Amsterdam day trip: Van Brederode castle

Amsterdam has plenty of day trip opportunities. Smaller cities such as Delft are a short train ride away and the pretty countryside has many historic attractions.

Ruïne van Brederode is a castle in the town of Santpoort Zuid, about 25 minutes away by train from Centraal Station. From the Santpoort Zuid station, signs lead through quiet, tree-lined streets to the castle. The fifteen-minute walk is relaxing after the craziness of the big city.

Soon the castle comes into view. Ruïne van Brederode has a long history and has been through a lot over the years. The earliest known castle on this spot was built by William I, Lord of Brederode, starting around 1282. It guarded a narrow strip of land that connected the Dutch mainland to West Friesland. A map in the gallery to this post shows the site’s strategic importance.

The castle was besieged, taken, and destroyed in 1351 but was soon rebuilt, only to be set on fire by Spanish troops in 1573. By then the age of artillery was well underway and this type of castle was no longer militarily useful. The ruins were allowed to slowly crumble until they were restored in the nineteenth century.

%Gallery-140254%I was shown around by the caretaker, who lives in a small cottage next door. The castle grounds were quiet and we had the place almost to ourselves. There’s much to explore, including a large central tower that provides a splendid view of the rest of the castle and some of the countryside beyond. A small museum shows some of the artifacts dug up on the site, including some early stone cannonballs, perhaps from the siege of 1351, and a bit of stained glass with the boar’s-head crest of the Brederode family. You can even see wax figures of the former lord and lady of the castle, their faces reconstructed from their actual skulls.

The castle was quite modern for its time, with bathrooms in every room and an innovate square design for the main tower. It’s a shame it got so banged up by various armies. Parts of it are only foundations and the caretaker was quick to point out some errors in the nineteenth century reconstruction. Still, it makes for a relaxing and enjoyable day trip from Amsterdam and gets you out a countryside that most visitors miss.

If van Brederode whets your appetite for Dutch castles, also check out Muiderslot.

As I left, the caretaker presented me with bottles of Brederode Blond and Brederode Bruin, a traditional Dutch made in honor of the castle and bearing the boar’s head symbol of the Brederode family. The beer was as enjoyable as the castle and I heartily recommend both!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: One luxury and two budget hotels in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

One luxury and two budget hotels in Amsterdam

Visitors to Amsterdam are spoiled for choice when it comes to hotels. From flea-bitten junky flophouses all the way up to five-star luxury accommodation, hotels in Amsterdam offer something for everyone. Picking one can be tricky, though. Here are three places I’ve stayed at.

The four-star Hotel Estheréa is a good choice if you want to splash out. Its location on a broad canal in Amsterdam’s historic district is perfect. The immediate neighborhood is packed with restaurants, bookshops, antique stores, the flower market, and a few laid-back coffeeshops. It’s much quieter than the neighborhood closer to Centraal Station but only a short tram ride away.

The interior of the hotel is brightly decorated and there’s a huge (and very trippy) fish tank in the lobby. The rooms are spacious by Amsterdam standards and many offer a beautiful canal view plus lots of amenities like a safe and voice mail. Service is excellent and there’s a hearty breakfast every morning in the dining room shown above. Rates run from 185 euros on up.

My only complaint about this place is that you have to pay for Internet.I don’t mind so much for hotels catering to business travelers since they’re just going to put it on expenses anyway. As far as I could see, though, the Hotel Estheréa mostly caters to tourists. There are two free computers in the lobby, but chances are you’ll have to wait to use them.On the cheaper end is the Hotel Hermitage Amsterdam at Nieuwe Keizersgracht 16. As the name suggests, it’s within sight of the Hermitage Museum Amsterdam, a wonderful art gallery with world-class exhibitions. The hotel–a converted old canal house–offers singles to quadruples and family rooms too. The rooms are on the small side as is common with in Amsterdam and there’s no elevator. Climbing steep Dutch stairs with a heavy suitcase is a bit of a journey! Prices range from 49 euros on up.

