Leiden: Windmills, students & Rembrandt’s home

Leiden is a pretty city with its beautifully maintained center, its canals and windmills. The town also has a nice vibe going, especially once students flood the bars and cafes after university. For a change, even the weather was kind and it appears that spring has finally arrived with tulip fields blossoming left & right of the train-line from Amsterdam. 

To get to Leiden is easy. Just hop on one of the many trains from Amsterdam Centraal and enjoy a 45min ride through the Dutch countryside (EUR20 return). What i enjoyed most were several tulip fields in all sorts of colours that you can see on the way to Leiden. Not quite as many as in Keukenhof, but nice nonetheless. The tulip period runs from mid-March to May in Holland … so hurry if you want to make it this year!

A few facts about Leiden: Leiden has some 124,000 inhabitants and its history goes back to the 9th century. It boasts the oldest university in the Netherlands founded in 1575 (celebrated independence from Spain) and its student population remains a defining feature today with 28,000 students (in Leiden & The Hague). It’s old town is second only to Amsterdam and a pleasure to wander around in.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn – Leiden’s most famous son: Born as the son of a miller in 1606, it became clear early on that Rembrandt wasn’t cut out for this and just wanted to paint. So paint he did! His birthplace in Leiden is marked with a plaque though is not really that exciting. For the interested, you can follownRembrandt’s path a visit hit Latin school and other places (see here).

What to do in Leiden? Apart from just walking about, I recommend visiting the Volkenkunde Mueseum (that is, if you feel like checking out non-Dutch stuff), Molenmueseum de Valk (nice views & good info about mills in the area) the Burcht (interesting historic site with a view as well).

Windmills in Leiden: Windmills have been used for many purposes prior to the industrial revolution when wind energy was replaced by steam power. In Leiden, as in other places in Holland, you can find poller mills. These serve the purpose of machinery as well as keeping the water out given Holland c30% of Holland is below sea level. 


Back in Amsterdam: Catch-up with family

It appears I managed to miss the first good weekend in Amsterdam (weather wise) by being in London. Anyway, it has markedly improved making wandering about town much more enjoyable. To my surprise, my dad was here for a few days, so after I don’t how many years, we could catch up on life. Right after my sister arrived and we enjoyed a day on the bikes and an entertaining time with her friends. I am back at school as well.

Surprising catch-up with dad: I haven’t had much contact with my dad throughout my life. In fact, the last time we met is more than 10y ago. We are, however, on facebook where he did congragulate me on my Lhotse summit last year. On the occasion of his birthday last week I asked if his river cruise would take him to Amsterdam anytime. To my surprise, he said that he will be here only few days later. Time to catch up with what has happened over the years, other siblings, relationships etc. Hope we won’t wait another 10y for the next time.

Cruising the canals with sister’s friends: Frances was the first to book a flight to come and visit. Her visit turned out to coincide with that of herr good friend Johanna who visited their common Amsterdam based friends. They have been here for a while and own a canal boat. After a solid day out on the bikes (a first for both of us in AMsterdam), we had a great time floating around in Amsterdam with the friends and finished it off with a nice dinner at their local restaurant. Even the weather played ball and provided for a fair amount of sunshine on the fine afternoon. Thanks again!

Upgrade at school: I decided to take another 2w of Dutch classes. When interviewed on the phone (something i didn’t immediately realised), the head teacher suggested to skip the A1/2 level and go straight for A2/B1 – a level I am working on still for Russian and Spanish. German knowledge clearly helps. The class is pretty fun with 3 new faces (Abdo from Lebanion, Katya from Moscow, Akin from Jamaica) though i can feel the step-up in level and homework now takes a little longer than I was used to. But its coming together. I guess one grows with its challenges.

Fun night out with the Irish: Sean, an Irish chef, I met pretty early on in Amsterdam. A man with an incredible amount of optimism! He invvited me out while his friends were visiting. Great fun to hang out in my favorite Irish pub on Rembrandtsplein  and a coffee shop nearby, confusion included ;o)

“I arrived in Amsterdam with three fucking lighters and have none left. I am here not even 24 hours!”

Amsterdam walking tour: Fun facts

I seem to enjoy the free walking tours wherever I go (more or less). They often offer a more fun way to explore the city and feel less like an outdoor history lesson. So after my tour in Lisbon in February, Amsterdam was naturally next this time with http://www.freedamtours.com. At last, I need to gain some knowledge prior to the arrival of visitors later in April. So below is what I will tell them (so if you are coming over … please stop reading here ;o).

Where does the name Amsterdam come from? Amsterdam was built on swamps as a fisher village in the 12th century in the location that is now central station. Water ingress was obviously a big nuisance, so the people built a dam on the river Amstel. As you will have undoubtedly guessed by now, thats what gave the city its name. 

