Ambling Around Amsterdam

We’re taking fun birthday trips this year! Laine got to explore a real-life castle in Germany for her special day. Isaac chose a day at Delta Works in The Netherlands to celebrate his. For mine, we went to Amsterdam for a long weekend.

Amsterdam is only a few hours from Leuven by train. We rode up on Friday evening in time to check in, find dinner, and get a feel for the lay of the land. It gets dark there even later than here, so it was a great introduction to the city.

One of the first things we noticed in Amsterdam was the prevalence of the XXX symbol. In Amsterdam, it does NOT mean what you think it means. It actually kind of reminded me of the “lone stars” all over Texas. “Amsterdam’s coat of arms is pretty prevalent sight throughout the city. At its core is the ‘XXX’ symbol, which is actually three vertical St. Andrew’s Crosses, not (as some people assume) shorthand for the Red Light District. For the Amsterdam coat of arms, the three crosses are in white, atop a red shield with a black pale. St. Andrew was a fisherman who was martyred on an X-shaped cross in the 1st century AD, which is relevant to Amsterdam as the city’s symbol dates back to 1505 when it was a fishing town and all ships registered in Amsterdam flew this flag. In its most official form, the coat of arms is also decorated with the Imperial Crown of Austria and two golden lions.” Our tour guide later in the weekend told us that the crosses are supposed to indicate the 3 deadliest dangers to Old Amsterdam: fire, floods, and the Black Death. There is some dispute as to whether this is true, however, as the symbol was used by some families in 1505; before the plague hit Europe.

Our AirBnB was an incredibly beautiful space and I think it’s the best one we have had so far. We had terrific views from the balcony and the roof-top porch. We had plenty of space to spread out! The jarring part of it was opening the front door to see 35 very steep steps up to our “first” floor. Todd opted to leave the larger suitcase in the living room instead of carrying it up the next 17 steps to the bedrooms.

This was daunting when we had our suitcases!

The apartment was really beautiful. The people who live here seem to enjoy traveling the world. There were some well-worn travel books on the shelves in the library (the kind you really use, not the kind you place on a coffee table). There was some lovely art from Africa, China, and a few other places. I wish I had taken a few more photos of the place. The master bath was incredible with a good shower (which is harder to find than you’d expect), a claw-foot bathtub, and really nice sinks. The apartment was a great place to use as a home base as it was well-located and very comfortable.

View from the dining room table to the front room.

In addition to the lovely decor, they also left a chess board set up for us. Todd and Isaac played at least a half-dozen games while we stayed there. We’ll have to pull out our chess board when we return to Austin!

Todd won about half of the games…

We had a sweet little balcony on the front of the apartment which overlooked the canal. The houseboats along the side of the canal are permanent residences. It is no longer possible to get a new space allotted along the canal, so the spaces are worth far more than the houseboats themselves. No new permits will be issued by the government, so this has caused an astronomical rise in the prices.

A (living) room with a view

Once we’d had a chance to settle in, we headed out to find a dinner spot. We walked along the canal before finding a burger place which advertised they served local beers. Good news – it was not Heineken!

This was so good that I requested at every restaurant we visited. Another page I follow had recommended it and I’d completely forgotten. I just found my note to myself last week – long after we’d returned from Amsterdam.

After a restful night in the apartment, we woke up to search for a breakfast restaurant. We were seated at a very large square table. There were seats for 12, so we joined a lively group of 6 other Americans at the table. We had a fantastic chat with them and swapped notes on the fun stuff everyone had planned. They were spending a couple of weeks touring various places in Europe. Apparently they take an annual European vacation together, so we took lots of notes on where else we should visit! When we got up to leave and pay our tab, we learned that they had paid for our meals. What a lovely surprise!

The Rijksmuseum, above, and the train station are sister buildings designed by the same architect. Both are beautiful.

We left breakfast at exactly the right time to be able to catch the next boat tour along the canals. Those boat drivers are incredible! Despite remarkably tight turns and lots of traffic, everyone seems to work it out. We learned a lot from the boat tour and we all enjoyed it immensely. The kids had a separate audio tour from the adults and they had a great time learning to be “fresh water pirates.” We had a unique view of the architecture from down in the canals. It is possible to tell whether you’re in the industrial/working section of the city or the residential area based on the height of the canal walls. The lower walls are used in the industrial sections to ease the loading and unloading of boats. The higher walls in the residential sections meant there was less likely to be damage from flooding. In addition to that, we learned about the hooks on the front of each building. These hooks were used to load in/load out of the homes and warehouses as people moved their goods or furniture.