A short walk away on Prinsengracht 1051 is the ITC Hotel. This is slightly closer to the center of town and slightly older and more cramped than the Hotel Hermitage. If you’re not looking for luxury accommodation and don’t mind climbing some pretty steep stairs, this is a perfectly good hotel. It’s housed in a historic canal house and has a variety of rooms, not all of them en suite. The free internet is a nice plus. Prices range from 49 euros on up.

All of these hotels are close to tram lines and are on canals. I suggest you get a canal-side room because the views are lovely. If you do this, ask for a room on an upper floor because the canal side is the noisier side.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Amsterdam’s Torture Museum

Like many travelers, I have a soft spot in my heart for tourist traps. Whether it’s the politically incorrect cheesiness of South of the Border or the shabby weirdness of The Thing, nothing brings a smile to my face better than some cheap, gaudy attempt to capture my attention.

Amsterdam’s Torture Museum fits the bill perfectly. Behind a pseudo-spooky facade are reproductions of torture instruments from the Bad Old Days. You’ve got famous nasties such as the rack and the stocks, as well as lesser-known evils like the Flute of Shame. Pictured here is the Inquisition Chair. The victim was strapped in and the weight of his own body caused him to sink onto the spikes. Check out the gallery for more photos and descriptions.

The whole place is lit by weird red, orange, and blue lights and is a maze of stairs and hallways that makes you feel like you’re in a medieval dungeon. Signs in several languages (including English) give basic descriptions of what you’re seeing, and images pulled from old books show the torture instruments in action.

It’s all very garish and exploitative. No attempt is made to be socially redeeming by discussing modern torture. For example, there’s no display about waterboarding, used by the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge, and the U.S. government. Of course there shouldn’t be because the U.S. government says waterboarding isn’t torture and they only use it on the guilty anyway. I know they’re speaking the truth because the U.S. government never lies and never makes mistakes.

The Torture Museum’s garish displays and Wikipedia-style descriptions are mere low-brow titillation. It’s when you think of what these objects really mean, and how similar instruments of cruelty are still in common use today, that this horror show becomes truly frightening.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam day trip: Van Brederode castle!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.


Down-home Dutch cooking in Amsterdam

Dutch cooking isn’t one of Europe’s famous cuisines. Yet while it can’t compete on the world stage with Italian or Spanish cuisine, Dutch cooking can been really good and travelers to The Netherlands shouldn’t dismiss the culinary side of their trip. Here are three cheap to mid-priced restaurants that will make you appreciate Dutch cooking.

De Stadskantine
This “city canteen” at Van Woustraat 120 is run by friendly folks who decided there needed to be a cheap, quick, cafeteria-style restaurant in Amsterdam, something between the grab-and-gulp fast food joints and the sedate sit-down restaurants.

They succeed admirably. The long tables allow people to mingle in an informal atmosphere and each dish is already prepared so you don’t have long to wait. This is especially good if you’re just visiting Amsterdam, because you can rest and refuel without losing a big part of your sightseeing day. The servings are hearty and the food well-prepared and healthy. I had the turkey with tomato sauce, potatoes, and green beans. This isn’t haute cuisine; this is tasty, filling food the way you mom used to make, assuming your mom was Dutch.

De Stadskantine has only been open eight months and it’s already hugely popular. It hasn’t made it onto the tourist trail yet and the only language I overheard was Dutch. The menu changes regularly and there’s always a meat dish, a fish dish, and a vegetarian option. Entrees are all under ten euros ($13.50), a bargain for Amsterdam. Check out their website for what’s on today.Restaurant Moeders
This restaurant at Rozengracht 251 is named after and dedicated to mothers. The walls are covered with photos of them and you can donate one of your own mom. They also offer specials if it happens to be mom’s birthday.

The odd decor doesn’t stop with the mother obsession. The restaurant looks like a cross between a diner, a cafe, and the cluttered living room of some old spinster who lives with 50 cats. That’s a good thing, as you can see from their website. Oh, and none of the cutlery or dishes match because they was all donated by the diners the first day it opened.

