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Tuesday, December 10, 2013


AmsterdamAmsterdam is a city inviting you to walk and marvel.  But it is also a big city, and getting to know public transport is important.  The trams and busses are easy to use.

At this site, you will receive a good education about public transportation in Amsterdam.  One important thing to remember is that you swipe your fare card getting off as well as getting on the tram.  If you do not swipe the card getting off, you nullify the card. 

The relevant prices for 2013 for unlimited travel beginning with the first swipe of your card:
24 hours (1 day) € 7.50
48 hours (2 days) € 12.00

In Amsterdam as in other European cities, there is a big, central station—a transportation hub.  In Amsterdam it is actually named the Central Station. We picked up, for free, an excellent map of Amsterdam and the public transportation system at the Central Station that we used for walking as well as for transportation between sites.

It’s also a good place to exchange money.  The rates are good and the fees probably less than in your hotel.

One thing about Amsterdam is that you have to be alert. So many people travel by bicycles in Amsterdam.  Watch out when you cross a street because the cyclists don’t seem to have any intention of stopping for you.  With a population somewhere around 800,000, there are an estimated 880,000 bicycles in Amsterdam!  It's pretty fantastic.

On our 2.5 hour walking tour, our guide pointed out that many are older model bicyles and many are rusted.

“Is there much bicycle theft?” asked a tourist on our tour.
“Yes, it happens,” answered Marieke, “but then the idea is to steal another bike.  That’s why we don’t keep getting new ones!” 

We laughed at the exchange but could only guess if she were kidding.  Suffice it to say that outside of flat, flat, flat Amsterdam where basically a gearless bike would be power enough, we saw newer, more sophisticated bikes in other cities as soon as the terrain included inclines.  It would not be a laughing matter if one of those bicycles were stolen.

By the way, should there be a car/bicycle accident in Amsterdam, the bicycle is always right.  The car is bigger.  Watch out for those cyclists.  They ride fast, and they are very adept at maneuvering through people and traffic.  Don’t get in their way!

Ingenuously I thought that renting a bicycle in Amsterdam would be a great experience.  A friend from home warned me that I would be killed.  I think she would have been correct.

The carpeted walk of Art.
Each patch represents a different country.
On the wall is a legend so you can find
your own country's contribution.
I have a feeling that Marieke pulled our naïve tourist legs on more than one occasion, but when the tour ended, we had a good grasp of the Netherlands’ history, the history of the dikes, and the history of  the city of Amsterdam.  We had seen ancient buildings, learned why buildings are tall and narrow and built as they are.  We learned about the bicycle culture, the way Amsterdam embraces diversity with its population representing 178 different nationalities.  We heard about the different museums we might wish to visit and walked through the lobby of the Amsterdam Museum where the floor where we walk is also a work of art.

The invitation at the entrance to
The Amsterdam Museum

We walked along the canals and over bridges discussing their unique qualities, and we saw ultra-modern buildings that offer a totally different view of ancient Amsterdam.   We saw one of the three remaining wood buildings in Amsterdam, this one built in 1528.  That is before Shakespeare was born!
Yes, this house was built in 1528

We learned about customs surrounding Christmas and the history of St. Nicholas—far different from what many of us experience.

It was a wonderful tour, and as it ended in one of the big shopping areas, we headed to some very important spots she talked about—particularly the lavatories in the upscale department store!  For us, it also meant some time to pleasantly pause before heading out again to do some more exploring.  I am only highlighting some of the sites we visited in this most intriguing city.

This ordinary office building held
Anne Frank's Secret Annexe.
Our premier stop was the Anne Frank Haus.  We had tickets for a 3:00 tour on the day we arrived.  Tickets are available on line, and you should buy them there or through your own tour company.  Of all the sights in Amsterdam, this one seemed the most important to all of us.  It is highly unlikely with The Diary of Anne Frank published in more than 60 languages, made into a film, a play, and an orchestral piece that too many people are unaware of this famous young girl who may be thought of as the face of the Holocaust. 

