Bayeux → Paris → Amsterdam

13 Jan

Up again early. Really early. “Taxi’s coming at 5:30” early. We got our crap together and into our cases and schlepped down to the parking lot to wait for the taxi we’d arranged the previous day in the bitter cold. He turned up on time and whisked us back to the train station in Bayeux.

The station was just a smidge past too warm and only thinly populated at quarter to six. It was also very very brightly lit and mostly institutional green & white. The population consisted mostly of long-distance commuters and us. There was a young woman mopping the floor. It was a wide mop and the mop head attached to the handle via a wide flat piece of plastic that hinged in the center. I’m confident it was meant to interact with the rolling bucket in some fascinatingly efficient manner. I watched transfixed as she swept the mop from side to side across the floor, lifted it, wrung it with her bare hands into the bucket, and then dipped the mop in the black water she’d just squeezed into the bucket. She continued in this way from one side of the waiting room to the other.

The train arrived and we shuffled out to the platform. We had assigned seats for the morning train back to Paris but couldn’t find them. We changed cars twice before settling into a pair of empty seats (That were still not correct) figuring we’d move if someone turned up to claim them. No one ever did.

We arrived at Saint Lazare station in Paris at 9:00 AM and began our trek across to Gare du Nord. As I’ve mentioned in these pages before I’m bit of a paranoid traveler. I’ve tried to cultivate a more Zen attitude over the years with varying degrees of success. We had just over an hour to make the connection for our train to Amsterdam. No realizing how close the stations really were from this side of the Atlantic I sorted a public transit route that utilized the Paris RER (Réseau Express Régional) so as to avoid weekday morning traffic on the surface. A taxi would likely have gotten us to the station in about 12 minutes. As it was we rode the practically empty express train to the station in about 30 minutes. That includes the time it took us to take the escalators down to a level so far below the city I fully expected to see Le Fantôme paddling by. This was another jaunt where I greatly appreciated both the construction of our medium spinner rolling cases and the uncharacteristic wisdom I displayed in choosing them. We encountered a young woman pulling a traditional two-wheeled case equal to herself in height, carrying a full duffel, and wearing a backpack. She looked very put out.

We arrived at Gare du Nord with about 30 minutes to spare and boarded the train. Early in the planning stages of our trip I had determined that we would take at least one First-Class train trip. The Paris-Amsterdam leg offered us the opportunity to sample this mode of transport over a long ride.

You must travel by First Class train at some point. Really. Do it.

We were traveling on Thalys, a Belgian-owned line. Thalys was one of the few lines that would allow me to purchase tickets online from outside the country and board with only a printout (A couple of years later I booked an overnight on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Dundee. I had to have physical tickets mailed to my home in the United States. It seems you’re able to print your own pass for international train travel but not domestic, at least in the UK. I have no idea why boarding with a confirmation number isn’t more common). Ticket information here.

A porter helped us stow our cases at one end of the car and we found our seats. On the recommendation of The Man in Seat 61 I booked Club Duo seats (Individual seats facing each other over a small table as opposed to two seats among a grouping of four). They were large and comfortable and finished in a soft maroon velvet, as was much of the interior. There was a small lamp on the table near the window and an outlet under each seat.

One of the attendants approached and addressed me in English (Again, everyone in Europe can peg me as an American on sight);

“Do you need a taxi sir?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Do you need a taxi?”

“I just got on the train.”

“In Amsterdam, sir. Do you need a taxi from the station?” It is a testament to the level of her professionalism that I could not hear a trace of “… idiot.” in her tone even though she MUST have been thinking it.

“No, thank you.”

“Very well sir. Someone will be along with refreshments shortly.”

And so began the non-stop food fest that was our train trip from Paris to Amsterdam. Within moments another attendant appeared and asked if I would like coffee or something else to drink. After tea appeared I was offered pastry. About every half an hour someone turned up to offer me something to eat. I was always addressed in English without anyone having to ask. More than the plush seats… First-Class is never having to ask for food & drink.

We rolled out of the station on time to the second and were soon cruising along at a top speed of 300 kph (About 186 mph). The train ran incredibly smoothly, occasionally slowly banking to one side or the other through long gentle curves. A lunch menu turned up. I ordered cold roast duck with carrots and potatoes. It arrived accompanied by a very sweet salad, warm bread, an organic red wine and a chocolate tart with raspberry glaze. Would sir care for more tea? A croissant? Yes sir would.

