Amsterdam’s busy downtown area is built into the concentric rings of canals (the ‘Canal Belt’), which date back to the 17th century, and include the Singel, Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal), and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal). Originally used as defensive moats, they eventually became employed for merchant ships bringing goods into the city. Today, you can even find floating houses and shops along the canals, such as the Bloemenmarkt – Amsterdam’s famous, bustling flower market where every variety and color of tulip imaginable is for sale. Lining the waterfront streets are rows of ornate canal houses, sitting alongside what seemed to be an endless variety of cafes, bars, and cheese shops, all providing ample opportunity to stop and sample. Themed street markets appear everywhere – from the aforementioned flower market, to a popular secondhand book market, to more traditional fruit and vegetable markets supporting local farmers. There is certainly no lack of activity in downtown Amsterdam.
While we were in Belgium, Hilde, the chocolatier at HD Ghent, talked to us about the Origin Chocolate Event, held each autumn in Amsterdam (and coincidentally, taking place the very weekend we’d be up there). Showcasing small, artisan chocolate brands whose bars usually highlight a single cocoa bean variety, the show caters to industry professionals and consumers alike. And being the devout dark chocolate consumers that we are, we immediately purchased tickets online. At the show, chocolate makers set out samples of their best products, participate in themed tastings, and give educational talks on topics ranging from the newest production methods, to how cocoa bean harvesting can be more sustainable. It was a huge amount of fun, walking from table to table and hearing about each chocolate maker’s story, then getting to try their bars. In addition to traditional flavors, unique creations abounded, such as a vegan bar made with broccoli, a spirulina bar made with coconut sugar, and even bars imbued with an overwhelming variety of fruits and spices (wrapped in gorgeous packaging) on display by one vendor. One chocolatier even tried his hand at some unusual products – cheese with embedded cocoa nibs, as well as a cocoa nib-infused beer. We attended a lecture on sustainably-produced Peruvian chocolates, and each went to a tasting that paired various liquors and chocolates – I tried a selection of aged whiskeys, while Jenn’s room did rum pairings. By the time we left, even Jenn, ever the chocolate enthusiast, was done with sweets and ready for some leafy vegetables.
Of course, chocolate wasn’t the only food we sampled while in the Dutch capital. At the recommendation of an Amsterdam native that we met in Ghent, I sought out a few varieties of bitterballen, a snack that typically contains a chopped-meat ragout, rolled into a ball with flour and spices, and deep fried. One eatery – appropriately named “De Ballenbar” – showcased a half dozen different kinds of the bite-sized balls, three of which were recipes created by Michelin-starred chef Peter Gast. The bouillabaisse tasted astonishingly like the real thing, but my favorites were the beef and chorizo fillings. In addition to the tasty meat-filled bites, I got my hands on a stroopwafel at Lanskroon, a place that was alleged to have the best ones in Amsterdam. The crispy confection, comprised of two thin pieces of baked dough (typically made in a waffle press) with a caramel center, dates back to the 18th century, and was thought to have originated from finding a use for leftover waffles. The variety I tried contained a coffee caramel filling, which sounded like a guaranteed winner in my book, and indeed it was amazing. Finally, we sat down to a plate of poffertjes one morning, a delicious traditional Dutch treat of tiny, puffed buckwheat pancakes (they’re made with yeast), which were liberally covered with butter and a snowstorm of powdered sugar.
Zaandijk is a small town located northwest of Amsterdam on the Zaan River. Our AirBnb host recommended we take a side trip up there, claiming it was a quaint little town full of the classic Dutch windmills. Eager to find a bit of more charming countryside, we took a train up to the village, walked past some new buildings and factories, and then crossed a bridge that apparently led back in time. Immediately over the bridge, a number of old, wooden windmills dotted the banks of the river, their turbines gently turning in the breeze. Tiny houses sat along adjacent canals, with small boats bumping gently against docks that were barely wide enough to stand on. The pleasant, rich smell of crushed grain seemed to fill the air, broken up by wafts of coffee and chocolate as we walked past small shops. It was certainly a bit touristy, but still very pleasant. We spent a few hours wandering through the little town, watching the birds dabble in the reeds along the riverbanks, and sampling a variety of cheeses at a popular shop in the center of town. It was a very pleasant way to spend a day.
After all of our WWII history witnessed throughout Europe, it seemed like we couldn’t visit Amsterdam without making a trip to the Anne Frank house. A small row house near the center of the city holds the tiny annex where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years during the persecution of Jews in Europe. Naturally, it’s a fairly small museum, and devoid of any furnishings at the request of Otto Frank, but otherwise essentially untouched since the family was arrested in 1944. Wandering through the tiny domicile, up the steep stairs and past the original bookcase that obscured the entrance to their living quarters, was a surreal experience. Though the furnishings are now gone, a few sobering marks of a “normal” family existence remain inside, reminding me that this family wasn’t unlike my own. The wall in Anne’s bedroom, upon which was pasted a number of small posters and photos, was a heartbreaking reminder that this could have been lifted from the room of any young girl. It wasn’t until I studied a nearby wall, though, when I felt nearly overwhelmed with grief; a series of small lines appeared with dates inscribed next to each one – a growth chart nearly identical to the one on my own home’s wall when I was young. Even though the museum is small and, consequently, crowded, it’s a touching view into the life behind the famous diary and definitely worth a stop.
Postscript by Jenn
Shortly after arriving in Amsterdam, we were deeply saddened to learn that our dear friend Mildred – 90 years young – had passed away unexpectedly the previous morning. It came as quite a shock, as we had just spoken with her less than two weeks prior, when we called her from Switzerland for our monthly ‘check-in.’ After some sudden health issues, she evidently declared to her son that she was ready to go home to be with Paul – her husband of 65 years at the time of his passing two years before. And by gosh, apparently Mildred really meant it.
We met the lifelong pair in 2009, when we moved into our apartment in Cary, NC (though they had already been in their unit for some 15 years at that point), and were so lucky to be their upstairs neighbors for five years. We were occasionally treated to Mildred’s lively bagpipe albums on a stray morning when Paul was out of the house and she could crank those jams without his disapproving eye (her dad was in the 21st Royal Highland Fusiliers of the Canadian Army Cadets). We’d get a charge out of calling downstairs during Jeopardy, when we’d hear Mildred react enthusiastically to a daring wager or a big win. Stephan was ever their hero when he’d go down to “fix” the TV remote or the cordless phone (i.e. push the ‘cable’ button or turn up the volume on the headset) a couple times a month. And we, of course, loved joining them on their cozy, red sofa for our regular tea dates, where we’d go through photos we’d recently taken, hear stories of their beloved grandkids, or catch up on all the most recent newsy notes around the community. Unfortunately, Paul’s struggles with Parkinson’s Disease eventually forced them to move a couple miles up the street to an assisted living facility; but even after their move, we maintained our habitual tea and dessert nights until Paul’s passing. Then still, we continued to enjoy Mildred’s boundless vigor until our departure for this trip. Over the seven years we spent together, they had really become like family, and we’ll now miss them both dearly. Mildred, we miss you already, and wish we could have gone through our world photos with you over one last chocolate mousse pie. But, we do hope you’re back to giving Paul a run for his money with your endless energy and antics; I’m sure he’s missed it!