Indeed, the Anne Frank Haus apparently heads the lists of many visitors.  When we arrived, the line for tickets extended beyond the end of the block. People with tickets, however, enter through a separate door and simply follow the self-guided tour.  There was no line at that separate entrance on the day we went.  We actually had to look for that door which is to the left of the ticket line.

The building is non-descript.  It is an ordinary Amsterdam building indistinguishable from those around it as, of course, it is just another building—except to those hiding there.

Being inside that building, though, is a stunning and humbling experience because for the first time I was physically conscious of the cramped, close, small size of the quarters where these people had to be totally silent during the day and where they could not even touch a curtain to look out the window.  It seems impossible that they remained as long as they did.

There is no furniture in the building as the Nazis removed it all soon after the arrest, but on the walls are excerpts from the diary as well as family photos and other photographs of the time.  There is information about who lived in each room.  In the display cases are diary pages and other artifacts. 

Visitors must see the building as hallowed ground for it is very quiet inside as we silently walk through the door leading up the stairs to the Secret Annex and then from room to room.  As we climb up the narrow staircase, we try to accept where we are. 

People from all over the world are in that building with us.  We hear other languages spoken in hushed tones.  The flow of visitors through the building is constant, and when we exit, there is still a long line waiting to enter.

For the address, hours, and other relevant information concerning the Anne Frank Haus, visit There you will also be able to download a phone app and to see if there is a special exhibit during your stay.  You can order your tickets directly online from the museum.

The Anne Frank House is at Prinsengracht 263-267.  If you wish, it takes about 20 minutes to walk from the Central Station.  Trams 13, 14, and 17 and buses 170, 172, and 174 stop nearby at the “Westermarkt” stop.

The Anne Frank Haus is located in a busy and central part of Amsterdam.  On that street and in the nearby areas are enough places to occupy a good part of your day. 

Before we went to the Anne Frank Haus, we wanted lunch.  We wanted to sample “Dutch” food.  Because of Amsterdam’s history of trade and because of how the land was reclaimed, the “Dutch” people came from all over the world; we quickly learned that one does not find Dutch cuisine in the way one finds Italian cuisine.

Looks like Sue and Marty are enjoying that thick syrup!
But the Dutch pancake has a certain flair we’d read about, and we headed to The Pancake Bakery located at Prinsengracht 191, just around the corner from the Anne Frank House.  Visit their website at to see the extent of their menu. 

This was filled with bacon and tomatoes and cheese.
Absolutely delicious
This is not your Ihop!  The pancakes are dinner-plate sized.  There are sweet pancakes and savory pancakes.  The pancakes are filled with all kinds of goodies.  On the table is a big bowl of syrup and a wooden spoon—more like a ladle!  The menu offers more than 75 different kinds of pancakes and includes other items, of course.  Marty ordered a beautiful and delicious omelet.  The coffee was great, and the atmosphere just perfect.  The cost was reasonable.

The restaurant is narrow and long.  We didn’t realize until our walking tour that all the insides of buildings would be narrow.  That is the way things are in Amsterdam.  With land understandably precious, buildings were taxed on their width.  So buildings are tall and narrow.  Instead of a wide storefront, the building is deep. 

Notice how narrow the restaurant is.
But it is very deep.
As we leave The Pancake Bakery, there is a sign in Dutch.  In translation: thank you and come back soon. 

At Prinsengracht 112 is The Cheese Museum.  Once again, a narrow building where the main floor is a cheese shop and the lower floor, down winding stairs, is the Cheese Museum.   

Cheese has a 600 year old history in the Netherlands, and it’s hard to imagine that any cheese eater has missed edam, gouda, or leerdammer.  This shop is attractive with different cheeses arrayed for tasting and wrapped in clear plastic to display the colors and variety.  It is very arty and very beautiful.

How could we resist entering such an
inviting establishment?
Downstairs are some of the implements used in making cheese over the years as well as photographs and a history of the process.  It is well worth the stop.  If you’re on Facebook, visit their page.  You’ll see just what I am talking about.  

Prinsengracht hosts several places where we could book canal tours, and we took advantage of that possibility as well.  What would a trip to Amsterdam be without a boat ride on the canals?

