(This is the 4th in a series of 5 posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands)
A case could be made for Amsterdam representing either the best of civilization or the worst. For me, it’s unique city of contrasts, irony, and possibly the best people-watching I’ve ever seen.
After 3 days in European dreamland (see previous post) and a leisurely 3+ hour ride through some beautiful farm country, the first steps out of the Amsterdam Central Train Station are a shock to the senses.
The first thing you notice (and probably my most lasting image) is bikes, bikes, everywhere.
This is Biketown. Sure there is some car traffic, but you barely notice it as you walk through the city. Bicycles dominate the scene to an extent that I hadn’t imagined.
After our usual getting-lost-a-bit walk from the train station we found the Nieuwmarkt square, which is where the B&B we’d booked was located. When the nondescript door to the place was locked, there was a moment of mild concern — but only a moment. “Hello, Steve and Sandy?”, asked the young man who had just trotted across the square. “I’m Daniel. I didn’t know when you were coming, so this is good timing”.
Daniel is the owner of the “Inn Old Amsterdam” bed and breakfast. We’d booked it after a lot of searching on the internet. For some reason that nobody seemed to understand, many hotels were fully booked for the dates we’d be there. The photos of this place on the website looked nice and it got some good reviews — and they HAD a room available for the 4 nights we needed — so we took it.
Daniel led us up a steep, narrow staircase to our room. He looked to be in his mid to late 20s. Like everyone of his generation Amsterdam, he spoke English better than most Americans do. Daniel was friendly, helpful and informative. Like the city itself, the room was beautiful, but had an edge to it.
The edge was that it was located over a bar on a busy square. I loved the view and the noise of the bar below didn’t keep me awake, but Mrs. D had some trouble sleeping because of the voices from below. I liked standing in the window, watching and photographing the scene below.
Amsterdam fans out from the area near the train station. It takes its structure from a series of roughly concentric canals. The layout seems logical and systematic on a map, but in reality it’s tricky to find places because few streets go straight for very long. The “spoke” or “radius” streets are pretty direct, but of course they get farther apart from each other the farther from the center you go.
Because it’s so flat, Amsterdam is very walkable. But as I said, bicycles dominate the traffic. Residents and tourists alike fill the bike lanes with wheels. You don’t see a lot of expensive racing-type bikes. What most people ride is either single-speed or beat-up geared bikes, often painted bright colors and adorned with plastic flowers.
But for the time being, we’re walking. So let’s head out and see some of the famous, infamous, and otherwise interesting sights of this capital of all that’s good and bad about civilization.
Might as well dive right in and hit the Red Light District. It’s just a few blocks from our B&B. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the “RLD”, but we did walk around a bit, and I have to say it seemed pretty tame to me. Most people walking around are couples or groups of either young men or young women. I saw fewer drunk or high people than you would on an average U.S. college campus on any given weekend. The vast majority are just there for the same thing I was — to gawk at the whole scene. Apparently the RLD is actually one of the safest parts of the city, because of the many cops and bouncer-types around.
There seemed to be very few actual customers. The window ladies were expressionless, for the most part — almost mechanical. Maybe it was the weird, red lighting, I don’t know, but they seemed like like ordinary-looking women with mannequin-skin, wearing lots of make-up and dressed in bikinis. It’s clear that it’s nothing more than a hum-drum job for them. We walked by one window where one of the prostitutes was sitting on a stool eating a Subway sandwich — working through her dinner break, I guess.In one of the brothels, a young man was trying to enter as another guy was leaving. The lady of the window was arguing with him, trying to close the door and asking him to not come in. She kept saying “no blacks”. After a couple of minutes he gave up. Wow, a racist prostitute. I lost all respect for her.
If I were walking through this area with children, I think the store window displays would be much harder to explain than women standing around in swimsuits. Here’s one shop that seemed to have a wider variety of the same basic product for sale than all the others.
OK, so now that we’re higher than a kite and have had our fill of prostitutes and marital aids, let’s switch gears a bit. How about some antique hunting to calm down that libido?
We found some great antique stores, markets and an antique shopping mall.
We got interested in Delft tiles. One shop had thousands for sale. They were salvaged from old houses — very old houses. We bought a couple of tiles, one from 1650 and the other from 1675. They have great pictures painted on them and they travel well in a suitcase — good souvenirs. If I was rich, I’d do a whole wall in my house with them.
Amsterdam has some great museums.
We went to the Rijksmuseum, which has a lot of Rembrandt paintings, a few by Vermeer (including the iconic milk maid) and the other Dutch masters. It’s housed in a beautiful, old building. But I have to say I was a little surprised that the museum only uses a small portion of the building, and is actually not a huge collection. Still worth seeing, though.
The Van Gogh Museum is great. They have the biggest collection of his paintings in the world and while there are works by some of his contemporaries and influences, the focus is on Vincent. There was also a temporary exhibit about Picasso while we were there. This museum is a must-see.
The Anne Frank House is another must-see on any tourist’s itinerary, but one I chose to not-see. I walked by it a couple of times but the line was discouragingly long and people were talking about a several-hour wait. I didn’t buy tickets online ahead of time like I should have and didn’t want to wait around that long. You have to save some things for the next trip, right?
Amsterdam must have been quite a place during the late 60’s and early 70’s, where it was the epicenter of the counter-culture in Europe. There are a few remnants of the old hippie days, but the city has moved on. Let’s face it, young people today might smoke a little pot or tie some flowers to the basket of their brightly painted bike, but those who remember the real deal are getting on in age.
But a few old people (my age) are still around from the heyday. We met some (and some a little younger) at a little bar called the Cafe de Gaeper.What pubs are to Great Britain, “Brown Cafes” are to Amsterdam. The names derives from the dark-colored wood often used in interiors, stained even darker by years of smoking. We stumbled into one of these our first night and liked it so much we ate there again a couple of days later. The food is burgers, sandwiches, and fries. The atmosphere is a friendly, VERY casual mix of mostly locals and a few tourists. It’s a European version of the “Cheers” TV show.
Cafe de Gaeper was our little glimpse into local life in Amsterdam. On our first visit, there was a dog sitting on a bar stool, looking ready to order. The half-dozen people at the bar, as well as the bar-tender and the people at another table all knew each other and it was obvious they came there all the time. I ordered fish and chips. They were delicious, and at €8.50 a relative steal. While we were eating, two young ladies came in and began talking to a man sitting at the bar. They knew each other, too. One of the women said to the guy, “Hey, I’m wearing the underwear you gave me on my birthday a year ago, remember?” With that, she turned her back to him, dropped her jeans to her knees and reminded him in a memorable way. It was all very innocent, friendly, not-drunk, and funny. Then she sat down for a beer. The dog curled up on the stool next to her.
I love that place.
The city of Amsterdam was fascinating, but the crowds and frenetic pace of the street get to you a little after a couple of days. The most enjoyable thing we did during our 4-night stay there was on the last full day of our trip, when we took the train to Haarlem and rented bikes for the day. My last post in this series will be about our day of biking through the flower bulb fields and to the sea coast. Look for it in a few days.
As usual, I have posted enough photos about Amsterdam on Flickr to bore anyone to sleep. But if you’d like to see more pictures, go to my Amsterdam Flickr set here.
Here are a few more random shots. See you soon in Haarlem!