Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Netherlands...and getting there

August 29, 2014 - Friday - flight from Victoria, Canada to Amsterdam

I am up early this morning, since I am pretty anxious about the trip starting today. My departure from Victoria airport at 11AM to Seattle goes on time, but once I arrive at SeaTac airport, the travel stress kicks in. This is the Labour Day weekend, so everyone is traveling, and flights are full (or overbooked). This means there are lots of kids and families on the flights and in the air terminal. Immaculate timing means that our little flight from Victoria arrives at the same time as a couple of large aircraft from the Far East.

I clear US Immigration quite quickly, since there is a new automated kiosk system that American and Canadian citizens use. The kiosk takes your picture and scans your passport, then asks a few questions, and you’re good to go. This is a big improvement and much faster than seeing an immigration agent, especially when these large foreign flights arrive. Of course, most of those people have to go through the regular procedure of seeing an immigration agent, but I’m done in about two minutes!

Next, I have to retrieve my bags to clear US Customs, drop off my checked bag for connecting flights, go through a security check, and find the gate for my next flight to Amsterdam. Thankfully, it is in the same terminal as my previous flight, so I am saved from using those dreadful trains that SeaTac uses between terminals.

Aurora over Greenland with the Big Dipper above
There are crowds of people in the waiting lounge. Loading takes way longer than expected, however we eventually roll away from the jet way about an hour late. The pilot assures us he expects to make up all but 15 minutes of the time delay during the flight, and sure enough, he does.

The Delta crew serve us drinks shortly after the flight takes off. Beer, wine and cocktails are all free, but I don’t take advantage of this rare generosity, since drinking on board a flight is a bad idea. We have a very nice flight over to Amsterdam. As we fly over the southern tip of Greenland, the most spectacular aurora appears out my north-facing window. It was so bright, it reflected off the cloud cover below us. Later during the pre-dawn as we fly south of Iceland, I observe Venus and Jupiter in the eastern sky.

August 30, 2014 - Saturday – Haarlem, Netherlands

Flowers at the Public Market in Haarlem
After arriving at Amsterdam airport, I follow the directions sent by the Rick Steves office to my hotel. This involves finding the correct inter-city bus, and then walking a few blocks to the hotel in Haarlem. It’s a good thing I packed light, and my bag has wheels. After checking in, I get cleaned up, and then to sleep for several hours. After awaking, I’m feeling refreshed and go for a walkabout with my camera. There is a Saturday market setup on the main square (Grote Markt), which is right next to the main church in Haarlem (the Grote Kerk). Haarlem has very little vehicle traffic, since cars are restricted in the core of the city. Most people walk or bicycle. There are thousands of bicycles of all descriptions, and dedicated bike roadways, although wearing helmets is not mandatory, and from what I see virtually nobody wears one.

There are hundreds of cafes, bars, restaurants, fast food kiosks and shops. Smoking is widespread in the Netherlands, but is restricted to outdoor areas. I see very few overweight people here, so I guess all that bicycling keeps people fit! I suspect many people who live in the cities simply don’t own cars, since they are so expensive to own and operate. Also, finding parking in Haarlem is very tough, and if you find a spot, parking fees runs to several Euros per hour.

August 31, 2014 - Sunday – Haarlem, Netherlands

Arches & massive organ in the Grote Kerk
I have the first part of the day to myself, and do a little photo tour of the city. Later, I chat with several people who are obviously on the Rick Steves tour, since we are all staying in the same hotel. The tour group meets at 4PM, after introductions, our travel guide Jennifer Gouge spends quite a bit of time telling us how the tour will run, and reviews the Rick Steves’ tour philosophy. We then go as a group to De Lachende Javaan Indonesian restaurant for a traditional Indonesian 'rijsttafel’ dinner, which is very tasty. Afterward, we go on a walking tour of Haarlem with a local tour guide before returning to the hotel.

September 1, 2014 – Monday – Amsterdam, Netherlands

We leave our hotel in Haarlem for a full day of touring Amsterdam. We take the inter-city train from Haarlem to Amsterdam, and then catch a tram to the Anne Frank House, walking in ahead of the long line already forming. It is surprisingly emotional to actually see the hidden rooms where the two Jewish families hid from the Nazis during WWII. The rooms are devoid of furniture, as per Otto Frank’s wishes. Jennifer then takes us on a walking tour of Amsterdam, with a stop for lunch, and eventually we find our way back to the Rijks Museum for an escorted tour at 2:20PM. I bump into some friends from home – what an unplanned surprise! The Rijks Museum exhibits are nothing short of astounding. I will have to return here some day to take a day or two to properly appreciate the exhibits. Rembrandt and other painters of his time are the main features.

Man tending his flowers aboard his houseboat
on Amsterdam’s canals
We then walk a couple of blocks and some of us stop for a mid-afternoon beer break – a welcome respite from all the walking and standing, before taking a one hour canal boat cruise late in the afternoon. The boat cruise allows us to see the canal houses and appreciate how the Dutch people are so water-focused. Our final walk of the day takes us to Amsterdam's Red Light District for a quick glimpse at the girls displaying their wares.

After taking the inter-city train back to Haarlem, I quickly get cleaned up a bit before joining some people for dinner at Colette’s Restaurant which is right next door to the hotel. We all enjoy our meals after a very busy day. After returning to the hotel, I pack for our bus departure tomorrow for Germany.

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