The company we used, See Amsterdam at  was located just steps away from the Anne Frank House at Leiliegracht 51, at the intersection of Leiliegracht and Prinsengracht.  We chose it purely for its proximity to the Anne Frank Haus, but we were not disappointed although we would have preferred an open top boat.  They offer hour tours as well as hop-on-hop-off with tours spanning 24 or 48 hours. 

Our tour, lasting about an hour, gave us Amsterdam from a different vantage point.  We traveled along the canals as the captain of our ship gave a running narration of the history of the canals and the backgrounds of some of the neighborhoods along the streets and the houseboats lining the canal.

Go to my previous post ( to see what we saw.

The three crosses of St. Andrew represent the
three dangers to ancient Amsterdam: fire, water, and plague.
They are part of the coat of arms and the flag
of Amsterdam.
At Prinsengracht 116 is the Tulip Museum.  Once again an unpretentious building, but tulip and Holland seem synonymous.  Unfortunately we were out of season, but we did look around to see the bulbs for sale and to enjoy some of the colors. Visit the Tulip Museum to see some lovely examples of Holland's finest.

Of course WALK.  It is the best way to see Amsterdam.  It’s the only way to stop and enjoy the architecture and the shops.

Amsterdam has over 50 museums.  Can’t do them all, so this is a tough choice.  We only were in the city for a three incomplete days.  We chose to visit one but to spend enough time to savor its art.  That was The Van Gogh Museum.  Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous Dutch artists although he left the Netherlands and spent most of his short ten year productive life in France where he committed suicide and is buried.  The Van Gogh Museum is located at Paulus Potterstraat 7 with a website at  Don’t neglect the Facebook page.


If you’re thinking of this museum, once again the tickets have a timed entry.  You can order them online.  On the day we went, the line was not long, and we spent a long while admiring the original paintings we’ve only seen as notecards at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

If you’re more into the other important Dutch and Flemish masters, especially Rembrandt, you might try the recently re-opened Rijksmuseum located at Museumstraat 1.  Its website is  Would that we had another day….

My best advice is to google “museums in Amsterdam.”  You’ll have a choice, get an address, and you will not waste time trying to decide.

Yes, we headed to another famous Amsterdam location—The Red Light District.  How could we resist?  I won’t describe anything here.  I’m not a spoiler.

Here’s some sage advice.  If you go past a café with a sign that says coffee “house,” the only stimulant you’ll be able to purchase is coffee.  If the sign says coffee “shop,” you’ll be able to buy marijuana.  You can even sit outside at a table in front of the coffee shop and smoke marijuana. The air was thick with it.

But be forewarned.  If you want to smoke tobacco, you MUST go outside.  Cigarettes and other tobacco-based products are not allowed in restaurants in Amsterdam.  Go figure!

This has gotten to be a long post, but I keep saying Amsterdam is big.  My lesson—find an excuse to go back.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


For Thanksgiving, I thought I'd post a bit early.  I took these photos at a deployment ceremony as the soldiers left us and got on the bus headed for the airport and a year away in Afghanistan.  You know why I was there.

We are thankful that we have men and women and their supportive families.  Their sacrifices cannot ever be repaid.

The Red Cross runs a holiday card program to deliver cards to members of our military.  The deadline in Dec. 6.  This is the address:
Holiday Mail for Heroes
PO Box 5456
Capital Heights, MD 20791-5456

I don't know who this woman saying goodbye is, but their hands tell the whole story for me.

As this soldier says his last goodbyes to his family,
we can all see what a wrenching moment this is.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hudson River is one of the grandest in the world.
This view from The Walkway Over the Hudson State Park is fantastic.
It you can get to Highland or Poughkeepsie, GO!
This is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world at 1.28 miles and 212 feet tall.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Kinderkijk, The Netherlands
Kinderdijk, a windmill paradise!
I've already said how I found Amsterdam to be an amazingly interesting city.  The whole of the Netherlands has an incredibly marvelous history that applauds man’s ingenuity and genius.  Here is a country of more than 14,000 square miles where there have been archeological finds going back to the Roman times, but no evidence of settlement.  Even today, 25% of the country is below sea level. 

