Let’s go “Dutch”!

September 17, 2019

Haarlem – Amsterdam – Haarlem

An early morning exploration of Haarlem was underway – we were hoping to find that the city had woken up earlier that morning and went in search of breakfast. Our Airbnb was located 100 metres from a canal, and bracing the chilly air, we ventured out. This was around 7 a.m. and the city was still waking up. You could see the odd stragglers, and cyclists on their way to work. In the Netherlands, as has been said, the worst accident you could have is a cyclist knocking you down – more than cars you need to watch out for cyclists. Walking through a cobblestoned path lined with shops interspersed with cafes and the odd house in between, we made our way to the Bavo Church in the centre of Haarlem, and the Grote Markt (the city centre). Taking the customary tourist pictures, and ravenous, we stepped into a small quaint café for breakfast. Haarlem is a delightful town with its cobbled roads, cyclists, shops selling wares of every kind (handicrafts, clothes, jewellery, sports goods, etc.) and has the feel of a slow life/ a “hygge” life.

We decided to live like the locals do, and rented cycles around the street from our Airbnb, for 10 Euro a day. These were unlike the traditional Dutch cycles with wide handlebars, and no brakes – these were fancy bikes with gears, bells and the works. We were warned that if we are to take our cycles to Amsterdam, we were to lock them twice, because the biggest crime in the Netherlands, and in particular, Amsterdam was bicycle theft. We cycled away delighted (because this was the dream) – this was one of the reasons why the Netherlands was always on the bucket list.  We visited Bavo Church at Haarlem which was one of the emptiest churches I’ve seen (in terms of lack of tourists). Deciding in favour of outdoor activities, we pedaled happily like locals (though not at the high speed that locals zip past you), exploring Haarlem passing by green foliage, quaint houses, and over canal bridges. It is remarkably easy to cycle in Haarlem – there are three distinct paths (i) the path for the four wheelers, (ii) a separate cycling path, and (iii) a walking path. Cyclists in the Netherlands stop for no one – and if you stop midway, you will be met with angry stares and squashed to pieces. We then decided it was time to explore the infamous Amsterdam and cycle to Haarlem station to park our cycles there. We were met with rows and rows of cycles parked next to, over and adjacent to one other, and stacked up on two rows of cycle racks. Taking about a half an hour to figure how to lower the cycle racks on the top, and worrying whether our cycles may be robbed, we finally parked our cycles, beaming with excitement.

Cycle stands in the Netherlands

Amsterdam is a beautiful city (albeit extremely crowded and touristy). Tram lines run throughout the city, and the city is circular with the canal belt running through a large part of the city, and it is very easy to travel within the city.

A canal ride is a must do in Amsterdam (we went with the tour called Lovers Canal Tours), and it gives you a remarkable insight into the history of the city, and the typical Amsterdam houses (in particular the crooked houses), and the people. An interesting fact is apparently about 400 cycles are recovered from the canals every month. The patrician houses which line the canals have an interesting story behind them, and these patrician houses (now too expensive to maintain are usually now rented out by shops/ restaurants). We sailed past the “crooked buildings” constructed as such to provide balance in a city surrounded by water, and saw various sights and sounds of around the canals – couples basking in the sunshine, locals riding their bikes, tour guides taking water tours, bustling cafes with activity, and felt the boat moving occasionally with the swell of the other boats. I would however recommend either a walking tour of the city or one of the smaller boat tours run by locals (which needs to be booked much in advance).

Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House were musts on our to do list. The Van Gogh Museum experience (though on the higher side, approximately 19 EU and should be purchased online in advance to avoid the queues) is a beautiful experience – the museum is spread across three floors, each floor housing Van Gogh’s paintings from different stages of his life, and the audio guide intersperses and connects each phase of his life with his painting explaining where he was in his life, when he painted it, and the reasons he painted it. Van Gogh’s paintings (and not just the sunflower) are real and genuine – legend has it he loved to paint nature and country folk since it reminded him of who he was at his very roots. Going to the Van Gogh museum is like going back in time and actually experiencing Van Gogh’s life as if you were with him (and to be honest, I am not an art fanatic or aficionado).

Crooked buildings along Amsterdam’s canals

Standing in serpentine queues in what for me (with my sensitivity to my cold) was bracingly chilly weather, bundled up in woolens, we waited for our booked slot of 7.45 p.m. at Anne Frank House.  As we stood, we saw tourists coming in to inquire for on the spot slots, and sadly being turned away. A visit to the Anne Frank house requires you to book your slot at least a minimum of a month in advance. As you enter the Anne Frank house, a video takes you through the history of how Anne Frank’s early life before she went into hiding. Walking through the Anne Frank house actually transports you to the time Anne Frank and her family lived there, and an individualized guided sound recording takes you through the rooms of the house (where she and her family lived and survived during the time of the Nazi German occupied Amsterdam. We were told that the interiors were intentionally never renovated, and each of the rooms had photos/ pictures of the persons who the room belonged to, and summarized write ups recording certain events (as recorded from Anne Frank’s diary). I honestly was awestruck, spellbound, touched, moved and excited all at the same time as we traversed through 2 and a half years of the Franks life in the Anne Frank house during World War – II.

The Anne Frank book store is fabulous – other than the infamous Diary of Anne Frank, several other, and I couldn’t resist picking up these beautiful postcards, and bookmarks showing Anne at the single window in the attic looking out – the visit to the Anne Frank House was such a humbling experience.

It was now 10.00 p.m. at night, when we finally pulled ourselves away from the Anne Frank House, and wandered into the cold. Exhausted and tired, we made our way to Amsterdam station to make our way to Haarlem station. I was super excited (and also a bit scared at the same time), hoping that our cycles had not been stolen. Reaching Haarlem station (this was around 11 p.m.) using our phone flashlight we unlocked our bikes, and made our way home. Our day had many firsts (all brilliant experiences) – and last but not least was cycling in the dark through the empty streets of Haarlem, with groceries strapped to the back (which fell off midway) – this was the experience I had been dreaming of, and I didn’t want the day to end.

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