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Thursday, 18 July 2019

Relaxed Amsterdam is best seen on foot

Relaxed Amsterdam is best seen on foot
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands - It felt as if I was gliding on air, hovering smoothly over the streets of Amsterdam, past the Royal Palace and over canal bridges, as the ubiquitous Heineken beer signs became a green blur.

Suddenly, I lurched forward as the gliding came to an abrupt stop.

"Prinsengracht," the tram conductor said crisply. A few blocks away was the Anne Frank House, one of the city's most famous sites.

Amsterdam is famous for a lot of things, not the least of which are its collection of more than two dozen world-class museums.

A house-sitting gig meant I had a month to tour museums, try the cafes, peek at the Red Light District and, most important, attempt to live as if I were a local - the way I always prefer to experience new destinations, instead of those eight-cities-in-10-days tours.

Your best bet for exploring this compact city is on foot, bicycle or tram. Bicycles far outnumber automobiles, and it's easy to see why. Virtually every major street is lined with red, generously wide bike lanes, and motorists and pedestrians graciously cede to their right-of-way. In fact, when you're crossing the street, the bike lane is the first thing you'll step onto, and it's a good idea to make sure the coast is clear before you do.

Instead of cement buildings stacked with layers of parked cars, you'll see bike garages filled with bicycles used by commuters.

Windmills, tulips and wooden clogs are the images that usually spring to mind when people think of Holland. But the Dutch have gone down in history for something else: an open-armed, nonjudgmental mind-set.

"Our philosophy is 'Who am I to judge?' " said Elly, a schoolteacher from Rotterdam. "We prefer to live and let live."

I experienced the "live-and-let-live" attitude on my first walk into the tourist haven known as the Leidseplein, where an ambitious and uninhibited street performer wearing only a thong performed high-wire acrobatics over a sea of crowded tables at an outdoor cafe.

Amsterdam is a city where the Bible Museum, sex-toy shops, botanical gardens, historic churches and beer factories coexist peacefully.

The Gay Pride parade, which takes place in August on the Prinsengracht, one of the main canals, is Amsterdam's equivalent of a Thanksgiving Day parade. Seniors sit front row with their grandchildren, and everyone laughs as they wave at the passing barges loaded with confetti-throwing drag queens and scantily clad gladiators.

You'll find the consonant-heavy Dutch language all around you, both in conversation and signage, but just about everyone younger than 70 speaks English fluently (and minus any Parisian-style resentment). Aside from the International Herald Tribune, most newsstands carry periodicals in Dutch only. The American Book Center at 185 Kalverstraat carries books, newspapers and magazines in English.

A great deal can be packed into a weeklong visit, starting with the city's namesake. Not far from the Amstel River is Dam Square, a conglomeration of sites including the New Church (Nieuwe Kirk), where the crown prince was married; the Bijenkorf (a Macy's-like department store with a fabulous and inexpensive cafeteria); Amsterdam's stock exchange center, known as the Berlage Bourse; and the Magna Plaza shopping complex.

Since the 1960s, the square has also been a favorite place for political demonstrations.

The Dam's crown jewel is the Royal Palace. Queen Beatrix and her family live in Den Haag (The Hague), and she only pops into town on official business. Visitors could spend an afternoon at the palace, browsing its three floors of fine art.

The Dutch adore their queen, who, by all accounts, is warmer and more accessible to her subjects than her British counterpart. And the city comes to a halt April 30, Queen's Day, when her birthday is celebrated with street fairs and citywide revelry.

From the Van Gogh Museum to the Hermitage, there's no shortage of museums in the city. At the Historical Museum, I learned how the city was founded as a fishing village during the 13th century. The population grew and fanned out from a dam along the Amstel River - hence, the city's name.

The Van Gogh Museum was the most crowded, with rows of people sometimes three deep lined up and viewing the heavily guarded masterpieces.

Only a portion of the unfathomably vast Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam's largest treasure trove of art, was open because of renovations, which are scheduled for completion in 2008. A fraction of the museum turned out to be 400 paintings, and it still took hours to view.

The Anne Frank House was by far the most fascinating of the museums. A haunting step back in time, the family's annex of cramped rooms is kept as it was during their nearly two years of hiding.

Eventually, I reached a saturation point with museums, so I decided to tour Amsterdam via its famous network of linked canals.

The best way to tour the city by canal boat is to pick one that provides a day pass so you can disembark at various stops to explore the city.

With much fanfare, I had been informed of the wild and crazy times to be had in Amsterdam: the coffee houses that sell marijuana and space cakes; the Red Light District; pubs that stay open all night and draw planeloads of Brits for Saturday night revelry.

A friend told me about a frightening experience with space cakes. They may look like innocent little sweets, but these babies are hallucinogenic (think LSD), so I decided to pass.

However, if you do decide to partake in the city's more exotic offerings, proceed with caution. A tourist book recommended that the uninitiated eat space cakes very slowly, in small portions and with plenty of warm liquids.

But my wild days must be officially behind me, because it was Holland's incomparable dairy products that bowled me over. It may be a little-known fact, but some of the best cheese, milk and yogurt can be found in the supermarkets of Amsterdam.

And if you're a yogurt lover, you'll want to apply for a visa.

Aside from their superior dairy products, the Dutch are not renowned for their cuisine, but I recommend trying a Dutch restaurant for the experience. The food tends to be of the meat-and-potato variety. Speaking of potatoes, any french-fry lover like me will be in seventh heaven with the abundance of fritte stands. The crisp, elongated potato strips are served in paper cones with mayonnaise-based sauces, or my all-time favorite - a showering of salt.

One of the most multicultural places on earth also means no shortage of ethnic cuisine. Surinamese restaurants abound, as do Indian, Thai, Indonesian and the occasional Italian restaurants.

Don't miss out on a sumptuous four-course Rijstaffel (rice buffet) at an Indonesian restaurant. The one I tried was elegant, affordable (but not cheap) and offered an array of meats, vegetables and rices prepared in colorful sauces that ran the gamut of spicy, sour, sweet and bitter.

Of course, no visit to a European city would be complete without lounging for an afternoon at an open-air cafe. My favorite was the Toussaint, a quiet neighborhood cafe at 26 Bosboom Tous Straat that served homemade desserts, robust lattes, and delectable hot chocolate with a tower of real whipped cream.

It's an unspoken rule that once you're settled at a cafe table, it's yours for as long as you want it. The waitress may check on you now and again, but it's your little corner of the world to enjoy.

As I made my way through the delightfully rich whipped cream, I had to remind myself where I was and that there was no need to rush off. The museums, canals, churches and street acrobats - they would still be there in two hours. Amsterdam wasn't going anywhere.
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