Yet Holland was once a great power.  In its strongest period, the Dutch East India Company commanded a huge portion of the world’s trade; the country had colonies, and, of course, my own hometown, Manhattan, was once New Amsterdam.  Place names still recall the Dutch influence.

Kinderkijk, The Netherlands
Picturesque and peaceful
For many, the country is famous for its windmills, and UNESCO named one area in the Netherlands, Kinderdijk, a World Heritage Site because nowhere is there such a concentration of windmills. We got to visit.

Windmills were introduced from Mesopotamia in the 16th century, and Kinderdijk actually had a windmill dating from 1521.  It burned in 1997 but has been restored and operational since 2000. There are also eight windmills from 1738, eight from 1740, and two from 1760. 

The land in the Netherlands is reclaimed from the water via dikes and windmills.  Dikes are constructed around a body of water, and then the water is pumped out by the windmill creating a polder, a stretch of land that might be used for farming or industrial purposes.  The pumping continues into and out of reservoirs until it can be dumped into a river that leads to the sea. 

Kinderkijk, The Netherlands There used to be over 10,000 windmills in the Netherlands.  Today there are approximately 1,000 left, the task passed down to mechanical pumps.  A pumping station in Kinderdijk, reputed to be the largest in the world, has taken over this never-ending job.  But the windmills in Kinderdijk were operational until WWII and still can be used in case of emergency.

Kinderkijk, The Netherlands
Imagine raising a family in here.
Notice the blades are only a foot off the ground.
People lived inside the windmills—a very difficult life—and raised their families there.  That’s hard to imagine as the insides seem far too confined.  If you have the opportunity to visit Kinderdijk, you will be flabbergasted at the idea of raising a family of ten or twelve inside. 

What I’d like to share are pictures of the windmills of Kinderdijk.  They’re graceful and awe-inspiring.  You’ll immediately see the beauty of this World Heritage Site.

Kinderkijk, The Netherlands

Kinderkijk, The Netherlands

Kinderkijk, The Netherlands

Kinderkijk, The Netherlands

Saturday, November 09, 2013


This is Calabash, South Carolina
Idyllic is the word I think of as I look at this photo

Thursday, November 07, 2013


Here’s another wonderful historical novel.  This book is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, and through it I time-traveled back to Seattle, Washington and the internment of the Japanese population soon after the United States entered WWII in the Pacific. 

This is a love story, but it illustrates once again how complex are the influences that shape our destinies.  This theme catapults Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet from a period piece to a universal exploration of the human condition and the human heart. 

Most of the books I’ve read about this period of our history were written in a Japanese voice, but Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is written from the Chinese perspective of Henry Lee as an adult and as a child.  Ultimately, however, the author raises points as universally appropriate to 2013 as they were to 1942-1986. 

In 1942 Seattle, the Chinese and the Japanese neighborhoods abutted one another, but with Japan engaged in a war against China, the feeling from Henry’s father is one of enmity.  Most of the people in Chinatown had relatives in China and all had an historical tie.  Today’s readers know from history the horrors of Japan’s war on the Chinese, so right or wrong it is understandable that Henry’s father forbids him even to enter Japantown, Nihonmachi.  He hates the Japanese and sees no difference between those in Japan and those in America.  This is only one source of the father/son conflict in the novel. Nihonmachi is home to jazz clubs, unseemly in Mr. Lee's eyes, but even as a boy, Henry is a fan of Jazz. 

Henry’s father makes him wear an “I am Chinese” badge so Caucasians will not mistake him for Japanese, and he sends him to an all-white school in another neighborhood rather than to a Chinese school.  He insists that America-born Henry speak only English.  Because Henry’s father and mother speak only Cantonese, this dictum essentially cuts off all communication between Henry and his parents.  Henry is an outsider in school and an outsider is in his own silent home.  Henry is twelve years old. 

