Amsterdam – The Venice of the North

Starting as a small fishing village in the 12th century, Amsterdam became a very important port, during the 17th century, and it is even in the current days, one of the top financial centres in Europe. The city, situated 2 meters below sea level, was originally named Amstelredamm, being built as a dam of the river Amstel. At its lowest point, Amsterdam is situated 6.7 meters below sea level.

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Why Venice of the North?

It’s simple. Amsterdam is the home of more than one hundred kilometers of canals, which divide the city into 90 islands, connected by more than 1,200 bridges (more bridges than Venice has). This gives tourists the almost unique opportunity of visiting the city by water and also by land. Pretty neat I would say, especially when both experiences give you a totally different feel of the vibe Amsterdam has. 

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The most famous bridge in Amsterdam- The Skinny Bridge

The Water Canals 

Beautiful to see, since the early 14th century, and click pictures of, but the locals will tell you the canals are there for much more than the pretty sight.

What better way to describe them, than: city planning at its best?

The concentric half-circle canals were used for transportation, defense, and of course, water management, being built gradually, as the city grew larger and larger. During the Dutch Golden Age, the canals were used as open sewers, so the smell of success was to experience only from behind the windows. Fortunately, the smell improved in time, and the water is cleaner than ever.

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The most popular canals in Amsterdam are: Herengracht (The Canal of the Lords),  Keizersgracht (The Emperor’s Canal), and Prinsengracht (The Prince’s Canal), best being seen from a boat.

Amsterdam looks spectacular from the water so, I definitely recommend a canal cruise, but keep in mind that the city transforms completely when it’s dark. Just to make sure I don’t miss a thing, I took both trips. Well worth it! 🙂

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This place is called ‘Seven Bridges’ because it is the point from where you can see seven bridges of Amsterdam

The Buildings 

From all the cities I’ve been to, Amsterdam has the richest and most beautiful architecture, by far. Most buildings were constructed into the 16th, 17th and 18th century, and even in the present day, are still in great condition and used by locals. DSC_2423

At a closer look, you will notice some buildings are tilted, and are called the Dancing Houses. This is because many homes are converted warehouses built with a slight tilt to prevent the goods from damaging the building’s facade on the way up or down (dutch homes have very narrow stairs, so the only way to carry massive goods is on the outside of the house – that’s why the hoisting beams with a hook).

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All buildings are supported by 15 to 20 meter long wood poles, fixed into the soil. A typical house has 10 wooden poles, but the Centraal Station is supported by around 9,000 poles! You visit a city built entirely on poles. Impressive, or what?

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Amsterdam’s Centraal Station

The Houseboats 

Amsterdam is the home of over 2,500 houseboats, varying from small, simple structures to converted commercial vessels, or custom built multi-level houses. The houses are not motorized, but fixed, built either on a floating pontoon made of concrete or on an old metal ship (woonschip).

The houseboats used to provide a cheap accommodation, after the second world war, when there was a housing shortage. Nowadays they are nothing but cheap, and are connected to the city sewage system, electricity and gas. Some are permanently inhabited by locals, while others are rented to the tourists.

The Flower Market

Amsterdam’s flower market is the only floating flower market in the world, the flower stalls being located on the houseboats. Here you can buy the famous dutch tulips, narcissus and other flowers and garden decorations.

If you like flowers, this is definitely the place for you!

The triple X

DSC_198If you walk around Amsterdam, you will definitely see it everywhere. It’s important to know that the XXX on the city’s coat of arms does not stand for pornography (sorry to disappoint 🙂 ), but they represent the crosses of Saint Andrew, a fisherman who was martyred on an X-shaped cross, in the 1st century. It is said they also represent the three kisses Dutch people give on the cheeks, when they great each other.

The Bicycles – local favorite transportation 

Amsterdam, as most cities in Netherlands, is not very car friendly, so the most popular transportation is … the bicycle! It’s estimated that the city is home of more bicycles than people (over 881,000 bicycles for under 800,000 people). Most dutch people have more than one bicycle, using each one, depending on the weather conditions, destination and number of passengers (mommy bicycles have up to 2-3 child seats).

Around 25,000 bicycles end up in Amsterdam’s canals each year, and around 100,000 get stolen. The locals claim pretty much every bicycle on the streets was stolen at least once!

The Cheese Stores

When you think about Netherlands a few things pop into your mind: tulips, windmills and … cheese! Cheese making industry extends all the way back to the time of Julius Caesar, so Dutch people really know their cheese. No trip to Amsterdam should be complete without a visit to a local Cheese Store.

DSC_2024Being a cheese fanatic ever since I can remember, I was very much looking forward to this. Before my first contact with Netherlands, I was sure I knew how cheese looks, smells and taste like, but this country looked up the term of ‘cheese’ in my dictionary, highlighted it, then ripped the whole page out, and rewrote Every Single Little Detail.

