7 June 2012. After my first night on tour, I was excited to get going with the rest of the group. The plan for the day was to visit a sleepy little town called Edam, which is just outside Amsterdam. We were going to do a bike ride through the town, visit a cheese and clog making factory with a really authentic name – Cheese & Clogs (or as I found out when we got there, Irene Hoeve) – and then head into town for our free day in Amsterdam.
After Steve drove us to Edam, we took a short stroll through part of the town, which seemed to be well maintained and gorgeous, but I could not see a single soul. It seemed as if we were the only people there; where were all the locals? For a few moments I thought I was dreaming or that it was some kind of museum where you can’t expect real people to step out of a shop or walking along a canal. It was very strange to me because it wasn’t that early in the morning (it was just before 9), so its not like people would be sleeping. I’d understand that the shopkeepers would obviously be in their shops, but how can there not be a single customer wandering about the town?
Anyway, I decided to ignore the loneliness of the place and just enjoy the beauty. It was a perfect blend of civilization with nature, because even though there were beautiful buildings everywhere, they did not mess with the natural beauty around it. The peace and quiet of the town was calming, and I loved being there and breathing in the crisp, fresh air.
We soon got to the little “hut”, if you could call it that, where the bikes were kept. We were all slightly nervous and reluctant as we were told that the bikes that we were supposed to ride were the “granny bikes”, i.e.: ones that don’t have brakes. You have to pedal backwards to brake. Great. As it is, I hadn’t ridden a bike for more than 10 years, now I’m supposed to remember how to balance as well as whether I’d be riding to my death by forgetting to pedal backwards.
There were 3 sizes – small, medium and large. I knew that I’d definitely go for the medium one, but the one I tried wasn’t quite right. It was a little tall for me and I could not keep either foot on the ground without leaning the bike over. It wasn’t comfortable and I knew it would be a disaster. So I thought I’d try one of the small ones. Bad idea – those were probably made for 8 year olds because without even pedalling, my knee practically got lodged onto the handle bar. Um, no. If the medium was slightly too big, and the small was for midgets, there’s no way in hell I could try the large. I decided I would have to go with the uncomfortable medium. Shit, this was going to be tragic, but I knew the only way I might get away with it was if I kept away from the rest of the group and if I kept pedalling. Once I could get both my feet off the ground, it should be fine. At least, that was my theory.
It took a while before I could even test my theory because I just couldn’t get going on that damn thing. I was more concerned about being able to stop than actually going, and at one point I had an epic fail moment when I had a double lane road in front of me, but I veered myself right into a light pole. Seriously, how lame could I be. I also almost knocked into a man, who even thought I was shouting at, did not even seem to hear me. I literally stopped just centimetres behind him. How embarrassing would that have been, especially having to attempt to apologise in Dutch. I’m sure I could have gotten away with Afrikaans, but I’m glad that encounter was avoided altogether. Driver Steve was riding near me (by this time the entire group had left me behind and I was playing catch up) so he found it very amusing that I almost crashed into someone. Thanks Steve.
Once I got into it, I was pedalling away and the faster I went, the better it got. The handle bars weren’t very steady so I couldn’t just keep my hands straight and expect the bike to go straight, so that was the only challenge, but it wasn’t a big deal. At least I wasn’t about to crash into anyone or anything. I knew that there was someone behind me too, other than Steve, but I had no idea who, so I felt much better not being the last one! As I was riding I had a good chance to admire the town of Edam even more. It was one of the cleanest places I had ever seen, and the green was amazing.
I eventually caught up with the group, who by now were standing on top of a small hill overlooking a canal with a large wooden gate, and a gatehouse with a sole gatekeeper standing in it, on the opposite side. There was a makeshift parking lot, created by the group, at the bottom of the hill. The guide told us a bit about the way the gate operates, and how all the gatekeeper does is walk back and forth looking for boats that need to pass through, as well as monitor the level of the water. As I stood there I decided that I was going to be one of the first people on the bike, and I was going to ride ahead, away from everyone else, so that I could both keep up with the guide, and keep a good speed without worrying about trying to steer away from a slower rider in front of me.
The next stop was a large windmill, which was now converted into a house. Most of the original windmills are not used as they were originally intended anymore, and those that are run by volunteers. It was a great opportunity to take a group photo. We gave the guide and driver Steve our camera (at least 10), and they had turns taking the photos. It was only then did we realize how big our group of 51 really was.
