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Our Favourite Dutch Memories

Alkmaar’s famous cheese market is a treat for almost any person. It involves stacks and stacks of Gouda cheese, a town square that’s been enlarged eight times to accommodate the amount of golden cheese discs traded since the 14th century, and an ordinary yet extraordinary hierarchy of officials who’s kept everything in order for more than 400 years. An ancient ritual between buyers and sellers is still maintained here, and the most entertaining part is watching the cheese carriers transport loads of cheese (up to 130kg at once) in their “swing barrows” (for lack of a better word.) The market officially opens at 10:00 (on Fridays from April to September) and has to complete its business by 12:30, when the Waagplein transforms into the typical European town square, with cafés spilling from the confines of their interiors into the sunlight.

Everyone knows that the Netherlands is basically one big tulip garden, right? Well, that’s the idea many of us have. When we approached Schiphol in May 2012, we expected to see a patchwork of multi-coloured flower farms from the air, and although there were some, most had already been harvested. Fortunately, Keukenhof was still open, and one fine morning we borrowed our family’s bicycles and traipsed through the towns and forests from Haarlem to Keukenhof. Cultivated with care, more than 30 hectares of flowers bloom here every Spring. Around 7 million bulbs from more than 800 varieties decorate park-like spaces, in addition to which there are several special exhibits, visitor centres, events and unique works of art. Although the ticket price was a bit steep for our South African Rands, we realised that the floral spectacle would not be something that we’d visit again soon. Indeed, when we left, it was with hearts filled with awe at the magnificence of such an enormous garden, and yet also with wonder at the individual petals that form each bloom.

One of the most picturesque towns we’ve ever visited is Volendam, an old fishing village turned tourist spot. At around 20km north of Amsterdam on the Markenmeer, it's a bustling village catering to the needs of many visitors. There are many places to satisfy your hunger and quench your thirst. A whole smattering of curio shops lure you closer to come and buy. This is also the place to have your picture taken in traditional Dutch clothing. Walk along the docks, hang out on the beach and savour the vista of sailboats on the water.

A visit to Zaanse Schans rounds out any visit to Holland. This collection of museums housed in historical buildings brings 19th century Dutch industrial history to life. Since 1961 several buildings have been transported from surrounding areas to create a typical Zaan district settlement. 11 windmills, 6 museums, 7 craft showcases, 7 souvenir shops, 3 restaurants and even a Bed and Breakfast, Zaanse Schans offers something for everyone. Watching a windmill grinding on the inside is just as fascinating as stepping out on its platform and marveling at the size of its blades. One of the highlights for me was the demonstration of the machine that carves the clogs. Within a matter of mere seconds a clump of wood is transformed before your eyes into a wooden shoe. Set aside a whole day for this one and arrive early to be sure that you don't miss anything.

The heart of Haarlem is a cobbled town square surrounded by stately historical buildings and cafés and dominated by the constant presence of Grote Kerk (“Great Church”.) On weekdays, patrons of the cafés may be seen turning their chairs toward the sun while sipping their preferred brand of caffeine. Weekends see the square turn into a bustling market beckoning visitors to purchase the fine selection of flowers, fresh produce and street food. For a relaxed stroll, few places we have visited can beat Grote Markt square.

The concept of “heroes” has always been an uncomfortable one to me. Heroes are people we look up to, people who inspire us and people we hope to emulate. However, as a servant of God i've come to guard myself against placing people in such a well-regarded place as to replace Him in my affections. However, for some reason, it’s been the most natural choice to bestow the term “a hero of mine” on Corrie ten Boom. Neither her family’s history of 100 years of prayer for the peace of Jerusalem nor their efforts in saving an estimated 800 Jews from the Nazis during World War II caused me to arrive at this place, but rather her example of forgiveness of those who were responsible for her family members’ deaths in the concentration camps. Her life after the war testified daily of her obedience to God’s call that we should forgive each other. Therefore the opportunity to visit her home could not be wasted, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our visits to this corner of the world. Although it’s free, only a limited number of people are allowed per group for each visit, so arrive early.

