Dutch Treat, Part 1

Memphis To Amsterdam and Flower Market

1. Memphis to Amsterdam’s Flower Market

4. Train to Delft to see pottery factory

2. Art at Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum

5. Matinee walk in Red Light District

3. Somber tour of Anne Frank House

6. Diamond factory and canal boat excursion

Index to 28 Photos / Page Updated Oct. 22, 2007

By Lewis Nolan

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We had wanted to spend Betty’s spring break in Dingle, Ireland, which has become our favorite vacation spot after four trips there in

Betty on Sengel Canal Bridge

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recent years. However, St. Patrick’s Day fell during her week off; it was impossible to get Aer Lingus flights to and from Shannon Airport that harmonized with our travel window. Plus, I found that getting any good deals on accommodations in Ireland the week of March 17, 2005 was out of the question.

Our travel agent of many years, Joye (pronounced Joey) Allen of A&I Travel in our hometown of Memphis, Tenn., suggested that we consider Amsterdam as an alternate destination, where March is off-season and prices are reasonable. It was a good idea that proved to be a terrific choice. What made our decision to “go Dutch” easier was the fact that Northwest Airlines and its partner, Dutch-owned KLM, flies direct, non-stop flights between Memphis and Amsterdam on a schedule that works well for us. There were more than 150,000 passengers who took advantage of the service in 2004.  

We purchased a weeklong, Northwest package that featured a four-star hotel with complimentary breakfast buffets every day. We were delighted to discover that the Jolly Carlton Hotel we selected was quite nice; it has the best possible location for our interests, right in the heart of the city and adjacent to the fabulous Floating Flower Market.

We’d been through the Amsterdam Airport on previous trips, but never had the time to venture out into the city. A magnificent city it is – very scenic, very old, very European, very cosmopolitan, very compact, and a breeze to navigate on foot and by tram. It is also very expensive, especially this year with the U.S. dollar so weak. Three days before our departure, I converted $650 into Euros at First Tennessee’s currency translation rate of the day of $1.40 per €1. Just a few years ago, the rate was $0.92 per €. With the Memphis bank’s $5 transaction fee, that amounted to a decrease in American purchasing power of nearly 50 per cent.

On the positive side, the beating the dollar has taken since the Bush Administration took office more than four years ago – combined with the excessive hassles caused by clumsy security measures - means fewer Americans are traveling to Europe. Consequently the crowds aren’t as heavy as they once were. On the flip side, transcontinental airline traffic is still way down from where it was in the 1990s. That has meant a significant cutback in the number of airline employees and flights, making for crowded planes and a reduction in amenities. Fuel prices are sky-high, causing the airlines to bleed copious amounts of red ink. The cost of gasoline has rocketed upwards since Bush took office and is expected to hit all-time highs during this summer’s driving season back home. 

The weather in Amsterdam wasn’t all that different from the damp, blustery conditions we’d been experiencing in Memphis during early March.

View of Mint Tower from our window

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During our seven days in Amsterdam, we had only one really good day of sunshine and temperatures climbing to near 60. Most days the high was near 50 and the low near 40, with intermittent patches of light rain.  We had been warned that Amsterdam’s proximity to the North Sea means that the weather is quite changeable. We saw in the space of two, fifteen-minute periods on one day the weather switch from sun to rain, then to sleet and snow before going back to sun. Moreover, such meteorology can occur at any time of the year.

We heeded the warnings and dressed accordingly. During the day we wore jeans, sturdy walking shoes, sweaters, warm coat (in my case a heavy, wool herringbone sports coat along with an Irish tweed cap) and sometimes Gore-tex rain slickers. The Dutch don’t seem to pay much attention to the rain – not even when the tens of thousands of Amsterdam commuters are pedaling their bicycles. They typically wear heavy coats that are water repellent or at least water resistant.  Baby carriages and strollers are often covered with see-through plastic. Footwear for the street comes off and footwear for the office goes on once the commuters arrive at their destinations.

It was especially interesting for us to see an approach to life embraced by the residents of Amsterdam that is profoundly different from the lifestyle Betty and I enjoy in our Southern city of roughly the same size. It can be a shock for many Americans to see so many residents and visitors to Amsterdam smoking marijuana (the acrid fumes boil out of open doors of the licensed “coffee houses,” where pot is sold). Even more startling is the acceptance of the “in-your-face” displays of sexual apparatus in storefronts on busy streets. But over the top are the government-sanctioned brothels, where scantily-clad prostitutes show off their mostly naked bodies to potential customers inspecting them through large, picture windows.

Life is different in Amsterdam, to be sure. But as Americans are frequently reminded by their hosts in Holland, the Dutch enjoy significantly longer life spans, better health, less violent crime and an overall prosperity that leaves very few people destitute.

