Wednesday 8 January 2014

Abigail's Adventures in Amsterdam (Day 1)

There's a very long and dramatic backstory detailing the whys of the issue, but needless to say, all you have to know is this: I took the coach to Amsterdam, and I have never been more grateful for my ability to sleep on any kind of transportation than on that ride. It doesn't seem like much of a gift compared to your usual fairy-tale standards of beauty, grace and musical talent, but gosh does it come in handy when you've got to move from coach to boat to coach in the middle of the night over a 12 hour ride. 

This being my first solo epic coach journey, I was very kindly taken under the wing of an elderly gentleman who pointed out where all the power plugs were, and who encouraged me to stretch my legs while we were on the ferry so I wouldn't die of deep vein thrombosis. In turn, I shared the two back to back episodes of Sherlock I got from BBC iPlayer. We were great coach buddies. He alighted the stop before I did, and we both exchanged pleasantries as he left.  After he left, the coach got stuck in a massive jam, so when we got to Amsterdam, we were over an hour behind schedule.

The thing about Google Maps is that it doesn't tell you anything about the terrain of the route they're sending you on, so it's a good thing that I was well-rested by the time the coach pulled in to Amsterdam's Eurolines station, if not I doubt I'd have made it through the uphill-downhill slopes that seemed like every canal along Amstel. 

When I finally made it to the apartment I was sharing with the girls 40 minutes later, I was wildly impressed with GW's find. Apart from all the clean lines and open space, the location was perfect. The penthouse was right smack in the heart of the city, with amazing views from the floor to ceiling windows. After dumping my bags in the living room, I went to take a much-needed shower, which was when I found the only flaw of the place: the walls of the shower cubicle were clear glass tiles. We ended up dubbing it The Naked Shower, and made sure to call out when we were in there so everyone else knew to steer clear.

After taking the necessary time for the three of us to fix our hair and makeup, we set off for brunch at one of the cafes our host had recommended in the massive folder of information he'd left for us. IZV got her map out, and going along the canal, Café de Jaren was a mere five minute walk away from the apartment. Since it was cold out, we didn't venture to the terrace overlooking the canal, instead opting for a cozy corner tucked near the entrance. 

The café had been recommended for the quality of the food served, and we weren't disappointed with our selection of sandwiches. GW had the Smoked Salmon, IZV had the Beef Carpaccio with Parmesan and Rocket, I had the Meatballs with Pickles and Mustard, and we also got the Mature Organic Beemster Cheese to share. Ended up stealing a bit of the Beef Carpaccio, which was paper thin but flavourful, and breaking off bits of the nutty, creamy cheese to fold into my own sandwich between the hot meatballs and the piquant pickles. When BA turned up with his friend SB in tow to join us for brunch, it was a bit of a squeeze at our small table, but somehow we managed to stack the plates and cups so everyone had space.

Most guidebooks will tell you to make the most of Amsterdam's many excellent public transport links, or to grab a bike and join the hoards of cyclists criss-crossing at every intersection, but the best way to go around the city in my opinion is to walk it. Most of the major sights are concentrated within a half-hour walking zone, and on foot you get to linger more over the sights, press your face against the windows of the many quirky boutique stores scattered all over and take in the rather artful graffiti and other things of interest that get passed over if you're whizzing by. Of course, you're also in constant fear of getting run over by a bicycle, but being in sustained close proximity to possible sudden-death is part of the fun as well.

A missed connection with SF, who was also in town, led us to meander slowly towards the Heineken Experience, located at a former Heineken brewery on the Stadhouderskade. He'd been quite excited to go, so we figured he'd eventually make his way there after his morning trip to one of Amsterdam's many museums, and we'd find each other eventually. (It's astounding how optimistic we can get while on holiday) 

As it happened, our guess was right, and as we were getting our belongings hung up in the coat room SF magically materialized behind us. Turns out, while we had been sauntering down the streets and popping in and out of bakeries and pastry stores, he'd made a beeline for Heineken and had already been hanging around for the past half hour, obviously having a ball. The rest of us got our tickets and wristbands (Quietly bemoaning the lack of a student discount), and went in. We were also joined by SB's friend, an Amsterdam native, who'd already been on the tour a few times but didn't mind tagging along. 

