Interrailing has almost become a rite of passage for young middle class Europeans. As far as travelling goes it’s a relatively cheap way of making your way around Europe and has the potential to be as free as you want it to be. No rushing to get prebooked flights or feeling like you’ve missed out by having to leave a city on a certain date. If you’re willing to take the risk of not getting a seat on your train, you can fill out the pass on the platform while you’re waiting for it to arrive. I met a lot of people this summer who were totally winging it, deciding on their next destinations dependant on recommendations from fellow travellers. I’m not that chilled out about travelling and so we’d made an itinerary before heading off. Our first stop would be Amsterdam. I’d been there before, on a day trip when I’d stayed in Rotterdam, and wanted to have a chance to explore this infamous city.
Neither my travel buddy nor I are massive partiers so we avoided the central hostels and stayed in a Meinenger (a hostel/hotel chain) in Sloterdjik. We got a decent discount as Interrailers and were right next to the local train station. From here it was less than 5 minutes to Centraal and the centre of Amsterdam. As you may have guessed by my previous posts, food is an essential part of travelling for me. So we jumped right in and tried Ossenworst which is ox sausage. It was a lot like salami but richer and meatier – sort of like salami and black pudding had a delicious baby.
Kicking things off
We kicked off our first day by doing a city tour with New Sandeman’s tour company. Our guide was Axel, who was actually from Amsterdam (something of a rarity with tour guides given that they’re usually travellers who never left). Before this started I had to try some Dutch pastry seeing as there’s so many different kinds. I tucked into an Appelflappen (apple flap: sweet pastry folded over and stuffed with apples and cinnamon, covered in sugar) as we headed off to lean about Amsterdam’s history. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a beautiful city. The little streets, narrow houses and the famous canal network come together to make what you’d imagine from a European capital. I’m from Oxford, a famously medieval city full of old buildings and architecture. I honestly feel a little disorientated in newer cities. Rotterdam (which was almost entirely destroyed in WW2) made me feel like this. But I felt right at home in Amsterdam. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the city, as you’d expect from a nature, while also having the worst Dad jokes I’d heard from someone his age.
A personal favourite story that we learnt was about Napoleon’s annexation of the Netherlands. Before this, family names were not common in Holland, with Dutch people instead using patronymic names (ie a boy called Pieter whose father was called Jan would be Peiter Janszoon). Napoleon and his fancy French ways meant people had to register one family name and stick to it, passing this down to their children. The story goes that outraged by this the Dutch registered protest names that were rude or complete nonsense. Zondervan meaning ‘without surname’ is a favourite. Unfortunately when France lost control of Holland, turned out people thought this whole given name system was a good ‘un. And so some families were stuck with their protest names, even to this day. How true this is, I don’t know but it’s a great story.
We finished our tour in the neighbourhood of Jordaan where we had lunch at Café Sonneveld (Egelantiersgracht 72-74) as recommended by Axel. I had a traditional Dutch dish, stamppot with sausage. Stamppot is (like all good Northern European dishes) based on potatoes and is solid and warming. Not great food for the end of July but still delicious!
Bloemenmarkt and Pannenkoekenboot
The next morning my friend and I woke up early to head to Amsterdam’s Flower Market, the Bloemenmarkt. The friend I was travelling with is a biochemist whose special interest is plant genetics so he was in his element. There was a beautiful assortment of flowers in colour combinations I’d never seen before. Tulips were obviously a big feature but you could also buy all different kinds of bulbs and seeds. I think if we’d been at the end of our trip rather than the beginning our bags would have been full! You weren’t allowed to take photos of the actual flowers but there was a gorgeous selection of wooden tulips to choose from.
From here we wandered over to the Amsterdam Museum. We’d been meaning to go to the Rijksmuseum but we’d heard it was super crowded during the summer months. I’m really glad we went to the smaller one. It focused on the history of the city as a whole, tracing its origins as a small fishing village, through its history at the centre of a trading superpower, to the vibrant city it is today. The curation was excellent, leading you chronologically through Amsterdam’s timeline. Each room had a short video explaining the section of time that was the room’s focus. There was also a running side exhibition throughout the museum detailing the LGBT history of Amsterdam. I’d definitely recommend checking it out next time you’re in the city.
For me, however, the highlight of the trip was the Pannenkoekenboot. Yup, that’s right: the Pancake Boat. You pay €17 and get an hour and a half on a boat out in the port to eat as many pancakes as you can manage. They had three kinds: plain, apple and bacon. You could also ask for gluten free ones. Then there was a massive buffet full of toppings. We’re talking chocolate sprinkles, cheese, peaches, strawberries, a huge choice. I managed a respectable five. My father would have been proud.
That afternoon, full of pancakes, we headed into the Red Light District to explore. There’s a museum in a former brothel called Red Light Secrets that tells you a little about the history of prostitution in the city. It’s in an old narrow house and so can get a little crowded at busy times. But it’s an interesting set up and you learn a lot about the lives of the girls in Amsterdam’s famous windows. We also found a street with my name – a small victory for someone with an unusual spelling of ‘Bethanie’.
We finished up the day with some beer tasting while the rain absolutely hammered it down outside. Our time in Amsterdam had come to an end. Coming back to a city I’d already been to proved to be a good choice. I felt I’d had more chance to explore and still had a lot left to discover. But regardless we were off to Berlin. And it was a whole different kind of adventure to get there.