FX Excursions

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Convivial and Quirky

by Contributor

Jan 14, 2018

Mihai-bogdan Lazar | Dreamstime.com

Destinations / Europe

by Becca Hensley


Diaphanous, the mist rises from the Amstel River like smoke conjured from a magic wand. Cold, we huddle on the leather seats of our snug, centuries-old saloon boat. It’s outfitted with the aplomb of a proud sailor, with shiny bits of brass and dark wood.


Our bearded captain, stereotypically nautical, seems an extension of his craft. As the motor purrs and we pull away from the dock for an evening meander through Amsterdam’s canals, I sip Champagne and take a last look, for now, at our hotel, the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, one of the most storied and luxurious lodges in the “Tulip city.” As glittery at night as the cut diamonds that hail from this Dutch capital, the hotel seems to wish us well on our journey, to invite us back to warm beds. But first, an old-fashioned jaunt on one of the hotel’s three historic saloon boats. We cruise beneath brightly lit bridges and beside riverside pathways filled with couples holding hands, and bikers navigating around them. Lining each side, narrow canal houses rise toward the moon. The glow inside illuminates the people within, and we watch, all the while nibbling canapés served by the captain himself, as life in Amsterdam unfolds.


This mood of utter romance is what the Dutch call gezellig, a word that means convivial coziness, intimacy — all things quixotic and chimerical. And we don’t just experience gezellig on our boat. Back at the Amstel, we seem enveloped in it. With its French Renaissance façade, gilded interior ceilings and original ornamental plasterwork, the hotel radiates the elegance of Cary Grant in a tuxedo. Chandeliers drip throughout, and the elevators are paneled with mahogany. Our room, the Royal Suite, once housed the Dutch king and queen for a night. It’s a regal symphony of river views, Delftware and mahogany-inlaid tables; there’s a canopied, silk damask-covered bed, rare 17th-century Parisian dressers and an antique bathtub with brass fixtures.


Rijksmuseum building famous landmark in Amsterdam

Rijksmuseum building, Amsterdam. Photo: Olga Lupol | Dreamstime.com


The next morning I wake to bikes purring. A gentle alarm clock, the soft whirring noises of wheels and the thump of frames against cobblestones stir me to consciousness. Bicycles dominate in this city of canals — even in the morning, I discover, as I peer out sleepily, watching them pass below me in all directions. I love this city with its dollhouse-like canal homes, its small glasses of cold beer, its great baskets of colorful tulips and its ubiquitous cruiser bikes. I’ve spent the last few days digesting enormous meals of fine art, indulging and exploring as many museums as the days are long, taking in the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, a special exhibit at the Nieuwe Church — and the Hermitage Museum, an enriching venue in a renovated canal-side boarding house that shows temporary exhibits from the rich collection of the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg. Beyond the awe of Rembrandt, canal houses, cheese so aged it tastes like crispy caramel, nefariously intoxicating coffeehouses, tulips, Delft china, antiques to die for and a not-so seamy Red Light District, what leaves the biggest impression when I visit this treasure trove of a city is life in the bike lane.


Absolutely the first thing you have to know about Amsterdam is how to ride a bike Amsterdammer style (cross tram lines with care, yield to the right, don’t ride two abreast) — or at the very least, as a pedestrian, know how to dodge them. According to recent statistics, there’s nearly a bike per person there, with 600,000 bikes rolling through the cobblestone streets of this 900-year-old city. Young, old, rich, poor — everybody pedals. And nobody wears a helmet. In a city with countless canals, narrow streets and more than a thousand bridges, bikes rule the road. Naturally, this city chock-full of cycles looks like a playground to my kids. They giggle aplenty at unprecedented sights such as a quartet of dogs barking from their flower-covered bike basket and a man pedaling while juggling an immense vase in one hand and a cellphone in the other, with two kids clinging to his waist behind him.


But beyond bikes, Amsterdam enthralls families with its multiple museums, many of which feature child-friendly, hands-on kid corners to make art and history accessible.


Amsterdam Autumn canal bikes

© Sborisov | Dreamstime.com


Think treasure hunts at the Van Gogh Museum. Shopping the art galleries, antique stores and boutiques in a picturesque, 17th-century enclave called The Nine Streets offers something for everyone, as does cruising the canals on paddle boats or indulging in a city tour atop two-wheelers. Some other things to do? On Wednesdays, don’t miss the afternoon puppet show in Dam Square, a century-old tradition. Bring tissues when you visit the poignant Anne Frank House Museum, located in the original canal house where the Frank and Van Pels families went into hiding. Travel in style aboard the city’s trams. My kids love the vintage one that starts at Haarlemmermeer Station, which boasts wooden seats and an old-fashioned, piercingly loud bell. Ride it to Amsterdamse Bos, 20 minutes away, where a peacock-filled park awaits. There, family-owned stands sell sweet (or savory) Dutch pancakes.


As you wander through the city, also nosh on patat (French fries served with mayonnaise); hutspot (a stew of braised beef, mashed carrots and potatoes); Dutch cheese (especially Edam and Gouda); licorice, sold in every shape; and sweet, cookie-like stroopwafels. Legions of trendy bars and hidden speakeasies will quench your thirst with contemporary libations, but I enjoy my favorite swill among locals at Café Hoppe (circa 1670). There, order a kopstoot. You’ll get two drinks: a tulip glass full of jenever (Dutch gin) and a small beer (probably a Heineken). Bend at the waist, then throw back the jenever first. Follow that with the beer. If you’re not too pie-eyed, do it again. Your Dutch friends will applaud your efforts. Just one thing: Don’t try to ride home on your bike afterward. Proost!


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