By Geri Bain and Jenny Keroack
Inspired by the grand tours of aristocrats past and the much more recent adventures of TV’s Gilmore Girls, 18 year old Jenny Keroack proposed that she and her mom, travel writer Geri Bain take their own grand voyage. This summer, they set off together to see as much of the Old World as thirty days would allow, recording their favorite places and activities along the way. Jenny’s are in italics while Geri’s are in regular type. Read about their adventures, explorations and all the schleps in between. This is their report logged from Amsterdam.
I was a bit nervous because we were using Eurail passes and had been advised reservations were not needed for the three-hour trip from Bruges to Amsterdam. Happily, as promised, there were plenty of empty first class seats. Arriving in Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, we were impressed, yet not surprised, by the legions of bicycles locked up along the canals.
A Biking City. Bicycling around Amsterdam is the ultimate local experience. In a city where there are almost as many bikes as there are people, the residents are pros. With multiple locks on their bikes and often a basket or baby carrier attached, they zoom down the bike lanes at what most tourists consider alarming speeds. But don’t let me scare you; exploring Amsterdam by bike was great. Bikes can get you everywhere in the city quickly and bike lanes on all main roads means you don’t have to worry about cars. We rented ours from MacBike. We also took an excellent bike tour, and pedaled to Vondelpark, a large green oasis, which we enjoyed as much for its beauty as for the fact that riders there are not encumbered by bike lanes, cars or quite as many crazy commuters.
Navigating by Canals: The history of Amsterdam, which began as a small fishing village made possible by a dam on the Amstel River (hence the name), is reflected in its canals. The first area to be settled, Dam Square, was founded in the 13th century and sits at the center of a series of radiating canals. If you get lost, you can always follow one of these canals back to the center. On a relaxing 75 minute cruise with the Blue Boat company, recorded commentary provided an overview of Amsterdam’s history and gave us a chance to admire the show-off gables atop rich homes along the canals and to learn about some of the city’s recurring themes such as the three crosses, which represent its medieval fears: water, fire and plague.
A Tradition of Tolerance: Amsterdam is the” first city” in tolerance, literally. The 14th and 15th century Jews fleeing anti-Semitism named it Mokum, which means “city” as it was the first city besides Jerusalem to be open for Jews. Later on, Amsterdamers would be the only people to hold a public protest against Nazi anti-Jewish policies. The Netherlands also was the first country to allow gay marriage, and Amsterdam’s “homomonument” is the first monument celebrating homosexuals. The city has a huge number of gay clubs and a colossal gay pride parade that even the army takes part in. The Netherlands is also progressive in that it allows some recreational drug use, notably marijuana, as well as prostitution (though pimping is outlawed). This allows the government to regulate and control these industries as needed, meaning that you can buy your drugs at a clean, safe shop and prostitutes undergo regular medical examinations for STD’s. Personally, I find Amsterdam’s ‘live and let live’ outlook refreshing and enjoyed learning about its rich history of tolerance.
Anne Frank House: I have felt very close to Anne Frank ever since reading her world-famous diary. Of course, many others feel the same way, which is why there is always a line outside the Anne Frank Huis, the place where she and seven others hid during most of World War II. The secret annex was restored by Otto Frank, her father, who survived concentration camp life and returned to Holland to find his daughter’s diary and eventually turn the place where they hid into a museum of tolerance. It was interesting to see the rooms Anne described, though they are left furnitureless as a tribute to all those who did not return. I also was fascinated by video footage of Mep, one of the heroes who helped the Franks, and Otto Frank speaking about their experiences. The museum ends with an interactive exhibit in which visitors vote on modern day potential violations of freedom, such as women not being allowed to wear burqas in France.
Van Gogh and Rembrandt: Amsterdam is filled with more galleries and museums than we could hope to do justice to. Our two favorites were devoted to its famed resident artists: Van Gogh and Rembrandt. The Rembrandt House Museum, the artist’s city home, was carefully refurnished based on an inventory taken when bankruptcy forced him to liquidate his belongings. As in his time, rooms feature an impressive collection of his works and those of his students and favorite artists. Live demonstrations (in English) of paint, brush and print making added to our appreciation of his work. The Van Gogh Museum boasts the world’s largest collection of his paintings. We started with an engaging 15 minute film about his life and work, and then followed his progression from the first tentative sketches. We left amazed at how much he had produced in his short, decade-long artistic career. (Note: the museum is closing for renovations and slated to reopen in April, 2013).
Eating and Sleeping: Amsterdam claims almost 180 nationalities, which are clearly reflected in its cuisine. We enjoyed regional specialties such as savory pancakes filled with mushrooms and aged Dutch cheese as well as great risotto, Argentinean steak, and Ethiopian food. The hotel scene is equally diverse, with many historic hotels. However, for those with Hilton loyalty points looking for a convenient location, the new Hilton Doubletree Hotel, just steps from the main rail station and Dam Square, makes a modern comfy home base and its friendly service and lavish buffet breakfast are a plus. Our room had spectacular floor to ceiling views of the city and we reluctantly closed our blinds every night to block the lights of the city and the early rising sun.
For more information on Amsterdam, visit www.holland.com
Next, we off on a nearly five-hour train trip to Frankfurt, where we’ll rent a car to explore the “German Fairy Tale Road.”
Jenny Keroack (left) and Geri Bain
Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, N.Y. Daily News and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.
18-year-old Jenny Keroack wrote for the Observer Tribune from 2009 to 2012 and has been published in the Riverdale Press and Elegant Lifestyles. She was a researcher/blogger for the N.Y. League of Conservation Voters last summer and will be studying political science at the University of Chicago this fall.