Amsterdam is a crowded city of 700,000. Indeed, The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Europe. From Amsterdam’s Central Train Station adjacent to the harbor, Amsterdam proper is perhaps 3 miles across. In comparison,  Memphis – with a population of 650,000 in the city itself and 1 million in the SMSA – is nearly 50 miles across at its widest and has not one but a half-dozen or more “centers.” Modern Memphis is among the American cities that grew up centuries after Europe’s medieval capitals took form. Most of the city was built in the 20th Century when developers sent out networks of roads to serve the desires of automobile-owning residents for single-family homes. In Memphis, we have no public transport of consequence; bike lanes and paths are woefully short in number and length.

Amsterdam is a vertical city, akin to Manhattan, San Francisco and downtown Chicago. It has very few single story buildings and some of the most expensive real estate prices in the world.

This makes it a pedestrian’s dream as well as a cyclist’s paradise. Amsterdam’s narrow streets and paucity of parking discourage private

View from our room of Floating Flower Market at lower left

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auto traffic. Most residents walk or ride bikes. Sidewalks are wide and well lighted. Bike paths and lanes are everywhere and well used. Slow-moving canal taxies are available, but they are pretty much the preserve of the tourists.

Amsterdam has 52 museums, ranging from several great repositories of masterpieces (the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum), to the historic (the Anne Frank House and the Historical Museum) to the repellent (the Torture Museum and the Erotic Museum). There are lots of neat things to do and see and we’re on our way.

March 11, 2005, Friday – Memphis to Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We took up the kind offer of a friend and dear lady in Betty’s Sunday school class, Rue Van Middlesworth, to drive us to the airport. We left our home about 5 p.m. and, predictably found the lines to Northwest’s International flights check-in counter to be long and slow moving. Many schools begin their spring break today and quite a few school groups are traveling.

Luckily, I had obtained our boarding passes the previous evening on Northwest’s Internet website. It was quick and easy to scan in the documents, show our passports to a clerk and hand-off our two, checked bags at the special Internet check-in counter – no lines, no waiting.


The airlines and the Travel Security Administration are trying hard to make travel as easy as possible, despite the security hassles. Employees (at least those who have survived deep layoffs) seem to be friendlier and more accommodating than ever.

Our non-stop flight on a Northwest DC-10 was scheduled to begin boarding about 6:30 p.m. for a 7:25 p.m. departure. That gave us plenty of time to eat some grilled chicken sandwiches in a waiting lounge near the gate. The flight was oversold (aren’t they all these days?). There must have been enough takers of $750 in cash plus a hotel room and meals in exchange for rebooking on tomorrow’s flight since our plane took off on time.

It was a long night for me. With a full plane, it seemed the cramped economy-class seats were even tighter. The luggage bin over our seats was full by the time we boarded, so we had to put our bags in a forward compartment. We were glad Northwest flight attendants were aboard. They were accommodating, chatty and quite nice – a stark contrast to the rigid rudeness we had encountered several years ago aboard a KLM flight to Amsterdam. We passed on the meal (choice of chicken or pasta) but took advantage of the complimentary gin and wine. I was surprised Northwest didn’t charge for the alcohol as they do on domestic flights.

Skimpy blankets and small pillows were provided – an amenity beng discontinued on domestic flights beginning in April in yet another cost-shaving move.

Betty by hothouse flowers

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Betty nodded off for a while. I fidgeted and squirmed all night, making for some very sore thigh muscles the next morning. The flight was thankfully uneventful and fast. We arrived in Schipol Airport a little early after 8 hours and 15 minutes in the air. We were told strong tailwinds took about 45 minutes off the usual trip. One flight attendant said the Memphis-Amsterdam flight often takes 11 hours and has taken as much as 13 and even 14 hours coming back when headwinds are strong.

It took a maybe 15 minutes to taxi to the terminal through the busy Schipol ground traffic. Somewhat confused by sleeplessness and jet leg, it took us a while to fumble around and make our way through Customs. The Dutch Customs agent was friendly and welcoming, as were other airport employees. Nobody asked to inspect our luggage.

We didn’t tarry at Schipol, which is one of the great airports of the world. It has 24 gateways to North America, including the non-stop flight to Memphis. It serves 200 cities worldwide. It is 4 feet, 6 inches below sea level and a marvel of modern engineering. It was built on land reclaimed from the North Sea and surrounded by dikes to keep the water out. The airport offers an “old masters” branch of the national art museum, a casino, massage services, showers, medical center and a huge selection of shopping, eating and drinking facilities. Schipol is efficient, modern and amazingly clean.

 We paid €7.40 (about $10) for two tickets to ride a modern, commuter train from the airport to Amsterdam’s Central Station. We could have taken the KLM Hotel Connection for €10 each, a van shuttle service that stops at major hotels. But then we’d not have experienced the adventure of an elevated train, navigating the cavernous Central Station and taking a short ride on a neat tram (cost of €1.40 each to a stop near our hotel.)

If I had it to do over, I’d probably take the shuttle or pay €30 for a taxi for the two of us. Dragging and carrying heavy bags up stairs and over boarding platforms wasn’t easy – especially after a long, sleepless night.

