Windmills, bicycles, prostitutes, tulips and drugs. Of all of Hollands many reputations, our Friday evening was focused on cheese and beer.
Amsterdam was bustling with life. Locals on bicycles, stag parties in costumes, tourists befuddled with trams. We made our way down its main street to Dam Square where the cities fast pace meets its performers. As we ducked off down one of the smaller streets a window display of round cheeses stacked up to the ceiling caught our eye. What better reason to cycle across Northern Europe than to eat old cheddar, with a Heineken, on a cramped balcony overlooking the canal.
Close on 10pm, we waddled on out to follow the canals into Amsterdam’s red light district. The town was bustling, people spilling from bars, and the tinge of red lighting signalling the cameras to remain firmly away. Looking encouraged, gawping forbidden.
Hollands liberal approach to prostitution has led to a reputation for the city, but also protection for its workers. Regulated and enforced, sex workers can be ensured protection and rights. They are also a commodity, and the best windows ensure the best sales. The network of streets branch off from the canals, and I’m assured, different streets specialise to different tastes. What makes it feel seedy is not the performance on the other side of the glass, but the way passers by eat with their eyes.
I met Lineke in Haarlem, a close Dutch friend I met in Milford Sound, and her, Bex and I made for Amsterdam again the next morning, keen to discover more. The city continued to bustle, and we fought the crowds out towards museum square, stopping on the way for Dutch goodies, coffee and appletart.
In Dam square, the centre of culture spills out over a beautiful courtyard. The Rijksmuseum celebrates Dutch culture and Van Gogh is displayed nearby. We visited the MOCO museum where Banksy and Dali were being displayed together. Banksys prominence in defying the prejudices of graffiti, and his secretive persona were contrasted with Dali’s eclectic style of 100 years earlier.
Amongst the catch ups and crowds there was time to enjoy the cities green spaces, along with people smoking green things, and peruse every souvenir shop looking for a bicycle bell for Bex. We walked down large avenues displaying the designer brands, Lamborghini and Maserati parked up outside demonstrating the clientele.
A city as popular as Amsterdam doesn’t have the sprawl of London or the capacity to absorb as many tourists. Accommodation is expensive and hard to come by and yet the city is well serviced by trains. For this reason we were staying 30 mins away in Utrecht.
Utrecht’s dreary weather was counteracted with Martine’s cheery welcome. A reunion after nearly 3 years, where we had met travelling in 3 different countries. She had made Utrecht home and it was soon clear why. Utrecht still has the canals and cobbles of Amsterdam, yet in its centre stands proud a dome tower of 108 metres, quaint backstreets folding out to form a pedestrianised centre with lots of character.
We elected for pizza. Each low fronted doorway opened out to an inviting restaurant, and ours was straight out of Italy. After a beautiful meal he gave each of us a long stem rose. The night was still young and we headed to a beer cafe showcasing Dutch brews and the Saturday night life of the city.
Martine’s hospitality was matched by her tour guiding skills. On a Sunday morning many were out riding and running and she took me down to the Maleban, Hollands first cycle path. A gravelled route through the trees in the centre of suburbia, it is still getting plenty of use to this day. We followed canals back into the centre and Martine explained that the formation of these waterways is no accident, the planned cities have all been rooted in a star shape? Each canal has many storage vaults carved into it, meaning a lower platform next to the canal, and with less shipping traffic, many of these spaces are in use as restaurants. Many independent shops and coffee houses line the streets, it would have been rude not to stop.
We waved Bex off to the airport and then spent the afternoon climbing the Dom tower. It was built in the 14th century as a Church and bell tower, but 150 years later the middle collapsed, leaving now the church and tower separated by a courtyard. Each level on our steep climb had a room as it was once occupied by
Fortunately there was still time for tea and stroopwaffles before I was also packed off to the airport and on to the next adventure, Stockholm.
Why go? In the countryside expect windmills, tulips, canals, cycling and cheese. In the city expect a liberal attitude to drugs and prostitution, as well as lots of history and art.
Visas: part of the European passport free travel zone.
Currency: Euros. Amsterdam is pricey compared to the rest of the country.
Transport: Good countrywide train links. In the city trams are widely used and expect to see a lot of bicycles.