Sunday, June 6, 2010

Amsterdam in 10 hours

I slept for only about two hours before they woke us for breakfast, for no apparent reason; we were still hours away from Amsterdam. Why do they do that??
Navigated Schiphol airport with ease. What a great airport. Really, I say that with no irony whatsoever. I tossed my backpack into a locker, got onto the subway directly from inside the airport, and a few minutes later I was in downtown Amsterdam. Why can't other cities manage this?
Staggered bleary-eyed, stomach growling, off the subway and out into the gray, misty light of the city, only to find that absolutely everything was closed, even though it was after 9 AM. I was practically the only person on the street.  Sample view:

There was a mail delivery woman making her way along the street.  I asked her why nothing was open, and she just said "it's Monday morning!" as if that explained everything.  Which perhaps it does; perhaps what really needs explaining is why people in other countries get out of bed before noon on Mondays!  Further wandering through the empty streets eventually brought me here:

Seemed almost too good to be true — it had my name all over it.  But when I went in, expecting to get a croissant and a cappucino, I discovered that "coffee shop" in Amsterdam is a euphemism for "marijuana cafe".  Sigh.  As sleep-deprived as I was, I already felt stoned out of my gourd, and I didn't need to be even hungrier than I already was.  So with tears in my eyes, I lurched back onto the street.

I eventually located a brie sandwich (yum!) and walked over to the Van Gogh museum, which I had bought tickets to over the internet beforehand (I was glad I did, because the ticket line was huge).  Here are a few photos I took as I walked; there were lots of beautiful old buildings, although the weather was not exactly ideal for photography:

  A side note: Amsterdam is a very complicated city to walk in.  Crossing a street in a very multilayered affair.  You typically have to cross a bicycle lane, then a car lane, then a tram lane, over the median, another tram lane, another car lane, and another bicycle lane.  The traffic light system is extremely confusing, and I never did figure out which lights were for who.  You take your life into your own hands if you try to jaywalk.  The bicycles in particular go very fast and come seemingly out of nowhere.

  Photography wasn't allowed inside the museum, but I've tracked down a few of the pictures I saw, and put them in below.  They had a Paul Gauguin exhibit going when I was there, which apparently was rather a special thing — the folks I chatted with in the admission line had driven up from Brussels expressly to see that exhibit.  It had some of his earliest work, from an Impressionist exhibition in 1881 I think; one that I quite liked from that period was of Leda and the Swan:

Very enjoyable; I've seen only a little bit of Gauguin before, and I liked some of the paintings in this exhibit very much.  One painting I liked had been owned by Vincent and Theo, and had hung over their sofa in their apartment in Paris!  I can't seem to find that one online, though.  Another that struck me was a self-portrait:

  The Gauguin exhibition was quiet and uncrowded.  It was quite a shock to then enter the Van Gogh permanent exhibit, which was utterly thronged with tourists.  To see anything, you had to fight your way through the crowd, and you couldn't look at the paintings from a distance; if your nose wasn't practically pressed against the canvas, then there would be someone in front of you who nose was.  Not an ideal way to view these amazing works.  My (unsolicited) opinion is that they ought to make the museum open 24 hours a day.  They are getting more than enough foot traffic to pay for all the staff that would require, I'm sure, and I bet the place would be busy even at 3 AM.

  Anyhow, despite these issues, it was really neat to see in person so many paintings that I have seen only in reproduction all my life.  A few that I saw:

  I loved the first two particularly.  There were lots of other wonderful ones, of course.  It was really a great experience, despite the crowds.

