Europe | Netherlands | Amsterdam – Canals, Coffeeshops and Red Lights
Within ten minutes of arriving here I had already been offered a joint. This could only be Amsterdam. The person in question was Orhan, a philosophical Turkish-Australian from Istanbul I met in the dorm room of the hostel I was staying at near Vondelpark, a large sprawling park just south of the Centrum area.
Acht This, Acht That
The first few days spent in Amsterdam involved a lot of walking around. Plenty of cobbled and paved streets line the centre of the city. The city is also built on canals, of course, which form a horseshoe shape around the centre. The three main canals, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prisengracht are the large ones which dominate the city centre. Incidentally, the Dutch’s conversations seem to be peppered with the strong “acht” sound on every second word. Someone later said to me that Dutch and German have their similarities, but speaking in Dutch is like speaking German with an Australian accent.
On arrival from Centraal station, the first thing I noticed was the sheer number of bicycles everywhere, either chained against railings or being ridden around. The Netherlands is indeed a country of bicycles, as I read somewhere that a Dutch without a bike is like a fish out of water. This could be something to do with the lack of hills. Getting around on public transport involves catching the many trams that go around the city. Especially useful is the Circle Tram 20 which goes around the major sights in a circle and is favoured by tourists.
Odourous Pedestrian Impediments
Being a pedestrian has its hazards. I soon discovered it was quite a task, what with the bicycles, trams and cars which seem to drive over the tram tracks. On a number of occasions I was dinged by a bicycle coming up behind me, and as the rider passed, I could almost detect their contemptible “pffft, toerist” remark. Add to this the city’s number two problem, dog poo, everywhere on the streets and being a pedestrian turned out to be quite a bipedal challenge indeed. And just in case you were wondering, the city’s number one problem is men urinating everywhere. I don’t quite know why the men feel inclined to relieve themselves at the first corner. The city’s half-hearted attempt to arrest this problem is to install “urinoirs” at certain places, which are nothing but metal enclosements with a small concrete wall behind them. If you do decide to go into a public place to use the restroom, then it will cost you something like 25 cents, even in McDonald’s!
The canals are lined with old narrow buildings, dating back to the time when owners had to pay a land tax. The solution then was to build narrow and tall, and because there was hardly any space to fit a large staircase inside, most buildings have a gable with a hook on the roof, which residents used to haul things up to their apartments. Looking up at some of the buildings, I was mildly alarmed to see that most of them were leaning forward! However I discovered that they had been deliberately built this way, so that when furniture is hauled up from the roof they won’t scrape the facade of the building. A lot of the buildings seem to be sinking though, as the land was built on piles, and on some buildings this is quite evident when you notice some windows not parallel to the ground.
Coffeeshops and Red Lights
Ahh, the coffeeshops. No, no one actually goes to one exclusively for the coffee. For the uninformed, here is where you come to smoke, and I don’t mean tobacco. These establishments are everywhere and just seem to be a natural part of Dutch culture. On my third day here, Orhan took me to one in a dark back alley. Let’s just say if I could recount what went on in great detail here, then I wasn’t really there…
I accidentally stumbled on the Red Light District as I was exploring the meandering streets of Amsterdam one night (no, really). The first thing you notice is the crowd on the weekend, people just walking around and looking into the red lit windows where women, um, ply their wares. I should use the term “women” loosely as some of them are anything but. However being the only place in the world where this form of debauchery is on candid display makes it a fascinating place to observe.
As a tourist’s destination, there really isn’t a lot to look at in Amsterdam apart from the museums which house famous paintings by the old Dutch masters, such as the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum. Exploring the small streets and canals on foot is the best way to see the city. Hiring a bike will be an easier way to get around, but frankly, I wasn’t game to tackle the trams, cars, other bikes, pedestrians, and dog poo. It is certainly a fascinating city to spend a few days in though, but let’s face it, most people who come here are here to do one of two things, or both.