Checking into the Jolly Carlton (Jolly is the name of an Italian chain of quality hotels across Europe) early was easy. The four-star

Lewis (left), flower vendor

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hotel has 219, well equipped and air-conditioned rooms as well as desk clerks who are professional, well-trained and English speaking. We soon learned that most of the customer-contact personnel are either Italian, Dutch or from Eastern European countries (Bosnia, Chechnya, Poland). The maids are African.

The standard room that was part of our package was well equipped but small by American standards. It would have been OK for a night or two. But since we are here for six nights, we decided to spend another €50 a day to upgrade to a large suite with a fabulous view. Our three-window, bump out on the fifth floor is above the Floating Flower Market and a canal. The clock of the massive Mint Tower is less than 100 feet from our window and at eye level. Across the way is a busy convergence of several streets and light rail lines. We can see from the window the historic, five-star Hotel de L’Europa, another canal and many businesses including a McDonald’s across the street.

Unlike four-star hotels in America I’ve stayed at, the Carlton has no fitness center or ice/snack machines or insulated ice containers. Persons wanting to mix their own drinks must call room service or ask at the bar for a small bag of ice (provided at no charge). All rooms have honor bars stocked with expensive drinks and snacks (a beer is €5 and airline-sized bottle of liquor is €7). The bathroom is lined with marble tile, has two sinks, a large tub/shower with towel heating coil on the wall, commode (don’t flush while seated!) and a bidet. Towels are plush and there is a generous supply of nice amenities. An electric pants presser is tucked away in a closet.

The canal directly beneath our window is a finger of the old Amstel River, which Dutch fishermen dammed up in the 13th Century. Their digging and piling up of earth created a pocket of dry land on which the small village of “Amsteldamme” was built. The dam divided the waterway, with one side opening to the harbor and the other side opening to the river and its fingers. Canals were dug to a depth of 10 feet to drain the land. A system of locks open and close with the tides to cleanse the old Amstel River and the canals that flow into it and thus into the sea.

Over the centuries, many millions of wooden pilings were driven into the marshy land on which Amsterdam sits. The Royal Palace rests on 13,000 pilings – all of them about 350 years old. Following World War II, concrete replaced wood. Today, foundations are driven down through the mud and sand as much as 100 feet.

Today, Amsterdam has four main canals, which are shaped like half circles that fan out around the city and open up to about 100 smaller, tributary canals – which are crossed by about 1,200 bridges. The innermost

Betty by tulip bulbs

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canal is the Sengel. One side of a quarter-mile long section of the Sengel Canal hosts the Floating Flower Market, or “Bloemenmarkt” in Dutch. Flowers, seeds and bulbs from around the world have been sold here for more than 200 years. The glass-covered shops are built on barges and docks. The festive market is a colorful delight and one of the most popular shopping and photography sites in Amsterdam for both residents and tourists.

I don’t think there was a day that plant-maven Betty didn’t poke around the flower shops, which also sell souvenirs. She bought some tulips to brighten our hotel suite and also some bulbs not generally available at Memphis garden stores including a pair of grapefruit-sized, white Amaryllis bulbs from which giant flowers will bloom from forced potting. She also purchased some Agapanthus (white African lily), Freesia, red Calla Lilly and yellow and orange Tuberous Begonia bulbs to plant at home. She passed on a huge variety of tulip bulbs because their season is over back in Memphis. Special packaging with “certified” stickers are required for persons wanting to bring tulip and other bulbs back into the U.S.

A cold rain was falling, but soon after checking into the hotel we walked the length of the Floating Flower Market. I had a takeout ham-and-cheese sandwich on crusty, brown bread along with a Coca Lite (Diet Coke) for €7, about $10. We stopped at a grocery store across the street to buy some soft drinks and cookies and saw attractive sandwiches offered at half the price.

My left thigh was throbbing with a dull ache from the long airplane ride in an uncomfortable seat. So I took an anti-inflammatory and went

Lewis and Betty in flower stall

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to bed for a much needed nap while Betty unpacked. It turned out that we had over-packed “dressy” clothes. Amsterdam is a sweater, slicker and jeans place.  I only wore slacks to sit-down restaurants.

We were disappointed in a room service Italian pizza from the hotel restaurant. There was no red sauce on the thin, bread crust. Just a dusting of cheese and gross slabs of zucchini and thick strips of green, yellow and red peppers. I thought I was ordering a “pepperoni” pizza. The Italian on the other end of the phone was really talking “peppori” pizza, meaning peppers. We tossed the tasteless, half-eaten thing and walked across the street to McDonalds. We had carryout Big-n-Tasty burgers, which were nearly twice the size of the American version and double the price. A different variety of cheese from that served back home made them quite good.

There are an amazing number – literally hundreds – of clunky bicycles chained with heavy locks to the railings along the canal and bridges beneath us. The rain and cold didn’t seem to slow down the cyclists on their special bike lanes and paths. We saw one plastic-covered, rickshaw style cycle that an enterprising Dutchman used to pedal around pairs of tourists. The sleek, blue-and-white trams that moved speedily and quietly up and down the busy Vijzelstratt (a main drag that goes by our hotel) are most impressive.

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