Funky, fun, historical and sobering — Amsterdam!

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Funky spot we found inAmsterdam

AUGUST 7– I’ve found teenaged vacation nirvana and it’s not a beach. It’s even a place parents will enjoy. Welcome to Amsterdam.

It’s got everything from clubs where teens can go safely, terrific outdoor markets and hip shopping as well as plenty of museums and the chance to explore via bicycle or even water bicycle (which are really paddleboats). There’s even a quirky Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum (www.hashmuseum.com complete with growing marijuana plants. Amsterdam is full of funky, fun, but also sobering sites.

We arrived in the evening after an hour flight from Prague and settled into the Ambassade Hotel www.ambassade-hotel.NL) , which is a series of renovated canal houses smack in the middle of Amsterdam that seems to be within walking distance of every where we want to go. The location is charming — I look out my window onto the canal and the distinctive 17th Century houses that now cost millions. Even after 10 p.m. the neighborhood is hopping with twenty and thirty somethings, sitting outside at cafes and restaurants. We head to a nearby street where we can’t believe our food choices — Italian, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, French… After a week of heavy Austrian and Czech food, we opt for Indonesian at Sahid Jaya (www.sahidjay.nl). We sit at a table in a garden. It’s the perfect beginning to our Amsterdam adventure.

This morning, after a terrific breakfast in the hotel’s cozy dining room overlooking the canal, local guide Bregtje Viergever-Michaels introduces us to Amsterdam via a walking tour, ducking in to hidden courtyards, walking us through the famous Flower Market with stall after stall of tulip and amaryllis bulbs. I have to come back before we leave to buy some to bring home! Did I mention the funny marijuana lollipops and cans of seeds? Marijuana and hashish are not criminal here (coffee houses sell more than coffee!) my two 17 year-old companions think it’s funny. Viergever-Michaels shows us Amsterdam’s “nine little streets” that are known for chic shops and cafes. The girls vow to return here too! Everywhere we look are narrow streets with cafes, shops and young people. They whiz by on bikes and we quickly learn the cyclists have the right of way. We laugh at how some of the narrow historic house lean in a bit.

The girls love Amsterdam — the charm, the vibe, the fact that its famous artists-Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Vermeer among them — are familiar to them. Another plus: everyone speaks flawless English. Amsterdam, we decide, is the ideal city to combine fun, good food and a healthy dose of history and culture. We’ve got the Amsterdam Card which allows entrance to museums and a host of other discounts (www.amsterdamtourist.nl). And they love the flea markets and vintage shops like Episode (www.episode.eu). At such places, the dollar doesn’t seem quite so weak, I’m glad to say. We get into a discussion about American politics with the guy at the Waterlooplein Flea Market who sells the girls sweatshirts.

We tour Rembrandt’s house, which he bought in 1639 at the height of his fame. But there was sadness here too — his young wife died as did three of his children soon after they were born. He ultimately went bankrupt and was forced to sell the house. It’s furnished with items and works of art from his time — including the tools he used for his famous etchings and demonstrations of how he made his own paints in his studio.

We join the throngs at the Anne Frank House, which is one of Amsterdam’s top tourist attractions (www.annefrank.org). The visit is sobering. Anne Frank, of course, was one of the millions of victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Her diary of her family’s experience in hiding was published after the war, giving a name and a face to what happened to so many Jewish children.

The Frank family, who had fled to Amsterdam in the 1930s from Germany, thought their best chance to survive once the German Army occupied the Netherlands was to go into hiding. We walk through the back part of the house — Otto Frank’s company was located in the front part of the house — where the Franks and four other people hid for more than two years until they were betrayed and deported. Ann, her sister and mother died in concentration camps. Otto Frank survived and had Anne’s diary published. Anne, just a young teenager, kept a diary the entire time she lived in hiding. It was first published in 1947 and has been translated into 65 languages.

We enter the hidden rooms up a steep staircase that was disguised behind a bookshelf. The rooms are unfurnished. The Nazis ordered all the furniture taken away after the family was discovered. Otto Frank wanted the rooms left unfurnished to commemorate all that was taken away from Jews during the Holocaust. Anne’s words describe what we are seeing. “One day this terrible war will be over, the time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!” The group depended on the kindness of some of Otto Frank’s employees who risked their lives to bring food and other supplies, even a film magazine one man regularly brought for Anne. There are photographs, letters, and even some of the pictures that Anne pasted up on the walls. I can’t describe the sadness that comes over us as we make our way through the small, cramped empty rooms, the windows blocked by blackout curtains. It’s amazing to consider that one 14 year-old girl’s diary gave a face to the suffering endured by millions and that her story today has resonance for children around the world.

Later in the day, we gain even more perspective when we visit the Jewish Historical Museum (www.jhm.nl), the building which once housed four synagogues is now home to an important collection of paintings and ceremonial objects looted by the Nazis during the war. But more important is the chance via interactive computer stations to hear the stories of survivors. We learn that some 25,000 Dutch Jews went into hiding during World War II and 18,000 survived. The museum collection now has more than 30,000 objects documents and photos — the horrible yellow stars Jews were forced to wear, suitcases used during transport, books and clothing. There is also a kindermuseum designed to give children an idea of what it means to be Jewish in Holland. Max the Matzo is the guide!

Even for those who aren’t Jewish, a visit to both museums should be on every family’s list when they visit Amsterdam.

On a lighter note, so should a visit to the Pancake Bakery (www.pancake.NL), that’s just down the street from the Anne Frank House in a old warehouse originally owned by the Dutch East India Company. Owner Bastiaan Schaafsma, who grew up in the apartment upstairs when his parents ran the restaurant, explains that Dutch pancakes — often eaten for dinner — are much lighter than American pancakes and thinner. They’re filled with all varieties of cheese, ham, vegetables, and meat as well as sweets (the banana and apple are especially good.) The pancakes are huge — they cover a large plate — and are delicious. It’s easy to see why this place is so popular!

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