Prior to checking out in the morning, Viking asked that we put a special tag on our bags, which had been mailed to us weeks prior to the trip. They also instructed us to leave our bags outside of our hotel door promptly at 8:15 and they would be retrieved by staff….so we followed instructions and left our bags outside of our door (which included my laptop, camera, and medicines). However, after breakfast, we went back upstairs an hour later and our bags were still in the hallway. This hotel was large, and the Viking cruise members were just a fraction of the guests…not to mention that we were on the 2nd floor and there was no restriction on entry to the hotel. So we brought our bags down to the hotel concierge and continued on with our day.
Now that we were totally comfortable taking the tram around town, thanks to my wife who figured it all out, we felt like we could easily go out and see whatever we wanted with relative ease. Our first stop was the Rijksmuseum, the National Art Museum. We were told that school is still in session (but near the end) so large school groups frequent the museums this time of year…this is also the case in the US. So in order to avoid annoying school kids (and I have a 10 year old school kid, so I can say that) we set out to be there right at 9AM, when the museum opened. This was not a problem for me, as I have been getting up at 4:30/5 every morning. While I don’t have jet lag for the first two days, it typically sneaks up on me a few days in and screws up normal patterns.
The museum building is a grand 1885 structure built similar to a church, with the two imposing towers flanking the main bay. However, unlike a church, on the facade, instead of religious figures, you find the names of famous Dutch artists, and on the interior of the museum, the stained glass glorifies men such as Rembrandt rather than telling Biblical stories. The museum recently underwent a 375€ renovation which kept it closed for several years, but the results are stunning…it’s a stunning building.
Our arrival plan worked, and we got to the museum early and before any kids had shown up. No lines and no crowds…not even for the museum’s centerpiece….”The Night’s Watch”, by Rembrandt. Like the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre, this is THE artwork that defines the museum. It was much larger than anticipated and quite impressive. They have this very elaborate mechanism that allows the painting to drop down in a concealed opening in the floor and then directly out of the building, should there be some emergency such as a fire where they have to get it out fast. Pretty cool.
Rather than go and on about the museum, I’m simply going to show you the things that stood out to me on our visit. They have a little bit of everything, like the Metropolitan Museum in New York….artwork, furniture, porcelain, artifacts, models….it is quite an extensive collection.
We saw some amazing Dutch art and artifacts at the Rijksmuseum. You should remember that at their height of power, the Dutch were an amazing sea-faring empire that had colonies all over the world including New Amsterdam ( which would later become New York)…throughout the Caribbean…in South Africa…Malaysia and Indonesia, etc.
We left the museum and had a hiccup that occasionally happens when traveling to an unknown place…a moment when you have the unfortunate combination of being ravenously hungry, frustrated, thirsty, undecided, annoyed, and a bit irritated with one’s spouse….it happens to the best of us, but it passes. For us, after leaving the museum, we didn’t know where we wanted to go, exactly the best way to get there or what to do when we got there…so there was a bit of back and forth until a compromise was made.
Our next stop was “Our Lady in the Attic” Church, which happens to have the unfortunate fate of being located smack in the middle of the red-light district and a major tourist trap. We did NOT want to eat lunch there. We hate to pay for overpriced mediocre food. So I did a little research and found a spot that had a local vibe with organic, whole food called Gartine. We made our way there and found it to be a funky/granola/hippie type eatery cum Tea House.
We literally ate like rabbits with a very vegetarian lunch and a rose and lime tea to wash it down! We also finished it with a lemon meringue pie, which fit in with their homey vibe, but I chose not to photograph it…if it wasn’t documented, then the calories weren’t real.
After lunch, we walked by an unassuming gate and decided to take a peek. It turned out to be an enchanting little Catholic commune within the neighborhood called the Het Begijnhof. You can read the story behind it in the photo below. It’s basically another example of the Dutch being very tolerant of others despite explicit rules and laws. In this case, when the city was Protestant and did not allow the practice of Catholicism, this hidden little Catholic village within the city was allowed to exist because of its discreet nature. We will see this again at our next stop, “Our Lady in the Attic“, and you see it with modern issues like pot and prostitution. If quasi illegal things are kept discreet and operate within a sort of illegal but rule abiding realm, they are tolerated by citizens and authorities.
Our Lady in the Attic
The last stop of the day, before going back to the hotel to join the cruise, was Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, or “Our Lady in the Attic”, a clandestine Catholic church built-in the attic of a canal house. There were other such hidden churches, but I think this is one of the only surviving examples. They were used during the 17th century when (openly) practicing Catholicism was against the law.
