(Amster)Dam Awesome! We just returned from three pretty perfect days in Amsterdam, taking full advantage of the many long weekends on our kids’ May school calendar (thanks, Catholics!). So… Amsterdam. What a beautiful and cool city. The big surprise to me was that – against the odds – we caught the tulips blooming. Normally, they are past their peak by May, and in fact were on track to bloom early, given the mild winter. However, the cold snap in April that hit the U.S. also hit Europe, delaying the blooms just for us. Combined with the spectacular weather and the festive “Liberation Day” atmosphere, the whole vibe of the city was laid-back and fun-loving. Boats of all sizes cruised the canals, with happy people drinking wine, nibbling yummy-looking snacks, and just generally having a good time.
Due to the late breaking news of the tulip timing, I scurried to make room for the famed Keukenhof Gardens on our itinerary. They are only open less than two months of the year, and it’s very difficult to plan a trip to coincide with the tulips, given their relative unpredictability… so we practically had no choice but to go! The gardens were indeed gorgeous, albeit insanely crowded. Normally, I’d plan to go the minute they open in the morning or toward the end of the day, but it just didn’t work out that way. In spite of the hordes, we enjoyed it. My favorite part was catching some glimpses of the actual tulip fields – breathtaking. Most of them had already been cultivated or “headed” by now, and I really would have loved to rent bikes to tool around the surrounding countryside or kayaks to get some views from the canals, but that just didn’t happen. This was still pretty awesome!
Before Keukenhof, we visited to the Anne Frank House, where Anne, her family and several others hid for two years in a small annex of a factory before being discovered and sent to concentration camps. They were hardly the exception, but the legacy of Anne’s diary allows people to get a sense of what that terrifying time was like. I was shocked to be reminded that 78% of Amsterdam’s Jewish population was murdered. Seventy-eight percent.
The Anne Frank House has been grappling with how to deal with a huge uptick in the number of visitors in recent years. In my humble opinion, they have not found the best system yet. As of this month, they are experimenting with only allowing in holders of pre-purchased tickets prior to 3:30pm. We saw people lining up at 9:30am – did they really wait in line for six hours?!? With pre-purchased tickets, we had an excellent visit. It’s very well done – better than I remembered (I’d been once when I was 12 and again as an adult 17 years ago. I had been reading The Diary of Anne Frank aloud to the boys but (I’m embarrassed to admit) hadn’t gotten more than halfway (best laid plans). However, even only having gotten that far, they were very engaged in the museum and found it moving and interesting. I then purchased them the very well-done graphic version, which they tore through. Combined with having seen the movie Return to the Hiding Place, a similar story from the perspective of the Resistance, the boys had at least a sense of the experience of being occupied by Nazi Germany.
Having had a fun time renting bikes back in Barcelona, we decided Amsterdam was a great place to do this again. It was awesome being able to get around the way most Amsterdammers do, despite my fear of being yelled at by the locals for any klutzy moves (only once! Woohoo!). Our first stop after renting the bikes was the fantastic Dutch Resistance Museum. The “Junior Museum” within it, which the boys LOVED and got so much out of, follows four real children: one who “adapted” to German occupation, one who “collaborated” (joined the Nazi Youth Group), one whose family was part of the resistance, and one who was Jewish and had to go into hiding. Fritz (12 years old) and I were both particularly struck by hearing the perspective of the collaborator. At the end, there were interviews with all four as adults. So interesting.
As we had done the day before, we sought to do something fun and nature-y as a counterpoint to the heavy subject of the morning activity, so after a delicious pancake lunch, we hopped on our bikes and took off in search of Woeste Westen. This is a cool nature play area I’d heard about that would be unlikely to exist in the U.S. – sort of a Huck Finn meets boy/girl scouts, with a smidge of Lord of the Flies thrown in. They loved it. There were random “kinder” groups roasting dough-boys on the fire to put hot dogs in… right next to a working bee hive.
The addition of Keukenhof to our earlier schedule meant moving both of the major art museums to the same day – not normally something I’d plan to do, but honestly, the way the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum handle kids made both visits really enjoyable for all of us. In between, we took a picnic to Vondelpark, the biggest park in Amsterdam. It really felt like summer had started!
The Van Gogh Museum, completely renovated in 2012, seeks to impart a deeper understanding of the genius. Amongst magnificent paintings by Van Gogh himself are displays of letters between him and his beloved brother Theo, works of art by those who inspired Vincent, and even the actual objects he painted in front of the paintings of those objects. The kids embraced their “treasure hunt” and proudly accepted their hard-earned postcard of their choice when they turned it in to the front desk. (NB: after the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum is the second most important place to pre-purchase tickets during high tourist season.)
The Rijksmuseum is one of those “must sees” – one of the “best” art museums in Europe, featuring the Old Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. Unfortunately, that style is not exaaaactly our taste. Cue the Rijksmuseum’s awesome “Family Quest” to the rescue! We had so much fun doing this together; it’s so well done. Each of us had a device. The app then led us to various places around the museum and instructed us (individually or as a team) to solve various puzzles. It took an hour to complete, brought us to corners of the museum we would otherwise not have visited and really made this a fun visit. And yes… educational too!
After returning our bikes and relaxing in our rented apartment-on-a-canal (HomeAway this time) for a nice respite, we went out for a fantastic Indonesian meal – the famed Rijsttafel. Sooooo good. Seriously, not one thing we didn’t like. Really, a good metaphor for our whole visit to Amsterdam. PapaHatch and I agreed that this is a city we could spend a lot more time in.