My first impression of Amsterdam is a city where music and wine-filled boats carry lazy Amsterdammers through the city on canals that mirror the summer sky. On the banks of the canals tall Heerenhuizen in muted greys stand pressed together like bankers in an early morning lift. At ground level bare windows give voyeuristic glimpses into rooms decorated in the clean brightly coloured lines long favoured in northern Europe. Cats – the Dutch love their cats – laze on the windowsills in sun-soaked satisfaction staring at the passing crowds in disdain.
Crossing over the Prinsengracht I find myself strolling though the trendy if crowed neighbourhood of de Jordaan . It is a zigzag dip into the modern art world of Amsterdam. Signs on doors and windows proclaim that today is an open studio day . Down narrow cobbled streets where houses are pushed together tall and thin I stop off in galleries and studios as and when I find them. Friendly people in Amsterdam, small conversations are started and finished as I wander off in haphazard direction.
My aim for this morning is to the find the Anne Franck House and find it I do. On the corner of Prisengracht and Leliegracht. Unfortunately- no booking no entry- ah well there is lots to see by just walking down the street. By crossing the Prisengracht at Berenstraat I find myself in the nege(9) straatjes shopping district. Tiny shops crammed with vintage hats glasses –the visual aid variety and the ones you can drink from- bookshops, record shops, restaurants and coffee shops. To refuel my blood sugar and give my feet a rest I choose a small sidewalk table in the sunshine in front of a tiny pancake restaurant that serves enormous pancakes. My choice; smoky ham and maple syrup, yum. Refuelled I make my way over a succession of sky bright channels while considering the option of hopping on board a public boat to take a watery tour of the city. Still considering this option and wondering how one might go about it, I arrive at the Dam where -overcome with exhaustion- I settle down for a coffee in the pale sunshine allowing the kaleidoscope of humanity to swirl around me. The Dam leads onto Kalverstraat which is a pedestrian zone that offers big brand merchandise from around the globe. Not really my thing; far more interesting is the tented flower market at the end of Kalverstraat. The speciality of the market is flower bulbs in general and tulip bulbs, that promise tulip delights in a mind bending variety of shade and shape, in particular.
By taking a few wrong turns I manage to arrive at the Leiden Plein . Here the Cafes and restaurants have turned themselves inside out to welcome the sun and heat. The chairs are occupied by colourful locals eating all the flavours of the world. The Amsterdammers admit to the shortcomings of their local cuisine and have welcomed the entire world to cook for them. Besides the normal comers like the Italians, the Greeks and Chinese,Amsterdam also boasts restaurants from Nigeria,Ukraine,Uganda and Ethiopia. The hour is late and I slowly start heading back to my hotel for a few moments rest to prepare for the evenings entertainment.
After a short walk across Singlegracht I enter into the green haven of Vondelpark; a favourite with the locals who laze on the grass surrounded by the remains of long picnics in the shade of old oaks. The sound of a saxophone floats over the tree tops as I pass picnickers who are entertained by a musical duet on cello and contra bass. The slow low notes cast a spell of lazy well being over the multinational gathering on the lawn. As I leave the group behind in the green shadows I wonder about the logistics of carrying a double bass through the city streets; does he travel by bus, bike or boat it all seems very complex, then my sun-softened brain remembers that the area around Leiden Plein is not just home to hundreds of restaurants, but also houses several theatres including the Stadsschouwburg . He didn’t have so far to carry that enormous instrument after all.
As the sun slowly fades into the early evening haze I drift in the direction of my hotel – I think – missing the correct exit gate I find myself in the stately streets of Oud Zuid. A well -to-do neighborhood where Heerenhuizen are painted in delicate pastel shades and window boxes are manicured to perfection. Residential streets alternate with commercial streets of the very gentile variety. Boutiques hint at their wares in small exquisitely arranged shop windows; windows designed to subtly but unmistakably warn off any but the really rich. Suddenly freed from the narrow streets I step out onto the vast lawn of the Museum Plein – drat I overshot the mark by some distance – my hotel is way on the other side of this open field where boys fly kits and dogs jump for Frisbees.
