Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Once we had crossed into the Netherlands (in the middle of a motorway), we headed for Hoge Veluwe National Park. The first thing we noticed here were the "no campervan parking overnight" signs, so we left and drove for the nearby town of Arnhem, parking on a residential street. Just after we arrived it started raining and didn't stop for most of the night. Not ideal weather for outdoor activities.
We returned the next morning, hoping for a short, gentle hike through the trees. Unfortunately, we discovered that the museum we planned to visit was 10 km from the entrance gate. There was nothing short about 10 km there and back again. It did make for a scenic drive though, with the landscape changing from dense trees to open fields and even large patches of sand - it would have made a decent running spot. The museum itself wasn't overly large, but it did contain an abundance of pieces by Van Gogh. Apparently there are roughly 200 works by the nation's most loved artist stored here, however only 30 or so were on display. I would have been happy to see more.
An hour after leaving the museum we were in a caravan park in Amsterdam, right on the water (which is not a difficult task in Amsterdam). We caught the tram into the city and started by wandering down the main street. Of course it ran alongside an iconic canal, but the dozen or so boat companies blocked any decent views of the water. My first impression of the city was bewilderment of the number of bicycles, all whizzing by down dedicated bicycle lanes with their own bicycle traffic lights and multi-level bicycle parking lots. There were more cyclists than car drivers. The only downside was that I never remembered to check for bikes whenever I stepped off the sidewalk, and more than once I almost took out a bunch of riders. My second impression was that this city was apparently fries-heaven, as we passed tons of food outlets that sold only fries, with a choice of about 20 different sauces. It seemed that everyone who wasn't on a bike was eating fries, and we gladly joined the latter for an oily indulgence. They were amazing.
The next day we jumped on the tram again, buying our tickets from actual conductors (I can't remember the last time I bought a ticket that wasn't from a machine). First port of call was a meander through the red-light district, but I guess they don't start work until later in the day as it felt like a ghost town. Danny then left to go to the Rijksmuseum, full of the paintings by the 'old masters'. Danny recently read a book that talked in depth about Rembrandt, and now he wants to see the works in real life. I just wandered the entire eastern half of the city, photographing nearly every canal I came across just in case it was better than the last canal I saw a few minutes earlier. At one point I saw a boat dredging one of the larger canals, and it seemed that all it was collecting was dozens of bicycles. Maybe the canals acted like a bike cemetery for the Dutch. Although it's more likely that they are just dumping grounds for stolen property.
I caught up with Danny at a long street market that sold almost everything you could think of. After a long perusal all I came away with was an average banana smoothie. From there we headed up to the flower market, which was captivating but not quite practical for us (I'm sure nothing would survive long in our van - even milk goes off after two days). Even better than the flower market, though, was the two cheese stores opposite the market, right next door to each other, selling exactly the same type of cheese. Much to our delight, they both had about 30 free samples of Gouda for tasting. Spiced, smoked, aged - you name it, they had it. It was far too expensive to buy but we definitely scored big time from the free samples alone. It appears that the whole city is on the pricey end, and the only thing we can really afford is fries.
Danny had seen a brewery earlier in the day, so I walked with him up that way. On the way we stopped at Febo, a fast-food outlet with large vending machines that spit out hot food. Danny courageously opted for the chicken burger, while I avoided the meat and chose a croquette. Definitely not quality food but I'm sure it would look fantastic at the end of a heavy night of drinking. We eventually made it to the brewery, where Danny was definitely in his element. After making his way though six tastings he still wasn't ready to leave, so he bought one more full glass of highly alcoholic beer. This tipped him over the edge, resulting in much begging and pleading from me to drag him away. There's only so long I can sit and watch someone else get drunk.
The guidebooks say that the Netherlands has the best Indonesian food outside Indonesia, and I was keen to see if this was true. Like everything else here, most of the restaurants were ridiculously expensive, but we finally found one offering a rice table - a selection of lots of small dishes served with steamed rice and nasi goreng (fried rice), sitting on a hotplate on the table. In the end there were 20 plates of food, including skewered meats, curries and salads, and it was far better than we ever expected. Even the wines we drank were far superior to our usual budget supermarket offerings.
On the way back to the tram stop we passed through the red-light district again. Much more lively at night. And by lively I mean seedy. I wonder how this would go down in Australia?
We happily woke the following day to blue skies that weren't threatening us with rain. The canals looked way better in the sunshine, resulting in me re-taking all the photos I took yesterday. Once that was out of the way, we wandered around the Jordaan area in the west, which was far quieter, more laid back and picturesque than the east. I left Danny here so I could stop in at the Anne Frank House, on my must-see list after reading her diary earlier this year. The Secret Annex, where Anne and her family hid for over two years during WWII, was horribly dark and cramped - it's hard to believe they spent that long in there without venturing outside or seeing daylight. I think I would have gone insane relatively quickly.
I met up with Danny again at Vondelpark, a peaceful, green space dotted with small lakes that attracted an abundance of bird life. It felt like we were miles from the city and would have been a perfect spot for chilling out on a summer's day. Next, we made our way to the nearby Van Gogh museum, which was absolutely fantastic. From the outside the museum looked overwhelmingly gigantic but his works were mostly contained to one floor, while other levels covered his influences as well as artists he had an impact on. Overall we would say it's on our list of top 10 museums in Europe.
On our way to the tram stop we bought yet more fries (they're too hard to resist) and had a quick peek inside the Vodka Museum. Other than a few unusual flavoured vodkas, including the Van Gogh espresso vodka, there wasn't much to sustain our attention for long. Once back at the car we decided to drive to our next destination, Leiden. On they way we passed loads of skyscrapers that were noticeably absent from the Amsterdam we had explored over the last few days. I guess the central business district is a completely different area to the tourist region. We also witnessed a brilliant fireworks display. No idea what it was for, but given our track record it was probably another public holiday we were not aware of.