Daily Dose of Europe: Pedaling Through Amsterdam

I love Amsterdam. And I love it even more from the seat of a bike.

Because of the coronavirus, Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the next few weeks (and likely longer). But travel dreams are immune to any virus. During these challenging times, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my very favorite travel dreams-come-true…a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe on the other end of this crisis.

Sightseeing isn’t just seeing. To get the full experience of a place, you need to feel, hear, taste, and smell it. On this visit to Amsterdam, I’m making a point to focus on sensual travel. It’s a city made to engage all of the senses.

I always rent a bike here. I want to feel the bricks and pavement beneath two wheels. The lack of hills and the first-class bike-lane infrastructure makes biking here a breeze. The clerk at the rental shop must be tired of explaining why they don’t carry mountain bikes in this flat land. When I ask, he responds — in classic Dutch directness — “Mountain bikes in the Netherlands make no sense at all. When a dog takes a dump, we have a new mountain. You pedal around it…not over. It’s no problem.”

I ride off along the shiny wet cobbles, my Amsterdam experience framed by my black bike’s handlebars. I get pinged by passing bikes and ping my bell to pass others. When it comes to bike bells, there’s no language barrier. For my own safety, I wish I had a bigger periphery, as cars, trams, bikers, and pedestrians seem to float by from all directions in silence — their noise lost in the white noise of breezing through this dreamy city on two wheels.

Reaching the Red Light District, I stop to use a classic old street-corner urinal. It’s painted a deep green and designed to give the user plenty of privacy from the neck down and a slice-of- Amsterdam view at the same time. The pungent smells of pot smoke and someone else’s urine compete with the dank smell of the canal. I remember one of the new Amsterdam facts I’ve learned: A handful of people drown in the canals each year. When their bodies are finally dredged up, very often, their zippers are down. They were very drunk and, rather than using the civilized urinal as I did, they used the canal…their final mistake. Across the lane, a woman in a cliché of lingerie eyes me seductively from a window, framed in red. I think to myself, “This is probably the most unforgettable trip to a urinal I’ll ever have in my life.”

Pedaling on, I notice that the Red Light District is now a little more compact than I remember. Spliced in among the windows displaying enticing women are other windows promoting fashion and contemporary art. Amsterdam’s leaders recognize that legalized marijuana and prostitution are part of the city’s edgy charm, but are also working to rein in the sleaze. They’re not renewing some Red Light District leases, instead giving them to more preferable businesses.

Continuing on my ride, it strikes me that much of Amsterdam still looks like it did three or four centuries ago, during the Dutch Golden Age, when this was the world’s richest city.

I continue on to a square called Museumplein where Amsterdam’s three, big art museums are gathered — and selfie-crazed tourists gather around the red-and-white “I AMsterdam” letters, which are as tall as people.

I stop a moment to take in the square. Long lines plague the Dutch Master-filled Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum — both understandably popular. There’s rarely a wait at the Stedelijk Museum, nicknamed “the bathtub” because of the striking shape of its modern architecture. Inside are 20th-century favorites (Dalí, Picasso, Kandinsky) and crazy contemporary art. I’m not a big fan of the abstract style, but the artwork at the Stedelijk is really fun (perhaps really, really fun if you’re into marijuana — sold with a smile in the city’s many “coffeeshops”).

The sounds of Amsterdam’s knack for good living seem to surround the museum district. Underneath the Rijksmuseum, in a public passageway, street musicians seem to be performing everything from chamber music to Mongolian throat singing. Around the corner, a man in a top hat cranks away on his candy-colored street organ. Mesmerized children watch its figurines jingle and jangle to the jaunty music as it slowly grinds through its perforated song boards.

The city’s biggest green space, Vondelpark, is just a short pedal away. I roll by snippets of Dutch conversation — families with kids, romantic couples, strolling seniors, and hippies sharing blankets and beers.

By now my sense of taste is ready for a little attention. Thinking about the options, I consider rijsttafel (literally “rice table”), a ritual dish for tourists in Holland. Not a true Indonesian meal, it’s a Dutch innovation designed to highlight the best food of its former colony — specifically to show off all the spices that in some ways originally motivated the colonial age. The dinner includes 20 dishes and a rainbow of spices with white rice to mix and mingle on your plate and palate. Working your way through this tasty experience, it’s clear why the Dutch called Indonesia “The Spice Islands.”

In the mood for something more historically Dutch, I opt instead for a snack of herring with pickles and onions. Later, I indulge my taste buds at a cheese-tasting class. After a short video that’s somewhere between a cheese commercial and dairy soft porn, I guillotine six different local cheeses studying, smelling, and tasting them with a wine accompaniment.

My final experience: some Dutch booze. While the 20-somethings line up for the Heineken Experience — a malty, yeasty amusement ride of a brewery tour — I join an older crowd at the slick House of Bols: Cocktail & Genever Experience. Here, I learn about the heritage of Dutch gin (genever), and test my olfactory skills at a line of 36 scents. I fail miserably, my nose identifying only one scent: butterscotch. I console myself by designing the cocktail of my dreams at a computer kiosk and taking the recipe printout to the nearby barista, who mixes a Dutch gin drink that’s uniquely mine.

Pedaling back to my hotel, rattling over those shiny cobbles just inches from the murky canals, I’m thankful I turned down that one last gin.

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order.)