After the picture it was time to head back the same way we came in order to give our bikes back. We then headed back to the bus for the short drive to Cheese & Clogs in Katwoude, a place famous for their gouda cheese. As soon as we walked in we were greeted with a room full of clogs, not only on the shelves, but on the ceiling as well. All, we were told, we handmade and hand painted. We made our way into a mini workshop where a local guy gave us a demonstration on clog making. Apparently it takes a whopping 5 years to become a master clog maker, and you qualify when you can make yourself a pair.
We were then allowed to look around the shop and grab some souvenirs. Some of us tried on clogs (one girl even bought herself a pair, though I didn’t know how she was going to lug it around for the rest of the tour) while the rest of us went into the main gift shop in order to sample some cheese, wine, and stroopwafels. The cheese was amazingly creamy, nothing like the nonsense we get back in South Africa. It tasted like a combination of cream cheese and gouda, not just gouda alone. My favourite was the smoked pepper flavour, which was odd because I don’t usually like pepper, but it was so subtle in this case that it was heavenly. The sweet red wine that we were given was a perfect match for the cheese as well, and I made sure I finished it before I could have the little bite sized portion of stroopwafel, which was more delicious than I could have imagined. I knew this was a touristy shop, however, and I wasn’t about to pay €6.50 for a pack of 10. My plan was to find a grocery store and pick up a packet there as one of the dumbest things you can do is buy things like that in shops that the tour takes you on. That is, if you know you’ll be given the opportunity to venture out on your own. I did however pick up a little clogs key ring and a windmill snow dome, which I thought were quite cheap. I was desperate to buy some cheese, but I was reluctant as the packs were too big, and it was still the beginning of my tour and the last thing I wanted was to have cheese that had gone off in my bag. I took this opportunity to sneak in another piece or 2 of the smoked pepper flavour from the sample basket. Sigh, that was good.
After everyone was done with their shopping it was time to head into town for our free day. At one point Steve had to stop at an unusual spot as some boom gate type barriers came down to block the road. We then saw that it was because the road had to be raised in order to let a boat through. Fascinating!
I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do when I got into town, but I did want to try to see Anne Frank’s house and visit the Van Gogh Museum as he is one of my favourite artists ever since I was a kid.
Alex and some of the Australian girls (I think it was Felicia, Shauna and Kelsey) and I decided to head off together as we all wanted to see Anne Frank’s house. We realized that we’d need to take a tram to get closer as we were quite far from it. After locating the number 2 tram on the tram map, we looked around to find a stop. When we saw the tram passing us on the way to the stop, we literally ran behind it, laughing at ourselves for being typical tourists. When we got to Anne Frank’s house, we were put off after seeing the length of the queue and decided it would be a waste of valuable time to stand in it.
After discussing some alternatives, we thought of walking around the city a bit more and perhaps heading to the flower market where I was hoping I could pick up some tulips. On our way there, we came across a magnificent shopping mall that looked nothing like the shopping malls in SA. It was also directly across from Madam Tussaud’s (no, London’s Madam Tussaud’s is not the only one in the world). The Australian girls decided they wanted to check out the mall, so Alex and I were left to wander on our own. We both decided to head to the flower market.
On our way there, we decided to split up as Alex wanted to do more exploring, and some shopping, and I thought I should head out to the museum district. I caught another tram, and got off right outside the Van Gogh Museum. It was around €10 to enter and was pretty big. The only real painting, besides Starry Starry Night, that I was looking for was The Harvest. No matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find it. I don’t think it was in this museum at all. What a shame!
The great thing about the museum, also, was that it had free WiFi! I decided to rest my legs a bit as I sat down in the museum to catch up with friends, send a few emails, and update Facebook. At that point I was starving as it was approaching 2pm and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.
After browsing the gift shop for some sort of souvenir depicting The Harvest and failing at it, I decided to head out of the museum and wander around the area. It was a gorgeous district, surrounded by green parks, sleepy locals and picnic enthusiasts. I also stumbled upon the “I Amsterdam” sign and decided to sit myself down on one of the park benches and admire my surroundings. I fell in love with the charm of the place and although I probably wouldn’t want to live there in the prime of my life, I could see myself strolling about as an old, retired woman.
I decided to make my way back into town, after grabbing something to eat, as we were told to meet at the bus parking area near the Sea Palace Restaurant by 5, where we were to have dinner before going on our canal cruise. On my way there, I found my way back to the shopping centre that we had come across earlier, and decided to take a peak inside. Although there were some renovations going on and therefore scaffolding, it was still quite appealing. I didn’t intend on buying anything though, so I just walked around.
