Vinter Vonderland


We're into a second very snowy and cold winter (last year's was the worst since 1981). Why is this noteworthy? The Elfstedentocht. An 11-town, 200km skating odyssey held in Northern Holland, touring the province of Friesland.

This can only occur, however, when all the canals are frozen to a thickness of 15cm. The last Elfstedentochts ("eleven cities tour") occurred in 1997, 1986 and 1985. It's hugely popular in the Netherlands, with people and media speculating with each passing sub-zero day that it may happen - so much so that you get the sense that all 16 million people here are collectively cheering on the cold weather. This is clearly perverse.

More images and impressions from a wintry Amsterdam...

This somewhat obscene-looking fellow, peeking like a careless uncle in a bathrobe, is Dutch comfort food. It is one of a variety of "stamppots", essentially a vegetable and a meat mashed into potatoes.

Least comfortable bike seat ever.

Getting closer to freezing over! Yay! (No.)

Hot Spots II


The second sauna venture occurred this week in Amsterdam, in the unassuming confines of Sauna Fenomeen. Before getting my sweat on, I met with Rob, one of the board members of the all-volunteer sauna.

Some quick highlights:
  • It was the rare interview where the interviewer and interviewee wore only towels.
  • Sauna Fenomeen was, a century ago, a horse stable of sorts, where carriage horses received their tune-ups.
  • More recently, it was an old "squat"* - home to a small enclave of culture, with a "volkskeuken" (town kitchen), children's theater, music center and anarchist library (I was going to take a book out, but then resisted) in the surrounding area.
  • It offers a ton of natural light, one small steam room and one large dry sauna, along with a cooling tub and showers, with a sitting area for reading and an upstairs area with mats for lying down. It also has an aquatic theme - feels a little like a pirate ship.
  • All operating profits go to charity (close to 10,000 Euros last year alone). Talk about giving the shirt off your back.

Rob offered up excellent sound bites to describe Sauna Fenomeen in our hour-long chat: "Happy chaos" (a metaphor for Amsterdam too, I'd say); "Like a living room" (if your living guests room were all nude); "Like a village in the city"; "Conscious-living clientele"

In short, Sauna Fenomeen stands out. In part because of it's location - in Amsterdam's Oud Zuid, many of the surrounding homes and stores are decidedly un-hippie and relatively posh. But also because it is the most unique spot you might ever set foot in.

Vibe: Hippie. But then, actors, businesspeople, and bankers are regulars too. Rob told of the story of a South American ambassador who once fell asleep in one of the saunas here after a particularly strong, er, herbal medicine took hold.

Vibe II: Relaxed - like Hot Spot I, also not a pick-up spot. The outdoor garden is a fine spot to head to in order to cool off. You haven't experienced Amsterdam unless you've sat on a garden chair, naked, in 0-degree weather right after a sauna. It's amazing to see the places where steam can emerge from.

Cost: Dirt cheap. Less than 10 Euros to enter, along with a very inexpensive small bar to get soft drinks, tea and sandwiches. Discounts for students and the unemployed too.

Clientele: On the day I was there, it was about a 70-30 male-female mix. Other days, this ratio is reversed. Also like every Dutch sauna, it has all shapes and sizes. And all ages are welcome - Sundays see several families there during the day.

Bottom line: Doesn't matter if there are a few extra lines on your bottom. If you can't relax here, you need to relax here.

Bottom line II: It is on the lower end, so be warned. If you are more filet mignon than ground beef, or more Posh Spice than Old Spice (or whatever her name was), then this may not be the place for you.

You can see a small video of the place here. The photos on this page were provided by Fenomeen (tough to carry a camera around at most saunas, as you might imagine).

*Until very recently, Amsterdam's squatting law was essentially this: If a building was unused for a year, you could enter it with a table, a bed, and a chair, and it was yours to stay in. Fenomeen is a fully legalized former squat spot.