When I first came to Spain, overwhelmed by cheap flight choices and 12-hour work weeks, I made a list of the top-5 places I wanted to visit before I went home. Ireland was up top, followed by Germany, Morocco, Portugal and Amsterdam.
I saw the Guinness factory in Dublin, visited Eva in Cologne, traveled to Tangiers with my family and saw two coasts of Portugal. And finally, this Semana Santa, I found myself on a plane from Madrid to Amsterdam with my friend Cat.
Semana Santa is a week of jaleo, religious processions and closed shops, mixed in with all-day drinking and soaring prices. In other words, as a resident of a neighborhood full of churches and narrow streets, I wanted out of Sevilla. The entire Catholic world comes to my city to watch several dozen church bodies, known as hermandades, dress up in long robes and pointy hats and parade around the city in penance and observance of Jesus’s death and rebirth. It’s not something I’m really into, honestly.
So, at 5:15 a.m., I was at Cat’s door, ringing endlessly to tell her that I had gotten a cab and he was waiting for us. Not surprisingly, neither of us had slept much and neither of us had many ganas to catch a plane at 7 a.m. After a quick jet to Madrid, where we bought a bottle of champagne and some fresh orange juice for mimosas and tried to get a person unlocked from her maze of an apartment, we were thankfully passed out on an Iberian flight to Amsterdam.
Martin was waiting for us at Schipol, a dazzlingly simple and clean airport. We took a train into the city to Staation Zuid, where rack after rack of bikes were parked at the entrance. Martin put us on a bus and he cycled to his house and waited for us there. These people have got it figured out with the bikes! Cars respect them, pedestrians respect them, there’s a place to park them everywhere!
Martin lives in a one-bedroom flat in the southern part of the city, a 10-miunte train ride from Leidespleine and the canals. He has a wall full of books, a comfy balcony and tall windows. Felisabel, whose sister is married to a Dutch man, explained to me that during the times of Calvinist thought, people were mandated to install large windows with no curtains so that everyone knew everyone’s business. This makes for little privacy, but a lot of light, and we certainly got a good day.
Taking advantage of that, we headed toward the city center, stopping to have a few beers in an open, golden plaza. The place was packed like a sardine can. We found a tapas place (oddly enough, the concept of bite-sized snacks has really caught on) and had creamy hummus, patatas bravas, an emapanda packed with broccoli and carrots and a bottle of house wine.
I have always touted my good sense of direction, but the rings of canals and alleyways in Amsterdam really turned me around. Cat and I spent several hours and several euros in beer on our quest for the Red Light District. We stumbled upon it – literally. Cat and I crossed a bridge and she was suddenly face to face with a prostitute in a glowing red cabin. We had arrived late enough for the drunks to be out, smoke wafting out of coffee shops and mingling with the smell of pizza and doner from every other storefront. It’s true what they say – the district glows red from the cabins where prostitutes for every fetish conduct their business. The red even shone on the canal. Cat and I indulged in some vices before we needed refueling – a strawberry covered waffle and french fries. We forgot about any shame as we gobbled it down!
The next morning/afternoon, we had a leisurely day walking around the city, following the canals and tram lines through the center. We had heard from Cat’s friend that there was a pillowfight in the main square, Dam Square, but no one we asked seem to know anything about it. After an overpriced buffalo mozzerella and salami sandwich, we found ourselves back in the Red Light District like moths to a (red) lamp. The stores there are outrageous. If it’s not a sex shop with all kinds of apparati. it’s a headsho full of marijuana memorabilia – Rastafarian ashtrays, lighters emblazoned with the flag of Amsterdam, etc.
Eventually it was time for our midday beer (Spanish beer consumption knows no time limits), so we wandered into a maritime themed bar called the Sailor or something. Not only were we the only girls, but we were the shortest by more than a head. Some guys tried to leave the bar and started talking to us, and we felt trapped by the five of them because they towered over us! We went to a more tranquil bar, where some old men tried conversing with me while Cat was in the bathroom. One of them told me his wife was a prostitute and therefore rich, making him available to me because they clearly had an open relationship. Yikes. Another with a wedding band offered to take Cat out. Turns out they were in town for a car show (hence the sausagefest in the other bar). I’ve discovered that most native Amsterdamers steer clear of the indulges like coffee shops and prostitutes, and that there aren’t so many old people in the city. Most of them live outside the city, which is inhabited by young professionals and students. A far cry from Sevilla and most of Spain.
We grabbed some wine and snacks to drink before heading out for the night. Martin suggested a place with live music in an old church called Paradiso. Sounded like something straight out of Ibiza, but we paid the 16€ to get in. The place was vacant at 1am (we should have known better), but we were soon joined by scores of revelers on the dance floor. We kept to ourselves – buying each other tequila shots and beers like we were on Spring Break, minus the nudity and ocean and stuff. At 3am, realizing we hadn´t ate, we went to a coffee shop that had exploded into a shop, a hostel and a restaurant to watch the NCAA semifinals and chow down on nachos and fries.`
The following morning, despite all of our efforts to wake up early, we finally got to the Van Gogh museum after two coffees and much later than our scheduled time of 10:30 a.m. The bottom level is was dedicated to Van Gogh´s impressions of the dusk and night hours, a wonderfully crafted progression from the hours a farmer leaves his hoe in the field to the deepest hours of sleep. Even the walls got steadily darker! I nearly fainted seeing some of Van Go´gh´s most famous pieces.
After an expensive lunch on a terrace near a canal, we walked through the Jordaan district to the anne Frank House. When I was a kid, I read her diary countless times, fascinated by her optimism and how her young mind could capture the fear and the restlessness so well. I´ve been dying to see the secret annex, and standing in line made me feel like a little kid about to pee his pants. Located on a street just steps off a canal and a huge church, it´s amazing how the back annex of the factory where Otto Frank once worked is invisible from the street. After the house was raided and the jam factory moved, the furniture was seized and Otto Frank requested it never be refurbished. The tour winds through the factory and contains a few artifacts of the family and those who helped them hide successfully for about two years. Up a narrow staircase is the two-story annex, void of most anything. Hard to imagine eight people living in there, silent during daytime hours. I got the same feeling visiting it as I had at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC.
After such an intense experience, I needed to calm down. Cat and I found a bar on a canal that was full of old, drunk people and 80s music. We moved around, stopping to have a few beers until we were, magically, at the Red Light District again. Strange. We sat in a coffee house until two boys a bit younger than us asked if we wanted to have a beer in honor of one´s birthday. Long story short, they were lame and we ditched them.
We spent the last two days in Amsterdam doing a lot of wandering, cruising down the canals and admiring the wonderful canal houses, drinking Dutch beer (with a quick trip to the Heineken Brewery), spending an afternoon in an English Language bookstore and drinking more beer. Martin came out for falafel with us one night and cooked the next. Many, many thanks for your hospitality, Martin!
Our trip home was relatively easy compared to the trip to Amsterdam. We caught a taxi back to Cat´s house and, upon leaving her house, I was face to face with the Hermandad de San Bernardo, a religious fraternity that counts bullfighters and the whole fire brigade as members. I was tired of the KKK-looking nazarenos after a short time, but I knew crossing the center of the city with a huge backpack would be impossible. And it was. When I arrived home, I called Kike who merely said,”Pack your suitcase. Tomorrow we´re heading to Asturias.”