At the end of the Heineken Experience, even if you hadn't been much of a beer drinker before, you're going to emerge primed to see the Heineken logo everywhere, and prone to shouting "Premium quality lager!" every time you do (Case in point: GW). If this doesn't happen to you, then congratulations, you're far less susceptible than we were to two hours of intensive propaganda. Alternatively, this is where we offer our condolences that you didn't have as much fun as we did. 

Some people get excited for the first part of the tour, which painstakingly detailed the history of Heineken from the lives of its founders to the evolution of the Heineken bottle. Some of the items on display were quite cool, like the vintage posters and the silver trowel used for the ground-breaking ceremony for one of their breweries. However, it wasn't till we got to the old stills and saw the cooking of barley in action that the tour really came alive for us. We tried some Wort, which was like drinking bread and not as awful as they made it out to be, then cooed over the glossy black horses in the stables on our way to the next part of the tour. 

The whole point of the 4D adventure The Brew You Ride is to let visitors understand what it's like to be the barley that becomes the beer, so we went in with open minds. In the end though, apart from the one person who emerged chanting "I am the beer, the beer is me.", the rest of us weren't able to achieve the same out-of-body transcendental experience, though not for lack of trying on the ride's part. There was a fair bit of the ground shaking beneath our feet and in the second row, IZV and I were in the direct line of fire of the water nozzle that went off every time there was a splash. 

Right after the ride, we were ushered into the next room, where everyone received a mini glass of beer for our crash course on how to best enjoy your Heineken. Apparently the trick is to tilt your head back and take a proper gulp of beer instead of sipping at the hoppy foam head. That way, you get the sweetness of the lager instead of just the bitterness, and enough of the foam is left behind to prevent the rest of the beer from oxidizing. 

We were also taught the importance of the bubbles in giving Heineken beers their crisp, refreshing taste. Everyone learnt something new, and after the requisite admiring of colours and sniffing for aromas, we got to down the beers the right way.  

The rest of the tour was full of interactive displays including this one where you could pull a digital pint. IZV tried her hand at it, and got enough practice to be able to pull a perfect pint of real Heineken later on. There was also a DJ booth that played rather like Rock Band/Guitar Hero, picture booths where you could email yourself the end product and a whole load of other activities. 

We'd already spent almost two hours inside at this point, and somewhere along the way we lost the boys in the UEFA room, where they'd been side-tracked by the Xboxes while we played foosball. Eventually, we all ended up watching old Heineken ads from some fangly space-age chairs, which was probably when most of the indoctrination occurred. I wobbled off the chair after five back to back advertisements, utterly convinced I wanted to be invited to a Heineken party. It was crazy stuff. 

At the end, there was a bar where we exchanged the buttons on our wristbands for drinks. BA got a glass of the Extra Cold, which cost him all his buttons, while the rest of us used ours a bit more wisely and drank two glasses of perfectly chilled Heineken instead. On our wristbands we had one more token with which to collect our free gift, but when we finally staggered out of the building we'd missed the free ferry to the store, and it was time for dinner. 

SB's friend didn't know where we could have pannekoeken (Dutch Pancakes) for dinner, because it turns out, if you're from Amsterdam you make them at home. He asked a passing street cleaner if he knew where a good pannekoeken restaurant was, and that guy had no clue either ("Don't you make those at home?"). So, we ended up cheese or spinach pie for dinner at a café that smelled heavily of oily goodness just off Rembrandt Square. 

It was a pretty good, flaky pie which I split with GW. Her half didn't have as much cheese as mine, so I gave her more of the Belgian waffle drowned in Nutella that we'd also ordered, while the rest had pistachio baklavas. 

Our post-dinner wander took us up to Dam Square and the remnants of the Christmas Markets, and IZV got a chocolate coated stroopwafel that was almost the size of my face from one of the stalls. Jet lag meant that I established a pattern of sleeping by 10.30pm, so I missed out entirely on Amsterdam's nightlife the whole time I was there, but the bed was gloriously comfortable so I didn't really mind. 

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