We landed at an airport that was once a lake, where storms used to claim ships. Schiphol - or 'ship hole' in English - airport in Amsterdam makes for a grand entry into Holland. After exiting, a friend and I decided to hire bicycles and explore a bit of Amsterdam.
In a country where bicycles outnumber cars - for every car, there are reportedly two bicycles - pedestrians should be wary of bikers. As we ventured out, we saw vehicles coming towards us and realised we were riding on the left (for which, read wrong) side of the road. A few trial-anderror rides later, we were beside a lake. There were beer cans and packets strewn about. It looked just like India. It was a disappointing start to our stay.
The guided tour of the city began later. "Amsterdam is a playground for adults," said our guide Garett, and by the end of the day, I agreed with him thoroughly. Amsterdam is a great city for art lovers. The famous Rijksmuseum is a familiar landmark that has the best of the Dutch Golden Age, showcasing the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen and other artists. A room dedicated to Rembrandt and his pupils has an entire wall covered by Night Watch, one of the most famous works of the artist, painted in 1642.
The Van Gogh museum, a two-minute walk from the Rijksmuseum, is also worth a visit. It houses the largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh under one roof, which includes painting, drawings and letters that remained with the family. There is also the Anne Frank House, the hiding place where Anne Frank wrote her famous diary during World War II.
As we drove around the city, a beautiful addition to the scenery was flowers. There were red and pink begonias in pots on windowsills, flowering shrubs lining roads, morning glory climbers on fences, geraniums on houseboats, even trays of flowers carted on bicycles. Only the tulips were missing, as it was not the right season.
Dam Square is a great place to soak in the atmosphere. You could relax on the stone steps and watch a street artist perform while a protest happens at the other end. There's a Madame Tussaud's, adjacent to the Royal Palace. If you prefer to shop, alleys lead to shops and restaurants.
As we walked down a street, we saw an array of souvenir shops, and coincidentally, the two shops we walked into were owned by Indians. Another gentleman told me there were about six shops owned by Indians and Pakistanis on that street. However, we missed out on the flea market in Waterlooplein square.
A boat cruise is a fun way to spend the evening. The captain guides you through the canals and harbour, with explanations in most major languages. Our first day ended with a walk through the Red Light District, or De Wallen, a major attraction, where sex workers beckon from behind the glow of red-lit windows. But as soon as they see a camera, they slip behind a curtain. There are also sex shops, peep shows and even a marijuana museum.
Prostitution is legal in Holland, and so are soft drugs. Lined along the street are coffee shops where marijuana and hashish are available. A peculiar smell assails you when you pass by - the smell of weed, as I found out. However, our only brush with a coffee shop happened when we entered one to ask for directions.
On our to-see list the next day was Zaanse Schans, a theme park of windmills on the banks of the river Zaan. When it comes to the Dutch, what comes to mind are windmills and tulips. Interestingly, both are not originally Dutch. Tulips came to Holland via Turkey and windmills, our guide Garett told us, were not a Dutch invention, though he wasn't sure where they originated.
If you don't have the time to explore the whole country, go to Madurodam. This miniature city has everything Holland is famous for - Dam Square, the Peace Palace of The Hague, the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, Rotterdam's cube houses, even the red light area.
"The Spanish are our largest number of visitors, after Indians," said Debbie Bakker, our guide at Madurodam. "Some Bollywood movies were also shot here." We grilled her, but she could not remember the names of the movies or stars.
At The Hague, where the Dutch government and Parliament are seated, we did a quick city tour on a bus. Remco Dorr turned out to be a very entertaining guide. Assisted by Henk, our driver, he pointed out sights such as the Peace Palace (where the International Court of Justice is located), Queen Beatrix's working palace and the Parliament, the largest Gothic building that is not a church.
"The Hague is not a town, it is the largest village in Europe," said Remco. But in 1811, he added, the village was given city rights for 12 hours when Napoleon Bonaparte visited, because the emperor did not want to stop at a village.
We drove past the seaside area of Scheveningen, where Remco pointed out the dykes - natural or artificial walls that regulate water levels. Sixty per cent of Holland is below sea level, but because of the water management system, there have been no floods since the the 1950s.
In Rotterdam, we were lucky to catch the annual Summer Carnival parade on the last Saturday of July. Hours before the parade, people were booking their space along the streets. Families brought chairs and waited for the floats to pass by. We lunched at the Bazar restaurant, which serves North African, Turkish and Iranian dishes. I recommend the spare ribs served with salad and potato wedges.
I also lost my heart to Delft, the quaint town where the famous blue-painted tiled pottery originated. It's also the birthplace of Vermeer, one of Holland's most famous painters. We visited the Royal Delft museum, where a guide took us through the process of how the hand-painted tiles are crafted. When I checked the prices, I knew I would never be able to afford the bigger pieces, even after a discount.
I arrived with 13 kgs, but my suitcase weighed 29 kgs by the end. But if I ever visited Holland again, I promised myself that I would spend my money on a blue and white tile.
The author visited The Netherlands at the invitation of Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions