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If You're Not Dutch, You're Not Much

Few Cities in the world capture the imagination and interest of travellers within the first few moments of setting foot in them. One such locales is the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. I have been fortunate to visit there several times, but unfortunately, each time only for a day or two at the most. Those brief visits, however, were most memorable and I would recommend the city to anyone.

It is important to note that hotels in large European cities differ from those at home although they have the huge, north American style inns, the smaller, boutique ones are preferred, as they are less expensive and are often found in the centre of activity.

Before you book, ask a simple question: how big is the room? - I failed to do this on my last trip when booking on line. The location was great, the price was ok ($180 so I assumed I was getting a decent room), but it was quite a shock. After I checked in and walked 3 flights of stairs (thank goodness I only had a duffle bag), I found myself in a room no wider than two metres and no longer than six.

The bed, about a meter wide was against a wall. Across from it was a table, barely wide enough for a laptop, a 13 inch TV was bolted to the wall and a bathroom where it was impossible to sit, had been built in a small corner. European toilets have the tank near the ceiling, so the space where the tank normally sits, was taken up by a sink. I suppose not being able to sit was a benefit, as the back of your head would bang against the sink.

Fortunately I never spend much time in my room so off I went to explore the city. It was Sunday morning and fairly quiet. I decided I would take a boat ride through the canals. The sites were spectacular and the quaint buildings, which Amsterdam is noted for, were a treat to view.

I passed the narrowest house in the world. A mere metre in width, as well as the “Jordaan” quarter where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis during the Second World War. The water in the canals was calm and the boat floated along leisurely. It was relaxing and quite enjoyable.

Back on land I looked around and noticed a sign pointing to Amsterdam’s famed Red Light District. Although the area is now a tourist trap, it is still worth the visit.

I had an opportunity to wander through the area thirty years ago, but was cautioned against it, as it was dangerous, dirty and a haven for drug trafficking. Today, however, there are guided tours and the area is closely monitored by police. Plus it was Sunday morning and no one was around.

Although there are several streets I only walked along one, which after five minutes was enough of a sample. Small rooms, the size of a closet, were fronted with a window where the 'resident' waved to passersby. In between were video and magazine stores, restaurants and shops selling 'questionable' material.

Five minutes was enough for me, as I am sure all the streets are similar. It was entertaining and certainly not something you would see on Queen Street in Port Perry.

Amsterdam is the diamond capital of the world. The raw gems find their way to the Dutch capital where they are cut and shipped all over the planet. To see diamond cutters at work is an opportunity not to be missed. To purchase several stones… perhaps another time.

My next stop was the Rijksmuseum, the home of some of the great Masters. It is impossible to see the entire museum in a day, or a week for that matter, so hitting on the highlights is a good plan. Be sure to leave large bags or parcels behind, as you cannot enter the museum with them. There is something emotional about standing face to face with Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ as his talent humbles you. It only takes a few glances to appreciate the beauty of his art.

Walls, triple the size of a person are covered in canvasses, which come alive before your eyes. Even those who have no appreciation for the art are mesmerized by the sheer grandeur of his work.

As the day progresses the tourists come alive and the downtown district of Amsterdam begins to bustle with shoppers. The hundreds of bars, restaurants and pastry shops are open for business and I find it difficult to pass by a bakery, for you cannot beat the Dutch, when it comes to baking.

There is a lot to be said to sitting along a busy street, watching people, while enjoying an espresso and a large, flaky pastry filled with real whipped cream covered in drippy, Dutch chocolate (make sure you get some serviettes).

Europe has always been a wonderful place to visit and the Netherlands is certainly an excellent stating point, especially the port city of Amsterdam. Remember the old Dutch saying, "If you're not Dutch, you're not much."

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