Friday, October 5, 2007

A budget traveler’s guide to surviving AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS

To say that Amsterdam is a city of contrasts is probably an understatement as everything in this capital of the Netherlands seems to have been built on an either-or principle. While Calvinism is reflected on the high church spires of the Oude Kerk, and Catholicism, on the traditional nunneries called begijnhof that dot the city, sex and drugs remain a popular fare that attracts thousands of tourists in search of earthly delights that would have been otherwise illegal in another place. The traditional seaside ambience ends where the cosmopolitan trends and the dynamic liberalism of contemporary Holland begin, something that can be easily put to test among the extremely multilingual people of the city. (I mean, I met a Dutchman who spoke to me in fluent Filipino!)

Wanna visit Amsterdam? Take a deep breath, have an open mind and greet this astonishing city with a warm “Goedemorgen.

1. Be safe. One big mistake that many tourists have about Amsterdam is the assumption that all drugs are legal in the city. Wrong. Any Dutch would tell you that the correct statement is that in Amsterdam, drugs are tolerated. Prostitution, on the other hand, is legal and sex workers enjoy the protection of the law. For example, any traveller who wishes to visit the famous De Walletjes, a.k.a. the Red-light District, should remember that taking pictures and videos of half-naked women or dancers stripping in public cubicles is strictly prohibited. The city police can whisk you off and confiscate your camera if you dare take photos or videos, so please don’t be too daring and/or piquant. Also, here abound snatchers, drug dealers and thugs, as this area is the epicentre of vices. Keep your camera, money and travel documents in a secure place and don’t be entirely mesmerized by gyrating female body parts. And if you wish to, uhmm, “take the plunge,” remember always to practice safe sex.

2. Tour. I strongly recommend doing the city tour of Amsterdam most especially if you want to see some windmills, the most enduring stereotype of Holland. The whole-day tour costs around 60 euros (reservations can be made in the tourist offices) and it includes a tour of the city, a visit to the traditional fishing villages of Marken and Volendam for the windmills and the simple life, a trip to a clogs workshop and a cheese and mustard factory, and the relaxing canal tour. The schedule is extremely hectic, yes, but if you have limited time, it’s a recommendable option. Should you have an extra day to spend in Amsterdam, you can buy the same tour, do the land travel on one day and then go for the canal tour on the next.

3. Scout. If you’re a budget traveller, the biggest letdown of Amsterdam is the price of the hotels. It’s fairly logical, as land is a limited resource in this city divided by endless rows of canals. Be prepared to shell out at least 30 euros for each person per night in a budget hotel with shared bathrooms and without elevators. Breakfast in Amsterdam, on the other hand, is almost always satisfying, with a wide array of cheeses, breads, cold cuts, fruit juices and coffee served buffet style to start your day. And about the stairs, they’re *really* steep so travelling light helps. Don’t be shocked if upon opening your hotel window, you see people from the neighbouring building doing their everyday activities (and some kinky stuff probably, if you’re lucky), with all windows wide-open and all lights brightly lit. It jives with the Dutch philosophy of not being ashamed if one thinks he is not doing anything wrong.

4. Enter. Of course, Amsterdam can be quite a wholesome family destination, artsy and cultured even, if you intend it to be like that. For art and literature lovers, the Van Gogh Museum is a must. Here you can see the most celebrated works – both painted and written – of Vincent Van Gogh and get a small glimpse of the inner torments of this genius. The Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands, is a treasure trove of Rembrandts and Vermeers. History aficionados should not forget to see the house of Ann Frank, a Jewish girl who wrote a diary about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Amstel, the birthplace and the social nucleus of modern-day Amsterdam, is also obligatory. Don’t forget to take pictures here of the Koninklijk Paleis (the Royal Palace) and the Nieuwe Kerk (the New Church). Theatre and film fanatics would have the time of the lives in the Leidsplein, and writers and intellectuals, in the many cafes in the area near the English Church. For architecture addicts, the Vondelpark, the Centraal Station (Central Train Station) and the fantastic floating flower market known as the Bloemenmarkt are required pit stops.

5. Compare. Shopping for souvenirs can be quite tricky in Amsterdam. The traditional blue-and-white Dutch ceramic called Delft can be quite expensive, so you can just opt for small pieces such as a Delft windmill (5 euros, more or less). Wooden clogs are also good souvenirs but you have to take into account that they weigh a lot. Unless you have a secret desire to wear regular-sized ones to work, just buy a small pair (about a third of a ruler or less) that sells for 5 euros, although some shop owners would try to sell it for 9 euros. Yellow is the traditional colour, although the clogs now come in different colours and designs (Read: white with black cow patches… how’s that for obvious?) If you can, try bringing home some cheese and mustard. Be adventurous and try different flavours before buying for samples are usually given for free in delicatessens. My personal favourite is the cumin-flavoured one topped with a bit of chunky mustard. Garlic and hot peppers are also two good alternatives.

Marlon's Amsterdam route (1-2 days): Just get the city tour and you'll see all you need to see. ;-)
Marlon's budget tip: Other than the tips I've just given regarding the hotel, the tour and the shopping, it's important in Amsterdam to prioritize and to really plan what you want to see. Dining out can be costly, so if you can survive by buying cheap food in groceries, do it.

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