We slowed for track work near the Belgian border. This put the train just over half an hour behind schedule. An announcement in French, then English, then Dutch informed us that because of the length of the delay passengers would be entitled to a partial refund of their ticket price to take the form of a credit to their Thalys account. Please look online for further details (You could do this on the moment in fact. Free WiFi on board). Try asking United for a refund of one thin dime next time you land a couple of hours late in Houston.

Day 11 (8)

Fast moving tulips

We got back up to speed for the rest of our journey. As we neared Amsterdam we began to see bars of vivid color in various hues extending from near the tracks off into the distance in the grey fields through which we passed. They were neon-bright and gone in a flash. It took me several moments to realize that these were fields of tulips. Like most things European I had a very outdated notion of what a tulip field would look like. They appeared to be arranged like any other factory-style farm and they came in more colors than I thought possible. After a few fields zipped by (186 mph, remember?) we reached the greenhouses. Thousands upon thousands of greenhouses that extended off to the horizon. I’ve since learned that The Netherlands produces about three million tulip bulbs a year. I can believe it.Day 11 (7)

 

We arrived shortly before 2:00 PM at Amsterdam Centraal. We walked the length of the station and boarded a tram (Still € Euros, no need to stop for currency) to De Lairessestraat and our bed and breakfast, The Collector.

The Collector is just two blocks down from the Museumplein. De Lairessestraat is a main thoroughfare with bus and tram lines. I’d been emailing back and forth with the owner, Karel. We had a couple of hilarious moments when Karel answered the door. Apparently my misapprehension was one Karel runs into with Americans a lot, who invariably translate the name as “Carol.” Karel is a man. He said I should think of it as “Carl.”

Karel was very laid back and personable, and answered every idiot tourist question I asked about the canals. He offered (And I accepted his offer) to book attractions for us online. We’d already done so with the Anne Frank House and Karel sorted our tickets to the Van Gogh museum.

We stayed in the “Clock Room” on the 1st floor (2nd floor if you’re an American) facing the street. It was absolutely gorgeous. It was a large en-suite room with a very comfortable bed. Double french doors lead out onto a narrow balcony.

Instead of a dining room there was a dine-in kitchen next to the Clock Room. The arrangement at The Collector is that the kitchen is stocked with staple items and you make use of them in your own time. We found cheese, salami, fruit, eggs, milk, juice, etc. There was also a little space in the fridge for items you might purchase (I had no end of trouble finding a supermarket. Finally learned there was an Albert Heijn at 33 Van Baerlestraat about two blocks away. Helpful hint… it’s UNDER the Museumplein). On the plus side, it gives one more of a home away from home feeling and you needn’t worry about missing breakfast if you sleep in. Of course, it’s also nice to have someone else do the cooking and washing up so you can get out the door to see the sights. It made for an interesting change in our routine. The Collector’s website is here.

The Collector is so named for the various collections of every kind everywhere you look. Plates, matchbooks, figurines, etc. The Clock Room was filled with… clocks. All the clocks were set to 4:20.

We got ourselves sorted as quickly as we could and asked Karel the best way to the Anne Frank House. We had an appointment for entry a little before 4:30PM. Karel pointed out a pleasant route on a map he lent us and assured us that we could reach Prinsengracht in 15 minutes. We shortly learned a valuable lesson about Karel’s directions. No matter where you are headed in Amsterdam, Karel is under the (Often wildly mistaken) impression that you can reach your destination on foot in 15 minutes. I never actually saw Karel walk anywhere, so maybe he’s telling the truth from his own personal experience. He seemed like a pretty laid-back kind of guy, but it is possible he turns into an Olympic power-walker the moment he hits the straat, I couldn’t say.

Leliegracht just north of the Anne Frank House.

Leliegracht just north of the Anne Frank House.

It did not take us 15 minutes to reach the Anne Frank House, more like 25, but we still arrived in plenty of time for our appointment after a lovely walk through the Vondelpark and along the canals. You really must book an entry time online if you want to avoid standing in a very long queue. When we approached the house there was a line going around the block. The Anne Frank House is open 9:00AM until 9:00PM from April 1 through October 31, and 9:00AM until 7:00PM through the winter. Admission for adults is €9, €4.50 for children 10-17, and children 9 and under are free. There were long stretches of entry times already blocked out when I made our reservation weeks in advance, so I advise seeing to it as far ahead of time as you can. There is an online booking fee of €.50 per ticket. You can find all of the details and book a time at www.annefrank.org.

