AMSTERDAM + ALTERNATIVES
The city of Amsterdam is known around the world for its canals and 'coffee' shops, for narrow gabled homes that tilt and lean, and for the red light district that rouses nightly curiosities. There is also much history to uncover in Amsterdam between the Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and the Begijnhof courtyard that dates back to the Middle Ages.
We emerged from the central train station on a sunny Sunday afternoon into a sea of people. At first glance, the city seemed much busier than it had when I first visited in 2011. And as we walked from the train station towards the World Press Photo Exhibition at De Nieuwe Kerk, the crowds only thickened.
A decade ago and in the face of global recession, money and resources were poured into stimulating the tourism industry. The result? A recent study shows that on any given day in the city, there are 10 tourists for every local resident. News sites are teeming with articles about the 'Disneyfication' of Amsterdam, and the s#!* residents have to put up with given the number of (often intoxicated) visitors.
There just for the day, we made a point to see the World Press Photo Exhibit, an annual photojournalism contest and traveling exhibition that starts in Amsterdam each year. The images were powerful, the experience thought-provoking. I was struck by the stories behind each photograph—global news from 2017: a Venezuelan protester on fire, a teenage suicide bomb survivor hiding behind a flower in portraiture, robed women of Zanzibar empowered by a first opportunity to take swimming lessons...
We took to smaller neighbourhoods to absorb the exhibit and enjoy a quiet(er) Sunday, reminded that the annoyance of a congested city was the least of the world's problems. That said, the responsibility of conscious traveling has been weighing on our minds. We visited the Taj Mahal in Agra on a national holiday that brought 50,000 visitors to the grounds whereas in 1989, Luke's parents Bruce and Terry Anne had it mostly to themselves. In the north Indian town of Leh, we saw friction between old and new, tradition and Western ideology. The exponentially rapid change seen in recent decades is the aftermath of government-promoted tourism in a region where culture has been strengthened and preserved for millennia by the high mountain passes that serve as natural borders (historical records make mention of people inhabiting the region as early as the 1st century CE). It seemed important to note that negative side-effects of tourism observed in India—mounds of empty bottles and single use plastic, the mass-produced souvenirs that have become people's livelihoods, the abandonment of village life for 'business opportunities' in the fast-developing tourist destinations—is happening all over the world. And more importantly, we as travelers play a role in the phenomenon.
If flocking to Amsterdam, a fuller understanding of Dutch life can be gleaned by venturing to one Holland's many other cities. But do consider the traveler's responsibility to respect local cultures and environments; to arrive with open minds and seek understanding of the local climate. Tourism shouldn't be treated as a commodity for the taking, but an exchange in which a place is left a better for hosting you. And with that spirit in mind, here are a few other Dutch cities to consider:
Only a 45-minute train ride from Amsterdam and much quieter, Den Haag has it all. The canal and art deco building-lined city is home to an array of shopping, restaurants, and museums including the Mesdag Panorama and Mauritshuis, which houses Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. There are countless canal-side patios that serve Dutch bites and local beer (we had a memorable meal at DeKade, and Kompaan brewery impressed every time) but a variety of cuisine can also be found in the Chinatown district. With an expansive system of bike lines, the city is well-connected to the coast; an expansive stretch of beach that runs parallel with Westduin park's maze of pathways, sand dunes, and flora. Also worth exploring is the harbour area of Scheveningen, where we enjoyed the festivities of Flag Day, a traditional holiday that celebrates the annual arrival of herring in the harbour (early June).
A church tower looms over the old town, quaint streets with boutique shops and cafe patios that made for a relaxed morning stroll. We noticed that the canals here are wider and equipped with sidewalks, allowing them to function as communal spaces. We rented bicycles near the train station and ventured to De Haar Castle, just one of many cycle tours available from the city of Utrecht. With a blend of both modern and old, Utrecht has much of the charm of Amsterdam without the accompanying crowds.
The Netherlands' oldest museum is the Teylers, a cultural history museum that opened in 1784 and was knows as 'The Museum of Wonder'. In addition to art, the collection includes books, instruments, coins, medals, fossils, minerals, and even some of the antique display cases used in the museum's early years. Haarlem is a compact city with a number of other historical sights and points of interest within a walkable confine, making it a great option for a day trip.
In addition to being quaint, charming, and uncrowded, Leiden is steeped in rich tradition and history. It also boasts an array of unique museums so if you've had your fair share 16th-18th century art, consider the flora of the Hortus Botanicus, the Greek/Egyptian/Roman antiquities of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, or the National Museum of Ethnology (a curation of objects from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Americas, intended to convey the development of global culture through a historical lens).
We visited Gouda for the day, setting foot in the town where Luke was born. We admired the 20-foot stained glass windows at the Sint Janskerk, then purchased truffle gouda and pastries from the farmer's market (support your local!), making vendors laugh with honest attempts to speak Dutch. The local kaas (cheese) market has been operating in the town square for hundreds of years and though a small demonstration is put on for tourists, the market is still where locals shop for groceries (with 4 pastries costing 1 euro—how can they not!)
A few kilometres away (and often visited on a cycling tour) is the even smaller Oudewater, a tranquil town with one main square (which is actually a bridge over the canal that slices through the centre). There is a museum in the square, converted from the old weigh station where hemp and rope were weighed. The town was a major supplier of the hemp used for the rope and sails that powered the Dutch East India Company's fleet in the 1600s. The weigh station was also used to weigh women accused of being witches and rather than being the public sentencing we imagined, many lives were saved; apparently every woman weighed there was declared NON-witch. By the time Luke was born and came to live in Oudewater that practice was long gone, and so we visited with old family friends including Ronald, who has lived in Oudewater his entire life. Though we've chosen to move around, it was insightful to see someone living happily in a place they know and belong to so deeply.