After the strain of a leisurely meander through the cobblestone streets of old Haarlem town, That-Man prefers to head in a southwesterly direction towards the local Douwe Egberts coffee house. A stained-glass Art Déco building houses the well-known brand’s local caffeine station and it’s a welcome place to rest your feet. As expected, the aroma of coffee catches your attention long before you arrive at the doorstep. Inside, the warm décor beckons you to spend some quality time with your companion, whether in human or printed form. The shop is filled with coffee and tea accessories, in addition to the ubiquitous coffee beans that are sold by the bag. Fortunately for coffee lovers, these cafés are sprinkled throughout the Netherlands, so look up the shop closest to you here.

So, besides tulips, this might probably be the most common picture a first-time visitor have in his mind before visiting Amsterdam. And Amsterdam doesn’t disappoint in this matter. We arrived here by train, and when you step out of the Centraal Station building, you are confronted immediately with the liquid expressways which crisscross the heart of this city. If you’re interested in taking a canal boat tour, you’re spoilt for choice. Whether you’d prefer to explore the canal ring during a one-hour tour, see the city at night with a candle-light tour, explore life with the little ones in a child-friendly tour, charter a tour for a small group or prefer the hop-on-hop-off variety, there is something to suit every preference. Our choice was easy: hop-on-hop-off. That way we could get the best of both worlds: exploring the waterways by boat with some snacks and rest our feet on the one hand, and visiting some sights and museums along the way. Oh, what a marvelously tourist-y experience.

There are many things the Red Light District is famous – or rather, infamous – for, and we’re glad to report that those are not the most fascinating parts of this corner of Amsterdam. We opted to visit this part of town around 08:00 in the morning, which meant that we did not encounter the sad elements of this neighbourhood. Did you know that the oldest church (which is also the oldest building) in Amsterdam is located here? This was where we first visited an exhibition of the World Press Photo Awards. We also came upon an interesting statue here with a quote by Salvation Army Major Bosshardt : "Serving God is serving Man. Serving Man is serving God."

How could we visit Amsterdam without going to the treasury of their art history? The first time we visited, the museum was still being renovated, but by our second visit the “new” Rijksmuseum was open and how splendid it was! That-Man’s favourite was Rembrandt van Rijn’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. Mine was The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer. On one hand, the ordinariness of the scene of this painting spoke to me. On the other hand, the subtleties of light in the painting told me that he was an extraordinary observer of something we all mostly take for granted. Upon later investigation i learned that Vermeer lived in Delft his whole life, and that even though he did gain some fame while alive, after his death his work was forgotten for almost two centuries, until it was rediscovered in the 19th century. Only 35 paintings are identified as his work today. There are remarkable differences between him and Van Gogh, and yet both were exceptional artists. Shouldn’t that encourage everyone of us to realise that none of us are better than someone else, yet neither are we equal to each other; we are all unique and that’s part of our value as human beings.

Did you know that Vincent van Gogh died at age 37? Did you know that he produced around 850 paintings and 1,300 works on paper in roughly 8 years? Did you know that he was a high-school dropout, yet found work as a teacher? Did you know that he was also a seller of art and books, as well as a preacher? All before he decided on producing his own art? These are some of the reasons why our visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was one of the most fascinating experiences we had while visiting Holland. It also turns that i would meet my favourite piece of art that day: the Almond Blossoms. This is a piece of art i hadn’t known about, but when we stepped into the foyer of the museum, poster after poster of this turquoise beauty excited me. i immediately checked the museum map to see how long i'd have to wait to get to its location, and the anticipation grew with every new room we entered. Technically, i didn’t get to see the original, as it was loaned to a US museum, so i consoled myself with a fridge magnet. A word to the wise: buy your tickets online ahead of your expected visit, as lines here are ridiculously long.

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