Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Europe Day 9 – Amsterdam

The breakfast at the Crowne Plaza hotel was one of the best of the tour so far. With a full stomach, we started off on the tour of the Dutch capital and surrounding areas. The chill wind couldn’t dampen our spirits today as everyone was looking forward to the day with the least travel. The Dutch are a very enterprising lot. Starting with preserving the Herring fish for over a year, the Dutch had made a name for themselves as very shrewd traders. They were one of the first European countries to be unified, possibly the first European republic, started the first limited company through issue of shares, started the first modern stock market, gave rise to the first bank (Bank of Amsterdam) a hundred years before the Bank of England was established, and started the multinational company called the Dutch East Indian Company. It was one of the great powers between the 14th and 18th centuries.

The city tour started off with a visit to the cheese farm on the outskirts, which was filled with a beautiful spread of blue in the sky, green on the ground, and white on the frozen lakes that feed the wind mills. The Dutch are very famous at using wind mills, and it’s a very ingenious idea in using what they have (water) to make up for the lack of natural resources. After all these days of snow and cathedrals amongst the great mountains, the spread of colors over the flat countryside was very pleasing to the eye. We went to see a demonstration of cheese making, where I was surprised to see how hard a two year old cheese can be. After sifting around in the souvenir shops and walking around the beautiful landscape, we got on the bus for a short trip to Volendam.

The streets in Netherlands are really small, with cars, buses, trams and cyclists all sharing the same space, except in the city centre where they have separate cycle tracks. In took us longer to find a parking space than to travel to Volendam. Volendam is a beautiful little village on the shores of Holland, with a few parallel lanes of houses lining up the shores. The famous dykes of Holland save the houses from the power of the North sea, but they are hardly a few meters high. We can fully appreciate the danger posed by global warming in places like Holland, where 60% of the land is below sea level. Volendam has a great stretch for shopping, with souvenir items being much cheaper than at the other places. We also had our lunch here in one of the food outlets, including vegetable salad, fries and tomato soup. I realized how careful you need to be with your words in Europe when I got a big stare on ordering French fries. Most of Europe has been fighting amongst themselves for hundreds of years, so you have to be careful with associating something with the country. The houses in this part of the world are beautifully decorated, and most of the windows are not drawn, giving the keen onlooker a wonderful view of the beauty of the halls and rooms. Porcelain items and paintings are a big draw here, along with lace curtains.

After lunch in Volendam, we went for the Amsterdam river cruise through which we got to know the true blue Amsterdam. It was like the modern Venice, with an intricate network of canals and locks to keep the height of water in check. The buildings of Amsterdam that line up the shoreline are distinctive with its lack of gaps between the walls of buildings. Due to the lack of space, the Amsterdam dwellers are charged by the width of their houses, so they build houses which are narrow and deep. We heard that the stairs are quite narrow as well, so they shift their stuff mostly through the windows. Most of the houses are three windows wide, which open up to move stuff in and out. The canals themselves are home to many, similar to the Ton Le Sap River in Cambodia. House boats line up the canals here, but are strictly regulated with no new house boats possible due to lack of space. These boats can cost from 200 to 500k Euros, which is a pretty costly affair if you want to be floating around in Amsterdam. The low level bridges and the locks are pretty cool. I could even touch those bridges when we were going below them. There are more than 88 beautiful canals in Amsterdam, connecting the city. Outside, the phenomenal Delta project run by the government ensures that the city can run efficiently below the sea level. There are a phenomenally large number of cycles around the streets of Amsterdam, and the parking lot is extremely jam packed, with each stand holding upto 4000 bicycles. God knows how they manage to even find their cycle from the stand.

We went to Gassan diamond factory at the end of the cruise, where there was a demonstration of how they make diamonds. We got stuck there for a while and then had dinner in a Chinese restaurant nearby, before heading to the hotel. It was a glorious day with bright sunshine, temperature of about 5 degrees and a nice tour of the famous city, so all in all, a very nice day.

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