Mr. Lee is not attempting to make Henry “American.”  He still wants Henry to eventually return to Canton to finish his Chinese education.  Henry is Chinese first.

Also attending the all-white school is Keiko, a Japanese girl with whom Henry develops far more than a friendship.  She, too, is American born, but she and her parents consider her American.  She speaks no Japanese.  With her, despite the political history, Henry is not an outsider.  Indeed, even Keiko’s parents accept and like him.  She, however, remains a secret to his parents.

Henry and Keiko, scholarship students at the school, are hounded and bullied by the white students.  They are totally ostracized. As part of their scholarships, they help serve lunch to the other students, and that is where their friendship develops under the watchful eye of a rather unusual lunch lady, Mrs. Beatty.

Another important character is Sheldon, a Black jazz saxophonist who, in Henry’s youth, was a street musician looking for a big break.  Sheldon’s work in a jazz club in Nihonmachi causes Henry to break his father’s rule.  Henry introduces Keiko to Sheldon, and this wise man knows and cares for them both.  I sensed a hint of Huckleberry Finn’s Jim, the surrogate father to a boy who is adrift. 

Culture, ethnicity, friendship, and love are universal qualities that impact on all our lives no matter how we try to be different from our parents or from our background.  This story becomes universal.

It is beautiful to me that what binds together Henry, Keiko, and Sheldon is Jazz.  Jazz is a uniquely American music.  Some musicologists say it began as African-Americans blended spirituals and the field hollers of plantation slaves and then, as time passed, mixed it with the syncopated beat of ragtime and the sounds of driving marches and brass bands.  In this novel, different as one might see Henry, Keiko, and Sheldon, they come together harmoniously as Americans just as diverse elements of music came together harmoniously as Jazz. They are different but they are the same.  As Sheldon tells Henry, “Fix it.”

Jamie Ford’s narrative begins in 1986 when boxes of Japanese belongings are uncovered in the renovated Panama Hotel. These were things hidden by Japanese being taken to the internment camps during World War II.  Most never returned to Japantown.  Ford flips back and forth between 1986 and the 1940s as Henry remembers the war years. All loose ends come together neatly in the denouement.  This technique works so well because Henry grows up, his parents grow older, Sheldon ages, old characters leave, and new characters are introduced.  That’s what happens in life.  Some characters, like Mrs. Beatty, are quite remarkable, but as they are never quite understood through Henry’s eyes, there are aspects of them that we’d like to know about but which are never revealed.

Ford’s story is strong and well developed.  This is a wonderful read which will have you shaking your head, sighing, and wishing life were easier for everyone.   After all, aren’t many of our most precious things on the corner of bitter and sweet?

Monday, November 04, 2013


Amsterdam canalsSome say the name Amsterdam is derived from its source, a Dam on the Amstel River.  As a result of the dams, the Dutch created Amsterdam’s canal system—one that nearly boggles the mind. Amsterdam is laid out in concentric semi-circle rings of 165 canals with a combined length of 60 miles. Its nickname is “Venice of the North.”  The center is at Dam Square

Just imagine the thought processes involved in creating this Canal Ring which recently celebrated its 400th birthday and is still growing—165 interlocking canal networks arranged around 90 islands and offering crossings via almost 1,400 bridges!  No wonder it is named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place of significant cultural or physical import.  Amsterdam is certainly both of these.

Amsterdam canals

In my last post about buildings in Amsterdam, I indicated how “dry land” is at a premium in this city where 35% of the population is under 25 years old.  Despite the approximately 6,800 16th, 17th, and 18th century buildings in Amsterdam, housing is at a premium and buying a warehouse apartment runs 500,000 euros (roughly $665,000 US).  The buyers are often two-income-childless couples. It’s not hard to see why houseboats are a popular alternative living space. Houseboats line many of the canals.  Think in numbers around 2,500. 

Amsterdam canals

It’s as expensive to own a houseboat as it is to own an apartment in Amsterdam.  Actually, what one buys is not the boat but the mooring.  It has been more than 30 years since a boat could come along and freely attach itself to a mooring.  With regulations, each mooring is taxed and its use monitored.  No more are available which means with each passing year, the value rises.  Some houseboats are absolutely magnificent.  Some are little more than boxes.  Some are homes; some are places for entertainment or business.

