Sunday, July 15, 2012

June in Amsterdam - Bidding Adieu Part I

Windmill in Kinderdijk

June saw me spend my last weeks in Amsterdam. I had a week-long holiday booked for the third week of the month, so I had only a fortnight to sort out all of my stuff and pack, and fit in as many experiences off my to-do list as possible, before I shifted all my stuff to a friend's house, jetted off to Portugal and Luxembourg for an overdue holiday, and then returned for a couple of nights before taking the train down to Munich in Germany to move in with yet another family as their au pair.

Vemen moving cheese in Alkmaar
I started the month off with a trip to Alkmaar, a city of about 100 000 slightly north of Amsterdam. It is famous for its cheese market. Held on Friday mornings in one of the city squares, the market dates back to at least the 1300s and even in 1916 an average of three hundred tonnes of cheese was being sold every market day. Now, its just a display of the old cheese market traditions. There is a guild of cheese carriers who do the moving and weighing. They have four teams (vemen) of men, each with its own colour. They wear white and a straw hat with their coloured ribbon, and have different names for their rank and which job they perform - there is a lot of detail in these customs.

Tiny shops in Alkmaar
There are other groups responsible for bringing in the cheese on wagons and moving it onto a kind of carrier pallet, that the Vemen then hoist up and run over to the weighing scales. Once it is weighed, they run it back to the wagons, where the others load it back onto the wagons and take it away. Traders negotiate prices with a system of handclaps. I guess its an interesting spectacle, but its pretty repetitive after the first five minutes, and I didn't think it lived up to its reputation as one of the best tourist attractions in the Netherlands. I only spent a little while longer in Alkmaar, walking around the old town with extremely narrow streets and very narrow shopfronts, before I took the train back south to Zaanse Schans.

sawmill in Zaansee Schans
Zaanse Schans is a neighbourhood of a town on the northern border of Amsterdam. Lining a river there are eight historic windmills - three oilmills, three sawmills, a dye mill and a mustard mill, that were built in the 1600s and 1700s, and later moved to the Zaanse Schans museum area. The location also has a bakery museum, a watch and clock museum, a distillery museum, a cheese museum, an overall Zaanse museum, and the relocated first ever Albert Heijn shop (now the biggest dutch supermarket chain). I guess it's a bit of a Dutch Ferrymead.

House in Zaandijk
I arrived at the end of a very grey day, so the lighting was terrible for photographs, but the windmills were really beautiful. After everything closed up, I took a wee "ferry boat", rowed by an enthusiastic dutch couple, across the river and walked back through the tiny town of Zaandijk, which is filled with tiny traditional houses from the 1500s and 1600s. One of my favourite discoveries there was a large disused church, all boarded up and covered in graffiti.

Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam
The following day I headed to Rotterdam, the Netherland's second largest city. Rotterdam is vastly different from other Dutch cities, and I'd heard it said many times that it was a place you'd either love or hate. The city was leveled during WWII, firstly by German forces who bombed it during negotiations with the dutch after an order to call the attack off wasn't properly relayed, resulting in the loss of the medieval city centre and many residential areas, and then by British forces who attacked the military bases and infrastructure. As a result, Rotterdam has no main city centre filled with market squares and old buildings like other European cities, instead boasting some hideously dated post-war architecture and a more disjointed city centre that reminds me a lot of Auckland - it has a port, neighbourhoods, some interesting buildings and shopping centres, but you couldn't really pinpoint an exact city centre. Rotterdam has now become a hub of modern architecture, and also has many amazing bridges, skysrapers, and office and residential buildings that incorporate traditional dutch elements like stepped gables.

windmills at Kinderdijk
I first headed to the port, Europe's largest, and took two ferries out into the delta to reach Kinderdijk, a world heritage site where 19 windmills built to drain the polder still stand (and also the location of the Cat and the Cradle folkstory). It is a really touristy location, with hordes arriving in buses to walk up and down a path along the riverbeds. I hired and bike, and spent a hour or so biking up and down looking at the different windmills, most of which are now privately owned - its funny to see the inhabitants hanging out their washing or mowing the lawns while hundreds of tourists gawk at them! Despite the crowds, I think this was my favourite tourist experience in the Netherlands, it was really amazing.

Cube Houses in Rotterdam
Taking the ferry boats was also very cool, after living in Wellington for four years, I love living in harbour cities, and I could see myself living in Rotterdam and taking a ferry to different picnic or cafe locations every weekend! There is something about ferry boats that fills me with a small child's excitement, they never get old! Back in Rotterdam itself, I set off for a big walk around the city, taking in the different architectural sights. Probably the most famous dutchman to come from Rotterdam is Erasmus and next to the ferry docks is an amazing cable bridge named after him. The cube houses are also interesting, houses made inside blocks that have been tilted 45 degrees so that one point reaches towards the sky. After meandering back to the train station, I headed home.

To be continued...

More photos of Alkmaar, Zaanse Schans, Rotterdam and Kinderdijk are here.

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