Friday, March 09, 2012

GOING DUTCH: VISITING THE NETHERLANDS (AND BELGIUM)

Sometimes when people hear that I spent most of my early years in the Netherlands they get a dreamy look, and murmur about coffeeshops and the Amsterdam Red Light District.

I wonder what they're thinking.
During the sixteen years I lived there I didn't utilize either of those.

Normal teenagers have normal lives over there, often with far less exposure to drugs and sex than the average American urbanite. Though with considerably more coffee and tobacco.

If all that interests you is pot and floozies, you might as well stay in the U.S.
Go to 'Oaksterdam' across the Bay - the medicinal grade ganja will blow your mind - and take a trip to Nevada.
Seriously.
There is no need whatsoever to waste your money going overseas.

There are many excellent reasons to visit the Netherlands, but the flesh pots should not be on your list.


AMSTERDAM

Several stellar museums, and some smaller ones that are also abundantly worthwhile.
For art lovers, there are the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Rembrandt House. The first three are easy walking distances from each other, the last is roughly equidistant from the Rijksmuseum and the central station.
The Tropen Museum ('tropical museum') has idiosyncratic and tendentious exhibits, but a superior bookstore, research collections, and hosts interesting events.
For all major musea in Amsterdam you can find out more on-line.

Amsterdam is a great walking city with colourful tree-lined streets speckled with restaurants, cafés, and bookstores. Plus monuments in various parts, beautiful sights, and pleasant things which do not require heavy intellectual concentration.
So rather than burying yourself all day at the Stedelijk, spend time exploring.
After maybe four or five hours one day among the carefully labeled wreckage of the past, rejoin the present and have a bite to eat.
You can visit the museums again a few days later. Or a few years later.
Don't obsessively try to see everything now.

Dutch food can be plain, but some of the eats in Amsterdam are worth the trip.
Dikker & Thijs. De Vijff Vlieghen. Sluizer. L'Opera. La Rive. Ciel Blue.
Et mult altres.
Best Indonesian food outside of Singapore, excellent seafood, plus nice lamb, meat products, cheeses, baked goods, and a number interesting ethnic cuisines. Much of which is available within mere minutes of your hotel.

Regarding hotels, do your research before you go, as even mediocre "international" hotels will cost twice what some very nice lodgments away from the narrow tourist ambit charge, and you'll still be well within the heart of the city.
Closer to good eating, too.

If you can, avoid all shops, restaurants, and lodgings that cater to Americans primarily. Many of them are overpriced, staffed by expats, and do not in any way represent anything worthwhile.
Eschew 'koffie shops'. That's were potheads go.


UTRECHT

The city centre, beyond the very modern area that was built after the war, has lovely streets and deep quiet canals, plus a cathedral that will delight you.
Good food can be found here, as well as some very strange stuff that should not be served to anyone - in particular, I remember "Hawaiian porkchops"...... tough, greasy, and covered with pineapple and Gouda cheese. Ick. And poo.
There were two of them.
Double ick poo.

Go to Utrecht on a day trip from Amsterdam. It's only twenty minutes away by train, and because it is a central location for the rest of the country, it gets all the national and international conventions, and consequently hotels are overbooked.
With the exception of even mediocre international hotels - see note above.
Again: day trip.


DEN HAAG

The Hague is also known as 'the widow of the Indies', due to the number of returnees and exiles who settled there. Naturally some of the very best Indonesian restaurants can be found in the city and its environs.
Like all of the major towns it is easy to reach by train.
One hour from Amsterdam. Take a day trip - diplomats and other international criminals may have booked everything except the mediocre international hotels solid for weeks in advance.
Mmmm, day trip.

AND ALSO...

In addition to the culinaria mentioned above, what the Dutch classify as junk food is interesting and often extremely tasty. One word: unidentified fried object.
Okay, three words, but one idea. In uncountable iterations.
If it can't be deep fried, it might not be worth eating.

