Oranj You Glad You’re Here?

The French are Les Bleus; the Brazilians samba to green and yellow; the Swedes were designed in blue and yellow; the Americans bleed red, white and blue; the Kiwis are All-Black; the Irish are an ode to kerry green; and the Chinese are red.

Graffiti makes light of gravity in Amsterdam, making its mark in orange. © Desiree Koh

The Dutch are orange, a nod to William the Silent, Prince of Orange, leader of the Protestant revolt in the Eighty Years’ War that led to independence from Spain in 1648. The feisty flamboyance of this hue that plays on the bright side flares on in Amsterdam, bringing along happy friends red, blue, yellow, pink, and green to the party that is murals, graffiti, art, and public design. The Dutch keep it inside, too – walk along any of the historical townhouses lining the canals and peek into the windows at decorations so vivid in color they overwhelm the pallor of the darker seasons – the Manhattanites and Parisians can have their black and the British their brown sauce, but the Hollanders levitate their spirits with tones on the higher end of the spectrum. Put it this way – Van Gogh painted “Sunflowers”, not “Lilies”.

The autumn leaves don their national colors. © Desiree Koh

This élan is everywhere in Amsterdam.

In the Dam, the medieval womb of the city where Amsterdam sprouted from a cluster of fishing boats in 1275, these waffles add fun to a fair on the square.

Rainbow bright. © Desiree Koh

Even Nieuwe Kerk – the New Church, only because it was built in the 15th century as opposed to Oude Kerk in 1306 – pops up in pink.

An Andy Warhol exhibit pretties Nieuwe Kerk up in pink. © Desiree Koh

Down in De Pijp, the city’s first 19th-century slum that is now its lively pipe dream of working class laborers, dreaming artists, new immigrants, old intellectuals, burgeoning bobos, and little cafes, Taart van m’n Tante puts Willy Wonka to shame with its princess-pleasing decor pumped with plum gobs of crazy pastels, its pastry case of pies, tarts and cakes so comforting that the most chiseled Stanley Kowalskis would flaunt his inner Barbie – and no one would bat an eyelash.

Everything you’d expect your favorite aunt’s kitchen to look like, filled with your favorite pies. © Desiree Koh

At the famous Bloemenmarkt, the “floating” flower market, a floral florescence surges down the arc of this part of the Singel canal, as you tip-toe through tulip bulbs that promise to bloom amid any doom and gloom. Here, budding gardeners can kick-start Versailles-worthy lawns with seed money – 50 different flowers with just 10 euros – and fingers seasoned with green can Mother Nurture flowers that look like anything from purple astroids to magenta starfish.

Flower power at Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt. © Desiree Koh

Even at night, rather than conceding to the darkening sky and shadows lurking in the alleys, luminous glows cut their ways across canals and bridges, lingering in the trail of boats and bicycles with an authoritative aura. It’s funny – it could be a starless night, but everything is glittering in the water, which seems less murky in dusk than during the day.

Moonlight serenade in Amsterdam’s canals. © Desiree Koh

And at Olympic Stadium, the start and end of the Amsterdam Marathon, everyone will be walking on sunshine once they cross that 26.2-mile (42.195-kilometer) line. There will be people from 85 countries making the final victory lap to a glossy finish – no matter how much the Dutch love their oranj, a single color can only go solo for so far. It will be a United Nations indeed, and these colors will run.

We can’t all be Olympians, but anyone can be a marathon runner. © Desiree Koh

This post is courtesy of CheapTickets.sg. All editorial views remain mine and unbiased.

Canals x Cycles

Cities that are spoken for by bicycles are a tireless whirr of cranks, creaks and circular motion, and when you round that up with canals, the scene becomes undulatingly more picturesque. A stream of people and pedals gliding over bridges at speeds a tricycle time trial faster than the sploshing beneath, a quayside campaign with a trail of swans bobbing along like a left-wing peloton, leaf-littered water making room for reflections of the city always going somewhere – more often than not, forward.

Wheels up on Amsterdam’s Keizergracht canal. © Desiree Koh

Within the last three months, I’ve straddled two European cities big on canals and cycles; now that I’m in Amsterdam, I can’t help but make comparisons between the two, like one might between Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Breaking Away. In Copenhagen, gears are built into the Great Dane DNA, in which muscle fibers are juiced with an innate dedication to the outdoors and fueled by a ceaseless cadence which if stopped, would be defying a major law of physics. Copenhagen cyclists propel purposefully even when life-threatening wind chill and Scandinavian winters throw up stop lights all across town. The mechanics of motion are graceful, and their Nordically hardy steeds are pimped.

Park and ride in Copenhagen. © Desiree Koh

In Amsterdam, every other storefront is a café with cakes, tarts and pies that make your heart stop instantly (also eventually, if you heed the beckon of beautifully baked goods at each appearance; every other storefront in Copenhagen is a bike shop), which might explain huffs and puffs are sometimes audible as the city’s cyclists step on it up canal bridges. Despite the infamous Red Light District, Amsterdam bikes are not built to hustle – they are old-fashioned fat tires, occasionally rusting, often heavy, and a means to an end, rather than the start of a day that probably also includes marathon training and beer drinking, and all the other routines that ensure the Danish finish strong. In Amsterdam, they’re happy to pull their own weight, and that of a pillion rider on a bicycle built for one. They go down waterside lanes side by side, chatting and sometimes romantically linked by holding hands. In Copenhagen, they’ve turned cycling as a common commune into a science – bike lanes have their own traffic signals and off-ramps. Here, the lap of pleasure in taking the longer, slower route is an art and also, artful dodging is rampant in the face of abstract jay-cycling.

