On the morning after our surprisingly difficult train trip from Barcelona to Amsterdam, our family woke in our hotel around 8:30 feeling fairly refreshed and very hungry. Señor Aventura is a morning coffee kind of guy so while he and The Scientist went out in search of a good coffee shop I busied myself repacking our bags to move to the AirBNB and getting Soccer Dude, Little Angel and myself ready to go with them to breakfast.
The Amsterdam weather forecast was very cold and rainy, but to the dismay of the children, no snow. We layered ourselves appropriately with long underwear, shirts, sweaters and jackets... two layers on bottom and about four or five on top. By the time I put on my jacket I was already plastered in sweat but I knew that the 4 degree Celsius morning temperature (39F) would make me grateful for the extra layers as soon as we walked outside the comfort of the hotel.
To our extreme joy, we discovered that our favorite restaurant in Amsterdam (Pancakes Amsterdam) had opened up a new location right across the street from our hotel! When the children and I had traveled with my mother 18 months ago to the city, there had been only one Pancakes Amsterdam... but now there are three!
Dutch pancakes are definitely not the same as American pancakes, so I will try to describe the pannenkoeken.
Imagine a very large crepe... a little larger than a large tortilla. Instead of thin like a crepe though, it is a bit thicker and stretchier, about halfway to the thickness of a typical American pancake.
In Amsterdam you can buy boxes of this pannenkoeken mix at any Albert Heijn grocery store (which are everywhere, a lot like going to a smaller version of Vons) and the homemade pannenkoeken from mixes are surprisingly good.
However if you want the absolute best pancake experience (possibly in the world!) it makes a lot more sense to go to Pancakes Amsterdam. They make a wide variety of sweet and savoury pannenkoeken, and you can also create pancakes from your own list of ingredients. Soccer Dude, for example, likes to order pannenkoeken with spinach, mushrooms and bacon. My favorite pannenkoeken is gluten free and includes salmon, guacamole and creme freche. (Don't knock it til you try it.... amazing!!!) If you're really desparate for an American pancake, you can get those there too.
They also have delectable sweet pannenkoeken including pancakes with lemon, sugar and whipped cream... pancakes with oranges and chocolate sauce, sprinkles, and pancakes with apple crumble topping.
I could basically bathe in their pannenkoeken, they are so sinfully delicious. The only problem is that I can rarely eat more than one, because they are so generous in portion size! I almost never end up eating a sweet pannenkoeken for dessert because by the time I've finished my savoury one, I'm full.
"If only I had two stomachs," I laughed mournfully as I watched everyone else in our family devouring their dessert pancakes.
Needless to say, our day was off to a great start!
The hotel arranged a large taxi to come and transport us to our AirBNB which was located along the banks of the Amstel River. All hard feelings about the mistake in booking for AirBNB dates had vanished by now, and we were delighted to meet our host's sister who was cleaning the apartment as we dropped off our bags.
"If you need anything... anything at all! Please do not hesitate to call me," she told us kindly.
"What we mainly need right now are groceries," I explained, "because I suspect everything will be closed tomorrow for Christmas."
"Oh, if you want groceries you should definitely go to the market right now," she advised, "because the stores will be completely shut at five o'clock today for Christmas Eve and not open again until Monday!"
This is how our Familia Aventura's first big adventure in Amsterdam was a trip to the Albert Heijn grocery store, about five long blocks away. We walked along the river until we needed to turn right, and the Amstel River looked peaceful, cold and quite gray.
At Albert Heijn we quickly loaded up with all the food we'd need at home for the week, including all of the fixings for a grand Christmas dinner at home. Señor Aventura got about four different varieties of Brussels sprouts to try cooking and some fancy mustard to roast them with.
"Have I mentioned that we're very near Brussels right now?" he joked over and over. "Maybe we should try some of their special sprouts." He seemed quite cheerful and excited.
It didn't take too long before our cart was filled nearly to the top and we were in line to buy the groceries and lug them home. Just as we approached the register, Little Angel's eyes lit up.
"Oh look!!!!!!!!!!! Mommy!!!!!!!!!!!!! CHRISTMAS TREES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Can we get one???? Please??????"
My husband and I looked to where she was pointing and noticed that the sign above the trees said "SALE" so I went over to inspect while Señor Aventura and Soccer Dude continued to unload the grocery cart.
Perhaps because it was Christmas and the store would be closing in three hours, they had deeply discounted their trees... which were actually very nice trees!
They were about four feet tall and quite green and lovely. At home we would likely have paid $25 or $30 for a tree like this... but these trees were on sale for.... one euro! That's right, just a tiny bit more than a dollar!
"Hon, I think we could do it actually," I called out to my husband.
"How much are they?" he asked.
"A euro!" I told him incredulously.
"How much are the stands though?" he asked, wondering where the catch might be.
"Let me check... um.... three. They're three euro."
"So we can get the tree and the stand for four euro?" he confirmed with the girl behind the checkout stand.
"Yes. Four euro for a tree and a stand."
"Okay. We can do it!" he smiled at Little Angel and Soccer Dude. "But who's going to carry it home? I have to help your mom bring all of these groceries."
"I will, Daddy!" said Little Angel. "I will carry the tree home!"