So this is one of the most distinctive looking restaurants in Amsterdam, but how’s the food? Excellent. I had a hearty stew that was just the ticket on the cold drizzly night I went and left no room at all for dessert. Service was friendly and prompt. This restaurant fills up quickly so book ahead, way ahead if you want to attend their annual Mother’s Day party. They also serve High Tea.

Haesje Claes
This large restaurant housed in three connected historic canal homes has been popular with locals and tourists for years now. While many such places coast on their reputation, Haesje Claes doesn’t.

It’s great for dining alone like I was because the decor gives you plenty to look at. The rooms and tables are lined with old decorative tiles from centuries past, and one room has an ornate Baroque ceiling the owner salvaged from some old building. The atmosphere is homey and intimate with a relaxed, cheerful crowd and friendly waitresses.

The food was cleverly done without being pretentious. Spoiled for choice with the appetizers, I ordered the Taster, which comes with six starters including cheese croquet, shrimp croquet, potato salad, fried tripe ball, and a couple more that I’ve forgotten. All were excellent except the tripe, which was, well, tripe. The venison steak I had as a main was well-prepared too.

In all, these three restaurants should satisfy your appetite no matter how long you walked around Amsterdam that day, and they’ll each give you an insight into the underrated world of Dutch cooking. All are reasonably priced. I’d pick De Stadskantine as my overall favorite for its good value and fun atmosphere. Haesje Claes is best for a proper sit-down meal in historic surroundings. Restaurant Moeders is the place to be if you’re traveling with your mom or you are a mom.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s Torture Museum!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam

I’m addicted to it. Every time I’m in Amsterdam the first thing I do is get some to satisfy my craving. I couldn’t think of a trip to Amsterdam without it. Yeah, you know what I mean.

Eating Dutch cheese!

I’ve always wondered why some countries get famous for certain foods. Why is Belgian chocolate so great? Why do the Dutch make such fine cheese? Why aren’t the Dutch the chocolate experts and the Belgians famous for cheese?

While in Amsterdam I went to a Dutch cheese tasting at the Reypenaer Cheese Tasting Rooms, the shop and showroom of one of the nation’s leading cheese manufacturers. They hold hour-long cheese tasting classes most days, where you get to taste a variety of cheeses and learn about the process of making them.

This class will teach you all you need to know to be a bore at cocktail parties. For example, most of us know that aged cheese is more flavorful, but why is that? As cheese ages it loses moisture, and moisture dilutes taste. As cheese ages, calcium and salt will form crunchy little white crystals called cheese crystals. This is a sign of maturity in a cheese. Very large crystals are a sign of well-aged cheese.

Some cheese has holes in it. This is caused by gas produced by bacteria. One would think that flatulent germs would be a bad thing, but as anyone who has eaten holey cheese knows, it has a sweet flavor that’s quite pleasant.

Local conditions affect the flavor, and this is one of the reasons The Netherlands is one of the leaders in the cheese industry. Warmth and humidity makes cheese mature more quickly. The Dutch region of Beemster is considered one of the best regions for cheese because its between to stretches of water.

The grass the cows, sheep, or goats eat is also a factor. For example, some cheese is only made with milk produced from animals eating grass in springtime because this is the richest and most lush grass of the year. Weather conditions affect dairy farmers almost as much as they do crop farmers. The rainy dutch weather ensures rich grass most years. England and Ireland have lots of rainfall too, and so it’s no surprise they have some excellent cheeses.

When tasting cheese, slice it thin as that allows for more oxygen. Drink some water between each sample to cleanse your palate. It’s best to sample both with and without wine. During the tastings we tried different wines and ports with different cheeses. I found that the flavor of all but the most mature cheeses was drowned out by the strong flavor of port. Lighter wines allow for the flavor of the cheese to come through, and the right combination of wine and cheese improves the taste of both.

The cheese tasting class was a great way to spend a rainy Dutch afternoon, and of course everyone ended up buying something in the shop! So if you’re at a loss for something to do while waiting for Amsterdam’s nightlife to kick in, stop by and learn something about Dutch cheese.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Down-home cooking in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.