Football, tulips and good music – which is the place on earth that combines all these things? Amsterdam of course! Well, If I had asked otherwise – what is Amsterdam famous for – a lot of other things would have come to mind. But the Nordic South Sisters are good girls (or at least trying to be, if I speak for myself), so no red lights or coffee shops… and not even too much Heineken while in Amsterdam!
Everything started from Douwe Bob – a young Dutch singer&songwriter, who represented his country on last year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Me and Anna Maria are always following the contest, and trying to have the Eurovision experience together by commenting on the performances and exchanging messages even when we are at distance. Last year we just fell in love – both with the performer and his music! So we checked where are the closest places to see Douwe Bob live, and there it was – an Amsterdam concert in the end of March. What a better excuse to have a trip together!
Our trip’s prime purpose was, of course, the concert, which was on Saturday, 18-22 p.m., but since we arrived on Friday afternoon and left on Sunday at noon, we had a few more hours to explore – enough to make it tough to plan. On top, it was the weekend when Europe changes time, so we had one hour less on Sunday.
Transport instructions totally fail
I don’t know, do at least the locals understand anything of the way the information on public transport works?! Do you ever get used to chaos?!
We managed to take the wrong train already on the way from Schiphol Airport to the hotel. We ended up at Amsterdam Centraal, when our destination was Bijlmer Arena. At the central station each of the rail tracks had a number, but each of the numbers had an A or B section.
At many stations you have the metro and the trains going from the same place, only different tracks. You need a different ticket, however. Once you check in with your ticket, you are stuck at the track and just have to wait. We missed our train and the next one was in 30 minutes, but I couldn’t go back to the general area of the station and buy a refreshment drink or some snack, because I had to check out with the ticket I haven’t yet used for an actual trip and thus deactivate it.
Best speaking of the situation with the transport is probably the fact, that somebody hires actual people to guide you to the needed transport. At the airport by the train tracks there were people shouting at the passengers when a train arrives: “This way for central station!”. If you go out of the airport building, you might not notice where the Keukenhof bus departs from, but you will find friendly people with tulip sign on their jackets, who will guide you to it. Unbelievable!! In Helsinki we have information signs for that.
The transportation chaos caused us to lose precious minutes from our very short trip.
Saturday full of program
On Saturday we had a tour around the Amsterdam Arena, the stadium of Ajax and the Dutch national team. Anna Maria came up with this idea, and, I should admit, I am not particularly a fan of Ajax or Holland, but I am a football fanatic and that was enough for me to enjoy the tour so very much! In Finland, where football does not come regularly from TV, and even when it does, you don’t have anybody else interested to watch the match with, it is so easy to forget how amazing the King of sports is. The atmosphere at the stadium reminded me why I am a fan and why I wanted to be a sports professional. I realized my passion is still there, even if it’s not so active nowadays.
I am not gonna explain to you details of the tour, because you have to go there and experience it yourself, but this is worth mentioning – our guide told is: “If you remember one thing about this place, remember the year 1972.” Apparently this is the year when the golden era of Ajax peaked in winning every possible title. You can read more about it here.
For the afternoon we had two options – to hang around in the center or to go see the tulip gardens of Keukenhof. Both options were important experiences to me, but something made me feel that it is too much of a coincidence that our trip happened to be exactly when Keukenhof’s season started. The gardens are open only for about two months – from the end of March until the middle of May. The problem was that Keukenhof is not exactly in Amsterdam, but in Lisse, and the logistics were not easy to arrange with our tight schedule.
Actually Keukenhof was a perfect and flawless tourism product. Everything is made to be easy for the visitor. The thing is how to first get information and plan your trip. I spent a few hours on Saturday morning checking how to get tickets for the park and for the buses and trains, after which I was totally confused. Wrong approach! Everything got arranged when I asked at the hotel reception. The receptionist told me where to buy tickets online, what kind of ticket we need, what kind of transport we need, and she even printed our tickets!
Before deciding on Keukenhof I spoke with a Dutch friend of mine and asked for her opinion. She told me: ” I think Keukenhof is a thing everyone should do in life”. She was right! The gardens were a fairy land, especially for me, because I am crazy about tulips. You know, girls usually love flowers, but I don’t care about any other flowers but tulips. This interest dates back to a very early age. I remember having a presentation at the preschool about black tulips. Now, don’t ask me which is my favorite of the thousands types of tulips!
In the evening we had our top-priority activity – the Douwe Bob concert. Luckily the AFAS Live was a few steps from our hotel: no need to carry a lot of stuff, no need to take any transport.
