Saturday, April 13: Dawn. My friend Peg and I were embarking on our fourth European adventure in that many years. Months earlier, we’d signed up for a Viking River Cruise to Holland and Belgium. Travel time, at last! Our northern New Mexico weather had been balmy, but a cold front moved in during Friday night. The world was covered in a layer of snow. In a winter wonderland we met and motored to Albuquerque by shuttle. So far, so good. Our plane was delayed, however, and the airport situation looked grim.The only way we could make our first connection was to order a wheelchair. This was legitimate, as I’m still recovering from a spinal fracture, not up to running some 20 gates to try to make the Houston connection. (https://tinyurl.com/y4tputkx) There was another wheelchair passenger, so the plane would wait five or ten minutes for us. Otherwise we would have had to start our European tour belatedly. In other words, it would have been a mess.
Miraculously, we caught the flight to Houston and then on to Amsterdam. Nine hours after leaving Houston, we arrived in Amsterdam and were welcomed on our Viking ship Tir before noon on Sunday the 14th. We settled into our stateroom. Peg went off in search of a maritime museum while I unpacked and strolled around the ship. Just 192 passengers on this journey, a good number. Dinner onboard, early to bed.
Monday, April 15/ AMSTERDAM
A city tour began the day, both walking and canal boating. From Kees, our tall Dutch guide, we learned about the city’s rich past and prosperous present. Passed by the “I” Building, a film center. Kees told us that last year, 1,500 river ships and 100 ocean ships visited Amsterdam. In the 1600s, the Dutch last India trading company reigned supreme. Spices were the main goods. By 1621, there was also a Dutch West Indies branch that traded with Africa and South America. Select merchants and traders grew extremely wealthy.
The canals we floated along were part of a former swamp. In today’s Amsterdam, there are 2,500 houseboats. They’ve grown increasingly expensive. What would cost 50,000 euros in the 1960s would now be 1.7 million. We passed by the famous wooden drawbridge (“Skinny Bridge”) and magnificent “city palaces.” Many of the buildings were fronted with symbols of what the dweller within did for a living. For example, a slave trader’s city palace boasted heads on either side of the front door.
The Golden Age of Amsterdam was from 1600-1700. A latter day boom began in the 1970s, when a huge cleaning effort dredged filth from canals and streets. Symbolically, that was when the first Dutch MacDonald’s opened. The cleanup effort continues to this day. Bikes, which are everywhere and being ridden by everyone, end up thrown into canals. Today, around 25,000 have to be dredged out each year.
Back on board the ship, Tir, we were treated to an evening of wooden shoemaking. Henk, from Vollandam, carved out a pair of wooden shoes before our wondering eyes. A million and a half pairs are produced yearly, explained Henk, but there are very few wooden shoemakers left. It is painstaking work, not particularly profitable. All the tools involved in the making require special maintenance. The tools themselves are becoming rarer. Hardly any people are attracted to the trade, our shoemaker mused.
As we went from lounge to main deck, a wooden shoe dance was in motion, a most fitting end to the first day of this European get-away.
(To be continued).
Join Elaine during the next several Mondays for more about the trip of a lifetime. Stay tuned as well for news about the republication of From Calcutta with Love and the debut of Clara and the Hand of Ganesha.