Dutch Treat, Part 6

Diamond Factory and Canal Boat Excursion

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 6-30-05)

 

By Lewis Nolan

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March 17, 2005, Thursday, In Amsterdam, The Netherlands

 

St. Patrick’s Day is only slightly observed in Amsterdam. The city’s few Irish pubs roll out the shamrocks, green hats and Celtic music. But otherwise, it’s pretty much business as usual for everybody else.

 

Light rain in the morning didn’t stop Betty from venturing out to purchase some bulbs, souvenirs and gifts at the Floating Flower Market just beneath our hotel, the Carlton. She had visited the shops several times to scope out what she wanted to buy on our last full day in Amsterdam. I stayed back to jot down some notes for this travel account plus make preparations for our flight back to Memphis tomorrow.

 

I made arrangements for the ever-so-nice and competent Paula at the hotel reception desk to call Northwest to confirm our flight reservations 24 hours in advance. She won’t be there to assist with checkout in the morning since she is visiting her family in war-torn Chechnya for two weeks. Paula is one of several Eastern Europeans working in guest contact jobs at the hotel. Others include two bellmen-porters from Croatia and the housekeeping manager from Poland, who oversees a noisy crew of Africans.

 

Betty returned to our room with sacks of treasures from the Flower Market that included several bulbs larger than grapefruits. The three
Bikes chained to canal rail by our hotel on rainy day
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bulbs yielded a dozen, dramatic and huge red flowers a month later. However, the Dutch packers were no better than those who fill packages sold in Home Depot and other stores back home; they were clearly but mistakenly labeled “White Amaryllis.”

 

Amsterdam is one of the diamond capitals of the world. Highly visible marketing ploys of the diamond merchants include free tours of the so-called “factories,” where gems are cut, polished and sold. There must be a dozen or more of these establishments, which advertise heavily in the tourist publications. Some offer free coffee and pastry to get potential buyers in the door. It may be that there are some terrific buys, but after a bad experience with buying bone china in London several years ago, I never could get comfortable with buying gems from people or businesses that I don’t know anything about.

 

We walked along a stretch of the dammed-up Amstel River to the Amstel Diamond Factory, perhaps a half a mile from the hotel. We got what we paid for (free) and saw a few window cases holding show-and-tell material about the diamond business. We watched a swarthy-complexioned man polish a stone (I couldn't see it, but I guess there was a tiny diamond embedded in a stylus he held) on a spinning turntable. He maneuvered the stylus as if it were an old-time record player arm holding a sound needle. The turntable was made of very hard metal and diamond chips. Its surface was greased with olive oil. If the cutter spoke English, or any language, he didn’t let on or even lift his eyes from his work.-

 

It seemed obvious that the main business of the Amstel Diamond Factory is retail sales, which occupies a great deal more space than the polishing machine and paltry show-and-tell area. There were plenty of attractive and expensive rings, necklaces and bracelets displayed in perfectly lighted, glass cases. Prices for a one-caret diamond ranged from €1,500 (poor quality) to €9,500 (top quality). I surmised the elegantly dressed and jeweled sales staff had correctly sized us up as non-buyers since we were totally ignored.

 

We looped back along the Amstel River on our walk to the Amsterdam Historical Museum, which we found to be a really neat place. It is a bit of hodge-podge, grand attic of a museum that is akin to London’s Victoria and Albert. It consists of several floors of connected buildings that must occupy nearly a square block. It offers a truly remarkable exhibition of the history, growth and character of the city. Among its celebrated holdings is one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings, a grisly portrayal of a dissection being performed on a disemboweled and hanged thief.

 

Through paintings, drawings and artifacts, the vast series of exhibits trace the transformation of Amsterdam over the centuries since its founding about 1300. A huge range of subjects are covered in the attractive and informative displays. This is a museum’s aficionado’s museum, the kind of place I really enjoy spending a lot of time visiting and re-visiting. However, our time was limited so we breezed by exhibits covering different aspects of the commercial, religious, political, economic and cultural life of the city.

 

Much of the museum’s focus is on the impact of the Golden Age of Holland in the 17th Century. Tangible results of that impact celebrate the prized Dutch industriousness, sense of fair play, admiration of art and learning. The clear message is that Holland is a wealthy nation because of the willingness of its people to make financial investments in projects and ventures that advance the country. Today, this collective risk-taking and reward is exemplified by the building (below sea level) and all-climate operation of one of the great airports of the world – Schipol.