I didn’t realize Douwe Bob is so popular. The arena was full, and another surprising thing, I didn’t have to feel bad about being his fan at 31, because there were women AND MEN the age of my parents, who were there enjoying the gig and singing and dancing to the songs.
Clearly Douwe Bob is (still) a national rather than international artist. The show was built on Dutch culture and there were a lot of tiny details that me and Anna Maria didn’t get – and it’s not about the language, because I pretty much understand Dutch. It is cultural.
The good thing about such a young artist is, that when you see and hear him live, he is exactly the same as on TV or online. This new generation doesn’t build an image of perfection on the media. They are just as they are, and this authenticity, just being human, is what makes them attractive. And so Douwe Bob was not perfect. There was an acoustic song that he started 3 times and couldn’t continue (due to sound problems, he said). But that doesn’t mean he’s not one hell of an artist! He changed 4 different guitars during the concert, sang like an angel, and danced his ass off!
Anna Maria had visited Amsterdam before for a conference, but for me the experience was first time in life. And coming from my modest Bulgarian background, when travelling to a destination, I always think in a way that this might be my first and last time to see it. So I kinda get hyperactive and want to have not the optimum, but the maximum from the experience. That’s why on the morning before leaving I preferred to walk alone and see all the available sights in downtown Amsterdam, while Anna Maria enjoyed a peaceful Sunday sleep at the hotel.
I say “all the available sights” because almost everything is closed on a Sunday and before 10 a.m. Even the famous vivid De Pjip district was like a ghost town. At Dam square the only early birds were me and the Asian tourists. But I am not complaining at all! Amsterdam is a major destination, which is hard to explore when crowded with tourists – at popular days and popular hours. I’m glad I avoided that.
Shopping is a mission impossible
I already consider being cursed, because during my last trips I never have the opportunity to do any shopping! Well, this time we had the first evening after arriving, when we explored two shops on Arena Boulevard – the Decathlon sport shop, which is not present in Finland, and the Esprit outlet, which was as big as a whole shopping center – OMG, heaven on earth!! But since I got downtown first on Sunday morning, I had no luck with the other shops. Especially interesting it might have been to visit the Hunkemöller shop, since I only have the opportunity to shop this brand online.
Comfort at the hotel
By exception for this trip we had booked a hotel, which is not situated in the center. We didn’t regret it though. Holiday Inn Arena Towers was conveniently close to AFAS Live and Amsterdam Arena, there was a train / metro station nearby, the Arena Boulevard full of restaurants and shops, and a shopping / walking area nearby, Bjilmer-Centrum (which we didn’t have time to explore). Our hotel room was furnished in orange color, which I love, and had a view of the stadium. The breakfast, which is always an important part of the experience, included among all two types of hummus and fresh juice you can squeeze yourself. The reception service was exceptionally friendly and useful. There were complementary stroopwafels and fruit-infused water at reception during the day. The hotel even has its own Starbucks takeaway point.
Amsterdam is international!
You know these places you visit, where you can’t find a single person to speak English? Amsterdam is not one of them. People are really confident with their knowledge of English and do not hesitate to use it. I even caught a few conversations between Dutch people, which were infused with English phrases, just so, in order to enrich the expression.
I noticed something, you can try that out too: if you have a conversation with a Dutch person and you say “thank you”, you will automatically get an answer “you’re welcome”. Doesn’t matter how many times you say “thank you”, you will be welcome all over again. This Dutch over-politeness makes me think how good words have turned into cliches nowadays.
Amsterdam is a truly international place – besides the big masses of tourists, there are a lot of Dutch of immigrant background. Unlike in Finland, nobody is staring at them or thinking they are strange. It’s funny, but in Helsinki I can’t get people to speak Finnish to me – even though I approach them in Finnish, they reply in English assuming I am from somewhere else. In Amsterdam I got approached in Dutch and even a few tourists asked me for directions. It is a place where you rather assume someone is local despite of him/her looking different. I think that’s cool.
Another dimension of this multiculturalism is the fact that it has brought little pieces of different cultures to Amsterdam, and these pieces are authentic, even if not Dutch. The best Döner Kebab I’ve tasted outside Bulgaria I had right in front of AFAS Live. (Well, that is not a traditional Bulgarian food either, but you get the point.)
The airport experience
I have said it before, I will say it again: I love Schiphol Airport. There are good shopping spots, there is an amazing food and sports bar at B-gates, and you can refresh yourself with a big Heineken. This time, however, I didn’t use the airport only for a transfer, so I had to deal with the check-ins and check-outs. I find it a bit messy and time-consuming, just like the Amsterdam transport in general.