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Discovering the many sides of Amsterdam
By Nancy Pistorius

Some people are lured to Amsterdam because they're curious about the Red Light District's sex shops. Others come because they've heard you can buy more powerful substances than caffeinated beverages in canal-side coffee shops.

I made my pilgrimage to Amsterdam to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing the house where a young girl lived for more than two years, hiding in a cramped, dark space with seven other people, continually fearful of being discovered by oppressors.

For more than five decades, the Anne Frank House (Prisengracht 263) has stood as testament to a girl's bravery in the face of the worst of humanity. 

I felt so moved by reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" when I was a young girl myself that I wrote a letter to Anne's father, Otto, and sent it to him in care of the publisher.

Like so many other readers, I identified strongly with Anne. I, too, had a passion for writing. And I also felt misunderstood by my parents. However, unlike Anne, I lived in a suburban middle-class home in Springfield. I was safe. I didn't have to worry about armed thugs coming in the night to take me away to face unthinkable horrors.

Imagine my astonishment when I received a very personal, fatherly letter in response to my schoolgirl scrawlings from Otto Frank himself. The lone survivor of the eight occupants of "the Secret Annex" to survive the Holocaust, Otto considered it his duty "to fight for reconciliation and human rights throughout the world."

Otto wrote to me from Basel, Switzerland, where he was living with his second wife, Elfriede. Although most of the letter was typed, some of it was written in ink, and Otto used a pen to cross out some words and write in corrections. It was hand-signed.

Although I received it many years ago, I still count this letter as one of my most cherished possessions.

Because of this personal connection, being in the place where Anne encountered all the emotions that she shared in her diary was an incredible experience for me. Peeking out the windows, I realized that tiny view of the street below was all of the outside world that Anne got to experience during those long, scary years in hiding.

The interactions that took place between the eight people crammed into that minuscule living space loomed large, because - except for the ever-present fear of discovery - that was all there was. I got to hear the chimes of the Westerkerk, just as Anne did from her attic hideaway. 

The Anne Frank House has been deliberately re-created as it was just before it was plundered following the family's betrayal. You can still see Anne's photo collection of film stars and the Dutch and British Royal families taped to the wall. 

In addition to the historic artifacts in the museum, there are also modern, interactive exhibits to help people realize (as Otto Frank said) "that people are also persecuted today because of their race, religion, or political convictions."

Although seeing the Anne Frank House was undoubtedly the highlight of my visit to the Netherlands, I soon learned that the country is filled with wonders galore for travelers of all ages.

Forget the tawdry images of drugs and cheap sex. Holland for families is a land where stone trolls are chained outside children's bookshops and kids can explore a whole country - Madurodam - that is just their size. A place where the old exists comfortably with the new, where balloons that escape from birthday parties at McDonald's hang from centuries-old lampposts beside street-side canals.

Amsterdam is a place of enchantment, with its Old World charm, bustling bicyclists and 165 canals.

A good base of operations is the NH Grand Hotel Krasnopolsky (Dam 9). Not only is it centrally located at Dam Square in the historic district, but it boasts a fabulous breakfast buffet in the stunning Winter Garden restaurant.

You'll marvel at the Victorian glass roof, and the buffet is bountiful, with a wide selection of fruit and Dutch cheeses. Be sure to try the sweet mini-pancakes ("poffertjes"), which are a Dutch delicacy.

My choice of a "splurge" hotel in Amsterdam is the fabulous Amstel Intercontinental (Professor Tulpplein 1). You'll be pampered beyond your wildest dreams (there's a special button on the phone in each guest's room for "Instant Service For Anything You Want ... Anytime!"), and the rooms are absolutely gorgeous, with Delft-blue-patterned wallpaper. If you spring for a river view, you can look out the window and see the houseboats on the Amstel River.

A great way to chill out is to take a canal cruise around Amsterdam, often dubbed the "Venice of the North."

I recommend taking two different cruises during your stay - one during the day, so you can clearly see the charming canal houses, elegant merchants' residences, churches and warehouses along the route; and another in the evening, so that you can "ooh" and "ahh" at the romantic sight of the Seven Bridges, beautifully illuminated.

There are many canal cruises located near Centraal Station, but my favorites are Holland International and Lovers.

You'll enjoy wandering through Amsterdam's fabulous art museums, where the paintings are so exquisite (don't miss Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" at the Rijksmuseum or any of Vincent's Self-Portraits at the Van Gogh Museum) that they can move you to tears.

But also make time to visit the NEMO Science Center. Not only are the interactive exhibits modern, colorful and cutting-edge, but its state-of-the-art building contains a rooftop piazza, an elevated square that offers one of the most glorious views of Amsterdam that you'll ever find. 

The Maritime Museum (Scheepvaartmuseum) is scheduled to reopen this fall after extensive renovations. Until then, you can enjoy touring the Eastindiaman Amsterdam, a ship that is docked at the NEMO Science Center.

Don't leave Amsterdam without stopping at a bakery that makes stroopwafelen, divinely decadent treats composed of two thin waffle wafers sandwiched together with gooey, sticky syrup. Be warned: they're addictive.There are so many things to do in Amsterdam - shopping on Kalverstraat Street, drinking cocktails at the renowned Bar Americain, watching the multimedia-improvisation-sketch comedy "Boom Chicago" show (think Second City on speed) at the Leidseplein Theater - that you might be tempted to stay put.

But well worth a side trip (and easy to get to by train), is the charming town of Delft, sometimes called "Little Amsterdam." Take a tour of the Royal Delft Factory, and then paint your very own Delft blue tile in the workshop. After your tile is glazed and finished off in the oven, it will be mailed to your home address.

Save time to have a slice of probably the most delicious apple pie that you've ever had in your life - with a huge dollop of whipped cream - at Kobus Kuch, a cozy cafe in the Beestenmarkt. Then explore the little shops along the picture-book canals.

Cap off your evening in Delft with a meal at Stadsherberg de Mol, a medieval-themed restaurant where you eat with your hands from wooden bowls, while being entertained by live music from troubadours.After visiting Vermeer's hometown, you should go to The Hague ("den Haag") to see his paintings (including the famous "Girl with a Pearl Earring") at the Mauritshuis. 

If Delft is Amsterdam in miniature, The Hague boasts its own Lilliputian world, Madurodam.

You'll feel like a giant walking among palaces, ships, medieval houses and even an airport that are 25 times smaller than their counterparts in real life. Madurodam is truly a child's wonderland, with all the different regions of Holland in a surface area of 18,000 square miles represented.

The fascinating part is that it's actually a "working" town. Buses, planes, trucks, boats and trains actually move from place to place. One of the highlights of the exhibit for me was putting a coin in a slot and watching a tiny bus bring me a pair of Delft china shoes. 

A terrific place to stay in The Hague is the Novotel Den Haag Centrum (Hofweg 5-7), with its minimalist decor, cozy bar, breakfast buffet and location in a posh shopping arcade. 

Wherever you go in the Netherlands, its magic will sneak up on you.

I'll never forget one truly bewitching evening in Delft when this happened to me.

The reflections of the old street lamps glimmering in the water, lovers strolling arm-in-arm beside lively little sidewalk cafes and white swans gliding noiselessly by - I was tangled in a web of enchantment.

There is nothing else to do when that happens but click the heels of your wooden clogs and wish to come back someday to Holland.


Story published Friday, March 4, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 2 )

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