Friday, August 13, 2010

Utrecht, and finally Amsterdam

Day before Paul and Marieke's wedding! It would be no problem to make it to Amsterdam by the end of the day, it was a question of what time. But the kms went quickly, and before we knew it we were on the outskirts of Utrecht, the biggest Dutch city we'd encountered yet. Bike traffic seems to work like this: as you approach an intersection, a squeeze point, pedestrians or cars, you have the right to basically move through as long as you don't cut anyone else off or run into anything. If you're first to an intersection, you basically have the right-of-way. And everyone was moving faster than us. It takes a certain level of confidence to maneuver through tight streets where pedestrians, cars, and bicycles share very little space. The last thing you want to do is make a last-second decision to turn - as anything you do that is not predictable to those around you will probably cause some problems. It makes sense, right? Don't surprise the people around you, you have no idea what's going on behind you most of the time.

So when I saw a turn for the LF4b when I was already halfway through the intersection, I just kept on rolling. It turned out to be okay, if not the most direct route; we cruised around, tried to pick up the route again by following parallel to it, and then ended up next to the massive, massive church in the center of town. It was hard to get any photographs, really. Partly because medeval streets are so narrow you can't step back far enough, but partly because there were this enormous trees between the two sides. We took turns going inside and watching the bikes. As tall and huge inside as one can imagine. I can't resist a good organ.

On the left, you see the clock tower, which was constantly ringing the entire time we were there with intricate bell songs.

On the right, you see a corner of the main church, across a small square, where there was some kind of goth festival getting set up. An old man on a bicycle (probably local) just stopped and stared at the scene. A group of skinny adolescents got up from a staircase nearby, wearing all black, sporting black mohawks or spiked hair, tall black boots with lots of laces and two inch platforms, and spooky vampire-eye contacts. As they walked by, the old guy just looked at them, gazed up at the church (built in the 1300s or so), looked over at us and shrugged. He seemed to have a question ready on his lips, except where do you start?

My favorite thing about this particular festival were what I dubbed 'spicy dreads'. Here, you can buy clip-on dreadlocks in any florescent color your little gothy heart desires. Or maybe just something to match the bright green stitches holding together your black bodice. The woman selling them went for a pink theme.

A detour well taken! And the LF4 passed right near there, so we were back on our route without further confusion. We passed through farms again, and saw some more small streets. Here is a excellent example of a country road.

Joshua:  Whoa!  Hold on Ramona!  You forgot the most alluring thing we saw in Utrecht.  As we neared the edge of town, we where following a small canal on our left.  We popped out of of some trees and in front of us was a cul de sac a queue of cars.   The bike lane kept right, so now we had this queue of cars between us and the canal.  Strange I thought, I guess they are queueing for a ferry.  But no, as we rode on a few hundred meters, we saw that in house boats on the canal were prostitues standing in windows, posing, talking on their cell phones, talking to clients, and reading.  A quick look confirmed that all the cars where single occupancy and the drivers male.  The queue was actually moving, albiet slowly, up the row of house boats.  We stopped and stared for a bit.  There were also men on bicycles cruising the strip. We had seen something like this in Germany, but there I think it was illegal.  We were riding through a national forest near Detmold and we emerged into some sort of parking area.  There were a bunch of small RVs parked, evenly spaced apart.  This not all that surprising - there are lots of RV parks in Germany.  Then I noticed that in every front seat was a blonde, tanned woman.  Then I noticed that there we some cars about and in the cars were only men.   Ok, I think Ramona was telling you about bicycle culture/infrastructure in the Netherlands...

The middle is not really wide enough for a car, although they have small enough cars here to squeeze by. Each side is a bike lane, but if there's no traffic, including cyclists, coming in the other direction, a car will pass by using what is unused of the road - so the opposite bike lane and middle of the road. And if there's oncoming traffic? They just wait. Why hurry and risk lives?

