Two families – eight people – lived in a space the size of a small living for two years, in almost complete silence, before they were discovered. I think Anne Frank’s story is particularly affecting because she was so young, and such an incredible writer, but to me the Annex had more to say about the dangers of extremism and fear.
After our tour we walked across the street and ate lunch at a little café across the street (apparently, Leigh reminds me, I had a peanut butter-chicken sandwich, though I don’t remember this). At this point it was mid-afternoon, so we scrapped our bicycle plans and walked back to the train station instead, where we attempted to use the internet. Eventually we settled on buying a coffee and a brownie at a Ben & Jerry’s, which bought us a whole ten minutes worth of internet access. After briefly checking our emails and double-checking our travel information, we caught a train at 5PM back to Brussels Midi, where we endured a long inefficient wait at customs, and finally caught our final train to London!