The bottom portion of the house depicts things as they would have been in the late 1600’s, a typical merchant house along the canal. But as you continue up through the house, and ascend the final set of stairs, you turn the corner to find this astonishing little gem…a complete little Catholic Church–pews, an altar, an organ…two balconies…all within an attic.
When we finished our tour of the church in the attic and walked around the oldest part of Amsterdam, with most of the structures dating to the 16th century.
Some Final Thoughts on Amsterdam
There is never enough time in any new city that you visit. We’ve spent several weeks in Paris and even that only gives you enough time to scratch the surface at everything that there is to see. But in our brief survey of Amsterdam, I would have to say that I would especially recommend it to folks that are new to European travel. Start in Amsterdam before heading further afield into Europe and you will be rewarded with a lovely city with unique architecture, quaint and quirky canals, amazing museums, a counter-culture to experience (if that is your thing), good food both local and international, very walkable but with convenient public transport, it’s quite clean by our New York City standards (which isn’t hard to manage as New York is very dirty), Amsterdam is not terribly expensive, and best of all, the people of Amsterdam speak English nearly perfectly and without hesitation. If you want to go to Europe for the first time but are intimidated by language or culture barriers (we were like this many years ago) Amsterdam is a great introduction to European travel. And even if you are well-traveled but have never been before, it’s a city with its own individual vibe that is very welcoming, laid back and inclusive. We will be back, for sure.
The Viking Cruise Begins
We were supposed to report to the hotel lobby at 3PM to depart by bus for the ship. When we got back to the hotel, everyone else seemed to have already arrived (this will be a recurring theme). There was a bit delay in boarding, and we also had the task of going into a large holding room and identifying our bags one last time before departing.
This hotel lobby situation should have also been a foreshadowing of the vibe on the ship. As I said, we were probably the last to arrive…we wanted to use every minute we had to sightsee….but this older bunch had arrived well before necessary, as they seemed either afraid to miss the bus and/or just anxious to get on the ship (or both). To be honest, there was even an option to stay in Amsterdam and catch a shuttle bus to the boat at 5PM…and even we were too intimidated to do that (to my knowledge, there were no takers on that 5PM shuttle).
Once again, we were divided up into smaller groups and put on the shuttle buses. These buses would become all too familiar over the course of the 2 week journey. They are quite comfy, but they isolate you from wherever you happen to be….we like to take subways/metros/trams/buses with the locals….that is how you really get a feeling for a city.
Our original and intended ship, the Viking Vili, was actually trapped on the Danube on its way back to Amsterdam by shallow water and a barge that blocked the river. So we were given another Viking ship, which was supposedly a twin ship, named the Viking Mimir (all of the Viking long boats are named after Viking gods). In addition, the Amsterdam port authority, which designates where you dock, gave Viking an atypical docking point for our ship, which was very distant from the center of town. Typically, it is much closer to the Amsterdam’s center, but in our case, we had about a 30 minute bus ride to a rather industrial dock on the outskirts of town (or so it seemed).
Once again. something that we would encounter several times….our ship was docked directly beside a sister ship that was going on a different cruise. They literally dock these ships side by side to within inches of one another. We had to pass through the other ship to get onto Viking Mimir.
Viking river cruise ships have about 5 different room choices….from simple, small rooms below deck with only port hole-type windows, to the most extravagant type of room, the Explorer Suites, which there are only 2 of on the ship. Those rooms, which are astronomically expensive, face the rear and have wrap around windows, room service, and are quite large, by ship standards. As part of our “splurge” trip, we chose the 2nd best type of room, a Veranda Suite. We have a nice living room with a sitting area and a balcony that we can sit on, plus a separate bedroom with a french balcony, a nice walk in shower…and lots of light and extra space. We also get complimentary laundry service, and they stock our refrigerator with water and wine every day.
So far, we are pleased with everything. The rooms are small by hotel standards….but that is the case in any type of cruise situation, and we are lucky to have a much larger Suite by comparison to most people on this cruise. Also, as New Yorkers, we live in a small apartment and are accustomed to dealing with tight quarters. From what we could tell, most of the fellow shipmates are retired folks in older age brackets, but there is definitely a contingency of 40/50 year olds like ourselves, and two 18-year-old girls with their parents….so we are not the youngest on the cruise.
We enjoyed our first dinner on the ship, and then at around 11:30, we left the shores of Amsterdam to start our two-week journey.
First stop is Kinderdijk in the Netherlands. I will check in tomorrow as we head out into the land of windmills.