Four countries in one day... and Amsterdam!

OK, I’ve been doing some serious thinking about how I could make blogging about my Contiki tour (the 12-day European Discovery Tour) digestible for readers. This is what I’ve devised. Each post on each city/country will be divided into the following subsections: Communication, Activities & Attractions, Contiki Optionals, Food & Drink and Impressions & Interesting Facts. That way readers can skip right through to the information that interests them instead of having to sift it out of one long unbroken post. So, here goes…

Day 1-2

So it began. If you’re in the 18-35 age group and are after a relaxing, leisurely paced holiday don’t even consider a Contiki Tour because it’s go-go-go all the time. You need to adapt your body quickly to a daily routine of early starts (breakfast is normally at 7am, with the coach departing at 7:30) and late nights. Catching up on lost sleep is done on the coach during the day while travelling to your next destination. So, yeah, let me say upfront that nobody finishes a Contiki Tour feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. We bumped into a group on the home stretch of the epic 48 Day Camping Tour and they looked utterly shell-shocked.


WWII bunker on the French coastline.

Anyway, ours was a full tour group due to the fact that we were passing through Munich during the ever popular Oktoberfest. In fact, one of the first things we did once our ferry had arrived in Callais from the UK, and we were on the road through Belgium to the Netherlands, was play a full hour of “speed dating” in order to get to know one another.

Our tour group was a diverse bunch, with people from Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, South Africa (3 more girls in addition to the 4 of us), the Philippines, Brazil and Japan. I’ll admit here now that I probably could have socialised more than I did – when you’re travelling with more than just your partner you tend to stick more with your little group.


The members of our Contiki tour (pic taken in Florence).

Otherwise the majority of our drive to Amsterdam was passed with introductions and various admin matters. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that before arriving at each of our destinations, our tour manager would give us a little background on the country, provide us with maps and give us a list of attractions (with his personal recommendations). I’m not sure if this is the norm with Contiki’s big European tours, or just our hyper-organised tour manager (by comparison we didn’t receive anything like this during our 4-day Greek tour last year), but this was all a huge help. It did mean though that I didn’t need to do nearly as much pre-departure research as I did back in South Africa.

OK, now onto the nitty-gritty:

Communication

I vowed this trip to try and communicate with locals in their language as much as possible (last year the Greek language and letters were just too overwhelming). Fortunately communication was very easy in the Netherlands thanks to the years we were forced to study Afrikaans at school. Although Afrikaans is obviously a bit different from Dutch, the 2 languages are close enough that you can generally interpret things, both written and oral, with a little concentration. Then again, you don’t need to speak Dutch – everyone in the Netherlands that I encountered spoke excellent English.

Activities & Attractions

1) Coffee shops – Always wanted to try some dope, shrooms or special brownies? Drug use is decriminalised in the Netherlands so this is the place to do it without legal concerns. If you really want a cup of coffee, look for a café. The Contiki recommended place is actually pretty classy and discreet. I saw much more dodgy “authentic” shops while walking around.


The Grasshopper Coffee Shop - Contiki approved.

2) Red Light District – Sex shops, sex shows, a (apparently cheesy) Sex Museum and beautiful buyable women in windows. Just no photos! The pimps will throw your camera in the canal. More seedy than erotic, but you have to experience it for yourself.

3) Royal Palace – Where the Dutch queen stays when she’s in town. Unlike Buckingham Palace you can get up close to this building, but it’s nowhere near as pretty as Elizabeth’s London pad.


4) Daytime canal cruise – Would definitely be worth doing in good weather to see the central portion of the city. Apparently Amsterdam has more bridges and canals then Venice, though I can’t confirm this claim.

5) Heineken Brewery – The home of the world famous Dutch beer. Entry includes a free drink. Closed when we were there.

6) Van Gogh Museum – The largest collection of this Dutch artist’s work in one place. I was contemplating going to have a look but was put off when I heard a lot of the works on display are replicas because the originals are too valuable to display.

