Friday, May 22, 2015

Amsterdam - Home Swap Near VondelPark

Our flight to Amsterdam is the first one that we have taken since the traumatic events of last year when Air Canada lost our luggage and never found it again.  True to my word, I have become an enlightened traveler due to that experience.  I have been cured of over-packing and dragging along all my favourite possessions around the world.  Despite taking a SIX week vacation, we are going to try to survive with only carry-on luggage.  It helps that our trip will revolve around home swap stays in residences that have laundry, but it will still be a challenge.

Our home swap is in a great area near the north-west corner of the beautiful Vondelpark.  It is away from the crowds and bustle of the central canal rings but still within a 30-minute walk or 10 minute tram ride of it. It is fun to be able to experience living like locals in a residential neighbourhood.  In large parts of Amsterdam, a typical house is shaped in a tall narrow column that extends deep into the back.  This was driven by Amsterdam’s property tax laws, which taxed by building width and frontage as opposed to square footage. Most buildings have around 3-5 floors, each with high ceilings and huge windows. Because of the narrowness of the structure, the front door of the building is usually installed to one side to accommodate the steep, winding staircases leading to the upper floors. 

Many houses, including our home swap, have been converted into separate apartments, so a second door is installed beside the first one and used as the entrance to the ground floor unit.  In order to facilitate moving items to the top floors while avoiding the tiny door and steep stairs, a moving hook is attached to the gable of each house.  This allows large, heavy objects to be hoisted up and retrieved through the windows or balconies.  To facilitate this practice, the houses are designed to tilt forward, so that the objects being hoisted don’t damage the walls of the lower floors. I would love to see this moving hook and hoist strategy in action.  We even heard a story of someone requiring medical assistance who had to be transported down to the awaiting ambulance via a hoist attached to the moving hook! 

As luck would have it, our apartment is on the top floor, 3 flights and 51 steps away, which makes for good exercise each day but is not an event to look forward to after a long hard day of sightseeing.  Because they call the bottom floor the ground floor in Europe, we are supposedly living on the “3rd” floor when in reality, we are 4 floors up.  When we arrived at our home swap, our host popped her head out over the front window and tossed down a bag containing the building entrance key.  What an ingenious way to let your guests in without having to navigate all those steps yourself.  We were able to use this ploy ourselves when a canvasser rang the doorbell one day.  Instead of schlepping down and up the stairs, we simply stuck our head out the window and told them to go away.  The mail is also handled strategically. When the mail is delivered through the slot in the front door, the residents leave it at the foot of the first flight of stairs, so each of the upper level occupants can retrieve them as they pass by. One of our home swap duties is to sift through the mail sitting on the steps each day and retrieve any addressed to our host.

The apartment itself feels surprisingly big despite the narrow frontage. It has an industrial loft feeling with high ceilings, big open concept living-dining room area, painted wooden floors and exposed water heater pipe.  It is extremely well lit and airy with windows and balcony doors at both the front and the back of the unit.  In order to expand and maximize living space, the landings of each floor are used as extra storage for vacuums, brooms, folding chairs, umbrellas, ladders, shoes and other possessions, while the hallway walls are decorated with art and photos.  I have encountered the same issue in each of our European home swaps, which is the lack of sufficiently available or conveniently located power outlets to plug in our various devices–a laptop, an IPAD, an IPOD and two camera chargers.  On this trip, my prized purchase made at a local bazaar has been a 3-outlet extension cord, which I will now bring on all future European home swaps.

Amsterdam is certainly a city where the bicycle is king and apparently has right of way over all other types of vehicles or pedestrians.  It seems like every man, woman and child who lives in this city rides a bicycle as their means of transportation.  But because of the steep, narrow stairways, the bicycles seem to be permanently stored out on the street in front of the homes.  In the city centre, you see bicycles parked en mass everywhere, with some people getting quite creative as to where to leave them.  There are even multi-level parking garages for bicycles, not cars!

The bicycles here do not seem to have as many gears as North American bikes, probably because Amsterdam is quite flat for the most part.  No one wears a bike helmet here, and it seems quite the norm for the bicycles to transport groceries, parcels, multiple children or pets in carts or extra seats mounted in the front and/or the back.  We’ve witnessed all sorts of cycling etiquette which would be quite shocking back home, but seems normal here, including drinking coffee, texting while pedaling, or taking selfie photos while riding, sometimes with passengers sitting in weird positions including side saddle or even in front facing the rider.

