Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Amsterdam - A Bike Ride in the Countryside

We awake the next morning in our spartan room. The Dutch seem exceedingly practical. Even the opulent home we had visited the previous day had an air of practicality about it. We did pay a premium for a room with a canal view but other than that form definitely follows function in terms of our surroundings. We shower, dress and leave the room to visit a small bake shop up the street for breakfast and my morning coffee.

One of the first things you notice about Amsterdam are the bicycles. There are hordes of them. It is the favored and most practical way to get around the city. These are not bicycles designed to show off your wealth or level of athleticism but solid, no nonsense affairs, generally black, well suited to the rattles and jolts associated with riding on stone and brick streets. Some are outfitted with baskets, others with seats set over the back wheels so that a second person can ride side saddle . On the previous evening we had seen a young couple out for the evening. He, in a vintage style suit and tie pedaling while she rode over the back wheel in a cocktail dress, hose and heels. The two wheeled vehicles greatly outnumber cars. In fact, cars are rarely encountered and have difficulty navigating the narrow bike choked streets.

We have made arrangements with the hotel to rent bikes for the day. They have two that are available to their guests. The morning has once again dawned bright and sunny. Although slightly cool, in the air one can feel the promise of autumn warmth later in the day. In long shorts, shirts with sleeves that can be rolled up as the day warms and caps, no one wears bike helmets, we head off.

As I've mentioned, the farther you travel from the center of the city the more modern it becomes. It is Sunday and we pass a couple bicycling to church. He's in his suit and tie on one bike, she follows on another in her suit, hose and low heeled shoes, her matching handbag swinging as it dangles from the handlebars. A group of white haired women are sculling on the Amstel, the river that runs through the city.

We soon find ourselves in an area of ultramodern apartment houses and office towers. To the side of the road a sign appears. The word Amsterdam is in the middle of a red circle with a slash through it, marking the city limits.

The scene immediately turns pastoral, as if development was halted at the border of the city. Sheep and goats graze in fields. There are occasional small homes, and, suddenly, a structure synonymous with The Netherlands, a windmill. The air is calm and a bird is perched on one of the windmill's still blades. It appears to have been converted into a residence, however that does not stop us from snapping photos and taking a few moments to admire this Dutch icon.

It is becoming warmer so we roll up our shirtsleeves and push on. A short distance further we reach a small town. We pedal down it's main street, all the businesses locked up tight it being Sunday, then ride past it's church where the service is just getting out. We find our way to the side of the river opposite the one we rode out on and begin our return trip.

The main reason for riding back on the other side of the river, other than the change in scenery, is to see a second windmill. Located between the town and Amsterdam it is reputed to have been a favorite of Rembrandt's. It is our second day of bright blue skies and warm temperatures. We reach the windmill just as a bus full of loud Asian tourists are finishing up their visit. Their departure allows us to experience this moment in the serenity we desire.

So that there is no mistaking that this is "Rembrandt's Windmill" a sculpture of the master painter rests on the green lawn that surrounds it. Rembrandt has long been one of my favorite artists and I thrill at the thought that hundreds of years ago he stood at this spot admiring the sight I was privileged to witness now.

Returning to the bikes we head back towards the city. We stop in the plaza next to the "Anne Frank House". Three large pink triangles have been worked into the plaza's design as a memorial to the homosexuals caught up in the horrors of he Holocaust along with gypsies, jews and political dissidents. We pass a houseboat with what our "gaydar" tells us are two gay men on it's deck, talking to friends on a bridge above. The door to the boat is open exposing it's lush, plant filled interior. A smaller boat, in the shape of a wooden shoe, bobs nearby tied to a railing along the river.

We visit the "Dam", the cities old central square and one of the most venerable parts of Amsterdam. On this bright, sunny day it is given over to a carnival and is filled with rides as well as throngs of people. The crowds are so thick we are forced to walk the bikes through them. We have lunch at an outside table of a sandwich shop. We ride further, lock the bikes to the railing of one of the numerous low bridges crossing a canal and stroll past the smoky interiors of Amsterdam's infamous "coffee shops".

There were still a few hours left to that sunny, beautiful Sunday afternoon. My partner likes to refer to times with weather this perfect as "Chamber of Commerce Days". People are out in droves. Sidewalk tables at bars and restaurants are packed. We see a bar a block away where people are lined up hip to hip on the sills of the second floors open windows. We find a canal side bench on a block of 17th century houses and while away time watching the boat traffic float by. It seemed as if everyone who owned any type of watercraft had it out on the canals that glorious fall day.

As the afternoon shadows lengthen and evening begins to fall we make our way back to the hotel.

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