Crossing the road at the Rijksmuseum I approach the Muzeumzicht hotel which I found on arriving in Amsterdam at one of a multitude of hotel finder shops either at the station tourist centre or along the Rokin. For 4euros these shops will set you up in a hotel or guestroom in no time.
As I push open the quaint front door to this establishment I make a mental note – add health warning- so here it is; this is not the place to come to if you have any kind of trouble climbing stairs. The entrance hall must be a Guinness book of records contender for steepest, longest flight of stairs in the hotel category and it doesn’t stop there. There is no lift so a room on the forth floor means a sweat inducing climb up, and a knee aching climb down. An experience that is very similar to climbing a very long ladder and that with all your luggage. You have been warned.
From this you have probably gathered that the Museumzicht hotel is a bare bones establishment – I pay my own way- where I have to share a bathroom, but 68 euro is pretty much my budget. The Museumzicht is clean and a fair, if very precisely measured breakfast is included in the price– an American guest asked for an extra coffee and was duly charged , much to his disgust, no bottomless cups here.
When planning a trip to Amsterdam many people want a room right in the thick of things. Being in the center of Amsterdam is certainly fun and not difficult to achieve but another warning; the nightlife is one of Amsterdam’s major attractions add that to the narrow streets and drunken tourists the noise levels will be troublesome for all but the most gifted of sleepers . So if you have trouble sleeping bring earplugs and don’t forget mosquito repellent; there is a lot of water and if you are lucky to catch a sunny spell you will find the mosquitoes are hungry.
Standing at the Rijksmuseum station waiting for tram no 2 to take me to the Central Station I consider that getting around in Amsterdam is really easy, and varied, it all depends on the speed you like things Your slowest options are by car or walking and of the two walking is by far superior as you can simply stop off at a street café or pop into an intriguing antique shop at a whim. With a car trying to find parking and then paying the extravagant parking fee is a painful thing, rather take your car to the OlympiaParkand Ride ( p+r) ; at 6 euro for 24 hours it’s one of the best deals in town. There are free p+r ‘s but for the short term visitor more trouble finding than it is worth. At the Olympia p+r remember to ask for your free return tram ticket ,then walk across to the tram stop, hop into tram 16 and soon you will find yourself back in the heart of Amsterdam. For those arriving by train the central station is truly that ,right where the action is. Not always the case in big cities. The first thing to do when arriving at central station is to buy a ‘Streep kaart’ from the newsstand. With the ‘Streep Kaart’ your average public transport ride costs 90euro cents, if you buy a ticket on board the bus or tram your average ride costs you 1.60euro. And remember to get on board at the back of the tram or bus, where you will find a conductor who stamps your ticket. The ticket is then valid for one hour ,so if you have a couple of line changes to make it is all included, providing you stay within the travel zone that has been stamped on your ticket. Before hopping on a bus or tram head across to the VVV – the white building just outside the station – this is the main tourist information center where you can get a map that also has the bus and tram routes on it. If you are feeling energetic, rent a bike . There are rental shops all over Amsterdam and at a cost of 6euro per day you will have the best method of getting around the city; but beware ,bike theft is rife so chain that thing to a pole when not in use…my tram glides into my thoughts and within minutes I am at the central station. Here I will meet up with a guide to take me through the red light district.
Guided tours are not really my thing but ‘Wayne’s tours’ – Wayne ended up being Sophia but this is Amsterdam so do not be too fussed on which ,what ,whose sex- through the red-light district has it’s emphasis firmly on ‘amusing’ so what could have been sleazy turned out to be a good laugh. Being in a group also gives a single woman the opportunity to wander down narrow alleyways that on my own I would have had no business being in.