When I came outside, I noticed a supermarket just around the corner. Bonus – my plan to get lunch and cheap stroopwafels was going to work! As I walked in, I was astonished at the cheese section. It was bigger than anything I had seen before. I thought I’d look for some smoked pepper gouda, but again, the packages they had were too large and I decided against it. I found the perfect packet of 10 stroopwafels and the price was excellent – €3! Talk about bargain! I regret not having bought 2, but I limited myself only to 1 as I intended saving the pack for a while (I still had some 2 weeks after I got back to SA, which was 5 weeks later). Unfortunately I still couldn’t find something to have for lunch.
Somewhere along the way I managed to grab a sandwich and a coke from a street vendor, and found myself going through a nursery school yard that was in the middle of everything. If I didn’t see or hear the kids playing, I never would have known. Anyone was free to walk through as all that separated it from the rest of the city were some metal poles that stuck vertically out of the ground. I loved that it was so safe for the kids even though they were literally playing the street. In South Africa, crime is such an issue that all the schools have fencing, some even with barbed wire. I sat on a bench beneath a tree and enjoyed my sandwich and the much-needed Coke, as I was thirsty as hell from all the walking. It also gave me time to watch some locals pass by on their bikes. One man even had a little bulldog sitting lazily in the basket on the front of the bike. I was hoping to see someone with flowers in their basket, so was thrilled to see a woman ride passed slowly with a basket full of pink and yellow ones.
I eventually decided to get back into central Amsterdam. I found a shop that had a whole lot of tulips for a mere €4 for a packet of 10 bulbs. How could I not, knowing how my mother loves tulips. I also came across a street vendor selling punnets of cherries for €2 each, so of course I couldn’t resist. They were the most delicious cherries I ever had and I was glad I listened to my mother’s advice about tasting the fruit in Europe.
I couldn’t really remember how to get back to the bus station and I wandered around a bit and at one point thought I was lost. It was also peak hour now and the traffic, both cars and bikes, as well as the number of pedestrians picked up. It was like a rush hour I had never experienced before. I stood on a bridge outside the Grand Central Station and enjoyed my cherries, but at the same time scouting the area in order to determine the direction I had to go in. Eventually my gut feeling told me to go to my right and continue straight.
I was right, as within 2 to 3 minutes I saw the purple Contiki bus and at least 75% of my group standing around it. I got there just in time too, as it had started to drizzle lightly. After some people got changed for dinner on the bus, we took a short, brisk walk to the Sea Palace Restaurant, where I rather good dinner awaited us. I don’t recall everything we had, besides the chicken kebabs and some yellow thing that those around my table made me taste first, since it was closest to me. I had no idea what the hell it was as it had the texture of a pudding, but was slightly slimy and quite shiny. It was almost tasteless when I tried it, so I still had no idea what it was so I made a random guess that it was chicken. I was dead wrong because we later found out that it was actually an omelette. I don’t know what kind of omelette that was cos it didn’t have anything in it except egg. We were allowed 3 drinks, so I decided that 2 of those would be red wine. The waiter seemed to like the American girl sitting opposite me, but he somehow thought that she was a major drinker. He made her chug an entire glass of red wine, which we applauded. I don’t know how she did it as the wine wasn’t all that great, but then again, I had never had much wine before so I did not have the taste for it. At least, not yet.
After dinner it was time for the cruise. We made our way out into a boat that was totally covered with a glass roof. It was perfect since it was still drizzling. We were allowed unlimited drinks on this one, but I choose to go for just 2 glasses of white wine this time. By the end of the second glass, even though I had prolonged the length of it as much as I could, I felt slightly giggly. I knew I wasn’t drunk but my eyes felt heavy. That was going to be my last one, thanks.
We got to admire the gorgeous sunset over Amsterdam, even though it was approaching 9:30pm. I was again astonished at how late the sun sets in Europe in summer. It was then that I realized I was having first hand experience on how the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth comes into play in the Northern Hemisphere. It humbled me.
After this enjoyable cruise, Steve announced that we had a choice of either heading back to the hotel, or joining him on a pub crawl. I had no intention of going on the pub crawl as I had already drunken 4 glasses of wine in a span of 4 hours and I was feeling woozy. I was also dead tired and wanted to be fresh for the long drive into Germany the following morning.
I was shocked to find that there were barely 10-12 of us who decided to go back to the hotel. At least driver Steve was going to take us back, so we didn’t have to worry about finding our own way via the central station again.
I was so glad to be back in the hotel. The only thing I dreaded was having to wake up again to open the door for Alex, who decided to stay on for the pub crawl. It was annoying when everyone got back as they made such a huge noise. I bet they woke the whole hotel up. That was my wake up call for Alex though, and I found myself waiting for her. When she eventually came in, from the noises she made, I knew that she was rather tipsy, but not drunk enough to be falling all over the place.
I chuckled quietly to myself before falling asleep.