Amsterdam canals
There is no shortage of places to sit outside with friends and watch life float by.
Privately owned boats of many sizes and shapes, business boats, tourist-themed boats, and sightseeing boats all ply the waters of the canals. There are also water taxis for your enjoyment and transportation.  Some taxi “drivers” double as tourist guides.

Amsterdam canals
DHL finds a way to deliver no matter where you are.
Just look at these photos for merely a glimpse at the possibilities in traveling and/or living along the canals.

Amsterdam canals

Amsterdam canals

Amsterdam canals

Amsterdam canals

Some things are musts in Amsterdam.  Taking a canal boat and seeing the city from that vantage point is a must.  We simply walked into one of several companies located on the same block.  There are many tours available, some with open boats.  You can also paddle your way along a canal if that is your wont.  No matter what you choose, you will really enjoy the tour and the narrative history that accompanies it.

Amsterdam canals

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


In the case of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, the title says it all. I think.  What does it mean?  Confused?  So am I.  I finished this short novel and enjoyed it immensely.  But I’m not sure I totally get it, and, of course, I can’t ask you at this time to give me your thoughts on it. 

Our protagonist, Tony Webster, is about my age.  He grew up in a time I am totally familiar with and totally at home reading about.  I recognize so much of what he says and what he does.  Perhaps every age sits with a kind of smug philosophical elitism feeling contempt for those considered too plebeian to see the truth about life as clearly as they do.  “Understanding the world” and denigrating it as it currently is usually occurs over a beer.  At any rate, Tony and his three friends see themselves as young philosophers throwing around German terms and names of established philosophers as a way of affirming their superiority over the masses.  The best thinker among them is Adrian, and he is respected by his peers.

Adrian eventually becomes the center of life’s puzzle for Tony whose own life and loves turn into what he himself terms ordinary: a university girlfriend, Veronica, who eventually chooses Adrian, a failed marriage where he retains the friendship of his former wife, Margaret, a daughter and grandchild.  As a retiree, he volunteers in a hospital library.

When he asks Margaret over a friendly lunch if she left him because of him, she enigmatically replies that she left him "because of us."  

Life is never really ordinary, and this book is about growing up, remembering back in whatever way we are capable, being deeply hurt and deeply hurting others, and trying to finally understand what life is all about. 

Tony tells his story, so there is so much about truth and about the other characters to which we are not privy.  Additionally, there is the always constant question about what is history?  What is memory?  How accurate is either?

And I, always interested in the title’s meaning, am not quite sure I get it.  Veronica tells Tony he “will never get it.”  What’s “it”?

Indeed, this book was suggested by my sister-in-law with the warning that it is “different.”  She wanted to discuss it when I was done, and I would like to discuss it with her too.  I want to see how she viewed The Sense of an Ending.  I’d like to discuss it with any of you who have read it too.

Despite my questions, I highly recommend this novel.  It’s thoroughly intriguing.  It’s short and reads easily.  Barnes has a flowing, descriptive style, and I got to really know Tony Webster and to understand his dilemma.  But because of the first person narration, I never understood some of the other characters because Tony never does.  Oh well, it is so nice to dwell on a book as much as I’ve been dwelling on this one.

Here are some of my favorite quotations:

“…of course we were pretentious—what else is youth for?”
“…we knew we grasped life—and truth, and morality, and art….”
“…our fear: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”

Do you remember feeling and thinking like that?  I do.

And then the truth about the “sixties”—

“If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience “the sixties” until the seventies.  Which meant, logically, that most people in the sixties were still experiencing the fifties—or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side.  Which made things rather confusing.”

How did I know that summer that Woodstock would be what Woodstock became?  I think (after this book I’m not so sure) I remember what it was as it was happening.

Here’s a very poignant definition:

“…remorse.  A feeling which is more complicated, curdled and primeval.  Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to….”

Wow!  That is a wakeup call.

