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