Please forgive me for that terrible title, but once I thought of it, I had to.
Part 1 of Annie and Laura’s Excellent Adventure found us in Amsterdam for just about 2 days. I took a night train (my first ever) to meet Laura at the Amsterdam train station at about 10 AM on Thursday morning. The train left at about 9 from Dresden, and while it was perfect timing to arrive shortly after Laura’s transatlantic flight, I was too cheap to book a bed reservation so I endured several painful hours of sleeping in odd positions, and I have vowed to never do a night train again before I have the necessary $$$ to get an actual bed!
We started our trip auspiciously, kicking off our pattern of being very ambitious on our first day in every city; just doing as much as humanly possible! The walk to our hostel was long but it took us through the heart of Amsterdam and gave us a taste of what was to come. We had to wait a few hours to check into our hostel, so we ate a long-awaited “breakfast” after not having eaten for way too long on both of our parts. Then we explored the nearby Vondelpark, home of one of several “I Amsterdam” signs:
After checking in, we hit the streets hard! We followed Rick Steves’ walking tour — but backwards, because it ended at the Rijksmuseum, which was very nearby to our hostel. This led to some fun “wait, left or right? Did we already pass it??” moments, but overall we were able to see so much.
The Rijksmuseum itself is striking; there we saw the “more famous” I Amsterdam as well as our only Holland tulips sighting!
Of course the canals are striking and unique. There are several large, bustling squares full of shops, restaurants, and “coffee shops” interspersed, and as you wind your way through the streets you are just as likely to stumble upon a flower stand as you are a marijuana-dispersing shop or a 500-year-old church. One of the defining features of the landscape, besides the canals, are the old towers which used to be parts of the city walls, but which now stand out as the tallest structures in the city for the most part.
One interesting concept we first encountered in Amsterdam and also later in Bruges was a “Begijnhof,” living communities which used to house groups consecrated Catholic women who weren’t members of religious orders. The Amsterdam Begijnhof was very hidden, and on our way to finding it we stumbled into probably the most beautiful or my favorite church I’ve ever seen in Europe. It was built in a Gothic style but was lighter inside than most Gothic churches because of the bright colors of its decor. Eventually we did find the Begijnhof and we were able to go to Adoration for a little bit in the church there.
After we finished half of Rick Steves’ tour, we caught a boat tour through the canals which was really great. It was by no means a comprehensive view of the city, but it offered a very unique perspective to the city and allowed us to hear about the transformation of Amsterdam’s layout throughout the centuries: which canal houses the richest residents (and the mayor), which bridges are the oldest, how to distinguish between gables shapes, etc.
We had a goal of getting to the Anne Frank House 1.5-2 hours before it closed, so we headed in that direction with the idea of eating dinner along the way, which proved…. challenging. We eventually found an affordable Indonesian option, which was really delicious, surprisingly! And we made it to the Anne Frank House in time to make the full rounds.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the House, which is definitely one of the more famous attractions in Amsterdam and one that I have been aware of since I was very small and my dad visited it (and brought back souvenirs for us). On the one hand, I find Anne Frank’s story incredibly inspiring and intriguing, and I’ve read her diary several times. On the other hand, what could really be conveyed about her story and the history of the Holocaust just through an ordinary house? Also, through my experiences seeing concentration camps and other WWII/Holocaust sites, I was familiar with the odd sensation of viewing something historically tragic yet being unable to process, or indeed access, the “appropriate” emotions to go along with them. But anyway, the Anne Frank House was really interesting and, in an odd way, moving.
The bottom levels of the warehouse, Mr. Frank’s place of business, are furnished in approximations of how they would have been, and you can see displays detailing the history of the family and the business: when the Franks emigrated to the Netherlands from Germany, how the different colleagues came to work there and befriend each other, how the German invasion impacted the daily lives of Dutch Jews, and how the Franks’ and Van Pels’ hiding was coordinated years in advance. There are also several videos, accounts years later from the different non-Jewish coworkers who helped to hide the Franks about what happened in those years. One of the most chilling things on the lower levels was hearing the ceiling above squeak under the footfalls of the other museum visitors; how easy it must have been for the hide-outs in the Annex to slip up and alert a warehouse worker!
Upstairs, in the secret annex (stepping through the secret bookcase, the original, was a surreal moment), there are no furnishings, though before entering we were able to see a scale model of how the rooms would have looked in the 40s. Being physically in the spaces was another experience of that surreal detachment. I could appreciate that a young Anne had taken it upon herself to decorate her walls, and I noticed how tiny Peter’s staircase room seemed (but noted that he was the only one with his very own room), and it was obvious how oppressive it must have been to spend two whole years in this tiny space with no sunlight and minimal connections to the outside world.
But it wasn’t until the very end of the exhibit, reading about Otto Frank’s survival of the concentration camp and his single-minded determination to get Anne’s diary published, that it hit me: this man sacrificed everything, his whole life, to protect his family, to get them into hiding, to save them from the inevitable. And he was the only one who survived. What a heartbreaking thought. But what an amazing testament to the impact of a single person’s life on the world! He did what was at his disposal: finding a publisher and an audience for his young daughter’s diaries. What a small task, but one unique to him, that only he had the power to accomplish! And see how he changed the world through that act of love.
On Friday, we got going bright and early thanks to a somewhat unwelcome wakeup call in our hostel room. We resumed the Rick Steves tour where we had left off: we saw the National Monument which recognizes victims of the Holocaust / WWII, as well as the New Church (not gonna try the Dutch spelling… I can almost understand spoken Dutch and reading it is fine but spelling is just a totally different animal), an old, ornate pedestrian market turned shopping center, and one of the most intriguing finds of the day, a “hidden church” from the times of Protestant oppression of Catholic practices, still in operation, right across from a McDonalds!
We made our way back to the central station to check out trains to Bruges the next day and accidentally wandered into the Red Light District on the way back before realizing where we were, but I guess that’s something we can check off the list!
At this point, we had barreled through so many of the Amsterdam “musts” that we had a bit more freedom to follow our whims. And you know this was the ultimate “girls’ week(end)” when our first “whim” was to go on a free tour of a diamond workshop!!!
It really was incredible. Laura listed it as one of her favorite things of the whole week, and I’m not one to complain about spending an hour looking at beautiful, shiny things! We learned all about the 4 C’s of diamonds and got to see sample gems cut at the workshop there in Amsterdam, some of which were worth thousands of Euros! Then we saw some “finished” jewelry pieces and even got to try some of them on.
Then we wandered to the southeast portion of town, which is now considered the “green museum quarter” (because of the many parks and museums) and was also historically a predominantly Jewish area. We enjoyed delicious sandwiches right near the Dutch Theater, which is a gorgeous building with a chilling past, as it was used as a mass deportation site during the German occupation. After exploring the surrounding area, we took a little rest in a nearby park along a canal.
We stocked up on grocery store bread, cheese, fruit, and several discounted packages of Stroopwafels, which are as far as I’m concerned the Netherlands’ greatest contribution to humanity, and ended our second amazing day in Amsterdam in the Vondelpark with a picnic.
Two days seemed short to me, and I could have spent more time in Amsterdam, I think. It seems like such a small town — and really, it is… I think I remember hearing that fewer than a million people actually live in the city? Some things about it… the ever-present weed smell, for one… are not my favorite, but what a charming, eclectic, and beautiful city Amsterdam is! I am certainly glad to have experienced it.
And with one of my best friends, no less!