Here’ the retired-in-his 60s-Tony.  How painful is this:

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Several times during the novel, Tony hums or sings "Time is On Our Side."  I well remember this song and sang along.  But here's another question: Is it?

In the end I was deeply touched, quite nostalgic, and somewhat puzzled.  I think I will continue to ponder the meaning of Barnes’ title as I try to get The Sense of an Ending.


Friday, October 25, 2013


This is my home, the Warwick Valley from the top of Mt. Peter.
You might ask why I travel to see autumn colors.
I often ask myself the same thing.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Aren't these beautiful?
This is in Salzburg, Austria, but it's a reminder of what we will have to wait another year to see again.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


There's a certain romance lingering in the streets of Amsterdam
I loved my first visit to Amsterdam.  It was so unlike the city I expected—I won’t go into my foolishness here—and I found the city absolutely charming.  A young friend, Scott M., recently told me that the best way to see Amsterdam is to walk it, and that is exactly how we introduced ourselves to the colorful and historic city we visited on a three-day pre-cruise extension to our Viking Grand European River Cruise.

Getting to know Amsterdam in even this short span made it very clear why during their Golden Age in the 17th century the Dutch were one of the most powerful peoples in the world.  There is a saying in the Netherlands (basically meaning below land) that “God created the world but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

First dikes and then the windmills introduced from Mesopotamia in the 16th century made it possible to create this country from beneath the seas. 

Perhaps you think the first thing that impressed me was the canals, but no.   I loved the buildings!  They are beautiful.  Amsterdam is extraordinarily colorful, clean, and vibrant.  As I never tire of being awed by aspects of my travels, I was awed by the history of these beautiful buildings.


Amazingly, every building in Amsterdam is a meter below sea level at high tide.  Buildings were constructed on now-ancient wooden pillars sunk 14 feet deep. The pillars were made from trees harvested and transported from Scandinavia and the Black Forest.  The pillars do not rot as long as they have no contact with air.  Pretty remarkable when you take a moment to consider man’s genius.


The buildings are old—many date back to the 1500 and 1600s, so for an American, these dates are impressive in themselves.  Because land is so precious in the Netherlands, at one time buildings were taxed on their width—how much land they occupied—so builders concentrated on tall, narrow structures.  Most are three or four stories high and so narrow that they could not accommodate elevators in their modernizations and renovations. 


That means that much of Amsterdam is also a city for the young who can climb the stairs; elderly people move out.  We saw some but relatively few young families. I’m sure there’s a problem in lugging “family paraphernalia” up those stairs too.  The youthfulness of this ancient city accounts in large measure for the vibrancy of the shops and pace and innovative ways of living along the canals’ edges.  It’s pretty exciting.


Additionally, and quite wonderfully for us tourists to learn, is that attached to the outside of the top floor of each building is a winch or hook of some kind.  With the narrow stairways, furniture is moved in and out of apartments via the windows.  Up the outside of the building and then in to the apartment!  We didn’t see this occurring, but that would have been pretty cool if we had.

Do you see the hook outside the top window?
Look at the other photos and see that each building has something
similar to this.
Some buildings were actually built on a slight angle—out toward the narrow street—so moving furniture would not rub against the abutting building.  Details, details, details.

If you look at the blue building with the red shutters, you might be
able to see that it juts forward just a touch.

The buildings are colorful in all the shades of browns and burgundies and tans imaginable, with steep black rooves (ok, I’m dating myself with that spelling, but this is my blog, isn’t it?), and some uncluttered windows.  I asked our wonderful walking tour guide, Marieke, about the curtainless windows, and she suggested the habit goes back to a more religious period when the idea was to show a plain and humble life.  In any case, the result is shining glass panels twinkling in the sun or, on the lower levels, a peek into a household. 


But just so you don’t believe that all of Amsterdam is set in the distant past, other parts are ultra-modern in architectural style. 

Our hotel, The Movenpick
Shall we call this New Amsterdam?
Quite a difference!
I am so glad we did not think of Amsterdam simply as a launching site for our cruise.  I would like to return and see more of this very interesting country.