» 01 June 2005 » In PHP, Talks, Travel »

Posting this out-of-order, but it couldn’t be helped.
A week before Cancún, I was at the International PHP Conference 2005 Spring Edition, held in Amsterdam. I gave an inaugural talk on the new Unicode support in PHP and also on the current state and development of PHP-GTK 2. This was my first visit to this city and I was determined enjoy it, despite the yawn-inducing 6 am departure time out of San Francisco and the three hours of turbulence after take-off. The good thing was that on the flight to Dulles airport the person seated next to me turned out to be the head of software department for Affymetrix, and we spent the whole time talking about DNA micro array, exons, TOUFs (transcripts of unknown function), and other such topics.

Having arrived to Amsterdam, I took a train to RAI Center and walked over to Novotel. My friend Stas was supposed to meet me there, and while waiting for him I ran into John Coggeshall and Ben Ramsey who decided to come along on our Ambulatory Tour of Amsterdam. The weather was trying to make us forget we were in Netherlands, as the temperature quickly rose to mid-70s and the sun was shining through patches of clouds. We started off on a brisk walk, heading for the city center, and ideally some sort of eating establishment. We couldn’t help noticing large amounts of trash everywhere and lest our image of Amsterdam be sullied so quickly, Stas explained that yesterday was the Queen’s Day and the entirety of population turned out to party and throw stuff on the ground apparently. The cleaning crews were already at work and all the trash would be gone by tomorrow.
Along the way we made frequent stops to take photos and admire the canals. Actually, the first thing that hits you as you walk the streets of Amsterdam are the bicycles – no pun intended :-P. Every other person we saw was either on a bike or just getting on or off one. The bikes are indeed the best method of transportation in this flat, old, fairly compact city, and judging by the bike parking lots everyone owns at least one or two old, beat-up bikes. Just don’t try to leave your new Specialized or Giant by a canal or it’ll end up on a flea market pretty quickly.
Eventually we ended up at La Place – a large, airy, and bustling self-service cafeteria that offered an appealing array of hot and cold food, from pastries and a salad bar to Thai dishes and steak with fries, all of it reasonably prices. A good meal deserved a drink, so we headed over to Leidseplein and subsequently Dam Square. I just love sitting in an outdoor café, with a cold beer, surrounded by friends, talking about this and that and watching people pass by. Europe definitely has leg up on the States as far that is concerned.
Conference started the next day, but Monday was dedicated to tutorials. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and visit Van Gogh museum along with Derick, John, and others. Needless to say, the museum was fantastic. Our appetite for art satisfied, we decided to do the same for the gustatory one and went to Café Luxembourg, on Spui. This quintessential grand café felt like it was located in Paris and looked very old, although it wasn’t. The menu was once again, extensive, offering anything from soups and salads to steaks, dim sum, indulgent pastries, and the renowned club sandwiches. The lunch was followed by more people watching over coffee, and the day quickly turned to evening. More conferencians joined our little group and we spent a good half hour walking around looking for a place that could fit us all. That turned out to be Café de Jaren. Formerly a bank, it has a two-story high bar, library-style reading desks, and terrace overlooking river Amstel. The cafe is popular with students as the university is next door and the food is simple and wholesome. Jani found us midway through dinner and handed out bottles of kossu, like a good Santa Claus.
The next couple of days were busy with the conference matters. I presented both of my talks and attended a few other ones. The Unicode one was fairly well attended and well received, in my opinion. It would have helped if I weren’t scheduled against both Derick and Zeev at the same time, but in any case, the whole Unicode matter will take people a while to absorb. I wanted to try the traditional Dutch spirit jenever (a type of gin, made from molasses and flavored with juniper berries) – so after the speaker dinner on the first day, Derick took a group of us, including Dan Scott and his wife Lynn to Nachtwacht in Rembrandtsplein. We had just about an hour until the bar closed (1 am), but it was time well spent. We tried both oude (old and mellow) and jonge (young and sharp) jenever, as well as a liqueur form of it called bessen jenever, made with cranberries I think. I liked old jenever, but bessen is also very good (I ended up bringing a bottle back).
For dinner the next day we decided to try rijsttaffel – literally “rice table”. I would call it Indonesian tapas. Derick said he knew a good place close to RAI Centre and made reservations at Djago. Finished with the conference, we walked over there, all 14 or 15 of us. The place was not large, but they were able to accommodate us all. The food was really good and we ended up cleaning out all the dozen or so bowls places on our table. I would say definitely visit Djago, but be careful: some sauces, such as sambal, were hot enough to blow your head off. After the dinner we ventured back into the city, in hopes of finding a place called De Bierkoning – selling 850 or so beer varieties. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find it, but I recognized that we were close to Spui and could visit a bar adjoining Café Luxembourg. It had a nice beer menu, mainly serving Belgian beers with killer alcohol content – up to 11% for some of them. Too bad that Amsterdam bars close at 1 am. Not ready for bed, we walked to Rembrandtsplein and spent the next couple of hours having drinks in loud and smoky places that very much reminded me of American bars.
I wanted to explore the city a bit more the next day and take more pictures, and Derick agreed to join me on this outing. Before starting our long walk, we needed sustenance and found a nice little place called Me Gusta, somewhere near Haarlemstraat and Singel. Afterwards we went to Brouwersgracht and walked through Jordaan and along Herengracht, making a big semicircle that brought us to newMetropolis – a science and technology center that looks suspiciously like a sinking ship. Having taken pictures of the Scheepvaart Museum and the harbor, we walked in a straight line along Prince Henrikkade, past the Central Station and the amazingly large bike parking garage. Our destination this time was De Winkel, a small café on Noordermarkt that serves the best damn apple pie I have ever tried. Honestly, this pie, heavily flavored with cinnamon and topped with slagroom (real whipped cream), was perhaps the culinary highlight of my trip. Highly, highly recommended.
More walking was needed to balance out the caloric intake, so we headed for Museumplein where a festival dedicated to the Liberation Day was taking place. It looked like people were having fun, what with all the beer, multiple stages and food, but I think I would have appreciated it more had I spoken the language. Being out in the cold, windy weather made us hungry again, so we walked along Prinsengracht to Pancake Bakery, offering more than 50 varieties of Dutch-style pancakes, with fillings ranging from lamb and paprika to cherries and whipped cream. The pancakes were enormous and very, very tasty.
I know it sounds like all I did on this trip was eat, but I felt obligated to share the places I visited. In reality, we spent a lot of time walking around the city and taking photos. I think Amsterdam is an incredibly photogenic city: canals, bikes, old buildings, gabled rooflines, and almost constantly diffused light provide you with all the raw materials for your photographic experience. And hey, it even has coffee-cum-dope shops if you feel like chilling out.

Restaurants and bars visited on this trip:

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