For epicurean stuff, however, spend a few days in Belgium.  Avoid Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels, except for day-trips. Instead find a hotel in Antwerp or Liege, and ask the manager for food recommendations.
Yes, the beer is fabulous - but the food is dynamite.

And like in Holland, there are numerous museums all over the place.


The perfect Dutch and Belgian vacation consists of finding nice small hotels with comfortable rooms, then exploring the central areas of the cities, eating well in places that the locals favour, discovering weird and wonderful things, and just being there.

Do not visit in Summer, as it will be hot and humid, filled with mosquitoes and foreigners, and many of the locals will have taken their own very long vacation.
Spring is great for tulips, but the very best time is probably September through October. The weather is nice, the evenings are still long, café terraces offer a good place to sit and read or observe the local scene, and as autumn progresses the countryside changes from green to warm bronze, Sienna, ochre, gold, and umber, with elements of red.
Winter is ghastly.  Do not go in Winter.

Buy reading material while you're there. They also have books there in English, as well as many other languages, including their own. 
There's a weekly bookmarket on the Spui Plein in Amsterdam every Friday.
On average, Dutch people read far more than Americans.
What's a trip away from it all without books?

 *   *   *   *   *   *

Sorry about the horrible and predictable wordplay that captions this piece, btw.
I've always hated that phrase.  Please don't use it while over there.



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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds good, when are we going?

Arno said...

For good second-hand books you should go to De Slegte in the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam. The American Bookstore (now located at Spui) is also good but a little expensive.
But ehm, I wouldn't recommend "De Randstad" any more. Or even Brabant which looks like the Randstad more and more every year. More (ugly) buildings, less green, more foreigners, more criminal Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against foreigners (I think Wilders is a wanker) but seriously, when I walk late at night through Den Bosch or Eindhoven I don't feel safe any more.. Eindhoven has been chosen a few times as most criminal city of the Netherlands so go figure.. Things are changing.. Such a shame because I know the Brabant from approx. 20 years ago and it was an excellent place with lots of green and friendly people.
In a few weeks I'm moving from Oss crime city to a small village near Deventer. Deventer and especially Zutphen are worth a visit! And if you are a pipe smoker/cigar smoker, visit the excellent store of Willem Schimmel in Zutphen. It's located in an historical building from 1724 with a tobacco cellar that's even older.

The back of the hill said...

Hi Arno,

I used to enjoy Eindhoven, but since they re-did the market square, putting a block of new buildings along the right hand side if you're looking toward the train station, it's not so pleasant anymore. Stratums Eind at night is a warzone. And the trein station is where a lot of schorem hang out.

Den Bosch, from what I've read in the newspapers over the last several years, as areas that are as rowdy and iffy as Oakland.
Hangjongeren and worse.

When I mention Amsterdam, it's strictly the old city up to the Stadhouders Kade and the Overtoom. But note that caution is necessary. If walking at night, well-lit busy streets, and don't go far beyond the hotel, especially if it's really late.

And you will note that I didn't mention Rotterdam at all.


---ATBOTH

Arno said...

Yes Rotterdam really is a war zone. This week I heard news that mayor Aboutaleb from Rotterdam declared that there are no unsafe areas any more in his city. May I please laugh out loud? WHAHAHA!! They interviewed a couple of people on the streets and they thought their mayor was raving mad..

And Eindhoven was ugly (sorry, it is an industrial city without any real history) and they even did make it more ugly with all the buildings you mention.. Ah, we Dutch sure like to complain about our country :p

Anonymous said...

"Eschew 'koffie shops'. That's were potheads go."

But I'm a pothead! Are you suggesting that I go cold turkey? Surely you can provide some advice aboout what to expect.

Anonymous said...

"Eindhoven has been chosen a few times as most criminal city of the Netherlands"


Does that mean that it's the equivalent of the safer enighbirhoods of Detroit or Baltimore?

Anonymous said...

Forget Holland, go to Belgium instead.
Better beer.
Better food.
Better insanity.

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