7) Rijks Museum – Housing the largest collection of Dutch art in the Netherlands, including the Night Watch and plenty of Rembrandts, this was my first museum choice. We just didn’t have time to get there however, since it was quite a distance from our departure meeting spot (we would have had to catch a tram to get to the museum and back).

8) Anne Frank House – The famous building where young Jewish teenager Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in WWII, now converted into a museum. Initially we headed there just to take a picture outside, but found the infamously long queues to be non-existent. As a result, seizing this opportunity, Anne Frank’s House became our main Amsterdam activity during our free morning in the city.

It’s a sobering but worthwhile experience. Combining extracts from Anne’s diary with authentic memorabilia and video interviews, the museum’s final and largest room features harrowing holocaust footage and highlights the fate of the 2 families who hid in the house. It also reveals how close Anne came to surviving until liberation. Very sad. None of us had ever read the book, so the bf bought a copy from the gift store – it comes with a sticker of authenticity detailing exactly where it was purchased.


Monument just outside the Anne Frank House.

Contiki Optionals

There are 2 activities that Contiki offers you while in Amsterdam:

1) An evening canal cruise: It was pretty wet on the night we were there so the event proved to be more of a booze cruise than anything else – the windows were closed and it was difficult to see through the rain spatter. Still, it’s a fun social activity (representatives from each country took part in a down-down competition), the city and its various bridges do look pretty when it’s all lit up, and you really are encouraged to drink as much as you can, because all drinks are included in the cruise price. The wine wasn’t half bad either from what I remember.



2) A sex show: OK, this one is never mentioned in the Contiki guides because of prying parental eyes. We didn’t end up going because we were travelling with a religious friend, but this show, one of the more “conservative” ones in Amsterdam, is apparently quite an eye opening experience. I mean, where else, apart from Bangkok, are you going to get the chance to see a woman smoking a cigarette with her vagina? I kid you not.

Anyway, one advantage of not going to the show was that we got a more authentic Red Light District experience as we walked around. No sooner had the tour group passed than all the closed curtains at street level opened again, with the scantily clad prostitutes on display. The Amsterdam Red Light District really takes “window shopping” to a whole new level, and it’s very strange to see such beautiful women selling themselves; not the Point Road wrecks from home.

Food & Drink

Things to try in Amsterdam:
1) Frites (fries) with a creamy, cheesy mayonnaise sauce
2) Gouda cheese – you can usually try tasty samplers in the Cheese Shops
3) Salty liquorice
4) Dutch Apple Cake
5) Chocolate covered Belgian Waffles
6) Machine-administered fast food at FEBO
7) Flugel (vodka & energy drink shooter)
8) Heineken beer
9) Amstel beer.


Impressions & Interesting Facts

The weather while we were in Amsterdam was pretty “meh” – not especially cold but just overcast, and quite wet on the evening we arrived.

Many attractions only open around 9-9:30am, and some shops only at 10am. So there’s no great reason to leap out of bed at the crack of dawn when you’re visiting the city.

The Dutch are really tall. I’ve always been told this by a (tall) South African friend of mine who works in the Hague. Looking at pencilled height measurements of Anne Frank at the age of 14, I can confirm this claim.

The country is incredibly flat. I don't think I saw a single hill the entire time I was there. Outside of the cities it's just flat green farmland, sheep, cattle, giant wind turbines and the occasional old windmill.

The Dutch are a pleasant, helpful people… except when they’re on their bicycles. Accidentally step into their exclusive lane, or get in their way, and they will run you down. And you will be in the wrong! Cyclists ALWAYS have right of way.

Speaking of bicycles, I’ve never seen as many of them before in my life as in Amsterdam. And all old, single gear “ouma-fiets” too. Make sure to look out for the multi-storey bicycle parking lot if you're ever there. It will blow your mind.

Oh, and don’t forget that the Dutch are the “Lords of Liberals” – anything goes here: decriminalised drug use, sex in public parks, gay marriage, euthanasia, abortion. Baby, it’s all your personal choice!

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