 

We hurriedly learned about how the great canals were built starting in 1600; the Calvinist movement that rid Amsterdam of official Catholicism; the city’s tolerance of the Jews and other non-conformists persecuted in many other cities of Europe; the bedrock culture of merchant prowess and wealth accumulation; and early sociological efforts to provide
Amsterdam's busy Royal Palace in Dam Square
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measured care for widows, orphans and the destitute. We also learned about the development of architectural and building styles that provided living quarters for differing economic groups; the terrible deportation of Jews after the Nazi invasion of World War II; the rise of bicycling as both a means of recreation and practical form of transportation; and the impact of the hippie movement of the 1960s and resulting legalization of marijuana.

 

We couldn’t visit Holland without riding a canal boat. Indeed, we’ve taken floating excursions in many of the places we’ve toured over the years, including the Thames in London, the Seine in Paris, the San Diego Harbor, the Bayou Teche in Louisiana, the San Francisco Harbor, the Bay of Fundy in Canada, Dingle Harbor in Ireland and even the Mississippi River back home.

 

About 300 yards from our hotel was the main dock of one of several canal cruise operators. The long motor craft was sparkly clean and shining with white paint and teak trim. Shaped like a cigarette, its 100-foot length required repeated backing and gradual turnings to navigate the twists and turns in the narrow canals. The boat’s roof and sides above the deck were made of thick glass, which had been freshly cleaned.

 

Despite a couple of open “windows” in the roof to let in the cooling breeze, I felt a little uneasy when the boat ventured into the wave-tossed harbor that was busy with ferries and other shipping. An accidental collision or big wave from the wake of another craft could flood the boat and capsize it in the cold water from the North Sea. Most passengers would likely be trapped under the heavy glass. I’m afraid these excursion boat forays into the old harbor are disasters just waiting to happen – like the mass drowning in a lake near Hot Springs, Ark., a few years ago when passengers were trapped beneath the awning of a fast-sinking, World War II “Duck” landing craft.

Nonetheless, we were glad we took the canal boat ride and gladder year we opted for the one-hour excursion rather than a longer ride. All the canals look alike from the water. After a few minutes of repetitious sights, Betty dozed off.

 

With a hard day of travel facing us tomorrow, we ate a light dinner of carryout Chicken Caesar salads from the McDonald’s across the street from our hotel. That evening, we enjoyed a final walk through the Flower Market
Commuter bikes at Delft station
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and on the busy streets along the canals. We stopped briefly at Mulligans, where an Irish fiddler played before a raucous crowd that spilled out of the pub and onto the sidewalk.

 

March 18, 2005, Friday – Amsterdam to Memphis

 

We arose at 7:30 a.m., an hour earlier than usual in this far North Country where the sun both sets and comes up late. We enjoyed our final breakfast buffet at the Jolly Carlton Hotel, which consistently was as generous and as good as any we’ve had in Europe. I know I’ll miss the ham and bacon sandwiches made on freshly baked, coarse grain bread.

 

Since all our arrangements so far had gone well, it was time for a screw-up. And we got one, courtesy of KLM Connexion – the airline shuttle bus that provides service to-and-from Schipol and the larger hotels in Amsterdam. The hotel had made Internet reservations 48 hours in advance for our pickup, which supposedly runs every 15 minutes. Despite a hotel clerk’s telephone calls and reassurances that the van was just around the corner and two minutes away, KLM Connexion was a no-show. Twenty minutes later, the second van was nowhere in sight.

 

After hearing from a hotel bellman that KLM delays and no-shows were an almost everyday occurrence, we caught a taxicab for the 20-minute ride to the airport. It cost €30, plus tip. At least the driver was a friendly chap. He had grown up on the Caribbean Island of Aruba and moved to Amsterdam in 1959 in search of a better life. He plainly loved the city and entertained us with local history during the easy drive.

 

I’ve since recommended to pals planning trips to Amsterdam that they save a few dollars by taking the KLM shuttle service from the airport to their hotels. The inbound vans are more reliable than the outbound ones. While the smooth and efficient trams from the airport to Central Station are cheaper, passengers have to carry their luggage up and down steps upon embarking and disembarking. But by all means, I suggest, plan on taking a taxicab from the hotel to the airport even though it costs more.   

 

At the airport, a charming young woman dressed in KLM powder blue attire helped us negotiate the automated check-in system. It worked like a dream. There was no standing in line and no hassle with our bags. We were through security and checked onto our flights in three or four minutes.

 

Despite the delay due to the AWOL shuttle vans, we had sufficient time at Schipol to have lunch, buy some luscious Belgian chocolates, shop for a few gifts and change our remaining Euros back into dollars at a decent exchange rate. The flight across the North Atlantic was the best kind, uneventful. We arrived on time in Memphis early in the evening, tired but thoroughly delighted with our Dutch treat vacation.

 

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