5 Dagen in de Nederland: Land of Polders and Windmills (Part 1)

Hallo, goede dag iedereen!

About three months ago, I went for my third overseas excursion this year. It already feels like I’ve gone for a world tour for the past four months since 2015 started! This time, it was even more special, because this family vacation to the Netherlands mark my first touchdown to Western and Northern Europe. Prior to this, the only European destinations I have had the honour to visit were Istanbul and Cyprus, with the latter being an island geographically closer to the Middle East than Europe. Therefore, the Netherlands is unlike any other country I’ve been to in terms of architecture, atmosphere and natural landscape. It feels very European in character, but the society is also very multicultural and globalised, especially in Amsterdam. This made me feel more at home, plus I did not feel like I stand out as a tourist as much as other places, even though there were probably hundereds of tourists roaming around the city like I did.

This trip lasted about 5 days and stayed over there for 4 nights in Amsterdam, the “capital” of the country (The Hague is the official political capital). Originally, the plan was to visit Belgium as well, but we cancelled it because it turned out that day-tours to Brussels did not take place on Sunday, the day we planned to visit there. There was a trip to Bruges, but although it is a beautiful medieval city with gorgeous canals, we decided it was too much like Amsterdam and other Dutch cities (which also have a lot of canals).

Due to the richness and wealth of attractions seen throughout the trip, I have again divided this travel article into three parts. The first part will deal with Day 0 and Day 1, the second part with Day 2 only and the rest for part 3. The format of the post will mirror the way I presented my holiday in Antalya.

DAY 0 – Thursday, 9th of April

8:00 – Starting point: Cairo International Airport

We head off for the airport in the morning. Our flight was on Egyptair which meant that it was a simple, no-nonsense, direct flight from Cairo to Amsterdam. The seats were comfortable and the service was good, I have nothing to complain about. Before the plane ascended above stratosphere, I was able to snap a few photos of Egypt from the heavens above. Similarly, before landing, I took a few photos of the Netherlands from the plane window but it came out too blurry.

Some aerial shots of Cairo’s urban zone

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16:50 – Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

Post 4After less than 5 hours of flying, we finally arrived to our destination. I expected entry to be a piece of cake, and it was! The immigration was hassle-free and our large family was greeted by kind Dutch officer who stamped our passports. It really gave me a good impression of how the people here are like. We soon picked up our bags and stepped out to the main hall where passengers enter and leave the airport. Apparently the airport doubles as a train station situatued right underneath. There are many signboards that show train routes to different parts of the country!

We needed to get to an Amsterdam suburb called Delflandlaan, where our hotel is located. The fastest way of getting there is via fast train service called ‘Sprinter’, which stops at Amsterdam Leylaan station in the Slotervaart neighbourhood. My father has been to the Netherlands many times before, so he knew how the ticketing system works and everything. We boarded the train and arrived in Leylaan after 7 minutes (it was really fast, almost like a bullet train…). Unfortunately Leylaan was not as close to the hotel as we hoped. We had to drag our heavy bags for more than 15 minutes while dodging speedy cyclists on the way.

8:00 – Best Western Premier Hotel Couture

Courtesy of Orbitz.com

Frankly I thought that we would get lost as we walked around in this city, of which I knew hardly about in terms of geography. I hardly did any prior research about Amsterdam and locations of their attractions. We finally saw a tall, cuboid structure standing beside the junction labelled: Best Western Premier Hotel Couture, our place of residence for the next five nights. The hotel is located in a very strategic spot; there is a tram and bus stations right outside of the hotel, linking it directly to the city centre and the neighbouring suburbs. This proved to be a valuable asset as we mostly depended on the trams for most of our travels in Amsterdam.

Courtesy of Orbitz.com

The 4-star hotel is has all the modern amneties for a traveller. I stayed in a room just like the one you see right here. The downside to this room was that it was actually rather small and the furniture took most of the space in the room. I had to share the room with two other brothers and the room was meant only for two, so I found it a little tough to sleep comfortably. On the plus side, I enjoyed the wondorous selection of free teas and coffees, complete with a Nespresso machine which conveniently brews tasty coffee from the small packets provided. The TV has a wide array of channels from all over the world. I especially liked Veronica, which is a channel that air American sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory.

8:00 – Delflandlaan residential areas

I found it slightly strange that despite it being 8 o’clock in the evening, it was still daytime. Back in Malaysia, 8 o’clock is already pitch black dark. Anyway everyone is hungry for something to eat since arriving to the hotel, and so we scouted to find a halal restaurant. Amsterdam is a very multicultural city with a very large immigrant population from Africa, the Carribean, the Middle East and East Asia. It is partly a legacy of the Dutch colonial empire and the post-war labour shortage to rebuild the nation. It comes to no surprise to me when I see a lot of typically non-European-looking people in the neighbourhoods yet conversing in the Dutch language. Because of this multicultural environment, I felt safe and at home, because I know that looking different from others is something normal.

