Today started with a coffee and muffin at a cool little coffee shop, La Panetteria, that we’d passed a few times on our way to some other place. The coffee was good, the muffin was great, as was the experience. It was pretty busy but we managed to snag one of the two tables in the back. Their sandwich menu looked pretty extraordinary, with everything served on their own freshly baked baguettes. Perhaps for another day.
Our original plan was to continue on from there, along the Amstel River and then up into the city center to Dam Square, the spot that old Amsterdam is organized around. It’s the one tourist destination we haven’t been to, having been busy doing pre-arranged museum visits. As always, the best-laid plans are forgotten when something else presents itself as a better option. Today, that plan killer was a boat trip.
Canal cruises are quite popular here, ranging from 50-passenger group boats to 5-person private tours. We’d walked past one of the bigger boat companies yesterday after our pannenkoeken lunch and thought it might be a nice way to see the city. That particular line was offering a 75-minute trip for 20€ which seemed like a reasonable price for the experience. The only downside – a long walk back to get on a boat.
Walking along the river, and just as we were about to turn north, we passed another boat company, offering an hour on the water for the low, low, price of only 13€. Given that we didn’t need to be anywhere in particular, and given that the weather was absolutely beautiful, I figured why not ask about departures. I did, and the answer was “The boat leaves in 20 minutes.” I bought the tickets on the spot.
With a few minutes to kill, and not many people waiting to get on the boat, we crossed the street to check out the rest of the Bloemenmarkt, the floating flower market we’d stumbled upon yesterday. We’d only been in 1 stall of 8 so we had a look at the rest. Mostly the same tourist knickknacks with some different bulb offerings, but worth the 10 minutes we spent there. It was time to leave so we went back and chose a couple of seats inside the closed part of the cabin.
The next hour was wonderful. Cruising a ring around the city passing under bridges barely higher than the boat. And, an excellent history lesson about Amsterdam along with a lot of interesting trivia. The boat was a beauty, and in our case aptly named the John F. Kennedy. A bit of a throwback in style made up of lots of brass and teak.
We passed a canal section known as “The Golden Bend” which was lined by the fancy 17th-century abodes of the merchants who made their fortunes via trade with the Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia and the new world. Bigger than any other house in town, they were all crowned with coats of arms that represented their family name and often how their money was made. In order to further impress the regular people of the city they employed an interesting architectural sleight of hand – big windows on the ground floor, medium windows on the middle floors, and much smaller windows at the top – giving the impression that the building was much taller than it was. It worked, the houses all appeared very stately.
We passed a lot of interesting canal oddities, like the 7-bridge alignment, a magic spot where if you line up the boat and your camera just right, the bridges appear to recede into infinity. I couldn’t get it exactly right, but the effect was mostly visible.
And then there was the narrowest canal house in the city, a mere 5 feet wide. The houses used to be taxed on the amount of street front they consumed so a quick way around an onerous assessment was a house you can barely live in.
At the north end of town, we exited the canal system and made our way out into the harbor, passing through one of the city’s original sea locks. It was busy here, with the free public transit ferries shuttling back and forth between the city proper and the docklands to the north.
As we made the turn south and back into the canals, we passed two Viking Cruise Line long boats lined up cheek by jowl – impressive boats that offer an attractive way to travel – sitting on a covered patio as Europe slowly passes by.
One of the neatest places we saw was a tiny gabled building that was the residence of one of the sea lockkeepers. Today it’s a restaurant, 300 years ago it belonged to the man who operated the lock that allowed merchant ships into the canal system following their long commerce trips from the colonies.
An hour and 5 bonus minutes later, we were back ashore and heading off to finish what we’d originally to do.
Compared to our previous 3 days, today the streets were positively crammed full of tourists. Maybe the weather, maybe those cruise ships, maybe because it’s Saturday. Whatever the cause, it made our cross-town trek a lot more challenging. Narrow sidewalks choked with selfie-takers and phone gawkers make for a frustrating recipe.
We made it to Dam Square and were confronted with thousands of people and three simultaneous demonstrations – one for a newer version of the Chinese Falun Gong cult, another for Iranian political prisoners, and one in front of the Dior store loudly protesting the use of fur. I took a photo of the Royal Palace and we beat a hasty retreat back into the shady side streets.
The Amsterdam Red Light District inhabits this part of town, and just as advertised the streets we chose were lined with little stalls behind windows, each holding a single bikini-clad young woman. No pictures, because it’s viewed as unacceptable to shoot photos of the sex workers without their permission. Respecting that, I grabbed a couple of neutral memories that didn’t involve an actual person.
It was lunchtime so we went looking for somewhere to eat. We passed a lot of options, put off mainly by the smoking crowds on the patio and the lack of shade, finally opting for a Dutch bistro that was dark, cool, and empty on the inside. And therein we checked another box – Bitterballen.
Much like the tapas croquettes of Spain, Bitterballen are little balls of meat dough breaded and deep-fried. We had an order of them and an order of sweet potato fries. The Bitterballen were great, once you got past the fact that they were about 1000° inside. The fries were as expected. Suitably fortified we made our way back to the hotel for a break from the sun.
One last thing – I posted photos yesterday of some of the crazy desserts offered by the dozens of sweets shops along just about every street. Well today, I decided I’d try one and the example I chose was a Belgian waffle slathered in milk chocolate and bedecked with a Kit Kat candy bar. It wasn’t quite the exceptional dessert experience I was expecting, but it was okay and certainly different than anything I’d ever eaten. A bit thick, a bit doughy, and really sweet. It’s lasting the better part of the afternoon, one small bite at a time.