Why the narrow (squeezed) houses that never look entirely straight? Back in the days, the taxation of houses was by width and I guess land wasn’t cheap either. So people built narrow, high houses instead. The staircases are worthy of a mountaineering training session. Given the complications that implied for moving places, all houses are fitted with a hook and pulley at the building’s gable to move stuff through windows. So that you don’t hit the wall constantly, the houses are also forward leaning. Further, since the Dutch built on a swamp the houses needed some form of stable fundament by ramming tree trunks into the ground. On average its 40 trees for a normal sized house.

What do Amsterdam, sailors, prostitutes and children have in common? They have in fact the same patron saint – Saint Nicolas. He is also the saint of pawnbrokers, merchants, the country of Russia and the city of Moscow. 

Sex business & the church: That goes back a long time and is closely related to the Dutch marine efforts. Back then, sailing was a high risk job as many boats didn’t return from their expeditions. Naturally, the surviving sailors partied hard before heading to their next quest. Prostitution and partying sailors went hand in hand even though it wasn’t legal at the time. As so often, the Dutch took a pragmatic approach of tolerance. They preferred the sex trade to ‘good girls’ falling into sailors hands. Now, another thing with sailors was that they were rather superstitious. So they felt uneasy to leave the shore as sinners … and got absolution from the local churches (either before or after the act had taken place). Good business for the church and one reason why there is quite a lot of churches in Amsterdam. 

Why is it called the ‘red light district’? The name seems to originate from the red lights that were used to indicate the business is open. It also has a favorable side effect to wait for customers in red light since it gives you a nice makeover and lets your skin look better. There are also blue lights to be found in Amsterdam – they indicate transsexual workers. 

The miracle of Amsterdam … be underwhelmed! Even before the Spanish arrived the city was a pilgrimage destination owing to the ‘miracle of Amsterdam’. A dying man was given his holy sacrament e.g. given bread representing the body of christ. He vomited and the vomited bread was put into the fire. While the man died, the bread survived the fire and was then recognised as a miracle. A pilgrimage church was erected and many people came to the city (more business!). 

Talking religion: Being home to some 250 nationalities, the city has to be reasonably pragmatic when it comes to religion. Originally Holland was Catholic owing to the Spanish king, himself a catholic, running the country. That, however, changed when Martin Luther entered the stage. You see, as a catholic it was always a little troublesome to be too rich while it is much more tolerated for protestants. The Amsterdam’s, especially in the golden age of the 16/17th century, liked that (e.g. now they wouldn’t have to go to hell).

The Spanish sent an army to mend things, but were defeated in the 80 year independence war under the leadership of William of Orange. Catholicism was then outlawed for 150y, but again in Dutch style tolerated if practiced behind closed doors. That’s why you have many hidden churches that were constructed in normal residences and often are still in service today. Being now on the side of non-catholics caused a major influx of people especially in the period of the spanish inquisition including many jewish people (that further brought sea maps to holland from the then pre-eminent marine power – Portugal – helping the rise of the dutch east & west indian companies and a key fundament for the Dutch golden age).

Coffee Shops & Marihuana remain a grey zone with a lot of tolerance and a good portion of looking away: If you thought weed was legal in Holland – think again. It is not, but tolerated. You can possess 5g and even grow up to 5 plants and coffee shops can sell the gear. They can’t, however, buy the gear legally wholesale and so it magically appears in their storage. Weird, but politicians turn a blind eye (although there were coffee shop closures nearby schools to avoid being only able to sell weed to locals in Amsterdam). Coffee shops also can’t advertise, are called ‘coffee shops’ rather than ‘weed shops’ and also tend to pay higher taxes. Why is the government looking away? Well, that goes back to the hippie days in the 60’s & 70’s when Amsterdam had a drug/heroin issue. Nowadays large coffee shops like the Bulldog sold gear already then illegal. The governments approach was similar to the sex trade centuries earlier – rather than banning it outright, it decriminalised consumption in coffee shops it get people off the streets. And it worked. Italy, France and Spain have something to learn judging by user statistics. 


Dutch courage – heard that before? As the story goes, the Dutch used to drink Jenever (Dutch gin) before heading into battle with the english during the Anglo-Dutch wars in the 17th century that gave them courage. So basically they fought intoxicated. Later on, the english developed gin based on Jenever. 


The Dutch going state side: The Dutch were among the nations trying to discover a North West passage to India and commissioned capitain Hudson to do so. Instead of India, they ended up with a East US settlement that was named New Amsterdam. During the Anglo-Dutch wars (I think the second), they lost it to the britsh who renamed it New York in honor of the Duke of York. Still, there are many areas in NY left that have Dutch origin such as Haarlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Wall Street was a defense wall back then and the not so grid like streets below wall street still rem ind of that today.


