Gobsmacked in the netherlands, Part 1

In five days with one avid adventurer by your side, you can certainly see a lot in a place like the Netherlands. It’s a gorgeous country with many scrumptious cheese blocks and pretty canals on offer. But before I dive into our Dutch adventure, there are a few things you should be aware of before going to the Netherlands.

Maestro is king: Although the card company Maestro is owned by Mastercard, most local restaurants and grocery stores only accept Maestro or cash. Sometimes, visas from EU banks are accepted, but not always. We were unprepared for this, not understanding why a country that attracts so many tourists would make it so difficult for them to pay. But alas, alack, Maestro is king so come prepared with lots of cash if you don’t have one.

Coffee shops and cafes: cannabis dispensaries are actually referred to as “coffee shops” in the Netherlands. If you want an actual coffee or tea, look out for cafes rather than a “Funky Monkey” coffee shop.

Cyclists rule the roads, pedestrians beware: pretty much everyone in the Netherlands has a bike and the country’s infrastructure certainly caters to this form of transport, which is awesome. Just be aware that there is an important difference between bike paths and pedestrian paths. On pedestrian paths, you can walk at whatever pace you would like without a care in the world. However, veer onto a cycling path and you can rest assured you will be run over by a merciless cyclist or two. 

You can get great, affordable accommodation outside of the center: We stayed in Wow Hostel, near Amsterdam Sloterdijk, just one train stop out from Amsterdam Central. Their beds are some of the most comfortable I have ever slept on and the sheer size of the complex and its location makes it the perfect place to recover from the more hectic side of Amsterdam. I highly recommend staying here!

Now that you’ve been briefed, here’s how my friend Rachelle and I fared on the first few days of our trip. 

Amsterdam

I have always assumed Amsterdam is the party capital of Europe. Any place where cannabis and prostitution are legal is going to draw throngs of stag parties, among other revelers. But while there is certainly that aspect to the city, it is also a place where life seems to flow at a slower pace. Centered around a complex network of gorgeous canals, it’s the sort of city where your aim is to wander and get lost. All those unassuming side streets offer something different in the form of strange and sophisticated architecture and adorable shops. 

Rachelle and I spent our first day wandering around the quieter parts of the historic center, sitting on numerous well-placed benches. It wasn’t until we noticed that one particular bench was tethered to a house with a bike lock that most homeowners have their own, privately-owned benches. No one took issue with our bench occupations, however. 

I feel slightly bad that I didn’t try the local cuisine, but at Rachelle’s gentle insistence, I jumped out of my culinary comfort zone and tried Ethiopian food at a restaurant we found on Tripadvisor. 

It was amazing – definitely one of my favorite culinary experiences. The traditional platter of spiced lamb, rich beef, seasoned veggies and lentils on top of a generous serving of injera, traditional Ethiopian bread, was just sublime and quite filling. Since the restaurant was relatively far away from our hostel by a great park, we were rewarded with a long walk home. 

On the day we didn’t take a mini trip outside of the city, we took a canal cruise with a gregarious Dutch sailor who love telling some multi-lingual dad jokes. The skies were a bit overcast, but exploring the city from the canal provided us with an entirely different perspective. I certainly recommend it. 

We had originally planned to visit the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House as well, but unfortunately, they were sold out of tickets. I’ve since heard that during the summer season, you need to book way ahead of time; these spots are some of the most popular destinations in Amsterdam.

Zaanse Schans

While the enthusiasm displayed by the previously mentioned Dutch photographer is the first thing that comes to mind when I think back to our time in Zaanse Schans, there are plenty of other reasons to remember this quaint little place fondly. Just a 15-minute train ride away from Amsterdam, it is undoubtedly the most popular and most promoted day trip for visitors to the Dutch capital. 

Known for its traditional windmills, it is the perfect microcosm of traditional Dutch culture. Many of the windmills, which can be entered for a small fee, are still in operation and effectively utilize wind power to produce vibrant dyes . In the main part of the town center, where some lucky people actually live (or perhaps unlucky considering how many tourists swarm their beautiful gardens) there are several shops dedicated to cheese and chocolates and even a clog-making workshop. I remain unconvinced that wooden shoes can be worn comfortably, but the craftsmanship on display was quite extraordinary.

Near the cheese shop, Rachelle and I spent a significant amount of time watching a bevy of goats and one very shaggy and muscular chicken roam around the adjacent farm. The goats were especially cute and quite skilled at sniffing out which spectators had some stroopwafels to share. 

 After an expensive but quite tasty lunch by the water’s edge, we headed back to the train station, but not before stopping by a very small chocolate shop. The chocolatier at the counter was one of the most joyous fellows we have ever met and the chocolate windmill we bought from him was the perfect end to our eventful day. 

That and the cute cat that Rachelle quickly befriended. 

Stay tuned for more!

-Anna

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