"Okay little miss," he nodded. "If you will carry it home, we can have it."
Our seven and a half year old daughter glowed as though she'd just swallowed the moon. We were in Amsterdam, well fed with delicious pancakes, and now we would actually have a Christmas tree!!! Little Angel wiggled and danced and went to pick out the perfect tree from the few that were leaning against the wall.
We returned home to our clean, empty apartment. It was a lovely apartment with three bedrooms and an excellent couch, great heating, a nice kitchen, and a washing machine. We had such a nice view of the Amstel river from both of the front rooms, and I particularly liked the way in which we were staying in a quieter part of the city where actual Dutch people live and not just tourists. It's nice to live like a local when you travel, rather than only seeing the famous hotspots, museums and so forth.
We threw the groceries into the refrigerator and were all a bit anxious to get out and explore the city while there was still daylight.
During this time of year there is very little daylight in the Northern European countries. The sun doesn't even rise until 8:30 or 9am and it sets around 4:30pm. So you have very limited natural light, and it feels good to take advantage of every second.
For this reason, we walked along the Amstel river toward the city center and paused from time to time, showing Señor Aventura some of the landmarks we'd discovered in the summer of 2015 when we'd last visited without him.
This was his first time ever to visit Amsterdam, and we hoped he would love it too!
We were headed to the Museumplein to inspect the ice skating rink and possibly skate.
The walk between our house and this district was about forty minutes, and by the time we arrived the children were hungry and it was getting darker.
As we ducked into the Richtsmuseum passageway, we saw a group of classical musicians starting up a little concert. There are a lot of buskers (street musicians that play for tips) in Amsterdam, and some very high quality ones too! This group was quite impressive and I actually checked Google images while we were standing there to make sure the violinist wasn't actually world famous virtuoso Joshua Bell... because I know he plays incognito in subway stations sometimes.
(A lot of big artists like to busk in the passageway outside the Richtsmuseum... possibly because its acoustics are wonderful!)
After the children put some euro into their open case for the lovely Classical holiday music, we continued our walk to the outdoor ice rink. It was beautiful and crowded on the Museumplein, and very cold. White lights twinkled in the dark trees, and people passing by laughed happily seeming cheerful and festive. Sadly, the ice rink had closed already for Christmas Eve, and we watched a few people slide around the wet ice using only their shoes... which looked quite damp and less fun than skating.
"I'm so sad!" said Soccer Dude. "I really, really wanted to ice skate." He grew a little bit glum, and soon I realized that he was also quite hungry.
"Well, what should we do?" I asked my husband. "Do you want to go to the modern art museum? It's open for another hour or so."
"I don't think I have a museum in me tonight," he said. "Let's do those after Christmas when we have the full day to explore and enjoy them."
"Okay. How about a boat tour? I read that the night tour around Amsterdam is really beautiful."
"Sure, that'd be fine. Then we can eat dinner at home."
So we set off on one of Amsterdam's many efficient trams toward the Centraal Station, where we'd see many boat tour offerings when we first arrived in the city.
"Mom, I'm hungry!" announced The Scientist.
"Me too!!!" agreed Little Angel.
Soccer Dude himself was so hungry now, he looked a bit miserable.
"We'd better get a snack before the boat tour, since its 90 minutes long," I told their dad... and Señor Aventura completely agreed.
"Mom, I saw a cool place that looked pretty good on the water called the Van Gogh Café. Can we go there for the snack?" asked The Scientist.
At the Van Gogh Café we filled up very cheaply (by Amsterdam standards) on delicious Dutch cheeses, sausages, and thickly cut salty fries. (Señor Aventura also enjoyed a few tasty beers!) I also purchased two apple tarts for my husband and children to share. Wish I could have had them too, but being gluten free doesn't make apple tart quite as easy to find for me.
We all felt much more energetic and cheerful after this tasty snack and soon were on our way to buy tickets for the evening boat tour.
It was time to take our canal tour to see the holiday lights. We ended up choosing the Water Colors Boat Cruise, and their tour really was spectacular!
Our tour guide explained that over five hundred artists from around the world apply each year to be part of this water tour art exhibition. The city of Amsterdam itself becomes like an open museum with artwork on display in the canals against the backdrop of the city's striking buildings. Out of those five hundred applicants they narrow it down to 100 finalist artists and then there are about 26 works we were actually taken to see on the tour.
Forgive the blurry quality of the images we took at night, but this tour was quite extraordinary. Some of the art was made with laser light, others with different types of billboards and plastics... all of it unconventional and quite striking. We were entranced.
"This is SO cool," Señor Aventura murmured again and again. "Really special."
Sitting there in the warm but darkened boat, gazing out its glass windows upon such spectacular displays of unique modern art as we cruised down the canals of Amsterdam, I felt such gratitude! All of yesterday's train misadventures were now long gone, as we settled deeply into the magic and majesty of this beautiful city that manages to be both ancient and modern at one time.
"This will be such an incredible memory in years to come," I thought to myself. "Someday we'll say, 'Remember the time we spent Christmas Eve in Amsterdam, cruising down canals to see those incredible works of art on the water? That was amazing! We were so lucky!'"
Even better, tomorrow would be Christmas.