Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Day 7: I trekked to Utrecht

I’ve been here a week; I figure it’s time to get a walking tour of this city.  Sandeman’s Free Walking Tours in London were really great, so let’s see how they showcase Amsterdam! (Though I am a bit of a cheapskate, these tours aren’t truly “free”.  The guides request that you pay-what-it’s-worth at the end.)

The tour congregated at Dam Square, right at the National Monument.  Sandeman’s has a distinctive red colour scheme; I couldn’t help but notice that there were a few other tour companies sporting red t-shirts and name badges.  According to our guide, these are, indeed, trying to lure unsuspecting tourists away from the rightful Sandeman’s operators! (I’m sure our guide has no bias in this regard.) When I toured London, it was a home-bred Brit who taught us about London.  There’s a certain credibility when the tour guide grew up in the area.  Today, my guide was from Alaska.  Right….

The tour started and we walked right out of Dam Square.  Um…?? I asked I our guide whether Dam Square itself would be a “stop” later on in the tour.  Nope.  Apparently there isn’t much to say about Dam Square.  The River Amstel used to flow right through the centre of the city, until they built a dam. (The Dutch are pretty practical in the way they name things…)  Now there’s an unoccupied palace that occasionally opens as a musem – at irregular intervals throughout the year.

I’m pretty sure the carnival is a recent addition.

Although it wasn’t a tour of the Red Light District proper, the tour focused on the District early on. One of first stops was in the heart of the Red Light District, at the Old Church:

Catholicism is great, ain’t it? In the 1300s (I think), back when Amsterdam was nothing more than a busy port, the sailors coming back from months at sea would be seeking a bit of lovin’.  The Catholic Church didn’t want the sailors negatively influencing the morals of the upstanding ladies of Amsterdam, so the church recruited “women of questionable morals” (I’m not sure if this means they were already prostitutes, or maybe just Protestants…) to satisfy this urge.  Nothing like a little vertical integration to consolidate business success, the church then happily sold indulgences to the sailors as they emerged from the brothels, before those sailors would return to the dangerous life at sea.  

Over the years, prostitution was regularly outlawed, but it never really went away.  Eventually, the practical Dutch decided that taxes were better than policing, and so the practice was officially put into law.  Our guide remarked that both she – as an independent guide – and the prostitutes have the same type of business license as a one-person business.  They get basic healthcare and protections under the law as a result.  My guide might earn less than the prostitutes, but they look pretty bored when you walk by, whereas Kendra seemed to be having fun.  Trade-offs…

Practicality fiures strongly in the Dutch mentality, it seems.  Catholicism was banned for a time in Amsterdam’s history (this is after it established a thriving District), but the city didn’t want to cast out the wealthy Catholics. So arrangements were made for Catholics to practice in “hidden” churches.  One of these hidden churches had the second-largest organ in the country!  Apparently police would follow up on complaints from Protestant Amsterdammers on Monday or Tuesday, and find these “hidden” Catholic Churches empty.  No need to arrest anyone!  The same approach characterizes the “coffee-houses” in the District today.  They aren’t smoking weed.  They are smoking….coffee.

I apologize that I can’t share photos of the Red Light District here.  The women behind the glass are not okay with their photos being taken.  Our guide warned us that to do so might result in us being harangued, our cameras being damaged, or urine being thrown in our faces.  That last might have been hyperbole, but Kendra proceeded to highlight that if any of us wanted to have urine on his face, there was a girl in the District who would do that.

Amsterdam has more museums per capita than any other city in the world.  There’s the Amsterdam Cheese Museum (which… kind of a museum), the Tulip Museum (which doesn’t resemble a museum in any way; simply a store), and a multitude of others, in addition to the better-known bastions of culture like the Rijks Museum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Sex Museum. Interesting tidbit I learned on the tour today?  Being a museum has tax advantages, and the Dutch feel they are taxed more than any other nation in the world! (Paul and I talked about this, and it may be true…)  I stopped by the Amsterdam Cheese Museum yesterday and ate lots of cheese, so right now that’s my favourite!

As with any Amsterdam walking tour, this one passed many more beautiful canal scenes:

The Amsterdam coat of arms adorns all kinds of public buildings and structures (including park benches, etc)

This is a joke, right?  The Amsterdam coat of arms is "XXX"?  Art imitating life.

The next story we learned is especially interesting to me.

This statue is of Eduard Douwes Dekker, who highlighted the abuses of the colonial system in the Dutch East Indies in his book Multatuli. In essence, he was the founder of fair trade!  Of course, Dekker also gained fame in Finland as the Finnish Multa Tuli translates as slang for "I have ejaculated".

Upon the conclusion of the walking tour, I grabbed my stuff and headed to Utrecht to visit Paul.  The bicycle parking lots at Amsterdam Central station are big.  At Utrecht station they are massive!  Thousands upon thousands of bikes everywhere around the station (and, as I later learned, along the canals and everywhere else in the downtown).  Paul explained that a significant proportion of these bikes at Utrecht Central are never retrieved – he estimated 1 in 5.  Bicycle culture is a little different here.  Frequently, people lock their bikes up to render them useless (lock it such that the wheel can’t spin) but they don’t lock it to anything.  Many of the bikes are older and practical rather than “impressive”, and so the risk of theft is reduced, I suppose. (Even “my” bike while I was at Paul’s was in need of a rather major overhaul, but it did the trick while I was there perfectly!)  The problem with locking your bike without locking it to anything, of course, is that someone else might move your bike….and when there are thousands of them, if it’s not where you left it, or if you don’t quite remember where you left it….it’s gone.

Paul has got a great place.  My “hotel” for the evening:

Paul was right that Utrecht was worth the visit!  Beautiful canals and cobblestone walkways winding through the old downtown.  Apparently one of the major European bike tours is starting a stage in Utrecht in the next couple of years; I would NOT want to face those streets on racing wheels!

The attendant host, Paul made classic “Dutch pancakes” for dinner, and they are a dinner food here.   Not for breakfast.  They may still be sweet (Paul made bacon, pear, and banana pancakes…not all in one), and their suikerstroop (syrup) is like a thin molasses. Dinner-time conversation ranged from the international running scene to Dutch food, to what Paul knows of Canada: clear-cutting for oilsands, and Rob Ford.  What a terrible situation when our country is known for its third-world style resource extraction, and Toronto’s buffoon mayor! 

After dinner, we headed back into the downtown and had more food at a restaurant right at the canal level.  The interior of the restaurant was built underneath the walkway above, though we sat out on a heated patio within arm’s reach of the water’s edge.

What an amazing, unexpected part of this trip!

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