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Delflandlaan is a testament of this harmonious blend of multiculturalism in Dutch society. As we found ourselves in the residential area, we saw a Chinese restaurant and a Turkish restaurant operating side by side, attracting lots of different customers. In the same area there are three supermarkets named Action, Albert Heijn and Lidl (a German chain). It seems that most residents here live in flats and ride bikes to and from work, noticing that many bikes are chained at the entrances of the buildings there. There is a playground in the space between the buildings, but since it was almost dark, no one was out playing anyway.

post 6 As I said mentioned, there is a Turkish restaurant called Efem. Turkish restaurants are ubiquitious in both the Netherlands and Germany, because many Turks migrated to both during the 1950s and 1960s as “gastarbeiders” or “guest workers”. However despite its name denoting a temporary residence, many of them ended up staying permanently in the country and adopting Dutch nationality. According to recent statistics, more than five percent of Amsterdamers are of Turkish descent. Nowadays, immigrant communities like to keep in touch with their religious observances, which brings halal restaurants into the picture.

When ordering the food, I noticed that the menu is not exactly similar to what I would find in a Turkish restaurant in Turkey. Most Turkish restaurants in the Netherlands serve fast-food, and so offerings such as döner kebabs and frietjes (fries) are popular. I can’t remember seeing Turkish classic dishes like Iskender kebab on the Efem menu. What I do remember is that the restaurants offer kebab dishes in different forms, whether to be served wrapped up in pita bread, or to be placed in a sandwich roll (broodje), or with rice. The difference comes in their names. Previously I thought shawarmas and doner kebabs are the same thing, just one is in Arabic and the other in Turkish, but both are offered on the Dutch-Turkish restaurant menu (what made them different is the bread used). I saw a truly unique Dutch style of serving kebab called “kapsalon” (literally meaning “hair salon”) and it was a serving of kebab tossed in a heavy serving of salad.

We ordered a mixed grill set of chicken, beef and lamb cuts in skewers, paired with salads and rice, for dinner. While waiting for the food, my dad bought food for breakfast in Albert Heijn for breakfast tomorrow (apparently he went to book rooms in the hotel without the breakfast package). I have to say that I was pretty impressed with the taste, it was quite authentic. I have always been a fan of Turkish cuisine since my last visits to Turkey and this restaurant did not disappoint.

DAY 1 – Friday, 10th of April

10:00 – Museumplein and the Rijksmuseum

For my first round of touring in the Netherlands, my family and I took a  tram right in the centre of Amsterdam for the largest, most important museum in the country: the Rijksmuseum (State Museum). Upon arriving in the tram station “Rijksmuseum”, we walked to the square situated right in front of the grand building. The area is called Museumplein because there are two other museums located nearby: the Van Gogh and Stedelijk Museums. We did not visit either of these museums because of lack of time (plus Van Gogh had a long queue of tourists anyway). In the area there is this really big letter-sculpture spelling out “iamsterdam” which is, I suppose, Amsterdam’s tagline for attracting tourists. I mean, look at how many people climbing on it just to take photos and selfies! We took a family photo in front of the sign, but lots of random people were in it and decided it wasn’t really good enough to post here.

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10:30 – Inside the Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum is the largest, most extensive museum I have ever set foot in. It was so big, we only covered about less than 20% of the museum’s total area. I am not much of an art fan, but I do appreciate works of art like portrait paintings, especially the most realistic-looking ones. They fascinate me because the painters must be extremely skilled to paint people as if they are taking photographs of them. The Golden Period of Dutch art has many of these types of realistic paintings and portraits of people, scenes in homes, the outdoors and even food! My God, the food paintings are among my favourite because they make my mouth water just by admiring it 😛 Anyway the Rijks houses not only paintings but also sculptures, furniture and chinaware representative of different periods of Dutch history. The museum’s exhibits are more about art than anything else, but you can also learn a lot about history from the explanations given near each painting.

Some of my favourite collections and paintings

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Portraits of Emperor Napoleon I (left) and King Louis Bonaparte of Holland (right)

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Clockwise, from top left corner, a Van Gogh painting, Van Gogh’s self portrait, still life food painting with cheese, the Milk Maid by Johannes Vermeer, the Night Watch by Rembrandt and a collection of antique Delftware.

1:45 – Jumu’ah (Friday) Prayer in De Blauwe Moskee, Ottho Heldringstraat

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Even when in a country as foreign to me as the Netherlands, I like to remind myself that as a Muslim, I need to fulfill my religious obligations. After a whole morning touring the Rijksmuseum in the centre of the city, it was nearly time for the afternoon prayers. On Fridays, the prayers different because it must be done in a mosque with a sermon. To find a mosque, we had to return to the neighbourhoods first by tram. This is because if mosques were to be found, it would be there because most of the immigrant Arab and Turkish communities would live there, not the city centre. Sure enough, after a fair bit of walking, we found a mosque called De Blauwe Moskee, or the Blue Mosque. The congregation is made up mostly of the Dutch-Arab residents living nearby. I thought I was pretty lucky to have arrived just in time for the sermon, which just begun. The sermon was delivered in two parts: the first part in Arabic, which I understood because I learned Arabic in school, and the second in Dutch, which I understood a little only because of its occasional similarity with English and German. After prayers, we had lunch in a different Turkish restaurant, this time in a neighbourhood called Johan Huizingalaan before returning to the city centre.