We spent a terrific afternoon at Nemo; the science museum. The bridge leading into it reminded Laine of Austin’s Pennybacker Bridge, so she was quite excited to walk across it.

My own Pennybacker!!!

There was a water clock directly inside the front door that was fascinating to watch. We saw a fantastic chain reaction that took up 2 floors! There was an area to discover how hormones impact our bodies. Another for how personal space works. A social experiment on racism…

One place where we spent a lot of time was a special demonstration about bicycles. There was a really cool display set up with all sorts of small model bicycles to coast down a conveyor ramp. Some bikes had larger front wheels or larger back wheels or long center beams. The idea was to test them to see which was the most stable. I think Isaac could have stayed there for hours watching the perpetual motion of those bikes going downhill. Meanwhile, Laine, Todd, and I drew bicycles on paper and then had the opportunity to “ride” them through the magic of technology. I think we did pretty well!

Laine loved her creation
It’s a little tricky to steer…

Once we left the “Fantastische Fietsen” area, we found a great section on our solar system. Isaac’s favorite thing about this was the demo for how Earth’s atmosphere protects us. He and several other kids ran around with shields over their heads to help deflect any meteors which might threaten our safety here on Earth.

Isaac is in the blue tee and shorts – he played for a looooong time.

We studied a bit about optical illusions and how our eyes work. We also looked at how a machine can use “eyes” to sort items through another great demo. Laine used different colored balls to load a truck with items which had to placed by color to simulate how machines can do this.

She wanted to squash him like a bug.

As we were preparing to exit the building to find the penultimate Women’s World Cup game, we came across the giant bubbles, so we had to try one last experiment before we left for the evening.

Isaac in a bubble
Laine in a bubble!

We found a small bar where we were able to watch the soccer match between Sweden and England. The bartender warned us that the screen was small, but Isaac and I were happy to watch, all the same.

Focused on the game

That night we had another fantastic dinner at a nearby restaurant. The kids were toast by the time we finished, so we put them to bed and enjoyed the late-night sunset (around 11:00 p.m.) without them.

Sunset view of the moon from our balcony. You can also see the hooks along the top of the building that allow you to move things in and out without carrying them up or down the stairs.

On our last day in Amsterdam, we toured the Van Gogh Museum. They offered a search mission for the kids and our kids had a lot of fun trying to find all of the items and solve all of the quizzes. It made the art museum a bit more engaging for the kids and Todd. I could have stayed for another hour, so I was plenty engaged! The kids earned prizes – a postcard of their favorite piece of Van Gogh’s artwork. One of the cleverest ideas in the museum was a touchable replica of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. One of the original versions of Sunflowers is on display in the museum, but there are others around the globe. The special exhibit compared the differences among the 4 masterpieces of the same name. But it was made more meaningful to the kids as they could feel it first. And because I’ve never been allowed to touch the art in an art museum, I also thought it was amazing!

As we left the museum, we stopped in the nearby plaza for stroopwafels! They were so delicious. They are remarkably thin waffles. Once they have finished baking on the special griddle, they are sliced in half across the width. A caramel syrup is spread around the middle of the waffle and then the top is placed back on it. Laine and I are fans!

Waffles bigger than our heads! No, we did NOT eat them all.

Our final major adventure in Amsterdam was watching the US Women’s National Team beat The Netherlands in the Women’s World Cup (soccer) finals. It was a great game and US team made us proud. We clapped little golf claps so as not to be rude to all the other people in the restaurant. But we were all pretty giddy walking down the street afterwards!

Our last day in Amsterdam, Todd had to fly back to Austin for a work trip. The kids and I packed the enormous suitcase and our backpacks before making our way back to the train station. I made the kids wait at the top of the staircase while I carried the bag down because I was afraid that if I tripped and let go of the bag they’d be seriously injured. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried as we all made it down safe and sound without leaving a suitcase-sized hole in the front door. We caught the trains back to Leuven without incident and got Belgian waffles to celebrate my birthday.

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