Out of Amsterdam
As great a city as it is, Amsterdam is just one Dutch place worth visiting.
By Paul Gerald
NOVEMBER 22, 1999: After you've spent a week in Amsterdam you tend to forget there's anything else happening in Holland. Amsterdam's got so many streets to explore, so many meals to enjoy, so much art to be awed by, so many sights to see, that you can get engrossed in it and never even think of leaving.
That would be a shame, because of course there are other cities in the Netherlands, and because the Dutch countryside is quite literally another world from Amsterdam. You can go to the town of Delft and see where they make the famous blue pottery. You can go on a tour of the canals out in the countryside or visit an old fish or cheese market. You can go see literally millions of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils in bloom in the spring. You can go see the windmills and a wooden-shoe factory.
When I was over there I went on two excursions out of the city. Because I have a thing for ships, I went to Rotterdam to tour the port there. And because I have a thing for small coastal towns and fishing fleets, I went to Volendam and Marken.
Rotterdam's is the largest port in the world and a genuinely mind-boggling spectacle of size and sprawl. I went on a two-hour cruise around it and was told that we had seen just a corner of it. Thousands of ships come and go every year, ships which would cause a sensation in the Mississippi but which are barely visible among the docks, cranes, bridges, and towers of Rotterdam. And, since I never paid much attention in history classes, I didn't know why so much of Rotterdam is so new, and especially the port area: It's because the Germans, in an unprovoked show of their air power, bombed the place to smithereens, early in World War II, in a single day.
Two things stand out from my tour, one massive in size, the other massive in significance. Towering above the Port of Rotterdam, almost 600 feet tall, is the EuroMast, Holland's answer to the Space Needle. You go up this thing and can see everywhere, since Holland is so flat, and then you get into a little capsule at the top, a round room with seating for a dozen or so. It spins around, and smoke comes out from beneath it, and there's this whole simulated space-rocket takeoff thing that's pretty cheesy. But since you don't get many chances to spin around 600 feet off the ground, I recommend it.
The other thing from the port tour: Somewhere amid the massive industry, a little river flows into the sea, the site of an old village that got swallowed by the city. It was from that spot that the original pilgrims, the ones who gave us the Thanksgiving holiday, left for America.
Old Holland is still in evidence throughout the countryside, and in some ways all that's changed is the technology. There are still windmills being built, but they're sleek, space-age white ones meant to generate electricity. They're also still claiming land from the ocean, which was the primary purpose of the old windmills pumping water out after an area was enclosed by a dike.
This century their big project was to separate the Zuider Zee from the North Sea and turn it into a lake, known as the IJsselmeer. The enclosing dike, finished in the 1950s, is almost 19 miles long, and eventually the entire lake will be pumped out and settled.
I went on a bus tour that stopped at an old-style cheese factory and then went on to the fishing towns of Volendam and Marken. Volendam looks like it just popped out of a time capsule; wooden boats fill the tiny harbor, where you can buy fresh fish and trinkets, book a tour on a tall ship, or step in out of the wind for a comforting cup of coffee. Tiny canals wind their way between gingerbread houses, and perfect little flower gardens are in every yard.
Marken is a more happening place, on an island reclaimed from the Zuider Zee. A long row of newer homes looks out over the water, and a waterfront strip of shops and restaurants and cafes was bustling even on the cold November day that I visited. A little stand was doing a brisk business in smoked eel and pickled herring and other things not immediately identifiable.
It was my last day in Holland, and I was all shopped out, all visited out, all touristed out. What I wanted was to sip my last cup of European coffee, which for some reason is so much better than ours, and think about things before I headed for the airport.
A man next to me at the counter asked where I was from, asked what I had been doing in Holland, and asked what I thought of his country.
"Well," I said, "I think Holland is a great place. You have one of the best cities in world, you have a tremendous history of world-exploration and local land-use, you have a beautiful countryside, and you have nice people. You have built yourselves quite a place here, and quite a lifestyle, and I envy you."
We raised our cups to the good life, and that night I was on my back to America.
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