Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Enjoying "The Layover"

What can you do during a long layover? And when I say long, I am not referring to the standard five hours spent at Heathrow Airport. I am talking about an overnight stay, usually between 24 and 36 hours, where there is time to pick up luggage, check-in to a hotel and see a bit of the city. What are the key places you should hit in San Francisco? Where are the can't-miss places to dine in Amsterdam?

All these questions and more are answered in my new favorite show on television, "The Layover" with Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel. In the series, Bourdain has between 24-48 hours to tell a story about a city, its people, culture and food. As a seasoned traveler, with many connections around the globe, he is able to provide some of the most exclusive and interesting insight and tips about any given city. It basically helps travelers make the best of their downtime, encouraging them to get out of the airport hotel and into their stop-over city.

The show has been on the air for over a month now, and Bourdain has hit some of the biggest and most impressive cities in the world, including New York, Montreal, San Francisco, Singapore, Miami, Rome, Hong Kong and Amsterdam.

The Amsterdam episode premiered last night, and what made it extra special for me is that I have actually been there, so I recognized a lot of the places Bourdain visited. I loved the different ways he described the city, and found myself actually laughing out loud at many of the comments he makes. Like when he is in a traditional Brown Cafe, the dutch equivalent of a British pub, and when the crowd starts to sing an old drinking song, Bourdain says: "I feel like I got high and ended up in the middle of a rogue production of Annie." If you have ever been to Amsterdam, you definitely get what he's talking about. I truly appreciate Bourdain's adept observations and witty banter, and I have admired his writing style for years. I hope to one day develop those same skills in my own travel writing, and I think getting a few more trips under my belt may just help in that department.

As far as the places he chose to highlight, I give him credit for locating the old, unique, hidden gems of Amsterdam, places that few tourists think to go or can even find in a short amount of time. While he only has 36 hours, he manages to fit in an awful lot, probably because Amsterdam is relatively small and easy to get around, especially if you take a ferry or ride a bike--which Bourdain recommends. "In Amsterdam, bikes, crappy old bikes actually, are kings of the road," he says. "Even cars fear them. You better look both ways." If I ever make it back to Amsterdam, I fully intend on visiting the Café Int Aepjen, one of the oldest bars in the city. The little tidbit that Bourdain shared that I found most interesting was the name's origin. It was an old sailor bar and if a customer couldn't pay for his room, he would give them a monkey he collected during his travels, hence the name "in the ape." It's these strange facts that give a city its character.

I also hope to visit the Upstairs Pancake House, credited with some of the most interesting pancake concoctions around, and the source of a line from a Beastie Boys song: "Whne I'm in Holland, I eat the pannekoeken." It is located in the center of the city, but is difficutl to find, since it is so small. Once upstairs, you will find a small room with only four tables, so it's probably best to get their early, or you will most likely have to wait. Although, Bourdain did not really talk about the hours or seating situation. As far as the pancakes, you should probably ask about the daily special before ordering, since it changes all the time. The pancakes are made fresh with fruit, cream, bacon, cheese and an assortment of other ingredients. I used to be a big pancake eater, but my taste for the delightful breakfast dish has waned in recent years. This place could just reinvigorate my appetite for these sweet, decadent disks of fluffy batter.

One thing I will not be trying in Amsterdam--which is apparently a local delicacy--is pickled herring. I'm usually one for trying the local fare, at least once, but that just does not sound appetizing at all. So I'll be giving that a miss and heading over to Three Little Bottles to try--as Bourdain calls them--"indigenous beverages." The bar has been open since 1650 and nothing has really changed since then. Here is where you can get a real taste of an Amsterdam original: Jenever, a dutch liquor. There is an art form to drinking the intoxicating liquid. The bartender fills a small glass to the brim, and you must sip off the top without touching the glass at all, only then can you pick up the glass and finish off the liquor. Bourdain desscribed it as a gin, which I admit is not my alcohol of choice. But for the sake of experimentation, I would certainly order a round--or two--espeically since it is so unique to the region. And as the Dutch say, if it isn't made in Holland, it ain't real jenever.

One fun fact that I was not aware of until I watched the show was how popular Indonesian food is in Amsterdam. But it makes sense, since the Dutch held control of Indonesia well into the second World War. During that time, locals from the country would bring over some of their cultural traditions, as well as their food. Bourdain and his friends head to Tempo Doeloe in Centrum, one of the best Indonesian restaurants in the city. According to the waitress, and Bourdain's friends, the best option is to pick a number of small items and sample each one along with a plate of rice. It allows a guest to taste a variety of flavors--and spice levels--in one sitting, rather than choosing only one dish. Bourdain is pleasantly surprised at the spiciness of some of the dishes, which only made me more eager to try this place, because I like my food hot!

While I love the show and everywhere Bourdain chooses to go, I do have one small complaint. He spends very little time talking about anything other than food. I know that Bourdain's background with food and cooking plays a big role in his television shows, but as someone who travels, I would like to see more of a city than just its restaurants, bars and cafes. Obviously, food is a major part of a city's culture, heritage and history, and it certainly reveals a lot about a place. However, there are other things that show the history and customs of a place, such as architecture. And what about shopping? Tourists like to shop, and I personally love checking out a city's shopping district. Tiny boutique shops hold some amazing treasures, and even some of the commercial shops have some fun artifacts and items.
Dam Square

Amsterdam is compact, so it is easy to see a lot in a short amount of time, even on foot. Although the tram system is very convenient, which Bourdain points out in the show. You can also see a great deal of the city on aboard Museumboot Canal Cruises, which allows you to hop on and off at any stop. A few attractions that Bourdain discusses are Vondelpark, an English-style park that is the largest of its kind in the city. It is a great place to take a relaxing walk, enjoy a picnic, or even a free summer concert at Openluchttheater. Dam Square and Kononklijk Paleis are two sites that you really cannot miss when visiting Amsterdam. The Paleis, or royal palace, was built in 1655 and was the town hall until it was renovated to look like part of a royal residence. The Dam Square is a bustling area filled with tourists and numerous street performers. There plenty of museums, and most guests will hit the Anne Frank Huis and Van Gogh Museum. Bourdain points out that the Anne Frank House is always crowded and the line is exceptionally long, two factors you do not want to deal with when on a time crunch.

Clearly, Amsterdam has a lot to offer tourists, and it can be difficult to decide exactly what to do with your limited layover time. The best advice: If you know you have a long layover somewhere, do a little research before your trip to select a few key sites you want to see, and focus on those attractions/restaurants/museums, rather than wandering aimlessly.

"The Layover" certainly helps in this arena, because it takes care of a lot of the guess work for you. So I recommend checking out the show, if for no other reason than to get some good ideas and hear about some places that may not show up in a guide book or online.

Check out this link to see some pictures from the Amsterdam episode.

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