As we got closer, we started seeing more and more water. Sure, lots of water everywhere. But now the houses are across bridges, on the other side of small canals. And thatch! The roofs are made of thatch! We saw brand new houses being made with thatch roofing - it's not just something they used to do. Below is my favorite, if a little crooked. Sometimes I just hold out the camera and hope.

At some point, we had to do a loop around, to get up on a very big bridge. It turned out that the bridge was going over a canal built to bring part of the Rhine River to Amsterdam. The mouth is actually in Rotterdam, but part of the water - and a lot really - goes into the Ij River in Amsterdam. So we got to pass over the Rhine again, if only a man-made part of it.

Cruising into Amsterdam was something altogether different. The rules of the road apply. If you're faster, you pass, ensuring there's space (although they don't need much space, everyone assumes you'll ride in a fairly straight line). And we cruised in on one of the few roads where cars are allowed and there's enough space for them to actually move. There is also a trolly down the middle, and cars moved in and out of that lane wherever there was space, too. At first I felt overwhelmed and unsteady - on a fully loaded touring bike through that? But then I remembered myself. I rode my bike in Los Angeles. This, I can understand. And truly, when cycling becomes the norm in Los Angeles, it will probably look like that on those wide avenues.

We made it to our hotel by about 7/7:30pm, after following the Prinsengracht halfway around the city. The centrum is made up of concentric half-circle canals, or grachts, and straight canals that radiate out from the center. Criss-crossed, but not in straight lines. Lots of cobbles stones, very small streets, and lots and lots of bicycles. Clearly, the bicycle rules the city and it is by far the smartest way to get around.

By the time we got checked into the hotel, bikes stored, luggage and both of us up to the room, it was after 8pm. Even after a fairly long day, after many days in a row without a rest day, nothing could keep us from walking around Amsterdam at night. Our first bar was a bummer. Expensive and small beers (we are not in Germany anymore) and a bartender who would interrupt the song he was playing before it was over, to choose another song that he would end early. Joshua whipped out the iPhone, which was receiving a signal by some miracle, and we figured out which direction would take us to the red light district.

On the way we saw the church that Anne Frank heard, as our hotel is just a couple of blocks from the house where she and her family were in hiding. We oogled at bikes with seats for an adult and two children, and were impressed to find a permanent info stand that offers gay and lesbian information. We saw a few coffee shops, warily keeping away at first. We must have looked like the typical tourists. Then we sat down outside at a bar for a beer - just to think on our options and watch the people. A man at another table got up and took our order - when he came back I asked him if he even worked at the bar and he admitted that no, he didn't. But they were dealing with some very drunk people inside so he thought he'd help out. We had seen a dude with no shirt on dancing inside as we walked by.

Then as he was thrown out of the bar, that completely wasted British guy came by, sat down, asked joshua for a 'fiva' (high five) and said without pause but at a relaxed tempo, 'how you doin? how's it goin? alright? alright. yeah, i'm alright. you alright? alright.' He looked around, took a deep breath, and just before getting up to be off said, 'alright!' Our goal was to not end up like that guy.

Joshua:  That guy, or his equally trashed friends, who were also put out of the bar a few minutes later, but not before hugging and kissing the bartender who was clearly not feeling the love.

We did manage to get into a coffee shop, though, and had a nice talk with the Irish guy at the counter. We made our purchase and went up some very steep small stairs. All the woodwork looked like it was made of polished branches, rounded and soft with knots showing. The stools were small, brown, round things with three little white legs. On our way back down, my flip-flop fell apart and I went sliding down a couple of stairs before righting myself. Everyone looked up and asked if I was alright, which I was. I recovered quickly, saying that I hoped they had that recorded and we cruised out fast, back along the canals and through small squares, back to our hotel room and a good night's sleep.

Joshua:  White Widow, for those who are wondering.  Trying the haze or the kush just seemed like asking for trouble and who wants to smoke something called 'diesel '?

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