It has taken a while to get used to the two-way bike lanes that run between the pedestrian sidewalks and the car or tram lanes.  The bikes come zipping along, sometimes in droves and at top speeds in both directions.  Trying to cross a busy intersection that contains bike lanes, tram lanes and car lanes is like playing a game of Frogger, where you jump from one safe platform to the next.  There are actually 3 traffic lights to navigate when crossing a busy road–one for the traffic coming from the left, one for the trams going in both directions and one for the traffic coming on the right.  But there are no traffic lights for the bicycles, which is the main problem.  Newcomers to the city need to learn to be vigilant and remember to look both ways before stepping into the bicycle lanes, or risk being knocked over.  If you do cause a crash with a bike, you will get annoyance and not much sympathy from them, since the accident will obviously be your fault.  “Dumb tourists!” they will curse under their breaths.
Although it is quite walkable from our home swap location to the City Centre, traversing the same 25 minute stretch each way every day quickly loses its appeal when followed by a full day of touring the sights.  Luckily, the tram (equivalent of our streetcar), that runs right through the middle of the canal rings, can be boarded just a couple of blocks from our apartment. Amsterdam has an excellent transit system where you pay by distance traveled using an OV-Chip card that you can load with money.  The same card works on trams, buses and trains. Amsterdam residents own personalized cards, while tourists can get anonymous cards. You tap the card against a reader when you enter a transit vehicle and again when you exit, to calculate your fare.  There are readers at all the entry doors of the vehicles so that there is not a bottleneck to pay at the front door.  Toronto needs to learn a thing or two about efficient transit from Amsterdam!

Using an OV-Chip card provides a significant discount on the fare.  Riding 10 stops from our place to Central station only costs 1.5 Euroes, while purchasing a ride ticket without it would cost almost 3 Euroes.  Our host was kind enough to pre-purchase and mail us “anonymous OV-Chip cards loaded with the correct products and sufficient money to allow us to take the train, then tram to her place from the airport, for a mere 5.6 Euroes.  In exchange, we left her TTC tokens to use in Toronto.  We had a bit of a challenge trying to figure out how to load more money onto our cards since the yellow machines at the train stations and grocery stores would not take cash or our foreign credit cards.  Finally we found the Tickets and Service Bureau at Central station where we could hand an attendant our credit card and have more money added to our OV-chip cards.

Created in the 17th Century, over 100 kilometres of man-made canals wind their way throughout Amsterdam, culminating in the central canal rings, initially built to surround the former shipping gateway and now the site of the Central Station.  Three main canals form the central canal rings, which were recently named a UNESCO Heritage site.  The outer ring named Prinsengracht (gracht being Dutch for canal) is the Prince’s Canal, named after the Prince of Orange.  Next is Keizersgracht, named for King Maximilian of Austria and the widest canal at 31 metres.  Finally Herengracht, the Lords’ Canal, was where the richest, most influential citizens resided.

The spectacular views of the canals are definitely the highlight of Amsterdam and we can’t seem to take enough photos of them.  Within the city centre, you can’t go very far in any direction without running into one.  The 3-meter deep canals are spanned by over 1500 bridges that enable pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles and even trams to navigate through this area.  At one of the many benches overlooking a canal, I followed what is now a well-honoured travel tradition that has been repeated at iconic sites all over the world including the Tower of London, Notre Dame in Paris, and Ciutadella Park in Barcelona–I took a nice little cat nap in the sunshine.

Much of Amsterdam is situated on swamp land, so houses were built on timber stilts 12-20 meters long that were driven down until solid rock was reached.  Some of these stilts may have shifted over time, which is why you see some houses with a significant tilt sideways (in addition to the intentional tilt forward to accommodate the moving hook).  In addition to the beautiful view, some houses situated right on the canal have the advantage of being able to moor a boat right in their “front yard”.  The waterways are usually busy with the tour boats, shipping boats and local pleasure boats all jockeying for position.

You can date often date a house by the shape of its gable. The “stepped” gable dates back to the 16th Century or earlier, while the more ornate gables were installed during the Golden Age of the 17th Century.  As houses get renovated or newly constructed, you can see the style of gables continuing to change until quite modern ones start to appear.  The one constant in most of these homes though is the presence of the moving hook.

Given the amount of water that flows through Amsterdam, and the physical instability of the landlocked homes, it is not surprising to find a large number of houseboats on the canals.  The houseboats became popular after World War II as a stop gap measure for a housing shortage.  But so many were built that there is now a ban on the issuance of new houseboat licenses. Around 2500 houseboats can be found throughout the canals of Amsterdam, ranging from the equivalent of an old shed, to large luxurious ones with decks and lawn chairs, barbeques and even rooftop gardens.

Wandering around the magical canals has definitely been a major highlight of our visit to Amsterdam.

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