The streets are strewn with crisp leaves and finally, there's a distinct chill in the air. Autumn is here! But today I leave the darkening days behind to take you back to the height of summer, when I went on a week-long Eurotrip with friends from law school. We visited Holland and Germany over the course of the week - a holiday ideal for those on a budget, blessed with great weather and food. First stop, Amsterdam: a compact yet bustling metropolis a mere hour's flight from London, home to those famous canals and some of the best fries I've ever had the pleasure of acquainting my mouth with.
We flew into Schiphol airport and arrived in stiflingly hot Amsterdam. This was my second time in the watery city (the last one on a slightly raucous interrailing holiday after first year) and I was excited to explore. But first, we stocked up on the joys of the Dutch supermarket near our Airbnb in Diemen, in the suburbs: big touristy bottles of water, (it's horrifically expensive in central Amsterdam, be warned!) mango juice for breakfast and a large selection from the magical bakery, from sticky almond filos to pastries stuffed with sambal and satay-inspired sauces. Erm, I'd like those at my local Tesco, please.
A short train ride into the city centre later and we were exploring Amsterdam in the best way possible: on foot, wandering along the tree-lined canals, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Prinsengracht being the prettiest. In about an hour you can wander from Amsterdam Centraal station to the expansive and verdant Vondelpark, taking in medieval churches, the red light district, 'coffee' shops and a whole host of museums, from the vaguely sordid Sex Museum to the arguably more genteel Rijksmuseum (plus the Insta-famous, horrifying 'i amsterdam' sign behind it) along the way.
One of my friends is unfamiliar with the ins and outs of riding a bike, so we didn't rent cycles this time, though this is very much something I'd like to try one day! That said, Amsterdam cyclists are relentless (some might say aggressive) and legion in number. I have a feeling I'd accumulate a fair bit of verbal abuse on the roads here...
Our diet for 80% of our time in Holland (no joke): cones of piping hot, salty vlaamse friet generously smothered in creamy Dutch mayo. Harry and I polished off about five of these - they're cheap and plentiful and you can find them just about everywhere in Amsterdam, including in Centraal station itself. Although to our dismay, we witnessed a rogue pigeon making a desperate getaway flight from the fryers of one of the chip shops near the station. So yeah. It's probably best to give that one a miss.
We got stuck into some real Dutch beer with my old friend Sam at the very cool Hannekes Boom (Dijksgracht 4), a colourful shack-style bar over two floors on the docklands. It's just perfect in summer for a spot of chilled al fresco drinking, people watching and catching up with old friends. Sam knows me too well!
On our last day in Amsterdam we decided to leave the city behind in favour of a day trip around the towns in northern Holland. Harry found a great deal - €12.50 for the Old Holland Tour, a bus ticket from Zaanse Schans to Volendam and Edam and back to Amsterdam. It's a wallet-friendly and very easy way to get around - made even more comfortable with air con and a solid wi-fi connection.
The historic town of Zaanse Schans is what I reckon most people think of when they imagine Holland: innumerable picturesque windmills flecking a flat, watery landscape. Very Turner, no? It follows that this perfectly preserved open air museum is a big hit with tourists; we saw multiple Asian tourists in full wedding regalia having their shots taken for the nuptials album. But hey, I can't say I blame them. This place makes for quite the backdrop. It was very sweet and reminded me faintly of Disneyland, with shops manned by smiling ruddy-cheeked assistants in traditional Dutch dresses selling soap, chocolate and stroopwaffel, docile sheep pushing their noses through the slats in the fences for a pat...and the continual click of shutters for selfies.
Next, a short bus ride to Volendam, a little town perched on the Markemeer Lake which reminded me a little of Normandy - packed with touristy shops, yes, but still appealing. Edible temptations ranged from a Dutch cheese emporium packed to the rafters with a hundred varieties, and a sample for each (I personally ate nearly a whole slice of my favourite gouda, Old Amsterdam) to a charming sweetshop filled with jars of boiled sweets and licorices.
Idling down by the waterside, we watched van de Velde-esque boats sail by (plus a few brave swimmers splashing in the frigid shallows) before tea and cake on the terrace at the very traditional-looking Hotel Spaander and a meeting with a group of very friendly cats. Truly, it was the stuff of Studio Ghibli.
Our third and final stop of the day: a return to canal life in Edam, which in my opinion was the loveliest place we visited in northern Holland. Much quieter than Amsterdam, (in fact, we saw barely any other people, let alone tourists) it was also cleaner, sweeter and, in my opinion, prettier. I'd definitely come up this way again if I were to visit the Netherlands again.
We collapsed in a heap on the bus back to Amsterdam, exhausted but exhilarated after our day of adventure, a ruby-red sun slipping below the horizon and bathing the open meadows in a russet-tinged light. So worth the €12.50.
Although a bit of a whistle-stop tour, I found three days was just enough to take in the best bits of Amsterdam and northern Holland. However, I'll definitely be back again soon to visit Sam and see his potter's studio (!) and hopefully visit Utrecht and Delft (tips, please, if you've been to either of those!) But now it's time to leave Holland behind and head for glorious Germany - in my next post, I'll be showing you around Berlin. Bis bald!