Amsterdam: when the word is spoken bells immediately begin to ring. It’s one of those places that’s on everyone’s to-do list, whether the intentions be noble or otherwise. Following a whimsical conversation many sleepy Sundays ago we decided that it would be the perfect pre-Christmas destination, a place to unwind and soak up some cultural delights.
My sincere condolences to those who were stranded indefinitely over the festive season, who may have had important places to be, unlike us. We were a few of the lucky ones who managed to make it overseas without issues, which was probably the only time in history where a budget airline has been spot on. With return flights from budget airlines costing less than train tickets home, there’s really no excuse to not travel.
We arrived to a snow-shrouded city, greeted with crisp frozen canals while accordions chirped in the background of the conversations that flowed. Having been tipped off by several people, including a couple at the airport, we headed for the city’s resident St. Christopher’s Inn. I’m not sure about their international reputation but we were told this one was reliable enough. Located bang in the centre just off Dam Square, this gem had a bar and nightclub downstairs, with lots of things offered to hostel customers at discount rates.
The rooms have had extensive painting work from some big local names as well as some international artists: it hardly gives an ambient honeymoon feel but for our purposes it more than sufficed. As always, haggling was in order and I managed to save us a total of 150 Euros: result! After dumping our backpacks we did what anyone else would do and decided to hit up our first coffeeshop.
Naturally we had recommendations for these too, so headed for Hill Street Blues to tick it off the list. We bumped into a very upstanding gentleman en-route, who offered to take us to said coffeeshop. Despite our protests that we could see said coffeeshop right in front of us, he insisted that we follow him into the adjacent alleyway, presumably for a better time of some description. We refused and marched onward, only to be greeted inside the coffeeshop by a local policeman. In cute attire and in flawless English he asked us what the man outside had said to us, then proceeded with a smile and a wink to wish us a happy time in Amsterdam. A far cry from the typical run-in with a policeman in the motherland, not that I’m a regular or anything.
I’m assuming that since at least one Imperial hall of residence is taking its freshers to Amsterdam that we’re not going to dance around the subject of marijuana. Equally it won’t dominate this article, and shouldn’t dominate your time if and when you visit. It’s quite surreal though, and I’d really recommend looking up the laws surrounding soft drugs. They seem to have a policy that works, with lower marijuana consumption than many other destinations, and a police force that can better spend their time on bigger issues.
Being coffeeshop virgins we approached the lovely lady over the counter, an expat who was more than happy to help. We were presented with a menu offering several varieties and asked what type of sensation we were seeking and recommended some types. This is ‘probably’ better than the system over here, which presumably involves accepting the bag with debatable contents from a dodgy fellow in a trench coat. As is custom we purchased drinks with our order, listened to some music, and as conversations ceased to flow we departed leaving a small tip on our way out.
Floating around the city, there are a few noticeable things. For starters, the lack of the louts that have become oh-so protocol in this country. Or perhaps they just like to be in my proximity on a night out, I don’t know. The other more prominent feature of the city is the architecture: skinny buildings arising from a dreaded width tax, tilting forward over the canals to aid merchants in shifting stock inside without smashing windows.
Tourists love to piss all over the city, or so I’m told. In retaliation the nooks and crannies of many buildings now come equipped with ‘pee deflectors’, to discourage urinating in such a fashion. This devalues the attractiveness of buildings but at least saves them from piss. I personally blame god for ill-equipping us with a tiny bladder: evidently when designing he didn’t consider the possibilities of cinema or long bus journeys.
I should probably enlighten you as to the origins of these fun facts of the city. Sandemans New Europe Tours (neweuropetours.eu) offer free walking tours of several major European cities, Amsterdam included. The idea is that following the walking tour you pay what you think the tour is worth. Be generous, mind: tour guides have to buy tickets from an employer so must make back at least that just to break even. We saw the real ins and outs of the city and I added countless fun facts to my booming repertoire – I’d really recommend it.
We befriended our guide Tina, and one evening she volunteered to take us into the depths of the red light district. Thankfully my girlfriend and I broke that taboo back in Thailand so a mandatory stroll through that side of town was both interesting and informative. For instance, the presence of the church slap bang in the centre of the district: some would say this is a little odd, but economically this makes perfect sense. Back in the day, sailors from lands afar would stopover to spend their hard-earned cash on gambling and prostitutes, and would of course have to repent their sins. Luckily the nearby church offered that service, and also started doing a ‘repent in advance’ scheme: the revenue from such an empire can be seen on the several swanky extensions on the building.
I always try to draw in something more sombre on my trips, and the Anne Frank House is definitely one of the more positive such places that I’ve visited. While it is certainly terrible to contemplate the fate of those hiding in the secret annex, Otto Frank’s legacy can be seen through the museum’s positive efforts to combat modern day anti-Semitism and similar issues, rather than dwelling on the unchangeable past alone.
All in all a fantastic trip, and my only criticism of the Dutch would be the total lack of inventiveness when naming things: the Old Church, New Church, National Monument? It all seems a little newspeak to me, but hey. The Dutch are certainly a liberal and forward-thinking people who have a great perspective or two to share with us.