Anything and everything with the word ‘free’ involved is a real eye-catcher when you’re a traveling student with a limited budget. Naturally, we had to take Amsterdam up on one of its free walking tours. The Sandeman’s New Europe walking tour came highly recommended (according to the Yelp gurus), so I booked us in for a midday tour on a muggy, overcast Friday.
Diego and I started the day at “The Breakfast Club” restaurant near our hotel, where I couldn’t quite shut up about how good my Mexican-inspired breakfast feast was. Diego tends to eat his meals quietly with a furrowed brow and a critical palate. I prefer to enthusiastically describe every second bite, whether my fellow diner asked to hear about it or not. WOW, that’s a great cherry tomato. Mmmmm. OH MAN, if I mix a bit of this sour cream with the beans and tortilla, it’s heaven in my mouth. Ahhh. Have you ever seen an egg cooked so perfectly?
I’m not sure which one of us is more unbearable to share a meal with.
We met in the bustling Dam Square behind the National Monument, which our tour guide would later go on to berate for it’s apparent ugliness (it really isn’t that bad at all, except for being a wee bit grey and phallic-shaped but I don’t think that’s anything new when it comes to monuments). After being efficiently split into groups, our little clan of 15 or so gathered around our guide, Rocco, for some introductions.
The universe works in funny ways – or perhaps it’s just the magic of Amsterdam – but we met a fellow Vancouverite in our tour group who not only went to Capilano University, but graduated from the MOPA film program a year after Diego did, and shared many mutual friends and acquaintances with him. She’s been travelling around Europe since last September, and from the sounds of it, is enjoying living the carefree traveler life as much as possible before her eventual return to Vancouver.
A word of caution to anyone who hasn’t taken a walking tour: wear good shoes. Even my trusty Nike’s didn’t quite cut it on our 3.5 hour trek through the city. Every time we stopped to hear a story or appreciate an attraction, my entire body had the urge to sit, squat or lay down flat on the cobblestones to let my feet rest (I swear I only caved a few times – city cobblestones are relatively clean, right?).
Our guide expertly wove us through the narrow and crowded streets, showcasing Amsterdam’s smallest house, and its hidden churches; passionately describing the height of the Dutch East India Company; and explaining the city’s convoluted and illogical laws surrounding marijuana, among many other things. It felt as though the city’s personality grew more robust and nuanced the further we walked. Three tidbits I found particularly interesting:
- Although it’s legal to purchase and use marijuana in Amsterdam’s coffeeshops (up to 5 grams), it is illegal for suppliers to grow the product and sell it to the coffeeshops. It seems that in the murkiness of applying laws surrounding marijuana, Amsterdam’s policymakers find it easiest to assume that the products sold in coffeeshops magically appear there overnight thanks to faeries. Maybe unicorns? Elves?
- Why are Amsterdam’s houses often so uneven, leaning and crooked? Apparently, a house leaning sideways (into the one next to it) is unintentional; a byproduct of the wooden piles beneath the old houses slowly sinking into the mix of sand and water below. However, the houses which lean forward over the street are built intentionally so. The hooks hanging in the decorative gables are used to hoist furniture and goods up into the windows, as the vast majority of staircases in Amsterdam’s houses are too narrow and steep to allow pianos and couches a smooth route up. If the house wasn’t tilted forward, these large items would hit the windows and walls on the exterior of the house on their way up to their destination floor.
- The final point of interest on the tour, a statue of Eduard Douwes Dekker (showcased by his pseudonym, Multatuli), was an unexpected surprise for me. From various courses at SFU, I recalled him as a former Administrative Officer in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), turned author and critic with his book Max Havelaar (1860). This novel was exceptionally unappreciated by his peers at the time, as it sought to expose the abuse and injustice of colonialism in the Ditch East Indies. Although apparently quite bad with money, and a poor family man, Multatili swam upstream with his ideas – despite it’s negative impact on his career – during a time when justice for indigenous peoples was largely absent from the agendas of the large colonizing entities.
Overall, a fantastic tour with a guide who was both knowledgeable and a wonderful storyteller. Of course, what is advertised as ‘free’ is rarely so – we felt Rocco deserved a generous tip for his skill and enthusiasm. The tour ended with sunny, cloudless skies, on the edge of the hip Jordaan district, where I invited (some might say dragged) Diego and our newfound Vancouverite friend to check out a thrift store, Episode.
(Click images to enlarge)