Friday, August 8, 2014


Trip Dates: July 6th - 11th, 2014

Africa had been at the top of our travel bucket list for quite some time.  With Christine almost being finished school, and before we start having kids, the summer of 2014 was shaping up to be the perfect opportunity for a trip of this magnitude.  We started looking into all the possibilities in the fall of 2013 and wound up booking the trip around Christmas of the same year.  This gave us plenty of time to get the necessary vaccinations, purchase travel visas, and decide how to pack for a month-long expedition.  There ended up being four of us travelling together because Christine's sister, Sarah, and a friend of mine from high school, Mike, both decided they couldn't miss this trip.  

As it's not easy to get to Africa, we thought we'd break up the trip and spend a few days in Amsterdam before taking another long flight.  None of us had been to Amsterdam before, and this would be Mike's first time to Europe, so we were all looking forward to experiencing something new.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands, or more commonly referred to as just the Netherlands, is a small country in western Europe.  It has a population of 16.8 million people.  The official language is Dutch and the country was a founding member of the European Union.  The capital and most populous city is Amsterdam, with a metropolitan population of just over 1.5 million people.  This is where we'd be spending all of our time during our brief stay in the country.

The Netherlands (dark green) as part of the European Union (light green)
Instead of staying in a hotel, the four of us rented a penthouse condo just outside the busy tourist area of Amsterdam.  The location was ideal as we were away from all the crowds and noise that come with bustling urban centres.  We spent the next few days exploring all Amsterdam had to offer.  

We had the top two floors of this building all to ourselves
Amsterdam has been referred to as, "Venice of the North" because it is home to more than 100km of canals.  These canals divide the city into approximately 90 separate islands that are all connected by more than 1,200 bridges.  The three main canals, that are all navigable by boat, are Prinsengracht, Herengracht, and Keizersgracht.  We took a hop-on, hop-off canal tour around the city.  It was a great way to see different parts of the city and allowed us to get off the boat whenever we wanted to explore on our own.  

Prinsengracht Canal
The De Gooyer Windmill was built in 1725 and was moved to its current location in 1814.  It is one of eight windmills that still reside within the city limits.  The De Gooyer Windmill has the honor of being the highest wooden mill in the Netherlands.  It was originally built to mill corn and other grains, but today it is no longer in use and is registered as a national monument.  Unfortunately it is closed to the public.  

De Gooyer Windmill
 Heineken is probably the Netherland's most recognizable export.  The brewery was originally founded in 1864 in Amsterdam by George Heineken and now ranks as the 3rd largest brewer in the world by volume.  They have over 190 breweries in more than 70 countries around the globe.  The original brewery in Amsterdam closed in 1988, but was preserved as a museum called the Heineken Experience.  As avid beer enthusiasts we thought this would be a great way to spend an afternoon.  I'm sorry to report, however, that the Heineken Experience was more cheesy than anything.  There were some really interesting parts of the museum tour, but overall it was more flash than function.  I've been on other brewery tours (ie: Alexander Keiths) and was a little disappointed with what Heineken had to offer.

The Heineken Experience in Amsterdam
 As a complete change of pace from the Heineken Experience, and something that is more than worth the price of admission, we chose to tour the Anne Frank House.  I'm sure most of you know the harrowing story of the young Anne Frank, but in case your mind's a little spotty on the details, I'll give you a bit of a refresher as presented by the museum:
Anne Frank - born in Frankfurt, Germany on June 12, 1929 - was one of millions of victims of the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the Second World War.  In 1933, when Hitler came to power and established an anti-Jewish regime, the Jewish Frank family moved to the Netherlands.  They settled in Amsterdam, where Otto Frank (Anne's father) started a business. 
In May 1940, the German army occupied the Netherlands and anti-Jewish measures were increasingly implemented throughout the country.  On July 6, 1942, Otto and his wife Edith, along with their two daughters, Margot and Anne, went into hiding at 263 Prinsengracht in the building where Otto Frank's business was located.  Hermann van Pels, his wife Auguste, their son Peter and Fritz Pfeffer joined the Frank family in hiding a while later.  The company's building was made up of two parts: a front house and a back house (annex).  The eight people in hiding lived on the upper floors of the annex.  
Anne received a diary as a present from her parents for her thirteenth birthday.  When the Frank family went into hiding, Anne's diary went with her and she kept a detailed account of life inside the annex.  On the morning of August 4, 1944, following a tip from an informant that has still never been identified, the annex was stormed by uniformed German police.  Everybody in the annex was arrested and eventually deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Of the eight people in hiding, only Otto Frank survived the war.  He made the decision to have Anne's diary published.  Today the book has sold more than 30 million copies world wide and has been published in 67 different languages.  
As a sign of respect and to protect the priceless artifacts, photographs were not allowed inside the museum.  In the photo below the two buildings on the right constitute the museum portion of the tour.  The smaller, tan-coloured buildings immediately to the left of the museum are where the families hid.  The secret annex is at the rear of those buildings.  What struck me the most was how small the annex actually was.  It's unbelievable and incredible that eight people lived undetected in that small space for more than two years.

The Anne Frank House
Statue of Anne Frank outside the Westerkerk Church
The Westerkerk Church was completed in 1631
Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District
The Royal Palace in Amsterdam is located in Dam Square.  Construction started in 1648 and wasn't completed until 1665.
The National Monument is located opposite the Royal Palace in Dam Square
It's hard to tell in the photo below, but many of the homes along this canal are lopsided or leaning.  Due to these problems, they're referred to as the "Dancing Houses" and can be found along the Damrak, which is an avenue and partially filled-in canal in the heart of Amsterdam.

Dancing Houses along the Damrak
The Basilica of St. Nicholas is Amsterdam's most prominent Catholic Church.  After only three years of construction, the church was completed in 1887.
 The city of Amsterdam is estimated to have over 880,000 bicycles, while there are only 263,000 vehicles registered.  This isn't hard to believe as there are, literally, bikes everywhere.  It is the most bicycle-friendly city I have ever been to and is widely considered to be the most bicycle-friendly capital city in the world..  In the photograph below you will see a small tower.  This is a bicycle garage.  It is similar to the parking garages for cars that we have in our cities across North America, but this is strictly for bikes.  As you can see from the bicycles parked around the outside, this garage is far from big enough.  In fact, Amsterdam's shortage of bicycle parking spots has resulted in bicycles being taken to the central bike depository after receiving a warning, much like a car being towed for parking illegally.  

Bicycle parking is at a premium in Amsterdam
Spending a few days in Amsterdam was a great way to kick-off our vacation.  It gave us a break between long flights and allowed us to acclimate to the eight-hour time change.  Although it was a quick visit, and we really enjoyed ourselves, we were all pretty excited to get to Uganda and begin our East African adventure!

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