A few thousand years ago I was a professional actor. My wife and I worked on a national tour of Anne Frank in the 90’s. I played Victor Kugler (Anne gave fictional names to her companions and protectors. In her diary and in the stage play he is Mr. Kraler), one of the Annex protectors. We spent nine months inhabiting the play. Seeing the real Annex blew us away.

The facade of Gies & Co., behind which sat the Annex where the Franks went into hiding.

The facade of Gies & Co., behind which sat the Annex where the Franks went into hiding.

The building is empty of furniture as per Otto Frank’s wishes and no photography is permitted inside. You ascend cramped, narrow stairs through the building until you reach the entrance to the Annex. In a front room is a model of the hiding place as it would have appeared during the time it was used to hide the Franks. You proceed down a hallway and up into the Annex via the opening behind a moveable bookcase. The first thing that I noticed was that despite the individual spaces being very small, overall it was bigger than I had imagined, but certainly not where I’d choose to spend several years.

On the first level of the hiding place you pass the Franks’ room and then Anne’s. She shared the 16’x7′ room with Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist from Germany who went into hiding with the Fanks and the Van Pels. Looking at the walls in Anne’s room was really unbelievable. In the years she spent in hiding Anne pasted pictures from magazines on the walls of her room. They’re still there. I stood for a long time struck by the notion that these were items that passed through her hands. More than anything else I saw or read this detail served to humanize Anne. I had trouble concentrating on anything else. She’s a figure wholly owned by history now, but she was also the teenage girl who pasted movie star pictures on her wall.

We made our way through the floors of the Annex and learned the ultimate fate of the Franks, their friends, and their protectors. We knew, of course, having done the play for months, but first person accounts filled in a number of details. Somewhat incongruously I found myself thinking of Whoopi Goldberg. In her one-woman show she relates her visit to the Anne Frank house, and seems incredulous at Anne’s ability to forgive. She says of Anne’s famous quote “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart;”

“And she didn’t even make it.”

The house is one of the places where I feel like its history is tangibly close by, like at Gettysburg or the Tower of London. It may be that we knew most of Anne’s story so well. We wandered out of the building into a bright and sunny afternoon a little shell-shocked. The Normandy American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, and the Anne Frank House in the space of about 24 hours. It had been a heavy couple of days.

We walked aimlessly along the canals. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, but I honestly recall very little of what we saw for the remainder of the afternoon. At some point we decided we wanted supper. We passed an Italian place but figured we should take a swing at Dutch food. We wandered about some more, unable to find anyplace to eat at all.

The Irish are everywhere.

The Irish are everywhere.

We found ourselves in the Leidseplein, a tourist square south of Prinsengracht. Everything in the area seemed to be food from other countries… pizza, burgers, Argentinian steakhouses and places that offered barbeque ribs and fries (Always together, not sure what that was about). I found an automat, about which I became VERY excited, but that didn’t really scream “Dinner in Amsterdam” to me so we kept looking. On a few side streets we found places that served “Traditional Dutch” food. It appeared to consist largely of pickled fish mashed in with other things and that’s where our usual spirit of adventure fled.

Eventually we found De Veir Pilaren (The Four Pillars), a pop-up restaurant in the Leidsebosje. Dutch pancakes as big as your torso, the ultimate comfort food. Huzzah! De Veir Pilaren was, according to the cook, originally an eatery that traveled with a carnival. Brightly painted and decorated with carousel accents, it can be disassembled, loaded on a truck, and moved elsewhere in a couple of days. As far as I can tell it now stays in the park several months out of the year. If you find yourself in Amsterdam I highly recommend it. I consumed a massive pancake topped with bacon and cheese while Julia had one covered in strawberries, whipped cream, and powdered sugar. It helped take a little of the edge off.

Der Veir Pilaren

Der Veir Pilaren

 We spent another hour or so simply wandering about. We made our way back to The Collector once it was dark and the streets grew very, very quiet. The vast majority of people in the city center ride bikes or take public transit. We saw a number of automobiles parked along the canals but less than handful in operation. Apart from the occasional rumble of a tram it was another quiet night.

After a couple of days of looking for the uplifting and noble amid some of the greatest horrors of the last century we were looking forward to the balm of reckless beauty from the century before. Tomorrow, Van Gogh.

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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