One of the main things we love about travel is meeting new people and learning about their customs and culture. And one of the best ways to do this is over a meal. In researching our trip to Paris last May, I discovered “tours” that are meals in the home of local residents. They are an intimate experience with anywhere from one to ten guests and the menus are as varied as the hosts. In Paris, we had an Italian dinner prepared by an art historian from Italy in an apartment overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral. Last night’s menu was a four course French Bistro dinner in an amazing canal-view apartment. Our hosts, Amsterdam natives Martine and Olav, welcomed us and the other four guests with warmth and a personal dining experience that just can’t be found in a restaurant. Everything from the table settings to plating was spot-on and I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that they had owned a successful restaurant prior to becoming in-home hosts.
Besides Rick and I, the other guests were two young ladies from our neck of the woods in Seattle and a married couple from Wisconsin. As Martine and Olav spoke English very well, communication was a breeze and we were sharing stories and laughing before the appetizer plates were cleared. Each delicious course was paired with a beverage to compliment it, and our hosts described both the food and drinks in detail. In addition to hosting dinners, Olav gives food tours around Amsterdam and his passion for both food and cooking is obvious. The first course of appetizers was paired with a refreshing beer cocktail called Picon Bière. Discovering new foods and beverages is another perk of travel and I quickly became a fan of the bitter orange liquor and beer mixture. We had our choice of drinks for the salad course and everyone opted for another round of Picon Beers.
While farm to table is enjoying a rebirth in the US, it’s a way of life around Europe and the freshness was evident in every course. Menus are planned by what is available and at its peak, and the results are amazingly flavorful dishes. My two favorite courses were the lamb shank with vegetables and the strawberry tart dessert. I’m not usually a big fan of lamb but this was melt in your mouth yummy and seasoned to perfection. A choice of red or white wine came with this course and my white was a very nice compliment to the lamb. With its just-picked flavor, dessert took me back to my childhood when we had a strawberry patch in our backyard. Paired with a slightly sweet dessert wine, it was the perfect finish to a lovely dining experience. No matter what city you’re visiting, I highly recommend seeking out a dinner with locals experience. And if you happen to be in Amsterdam, add dinner with Martine and Olav to your “must-do” list.
We spent the morning of our last full day in Amsterdam enjoying a pedicab tour with a local. Our tour guide Jan arrived at the apartment promptly at 11:30 am and after spending a few minutes chatting about what we’d like to see, we sped off towards the canal ring. Our first stop was a lovely park along Frederiksplein where Jan explained in detail the memorial to Walraven van Hall who, as a banker, created a fund that backed the Dutch resistance during Germany’s occupation. Walraven and his brother Gijs raised funds by borrowing from the wealthy and by “robbing” the Dutch National Bank of fifty million guilders. With the approval of the Dutch government-in-exile, the van Halls falsified banknotes and changed them in the bank for the real notes. The memorial, a fallen tree of bronze, symbolizes Walraven van Hall as a fallen giant. He was arrested and executed by the Germans on February 12, 1945 at the age of 39. The monument was erected in 2010.
Jan made frequent stops along our route, both to point out interesting sights and so I could take photos. His knowledge of and love for Amsterdam was obvious and cruising along on the bumpy cobblestone streets in his cab was a fun ride. As we made our way along canals to the Amstel River, Jan pointed out the different types of gables (step, neck, bell, pointed, and spout) which are both decorative and useful. The winches at the top of each gable were a practical solution for hauling goods from the ground to the upper floors and are still used today. Since Amsterdam once taxed on the width of property, the houses were built narrow but tall to avoid higher taxes. Any house more than three windows across belonged the wealthy such as bankers and merchants.
Our final stop before heading back towards De Pijp was the Jodenbuurt (Dutch for Jewish Neighborhood) along the east side of the Amstel River. By 1618, around one thousand Jews, mostly from Portugal and Spain, inhabited this neighborhood. By the Nazi occupation in May 1940, over 80,000 lived there. As we stood alongside the Nieuwe Keizersgracht canal facing a row of houses, Jan told us that before WWII about two hundred Jews lived in those houses. He then told us to look down at the pavement along the water where plaques memorialized each person who had lived there. Along with the house number, each plaque listed their names, ages, date of death, and place of death. I was instantly struck by how many were children and by how many perished at Auschwitz. This was the closest I’d ever been to the reality of the Holocaust, and walking along reading the plaques was an incredibly moving experience that I won’t soon forget.