The last time I was in Amsterdam was a bit of a blur. It was for a conference/trade show, and I made the most of it. In fact, more than the most of it. One enduring memory is of wandering around the waterfront in a vicious rainstorm, completely lost, trying to make sense of a map that was starting to dissolve in the deluge. At five in the morning. Blind drunk. Not my proudest moment.
Visiting the city again with TLC, as I’d promised her years ago, was always going to be a different experience. We promised each other culture, and sophistication, and the occasional beer. And that was exactly what we got.
Our approach to a city is always the same. We’re walkers, preferring to pace out the bounds of our territory. It’s the best way to see cities like Amsterdam, which is particularly strong on both architecture and street art. The layout of the city is particularly good for this kind of flaneury. It’s built like a web, or half a dart board. It’s highly conducive to unfocussed rambling.
The bulls eye of the town is Centraal Station, a cheap and easy 20 minute train ride from Schipol Airport. From here you can pick up trams, buses or taxis to pretty much anywhere in town. I can seriously recommend the smartcards that give you unlimited access to all the public transport options – ideal for those moments when you’ve walked yourself to a standstill.
For a place that prides itself on it’s friendliness towards the pedestrian, Amsterdam can be treacherous towards the unwary walker. The aforementioned trams are everywhere, and they sneak up on you. They’re electric, and quiet. A real contrast to the thumping, shrieking gallumphers we rode in San Francisco.
Then there are the bicycles. Boy, are there ever bicycles. Here’s a challenge for you. Take a few photos in Amsterdam, and try not to have a bike in any of them. It’s an impossible task. Bikes are chained to every railing, lamp-post and hydrant. And everyone rides them. They’re a cheap, simple and universal way of getting around Amsterdam and they absolutely have the right of way. Frame a lovely shot by the canal and I can guarantee that someone on a bike will spin through just as you hit the shutter.
They’re not pretty, either. People ride boneshakers here, and they’ve frequently been modified in ways that Heath Robinson would applaud. Carriers have been adapted from old crates, wine boxes, shopping baskets. Some machines have extended front forks with big boxes in them that tote everything from the week’s shopping to pets and children. Occasionally, the brave and foolhardy fit these contraptions with two-stroke engines. At least you can hear those coming. TLC and I were both nearly mown down by speeding bikes. It would have been our fault, too.
But the remarkable thing is how matter-of-fact people are on cycles in Amsterdam. No-one wears lycra and hi-vis. Hardly anyone wears a helmet. Everyone’s in their normal, everyday clothes and they rattle along without a care. Even the girls in the high heels and the tight, short skirts. The ones I definitely didn’t notice. It’s refreshing and cheering to see a whole town cycle in the same way that I do – without flash or attention, treating it as a cheap and easy way to get around. No need for special clothing or ugly fashion. Just get on and go.
We were in town for National Museum Weekend, a chance to see some of Holland’s extraordinary cultural heritage for cheap or free. We discovered a little too late that the two museums that we specifically wanted to visit were not participating in the promotion. Not cool, really. It’s telling that one of the few capitals that allows free and unrestricted access to it’s treasures is London. I won’t be so blase about popping into the National for a lunchtime amble after reflecting on the thick end of €60 that we paid to see the two collections.
The Rijksmuseum has even more of a brass neck for opting out of the free weekend when you consider that the majority of the building is closed for refurbishment until 2015. This means that you’re paying full price for a limited look of what is on offer. I should be fuming. But the fact is that the curators have been very clever, and have put on show a beautifully compact version of the full range. For your money you get a concentrated burst of the best that the Dutch masters had to offer. All the Rembrandts that I wanted to see were there, and displayed at their best. I didn’t walk out feeling cheated, which is a testament to the carefully considered choices that have been made. In fact, in it’s current form I can heartily recommend it. Just try and get a discount if you can.
We took the advice of the excellent Time Out Amsterdam guide, which pointed out that the best time to hit the busy museums was towards the end of the day. This gave us plenty of time to stroll as we liked through the streets, across the bridges and down the canals of this most labyrinthine of cities.