Gember koek, a tart filled with almond paste and piled with candied ginger, that Lansdroon Café has been baking since 1908, part of the fuel that powers Amsterdam cyclists. © Desiree Koh

After years of rebellion (the Eel Riot of 1886, student occupations in the 1960s, the abortion debate of the 1970s, and an anarchist named Bart Huges who drilled a hole in his forehead to show how open-minded he was), you can hardly hold it against Dammers for letting their bike chains hang loose. Brown cafés revolutionize friendships, the “I AmSterdam” welcome policy has almost 50 percent of the city’s population comprised of non-Dutch people (you hear accented English as often as you smell fresh frites – every street corner) and of course, you’ve heard about Amsterdam’s liberal arts (and I don’t mean Van Gogh and Rembrandt). Ramshackle, bare-bone houseboats drift on the waterfront next to millionaire houses on gilded canals such as Herengracht.

On Prinsengracht canal, Golden Age mansions loom over houseboats, who never feel like they have to keep up with the Johanns. © Desiree Koh

All this progressive thinking is part of the reason why Amsterdam and its bikes are on the right track. Two wheels are better than four – less pollution, more exercise, more fresh air, less stalling – a victorious cycle. Everything else is just water under the bridge, little of it troubled.

Like that story of the dog who waits patiently for his master to get off the train every evening, Amsterdam bikes faithfully take a brake as their owners take care of business in the city’s trademark brown cafés. © Desiree Koh

This post is courtesy of CheapTickets.sg. All editorial views remain mine and unbiased.

French New Wave

It soars through the streets of Strasbourg like Captain America blazing highways in Easy Rider. It pirouettes around the Cathédrale Notre Dame turrets before teasing the rooftop pigeons. When you run along the European capital’s canals in the morning or stroll quayside in the late afternoon, you think you’re enjoying an uplifting breeze, but you’re not.

An air of awesome in Strasbourg’s La Petite France.

What you’re savoring is the smell of onions – specifically, the aroma of sautéing onions – that permanently lingers in the Strasbourg stratosphere, permeating your pores, gratifying your gullet, electrifying your endorphins. The only way onions will make you weep in this town is if you’re not having any. Quiche à l’oignonTarte flambée. Choucroute. A restaurant called l’Oignon. It’s like bulbs of ingenuity flashing above every cook’s head in one of France’s gastronomic capitals, emanating the glow of homely comfort laced with urgent pungency, guaranteed to brighten every meal.

Let’s summon our first witness to the stand, the choucroute from Au Brasseur (22 rue des Veaux), one of the finest examples of a Strasbourg bierstub, better defined as a large beer hall where the only things heartier than the cuisine and ales are its patrons’ laughter. This is the kind of place where students crush into dark booths and smash as many slices of tarte flambée as they can within the 90-minute free-flow deal while old ladies on a girls’ night out happily shrug when it’s time to order another four pitchers of house microbrews. But no matter who you’re with or which table you’re at, all chattering, chuckling and conviviality stop – just long enough for the heart to reset its senses – when the first pile of  choucroute is dispensed.

Ma chou chou, the Alsatian choucroute.

The Alsatian version of the German sauerkraut – a given, since this French region is just three miles from the river Rhine that borders both countries – is more delicate, less tangy, and in the Au Brasseur rendition, steeped in onion oil that doesn’t necessarily broadcast its presence as much as sweet talk your palate. (The next morning, the top I’d been wearing at dinner continued to smell of this onion oil, and I prayed this tryst would last longer than a one night stand.)

Pie baked in flames, the Forestière afired.

Next, we’ll call upon the tarte flambée, Alsace’s most famous dish and quite frankly, the reason I’m in Strasbourg. This thinnest of ‘zas has its dough rolled out to its finest (in every aspect of the word), before bacon, cheese, cream, and onions are splayed across in a Pollockian hand, and everything is blazed between one to two minutes in a wood-fired oven. That gives the crust a crisp that’s sharper than a newly minted hundred euro bill, little bubbles that confirm the yeast has properly risen, and a slight char for that smoky zest. More importantly, the caramelization of the onions sweetens the deal, whether smoothly cutting through the gruyère, adding color to the crème fraîche, or doing a diabolical tango with the lardon pieces.

Aunts were put on earth to be kindly ladies always more likely to give you too much of a good thing than your moms will. At Tante Liesel (44 rue des Dentelles), where local gentlemen dig into the house platter of terrine and foie gras with checked napkins tucked into their collars, onions are nuanced into the anatomy of the quiche, lusciously imbibed into a silky flow of egg, milk and cheese. In Alsace, a quiche is not just a quiche – it’s an onion quiche, although if that’s something you hadn’t noticed, you might need a facial for your tongue.

If this quiche is Michael Phelps, the onions in its DNA are its 10-pack.

And instead of backhanding you some change for candy, Tante Liesel does even better by surreptitiously slipping lots of onion bits into her pan-fried potatoes. Little is more pleasant that discovering the crunch of a sweet onion as your mouth works its way through powdery fluff – the devil’s in the details.

You say po-tah-toe, I say onion.

With onion, that aphrodisiac of appetite, constantly on your mind, hair and clothes in Strasbourg, you might find yourself appreciating the fowl floating about the city’s canals as confit canned for six months, ready for the skillet. Except, others can have the leg of duck or goose – you’ll settle for more onions, sautéd in fat.

The duck side of Strasbourg.