In the alleys girls from around the globe show off their better bits behind full length windows ,lit by red neon tubes and framed by burgundy curtains. The shoulder wide alleys make it possible for the clientele to get a good close-up view of the merchandise on offer without seeming to break their stride and the constant human traffic jam in these narrow spaces allows for easy ogling without any commitment ; guy heaven. The girls preen and shimmy, but beware of the rooms with both a blue and red light; those girls have a surprise in their bikini bottoms that not all men might appreciate. Knowing the signs in Amsterdam’s Red Light district is a helpful way of getting what you want. Red light means girl, blue plus red light means boy-girl, rainbow flag means gay, white and blue flag with red hearts means S&M. Those with a granny fetish can select their mature lady of choice at the early morning ladies market located on the Oudekerkplein .The Oudekerk is perfectly round and the narrow street that encircles it is the showcase where those yearning for Africa will find the lady of their choice. Amsterdam caters for all tastes.
Leaving the ladies of Red-light district behind we walk through narrow streets where restaurants ,coffee shops and bars jostle for space and customers. The coffee shops are your goal if you wish to indulge that fantasy of smoking a spliff in full view of the police. The coffee shops serve beverages and joints but if you want alcohol you will have to find a bar or restaurant. But hurry, the chill winds of change are blowing even in liberal Amsterdam. A law is/has being passed that will force all the coffee shops within 500 meters of a school to close down that means all but 15 of Amsterdam’s coffee shops will have to close down or move elsewhere… As a burgundy curtain is slowly drawn over a period of Amsterdam’s history the crowds sensing some urgency fill the narrow streets, spilling out of coffee shops and bars alike. Gay bars are filled to capacity so the drinking and flirting is conducted on street corners and arched bridges while boats still float by , wafting soft music and the tinkle of champagne glasses . Slowly the night starts claiming its victims , the bonhomie overflows into narrow alleys and wildly graffitied doorways where those who have overstepped their limits slump in crumpled heaps.
The clang clung, bling blung of a church bell that has lost its tune , wakes me to a morning that is a little reality check. I was beginning to believe that Amsterdam is a place of sunshine and blue skies, but today the wind snipes from the North and the rain clouds are gathering low on the horizon. A perfect day for museums, and as it is Mothers Day, all public transport and museums are fee to the ladies, which would include me, how nice!
As the Rijks museum is just across the road from my hotel it seems the perfect starting point. The subject matter of the paintings centers around portraits and flowers arrangements, and is perhaps somewhat mundane to the modern eye, but the technique the old masters employed still attracts thousands of visitors . Portraits of very important, long forgotten burgers of the land, are adorned with gold and jewelry that on closer inspection disintegrate into tiny paint splotches, which miraculously reassemble into gleaming metal as I move away from the painting. I play this fascinating visual game until I realize that from the outside I must look like a demented fowl. I manage to contain myself until I reach the exhibition hall of still-lives that the Dutch school excelled in and , I believe, have never been improved upon. Delicate curling petals support trembling dewdrops, lemons that seem to glow with inner light balance on gleaming silver which is created out of a hundred shades of grey. Delicate barely there glassware reflects tiny insects which crawl over rich velvet cloth. Daily; thousands who are force fed digital and photographic images come to marvel at the superlative craft of the Dutch golden age. A short walk across the Museum Plein, past rows of souvenir and ice cream shops, I arrive at the Van Gogh museum. Unfortunately it seems the whole tourist population of Amsterdam has decided to take advantage of the free entry for ladies -the queue is hours long – this will take more dedication to the cause than I can muster. The clouds break and the sun fills the top of my head with thoughts of ice cream , Van Gogh will have to wait another day.
Following my nose Lunchtime finds me eating bitterballen and drinking beer on exotic cushions, artfully arranged on a long wooden bench ,on the pavement of a corner establishment in the arty opposite of De Jordaan . In De Pijp the art is less cutting edge than’chill’. Bohemia rules in shops that sell Indian jingle bells and incense. The streets are multicultural and the passing cars advertise the owner’s choice of hip hop or reggae. Its Sunday Mothers Day, De Pijp is in no hurry, neither am I, so I order another beer and watch the time go by.