Day-trip to Haarlem (NL): Museum tour

My easter Monday day-trip took me to Haarlem only a whisker away from Amsterdam. Weather was pretty uninviting as I did sightseeing under grey clouds and with constant drizzle (well, until I made my way back to Amsterdam when it turned better). So off to the museums! I managed three (all covered by the museums pass) and saw some other landmarks like the restored Molen van Adriaan (windmill), the Grote Kerk (cathedral), stadhuis (city hall) and the Amsterdam gate (original city gate from the 1400’s). Pleasant day trip.

A little bit of history: Haarlem is the capital of North Holland with some 160,000 inhabitants. Historically the city has been pretty important and used once to be the second largest. Fortunes came and went with shipping tolls, breweries and textile trade o the plus side but also several big fires, Spanish invasion, the pest and Amsterdam taking over trade wise. Today it is a vibrant commuter city with plenty of gastronomy, theatres and even a Philharmonie.

Teylers museum: The oldest museum in holland established in 1778 focusses mainly a science and natural history. Currently they are showing the ‘monster animal’ exhibition displaying real and fictional beasts from yeti to the loch ness monster. Overall, not something i take a huge interest in yet still a nice building with some impressive halls.

Frans Hals museum of fine art: named after the dutch golden age painter frans hals who lived and worked in the city who pioneered the visible brushstroke technique (previously deemed a flaw) and advanced the genre of portraits. His clients were mainly the rich & famous of the time (well, who else can afford it). the museum displays his works as well as many other artist that were influenced by him, also modern art and paintings acquired by local donations.

Haarlem historical museum: A peep back in time, as the city museum tries to preserve the cultural history of town. I liked most the outfit of a pest doctor – looks like this costume inspired the well known Scream mask …

Amsterdam: Catching up with friends, school done & the english were in town

Since my last update from Amsterdam a few things have moved on. Sadly, my flu is not one them and keeps me on low energy mode and often indoors after school (well, the weather was far from inviting to go outdoors anyway!). But that didn’t stop me from still doing a few things, catching up with friends Liselotte & Jan and completing my A1 in Dutch. Happy Easter everyone. 

Catching up with Jan: Jan was the first dutch person i managed to catch up with. And fun it was to review the Russian farm stories over a beer or two. He also moved on in life, with his studies and now even has a girlfriend (… clearly he ignored my horror stories in his considerations ;o). Hope to catch up with him over kings day for his crash car race.


Catching up with Liselotte: We met back in Thailand training at Diamond Muay Thai since Liselotte is well into kickboxing. Liselotte took me to nearby Westerpark. There was a nice sunday market (I scored a nice sausage there) and, in the cold weather, we enjoyed a few glasses of mulled wine before hitting a bar with old school arcade games. Liselotte is hard to beat and I literally lost every match until i found the right street figher character to help me out. fun afternoon with even a few easter bunnies hopping around.

A night out in the red light district: One Friday night turned out to be really good fun when I met a Latvian couple visiting town. We met at the old sailor pub (see cover picture) in the red light district and had some good entertainment watching the crowd gazing at the women in the windows. Funniest was when a guy tried to take a picture of one of the pro’s (a no go!) … he almost lost his mobile as the girl jumped out of her box and grabbed it.

Netherlands – England match: the english were in town for a pre world cup friendly (well, no world cup for the dutch side) and they make it felt. 6000 supporters need entertainment. And to be fair to them, i loved the atmosphere they created with their chants (‘please dont take me home’) around the embankments of the red light district and the fun conversations (here a youtube video of a guy jumping into the canal). Never really felt there was a safety threat though c100 got arrested. England won 1:0 by the way. 



School already behind me – A1 in Dutch: on Friday we completed our A1 level course and it does help. Key issue remains laziness to try it out given everyone and his dog speak english pretty well. The group changed a bit with a new girl joining and the Indian restaurant owner not turning up anymore. I had lost a little drive given the flu, but overall think made some good progress (a statement that holds for all participants). In fact, i was racing through the dutch grammar and writing homework (not entirely without mistakes for full disclosure) and felt that i acquired some good talking basics. We even had a little look at swearwords on our last day – a lesson that shocked & entertained alike. Very Dutch – rather then picking it up on the street, the word is spread in a controlled manner … just like dope in a coffee shop ;o)


Thanks go to the patient & fun teachers and all the best to my fellow students. Teacher roos said good bye with a bottle of prosecco – nice touch i think and a first for any of three language schools in been too since last summer. Let’s see, maybe i am back for A2 later. For now … vakantie!

Interview at booking.com: on Monday morning i went to a 3h assessment center for a german speaking partner executive role at booking. They are originally from Amsterdam before being bought by a US player and a major employer (16k globally) as the #1 booking site globally. So far i haven’t heard back. Maybe after easter.