I said earlier that Amsterdam is weblike in layout. In practice, this means that if you’re not careful, a canal path that you think is leading you north-south can be leading you west-east instead. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of streets in the old centre, and we did. But somehow, it’s ok. Getting away from an accepted plan or route often means you find things you wouldn’t be looking for. We tripped over the cool shopping district of Nine Streets entirely by accident, and blundered across the amazing art design shop Droog while looking for something else which has completely slipped my mind. For the most part, we were content to mosey, or amble, or stroll, soaking up the atmosphere, gaping at the astonishing architecture that seemed to be around every corner, and finding mind-boggling examples of street art proudly displayed in places which would have British councils sending little men out with buckets of whitewash.
Did we indulge? Well, depends what you mean. We ate and drank royally, which is hard not to do in a town so stuffed with bars and cafes. If you’re on foot, it makes sense to take plenty of rest breaks. I love the Dutch way with coffee, short and strong without being an espresso. And of course, beer is a passion. The trick is not to drink in the English way, in pints. It’s prohibitively expensive. A large Heineken will set you back four and a half euros. Best to stick to halves, and savour the flavour of the stronger, more esoteric brews. I’m rather partial to Chimay, which packs an 8% punch and is not designed to be sloshed back like mouthwash. The point is to sit, linger, chat and observe. Once you get that slower pace into your head, everything else makes sense.
So, did we indulge? Well, no. We’re not smokers, hate smoky rooms, and wouldn’t know where to start in a coffeeshop. We had too much to do and see to waste a day getting baked. I know I sound like a prude but, sorry, not really interested.
As for the other side of Amsterdam – it’s everywhere and nowhere. The newsagents all have hardcore porn openly on sale, but then that’s the same all over the continent. I still remember a French school trip where Color Climax books were racked with the comics. Now that’s a way to spin a 14-year-old’s head off his shoulders. But unless you know where to look, or you wander down certain alleyways, you’re unlikely to see much smut.
The funny moment for me was approaching the Ould Kerk, Amsterdam’s equivalent to St Paul’s, only to be waved at by girls in glass-fronted stalls in the courtyards behind the massive old building. It’s like putting booths up in Paternoster Square. It’s that mix of the sacred and profane that makes Amsterdam such a great place to visit. It’s relaxed and uptight all at once, deeply religious and wildly secular. And it’s as tolerant a town as any I’ve ever seen. We had a brilliant, if exhausting time. Am I glad I went to Amsterdam?
A few recommendations. We stayed a little out of town, on the Vondelpark, and more by luck than judgment ended up a two minute walk away from one of the main tram routes into town. This is a good thing, and means that we ate at more local-style bars than the touristy joints.
We tended to breakfast at Brasserie de Joffers, on the Willemsbergweg at Cornelus Schuystraat. It has high white ceilings, and a calm, easy air about it that smooths you into the day. Further down Willemsbergweg, Bar Gruter is a tiny ramshackle place with bags of charm and a good line in strong Belgian beer. In town, Locaal ‘t Loosje is right by the Ould Kirk, and a cool place to rest your head after being confronted by women of negotiable virtue. Prinsengrach is one of the prettier canals, and we were lucky to get seats at Cafe Prins on Prinsengrach. Their croquettes are delish.
The shopping streets around there are part of the Nine Streets district, and there are plenty of design gems. If you’re really into that kind of thing, Droog on Staalstraat is as much an art gallery as a shop, and filled with good and strange pieces.
Speaking of which, Outland, heading back towards Centraal Station on Zeedijk, has a brilliant range of urban art and collectibles. I picked up a couple of incarnations of my spirit animal, that help sustain my inner life and make me smile. But Amsterdam is so full of sights and experiences that my recommendations only serve to show you the things I enjoyed. Everyone has their own inner Amsterdam. You should find out what that is for yourself.
(All pics have been taken from Clare68’s Flickrstream. Check the rest out here. Leave comments. She loves getting comments.)