The variety goes from Gouda to Edam to Boerenkaas to Herb cheese to any other type you can think of. Plenty from which to choose, but for me, it was the hardest decision I had to make, in a cheese store 🙂

Other Landmarks

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Munt Tower – Munttoren

The Munt Tower (Munttoren), built in 1619-1620, is a southern tower of Amsterdam, located where the Amstel river and the Singel canal meet. It was originally part of the main gates of the city’s medieval wall. The name of the tower comes from the purpose of the building, in the 17th century, which was to mint coins.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

The Dam Square is the center and heart of the city, home of the impressive Royal Palace, built in 1648, on 13,659 wooden poles. In the 17th Century it was used as the City Hall. Later it became the royal palace of King Louis Napoleon.

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Nieuwe Kerk

Nieuwe Kerk located in the Dam Square, next to the Royal Palace, is a 15th century church, currently used as an exhibition space. It was built after the Old Church became too small for the population of the city. The Dutch royal investiture ceremonies and weddings take place in this location. Inside it you will find a museum store and a burial space for the national naval heroes.

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Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum is the Dutch national museum, containing around 8,000 art objects, from as early as the 1200’s, and is, for me, one of the most beautiful and impressive buildings in Amsterdam. Located in the Museum Square, the building is close to the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. Also, the famous I Amsterdam letters are located in the same spot.

From all the cities I’ve been to so far, Amsterdam is still my favorite, and is always a pleasure to go back. The unique architecture combined with the water canals and the history, takes it all the way to the number one city in my book.

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Cycling in Bucharest – Extreme Survival

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a very active person, constantly involved in all type of activities, switching from jogging to basketball to swimming to rollerblading to hiking to Pilates and others.

As traveling, reading and getting informed always opens your mind, I wanted a change in lifestyle, to pollute less, exercise more and stay healthy. Having said all this, I’ve decided a few month ago, to start cycling, like most people do in any civilized country from the West. But this isn’t easy in a country where the national sport is sitting on a bench in the park and listening to loud music on the phone speakers while eating sunflower seeds and making fun of the people who exercise.

Extreme Survival – How to Guide?

You want to become a cyclist in Romania? Then you have to be ready to fight the drivers who turn you into a moving target, nasty looks and stupid questions like: ‘Why don’t you just get a driver’s licence and drive a car like a normal person does?‘ ( news: I already have one!).

To make it even more interesting, there is no such things as bike paths in Bucharest. Besides this, riding the bike on the side of the road puts you in danger, as passengers open the car doors without any warning, drivers turn left or right without looking into their side mirrors, and pack of strays try to bite your legs off.

In a country where everyone drives only thinking about themselves ( and sometimes not even this much) cyclists have a very hard time! It’s not a day in Bucharest in which I don’t witness an accident and see many more about to happen, being avoided in the last minute.

After getting the bicycle, I’ve spend half a day on the internet trying to figure out where can I cycle safe in the capital city, like you do in any other European city, on a bike path. Hours later, the answer: you can’t! You either cycle in the park ( for a beginner is ready hard when needing to avoid unpredictable dogs and kids) or on smaller roads of very poor quality ( cracks and street bikes just don’t go together) or the only bike path in Bucharest, a very small one, which looks like this.

The choice you have to make in Bucharest: shall I risk hitting a dog/child in the park OR get my wheel stuck in a crack in the perfect Romanian concrete from side streets or smaller roads OR hit a pole/car on the famous bike path above?

Decisions, decisions …

Proud Cyclist

As every change always starts with yourself, ignoring all of the above, it was time to find the right bicycle, MY bicycle, and I’m sure the right choice has been made.

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And I couldn’t be more proud. I feel like a kid, who finally got the desired toy, when I ride my new baby. Now I can’t say I’m an expert when it comes to bicycles, but she’s definitely a work of art!

It was complicated to learn how to ride it properly ( the bicycle is wicked fast so it took me a few hours to master it), and the bad road quality, mixed with the constant stress of being hit by a car or hitting a pedestrian or a puppy, made it even harder. But, practice makes perfect!

It’s been less than a month now, and after 100 km of riding it, I’m happy to say the only problem I had was with a fence which jumped in front of my bike when I passed by it ( this is exactly how it happened and I stick to my story! 🙂 ). Even so, I try to ride on small side roads, parks and forests, later in the evening, when the chances of getting into conflicts with the traffic or pedestrians are significantly smaller. Other option I’ve found, was to travel by car to a remote location, and cycle on the secondary roads in the area. Ideal? Not in the least, but is better than no cycling at all.

My biggest wish for Romania: a change in mentality. You are not ‘cool’ if you make fun of joggers/cyclists and you won’t become any ‘cooler’ if you drive a car and show no respect for the other people in traffic. I wait for the moment when people will start driving conscious about other traffic participants and see the benefits of cycling: less traffic jams, health improvement, cleaner environment.