  So then it was time for a late lunch before getting back onto the plane to go to Vienna.  I had planned to have Indonesian food, which there is a lot of in Amsterdam for colonial-historical reasons, and I had even researched the particular restaurant I wanted to eat at.  Sadly, because of the Monday thing I suppose, it was closed.  So was the next Indonesian restaurant I found, and the next, and the next.  At that point I gave up on Indonesian and went, instead, to Bridges, a fish restaurant that recently got quite a nice review in the New York Times; I had clipped and brought the review with me just in case, which paid off.  A nice quote from Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind."  :->

  Bridges wasn't as uniquely Amsterdam-y as Indonesian would have been, but it was very yummy.  Because my wife is a chef, I'll be posting lots of details about food on this blog, but if you're not interested, you can just skip it!  First of all, the menu (I believe you can click on these to see the full size photo):


  They brought a free appetizer while I was still browsing the menu (don't you love it when they do that?), of tiny fried shrimp, olives, and potato chips:

  These were all very yummy.  The shrimp were so small that they had been friend with the shell still on, which actually worked quite well.  It was all nice and salty, which was great since been pounding the pavement of Amsterdam for the past four hours!  I placed my order, and while I was waiting for it, they brought a second free appetizer!

  This was asparagus wrapped in salmon, with just a bit of chopped tomato and vinegar.  It had a very delicate flavor, and I would have to say I found it a bit underwhelming, but that might be because I was still feeling a bit dazed from exhaustion; it took me a little while to really get into the swing of things.

  Now the first dish I had actually ordered arrived.  These are the "palourde," from the raw bar menu.  They're tiny shellfish, about the size of a kumquat.  I had never heard of them before, so I course I had to try them.  They were very tasty!  I was so enthusiastic about the situation that I forgot to take a photo until after I had already eaten two:

  I had a lovely Chilean Chardonnay with my meal, recommended by my waiter.  I don't usually order Chardonnay; I'm afraid the over-oaked plonk Chardonnay of California has rather turned me off to it.  But I decided to trust my waiter, and I was not disappointed.  It was a really fantastic wine; every time I took a sip of it, I broke out into a huge smile.  Hard to say whether this was just giddiness from being at a fine restaurant in Amsterdam on two hours sleep; if anybody tracks down this wine and gives it a try, I'd like to hear what you think.

  The next course was the velvet crab bisque:

  The waiter brought out the bowl with a little pile of crab and other bits at the bottom, and then poured the bisque over the pile to make the final soup in front of me, which was a bit silly but fun.  This soup tasted absolutely fantastic for the first few bits, and then got to being so rich and buttery that I really wanted something to cut it with.  Happily, the wine served this function well.  I love a bisque with some chunks in it.  This one had a very smoky, intense flavor; it actually reminded me of gumbo.

  Still with me?  Almost done.  My wife works right now at Au Pied du Cochon, a restaurant in Montreal whose motto might as well be "everything tastes better with a slab of foie gras on top."  For comparison, and because my waiter recommended it, I got the monkfish with foie gras:

  I'm afraid I found this underwhelming.  It struck me as a dish without a center.  The fish was very mild, the foie gras lent mostly texture and fat to it, and the sauce didn't make a deep impression.  It was just a melange of fish and fat and salt and butter; it wasn't going anywhere.  To be fair, I was getting pretty full, and so I might just not have been in as appreciative a mood.  I can't imagine how those Michelin reviewers manage to retain any objectivity while gorging themselves at restaurants like this!

  Well, I won't be going into this level of detail for every meal, but since it was a pretty fancy place with pretty special food, I thought it might be of interest, at least to my wife.  I got out for roughly 65 euros, if I recall correctly, which isn't bad at all for a meal with wine and four appetizers!

  Waddled out, found my way back to the train station, zipped back to Schiphol, got my backpack out of the locker, zipped to the gate, got on the plane, flew to Vienna.  Smooth as butter.  Next time I have the chance, I'll do a layover in Amsterdam again; it worked incredibly well.


  1. When we went to the Van Gogh museum, it was the same thing. I can't remember what the exhibit was, but it was amazing, but all the tourists bypassed it to go see all the Van Gogh instead, which is great, but we couldn't figure out why they'd pass up such a great exhibit in the same building!

    The wine you had is a good vineyard - they make some nice reds as well. I can get some names if you are interested. I'll keep an eye out for the chardonnay.

    Palourde = clam in French, and they look very clammy to me :-)

    Anyways - what a fun mini adventure! Next time, it might be worth renting a bike, and I hope you find some rijsttafel!

  2. I want to go to the restaurant with you next time! It's been a long time we had fance dinner like that...