4:30 – Canal Cruise around Amsterdam’s Historical Districts

No visit to the Dutch capital is complete without a tour of its wondrous waterways: the Amsterdam canals! Dating back since the Dutch Golden Age of the 1700s, the complex canal system was an essential lifeline for the city’s trade and manufacturing industries. Ships and boats carrying goods would bring them directly to the many warehouses and shops. Without canals, Amsterdam would have never blossomed into one of the most important centres of business and finance in the world today! Amsterdam’s historical city centre is regarded to be the area called the Canal Ring district. It contains three large, important canals called the Herengracht, Keisersgracht and Prinsengracht. Here, the views of the city are picturesque and serene, with many beautiful buildings and bridges in sight.

post 15The trip starts off in Damrak, in plain view of Amsterdam-Centraal Train Station. Here, boats for canal tours are docked and leave every one hour or so for circular tours of the canals. After having lunch, we all came here and bought tickets for the boat.

post 16Not long after setting off; here is a view of Amsterdam-Centraal train station from the canal.

post 17 Medium-sized boats dock along the larger canals. Many Dutch people own boats like these and sail them for recreation.

Post 18 This is my poor attempt at capturing “the Seven Bridges of Reguliersgracht”, said to be one of the most iconic canal views of the city. Post 19

The black metallic structure in the photo is one of the Amsterdam’s draw-bridges and opens up to allow larger boats to pass through.

post 20Buildings along the Herengracht and Keisersgracht are typically four-storeys high, and in the past, functioned as offices, warehouses, shops and residences of merchants that bring the goods and ship them via canals.

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Nowadays, these buildings are either residences of very wealthy Amsterdamers, or have been converted into other uses fitting for its city-centre location, such as offices, hotels, boutique shops, cafes and museums.

5:40 – The IJ Lake and Return to the City Centre

The trip on the boat is a circular trip which brings us also out of the historical city centre to see the more modern side of Amsterdam along its waterfront, the IJ lake. Formerly a shallow bay, it was turned into a freshwater lake due to being cut off by land reclamation projects in North Holland, leading to Amsterdam being landlocked! A canal had to be dug to maintain Amsterdam’s port and link it with the North Sea. As a result, more trade flows into the port of Rotterdam, which had previously gained the title of the world’s busiest sea-port.

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On the other side of the IJ is the district of Overhoeks, in Amsterdam-Noord, where many offices are located inside modern-style buildings. Shell’s office in Amsterdam is located here. The eccentric-looking white structure is the EYE Netherlands Film Institute.

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Amsterdam-Noord is the borough of the city that is across the IJ separating it from Central Amsterdam. Here there are few historical attractions to entertain tourists, so I did not visit it.
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This cubical structure is the “Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ” or “Music Building on the IJ”, a concert hall for for contemporary classical music located above the IJtunnel. Attached to it is the Bimhuis, a concert hall for jazz music. Behind the concert hall is the Amsterdam Mövenpick Hotel building, also sporting a similar cubical design.
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This is a bridge to enter the Oosterdok, a large canal that will lead back to Damrak, where we departed earlier.
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Not far from the train station stands the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, a neo-Baroque-and-neo-Rennaissance-style Roman Catholic church which was part of Amsterdam’s old city walls.
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Flags flutter over the NH Barbizon Palace Hotel, a luxurious five star hotel was created from several monumental old town houses.
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The canal tour is over! Here are some town houses in Damrak.

6:45 – Dam Square and Koninklijk Paleis

post 28Dam Square is Amsterdam’s town square, no doubt one of the most prominentlocations in the country. Over here sits the Koninklijk Paleis, or the Royal Palace of the Dutch royalty in Amsterdam. While it is not their usual place of residence (His Majesty King Willem-Alexander and his family lives in Den Haag) it is still used for certain significant events, such as marriages. Another landmark is the National Monument of the Dam, a white pillar built as a memorial to WWII casualties. Over here, we took photographs as a family with the palace in the background. The atmosphere was lively there, with many tourists doing the exact same thing we were doing. We were all pretty tired from the whole tour thing, so we went to have dinner at last in an Arab restaurant in Damrak, where I tucked into a plate of chicken schnitzel for the first time. It was a rather underwheming experience, because I didn’t expect it to actually be just breadcrumb-coated fried chicken cutlet (the German name made it sound so fancy for some reason). After our meal, we returned to the hotel and rested after a long but satisfying day.

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