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High on Amsterdam
Kristina Foster gets excited about bikes, bitterballen and blowing smoke without breaking the law.

Brrrring, brrrrring, brrring, brrrring. A man in a tuxedo and a girl in a ballgown, ring the bells of their bikes as they whoosh past on their way to the Het Muziektheatre. Pedaling past with ease, their conversations carry on undisturbed. The girl's dress flutters about her ankles; the guy's cigarette smoke trails behind them.

Bikes might not be the first thing most travelers think of when they think of Amsterdam, but perhaps they should be. After all, bicycles outnumber people—20 million bikes, 16 million humans—in the flat-as-a pool-table country of Netherlands. Amsterdam is known for it's progressive social policy, the slicing-edge architecture, and the red light ladies of the night waving from their windows, but it's the bikes that give it the relaxed yet refined vibe. Amsterdam worships the bicycle, there are separate bike paths on nearly every street. There are even bike-specific traffic lights to prevent you from careening into traffic.

Inspired, I rented a shiny red roadster and within moments, I was zooming around the city, elbow-to-elbow in a pack of Dutch cyclists, feeling—yes, a bit like a 5-year-old. It was fantastic. I hadn't ridden a bike in a while, and I'd forgotten the tiny thrill of coasting along with the wind in my face ... standing on the pedals and leaning over the handlebars ... weaving back and forth down an empty street, and there's no better place for reminiscing than this romantic canal city sometimes called the "Venice of the North".

Founded in the late 12th Century, Amsterdam, once a small fishing village, is the capital and the largest city of The Netherlands. Its' name is derived from 'Amstel dam' pointing to the city's origin: a dam on the river Amstel. It's said that Amsterdam was founded on herring and beer. The beer industry may now have become industrial brands like Heineken and Amstel, yet the humble herring is still an important part of Amsterdam life. For those punters game to sample the young fish, known as 'maatjesharing', you should hold it by its tail and lower it into your mouth. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea there is some delicious Indonesian and Surinamese food around town. Such are the spoils of colonialism. But the Dutch dish that's really a 'must try' is bitterballen. These fried-up balls of sunshine are the ultimate comfort food. The fun is in cracking open the breaded shell, then sucking out the creamy meat-lava inside. Perfect with a cold lager.

"It breaks down like this: it's legal to buy it, it's legal to own it, and, if you're the proprietor of a hash bar, it's legal to sell it. It's legal to carry it, but that doesn't really matter 'cause -- get a load of this -- if you get stopped by the cops in Amsterdam, it's illegal for them to search you. I mean, that's a right... the cops in Amsterdam don't have." – Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction

Intrigued by the famed Pulp Fiction quote, I wandered into an Amsterdam coffeeshop. "Coffeehouses" sell coffee, while "coffeeshops" sell cannabis. This coffeeshop was called Greenhouse Centrum, a few doors down from my posh hotel. This slick outlet along the canal boasts celebrity clients Quentin Tarantino, Fifty Cent, Eminem, Nelly and Metallica. The feel was downtown yuppie but still cozy with some canalside tables and chairs so you can smoke up al fresco. At the counter, after much deliberation over the vast menu, which included a strain called "Bubble Gum" and another called "Northern Lights", a nice older lady sells me a zip-locked baggie of pot for 12 euros. So, how does pot's semi-legal status play out in the Netherlands? In terms of overall drug-use rates, some claim it's been a great success. But in terms of everyday life in Amsterdam, I can see how the Dutch might get fed up. Each weekend, hundreds of British teenage boys storm the city, get totally blazed, and stumble around in a zombie stupor. Of course, the Dutch deal with this everyday, yet manage to maintain a tolerant, if unimpressed attitude. It's the price you pay for enacting a vaguely rational drug policy. Me, I'm no blazed-out teen. But I did thoroughly enjoy the unique experience to spark up an afternoon jay on a busy sunny street with a hot espresso at a table next to an even hotter local Dutch actor.

The overriding vibe in Amsterdam is coziness. Every cafe has a cute little cat in the corner licking its paws. Every canal house blooms with a window box of tulips. There's a Dutch word for their tyranny of cuteness. The word is "gezellig" and the locals embrace the concept in all aspects of their lives. They carve out cozy, delightful moments anywhere they can find them. They bring their families on candlelit, night-time boat rides through the canals. They chat with their friends at outdoor cafes as the sun sets. If only I could find a way to pack all of the gezellig moments into my suitcase and take them back home.

The Ultimate Out of Town Trip

Discover the typical Dutch countryside. Admire polders and little canals enroute to Zaanse Schans village, where original buildings vividly depict Dutch life in the 17th and 18th centuries. Drive on to the world-fishing villages of Volendam and Marken, situated on the coast of the former Zuiderzee (now called Ijselmeer) where wooden houses line the streets. On the way, stop at one of the few farms where cheese is still made in the traditional way.

I rented a car at the Hertz Amsterdam central city branch, which is walking distance from most hotels and was quick and simple when I booked in advance over the internet. An essential tool for the trip is a GPS and I like that Hertz has the, true to its name, 'NeverLost' GPS for dummies. The Old City of Amsterdam is like a maze in a mouse cage filled with clueless tourist pedestrians, angry cyclists, surging trams and signposted with weird unpronounceable names. Just getting to the freeway can be a challenge.
About the Author
Kristina Foster is a freelance travel writer. Her articles have been published in Elle magazine, 2-Mag, Harpers Bazaar and Bambi magazine across Asia.
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