Haarlem and Amsterdam
My first stop in the Netherlands was in Haarlem. Haarlem is a small city less than 30 minutes from Amsterdam. It is a market town and was once the center of Dutch painting. It has retained a quaint feeling and was easy to explore on foot. It is a beautiful town with a historic market square (Grote Markt). The day I arrived was market day and I headed straight to the center of town. What a great market! There were great produce, cheese, seafood and bakery stalls. I ate stroopwaffels straight off the grill, still warm and gooey. They were delicious! There were several flower stalls filled with different blooms. On the train ride to Haarlem, I passed many of the flower fields. It was a little too late in the season for most flowers, but some were still in bloom. I can only imagine how beautiful the countryside must be during the springtime, especially when the tulips are blooming. Hopefully I can return someday to see that.
One side of Grote Markt is dominated by the Grote Kerk, the main church in town. It is a huge church, but by far the main draw is the enormous organ that dominates one end of the church. I was surprised when I walked in the church and all of the seating was oriented towards the organ and not the altar. But the organ was amazing. It was huge. Apparently both Mozart and Hayden played here.
On my second day in Haarlem, I decided to join the Dutch and rent a bike. The Dutch are known as being huge bikers, and even today it is the main mode of transportation for most of the country. There are bike paths everywhere, connecting just about every city in the country. I was surprised to see some bikes outfitted with big wooden boxes -- used to transport everything from groceries to children. I saw several families taking their children to school or shopping, with mom or dad biking and up to 4 children stuck to various places on the bike. It really makes a lot of sense. Not only is it environmentally friendly, but so much easier and healthier than driving. I am not really a bike rider, and other than a quick trip to the train station in Switzerland with Erica and Ryan, I haven't been on a bike in years. I forgot just how fun it could be.
I biked from my hostel out to the beach at Bloemendaal. It was a beautiful ride through fields and picturesque neighborhoods, along a national park and ending at a beautiful beach on the North Sea. Since it was a weekend, there were lots of other bikers and families out enjoying the day. The weather was perfect and it was just a lovely, lovely day. I had a great breakfast overlooking the North Sea and then biked back into Haarlem. I biked along the river in Haarlem and stumbled upon several old and new windmills, as well as numerous houseboats.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Haarlem was one of the richest cities in Europe. It was the center of Dutch culture and especially of the arts. I have always been a fan of Dutch painting and was excited to visit the Frans Hals Museum. The Museum was great, with a huge collection of Frans Hals works, as well as other Dutch painters. I especially liked Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs. It is a painting illustrating over 70 different proverbs. Some of the depictions were really funny, and the painting was so detailed. It was fun to examine it and try to determine what each proverb meant.
I spent the rest of the day biking through the countryside. It was so beautiful and relaxing that I just kept going. I saw numerous tall ships out on the canals, and watched the drawbridge system in work (even on a freeway!). It was a great day and an amazing way to experience all the best of Holland.
The next day I headed to Amsterdam, my last stop on my European journey. It was crazy to think that my trip was almost coming to an end, but at the same time I was really looking forward to going home. I was excited to see my family and friends again, and to sleep in my own bed and not live out of a suitcase for awhile. I was a little nervous about Amsterdam, as I had heard it was a huge party town. It is definitely known for it's liberal drug laws and red light district. I was a little worried that the hostel would not be a good situation and that it would be filled with drunk and high teenagers. Thankfully, it worked out perfectly. I had a room with 4 Australian girls who were all about the same age as me and not at all into the party scene.
I think Amsterdam doesn't always get it's due as the amazing city that it is. For a lot of tourists, the main attractions are the red light district and the "coffeeshops" selling marijuana. But the city is absolutely beautiful. The canals, the buildings, the tree lined streets -- it is a picturesque city to just wander around. I spent the first day wandering the streets, visiting the flower market and cruising on the canals. I was so excited to eat good Indonesian food -- something I haven't had since living in Indonesia 8 years ago. The Netherlands colonized Indonesia, and there are still numerous Indonesian influences in the Netherlands. And the Indonesian food was amazing! So good, in fact, that I had to eat it two nights in a row!
On my second day in Amsterdam I took a free walking tour. New Europe is a company that leads free walking tours of cities all over Europe. Basically the guides work on a tip only basis. I hadn't taken many walking tours during my trip, mainly becauses the tours only operate during peak season. I was a little wary of the free tours, thinking they might not be so good, but it was actually really great. I learned so much and saw quite a bit of the city. The guide was really entertaining as well. On the walking tour I also met a really nice guy from Sweden who had lived and studied in Eastern Washington about 45 minutes from where my parents lived. We had a fun time talking and exploring Amsterdam.
Amsterdam has some amazing museums. The Van Gogh Museum was especially impressive. I have always admired Van Gogh's work, but most museums will only have one or two paintings by him. It was amazing to see such a large body of work and to be able to see the progression of Van Gogh's art through the years. He really had a style that was all his own. I also really enjoyed the Rijksmuseum, although only a portion was open due to ongoing construction. The Rijksmuseum had a large collection of Dutch artwork, as well as various artifacts brought back by the Dutch East Indies Company. One of my favorite paintings was Rembrandt's Night Watch. It is a remarkable work of art.
I also visited the Anne Frank House and Museum. It was really interesting to see the house where Anne Frank and her family were hidden. Even though it has been many years since I have read the Diary of Anne Frank, the story has always remained with me. The space has deliberately been left empty since the family was seized. I really enjoyed seeing the actual original diary that Anne Frank kept. The best part of the museum in my opinion was the exhibit at the end called Free2Choose. This is an exhibit that shows small video vignettes of different situations that call into question discrimination and civil liberties. After watching each small video clip, everyone in the room can push a button and vote on the issues. The exhibit then shows the percentages of everyone currently voting, as well as the total votes of everyone who has visited the museum this year. Some of the questions were really thought provoking and show just how much gray area there is when talking about things like religious freedom and freedom of speech. It really made me think about how we as a society approach such issues, as well as thinking about the differences between the approaches of the EU and the US.
I really enjoyed my time in the Netherlands. It it such a beautiful country and the Dutch people are so friendly. As usual, I loved sampling the local cuisine -- including cheese, chocolate, stroopwaffels, and yummy Indonesian food. It was a great ending to a great trip!