Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Wandering Amsterdam

With canals, history, art, and architecture, Amsterdam is a great place to get lost.

By Paul Gerald

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  The train from the airport pulls into Central Station, on time as always, and a minute later the smooth quiet of the car gives way to the writhing masses of the main lobby. Thousands of people are going to and coming from hundreds of places all over Europe, places whose names flash on a hypnotizing board above your head: Rotterdam, The Hague, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Rome .

Outside, a chilly wind welcomes you to Amsterdam, and a streetcar almost runs over you. The pace of the place is immediately apparent. Bicycle riders clang their bells as they weave through the crowds, little old ladies with shopping bags threaten your elbows, cars cruise within an inch of murder -- the Dutch move so fast!

You cross the bridge and you're looking at a 17th-century city with billboards added. You can't help but think that what you're seeing is similar to what the sailors saw when they came from all over the world back in The Golden Age.

Right across the bridge, you encounter a modern-day treat Holland is known for: a french fries stand. You order up and get three options for the topping: ketchup, mayonnaise, or peanut butter sauce. Ketchup is too traditional, mayo too weird, but the peanut butter sauce is actually good. A man standing there pegs you as a visitor and tells you where you should go for some good smoked eel or pickled herring. You start to wonder about Dutch cuisine.

From this spot, roads go in half a dozen directions -- as do canals. Say "canals" to 10 people, and 9 of them will think of Venice. But Amsterdam has far more of them, and they're more a part of day-to-day life. You have numerous options for touring them, which is one of the "must-dos" in the city. You can go short or long, by day or night, with emphasis on history or architecture or bridges or houseboats. Some of the houseboats are open for tours, as well, and one of them is a hash bar.

Confronted with all the choices while munching your fries, your list of must-dos starts with walking straight ahead to The Dam. It's the main square of Amsterdam, but it also used to be what its name says it is: the place where they dammed the Amstel River. "Amstel Dam" became "Amsterdam," you see. The Amstel has since been redirected -- those hard-working Dutch -- and The Dam is the site of an enormous church where monarchs are crowned, the Royal Palace where they live, a World War II monument, and several acres of cobblestones flooded with street performers, tourists, businessmen, artists, and pigeons.

From there, just pick a direction and you'll find something worth seeing. Like Venice, Amsterdam is a great place to get lost. You might wind up in an unchanged-looking 17th-century back alley, where the smell of a circa-1743 tea and spice shop might entice you. Or you might emerge in an unknown square where a cheese market will have hundreds of specimens. Or you might find the chocolate shop of your dreams. Or you might look into a shop window and see some genuine Delft Blue pottery, which they make right up the road in, yes, Delft. Or you might find the world-famous Floating Flower Market, which is beautiful but not as waterborne as it sounds: It "floats" like the Mississippi casinos float. Or you might turn up in the Leidseplein ("LIDE-za-PLINE") and find yourself surrounded by cafes and restaurants and nightclubs and theaters -- and by good-looking young Dutch folks scurrying about from show to meal.

Dutch food, by the way, isn't too good. But since they used to sail all over the world, and used to "own" many places, Amsterdam offers the foods of the whole planet. Some of the best is Indonesian, especially the rijsttafel, or rice table. You get about 16 plates of food with that one, ranging from mild and sweet to watch-out spicy.

Along your stroll (or you can also rent a bike and join the throngs of potential pedestrian-killers), you can either wander the wonderful streets or pick a particular destination and aim for it -- and still get pleasantly lost on the way. There's the Anne Frank House, for example (get there early) and numerous churches, highlighted by the Westerkerk (West Church) and the view from its tower.

And then there's the art -- oh, my, there's art. The Rijksmuseum is the granddaddy, worth a couple days, if only for the Hall of Masters or Rembrandt's massive The Night Watch. Rembrandt's house is also open and is filled with his etchings and drawings. The Scheepvaart Museum, housed in the former headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, has models of hundreds of ships, including a tourable life-size one out in the water. The Vincent Van Gogh Museum is the permanent home of the exhibit that recently toured the U.S. to legendary lines, but the Kroller Muller Museum just outside town in a national park actually has more Van Goghs -- and a sculpture garden that winds through a forest.

It's all too much to get into a newspaper. Just go to Amsterdam. Wintertime fares from Memphis are as low as $400. Go over there and, in the absence of any other planning, get lost.

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