City of vice Amsterdam may be, but it is also a city of tulips, painters, boats and bicycles. It’s a place I was always curious to visit.
Amsterdam is smaller than Paris, and far quieter. There are only a handful of metro lines, and the inner city is connected by a series of trams. The expected bedtime is earlier than you would think, since both these forms of transport stop running at 00:30, but there are night buses which will get you home if you came to party hard.
I didn’t visit for the drugs, or for the prostitutes in any carnal sense. I took the trip with a friend, and considered it something of an intellectual venture (albeit with drinks). I wanted to see, and to learn, and to fill my head up with something new before going home for the summer.
We stayed in a hotel at Bullewijk, which is about twenty minutes from Centraal Station by metro. A word to the wise: don’t try to find decent accommodation in Amsterdam on a budget. Unless you’re willing to share a room with ten teenagers who stink of weed, you’re not going to get anything cheap.
Financially, we were pretty much ruined before we even arrived in the city, but after eight grueling hours on the coach we scraped together enough to buy our 72 hour passes. Transport here is charged by the hour, rather than by distance, or destination. (The price is more expensive than Paris, but still a slashed reduction compared with London).
Our first night out was spent at Leidseplein, a picturesque square which houses an assortment of bars and restaurants, as well as the ever-present Irish pub and McDonald’s which no city I have ever visited seems to be without. Food in Amsterdam can be quite pricey, but there are good deals, including unlimited spare ribs for less than €10, which appeared to be something of a local favourite.
Another note on food is that bakeries, which are situated on just about every street, make a good port of call. There are a variety of European and specifically Dutch fancies, like walnut pretzels, goat’s cheese pizzas, and tartlets in every flavour.
On our first morning we navigated our way to the Van Gogh Museum with a pastry sitting in just the right spot to see us through to lunchtime.
It started to rain. We’re talking a torrential downpour, for which I, sans umbrella, was woefully unprepared. Our plans to visit several museums during the day were quickly scuppered when we realised that there are no admission concessions for young people and students in The Netherlands. In fact, after reluctantly parting with €17 each, we resolved that some serious accommodations would have to be made.
Expensive as it was, however, the Van Gogh Museum is an impressive place, featuring not only a selection of the artist’s masterpieces, but those of his contemporaries, his inspirations, and those who have followed his artistic legacy. There is also a large collection of Van Gogh’s letters, and the museum provides deep insight into him as a person, as well as his growth as an artist over the years of his short, brilliant career.
It was also our first introduction to Amsterdam’s sexual side, since Van Gogh was himself a frequent purveyor of ladies of the night, and they are featured in several of his paintings, including the Japanese-inspired picture above. Van Gogh’s infamous ear even wound up in the hands of a prostitute, when he gave it to her.
Somehow I doubt she appreciated it.
We decided to make a better attempt at having a night out on the Friday, and after traipsing about a variety of clubs we settled in Escape, at Rembrandtplein, and danced the night away, together with a multitude of international tourists and a handful of the elusive local youth.
It’s quite sad to admit, but I think at the mere age of 22, the discotheque has lost its intrigue for me. It was fun, and I won’t deny that I love to dance, but I find it hard to understand how I once thought nightclubs could be gateways to romance. I think as you get older you start to realise what a gulf there is between sex and love. Nightclubs are a good place to go with friends, to dance and let loose, but they are full of bad behaviour, and in Amsterdam most people you find out after dark are, unsurprisingly, stoned.
After a late start on the Saturday we took a boat tour around the city’s picturesque canals (A UNESCO World Heritage site) with a jolly South African captain, and then made our way to the famous Red Light District to see what there was to be seen.
It is a strange place. Really that’s the only way I can describe it. The openness of it is in such sharp contrast to the conservative values of my native England that I found it quite shocking to see the women at their windows, dressed to the nines in their latex and seven inch heels. I can’t imagine what people in my grandparents’ generation must make of it.
There’s a small interactive museum, styled as the brothel it once was, which offers a frank, honest appraisal of Dutch prostitution, as well as an overview of the situation in different countries around the world. I came away not sure what I thought, but with a newfound respect for these women (male prostitution does not seem to be a matter of such open discussion).
They clearly take some pride in their work, and maybe legal prostitution isn’t the most morally upright thing in the world, but I don’t believe it’s that wrong, either. Certainly there is something extremely admirable about the Dutch and their commitment to eradicating trafficking and the other, often unspoken, horrors of the sex industry.
Ruminating on the day’s experiences and unusual sights, we took the metro back to the hotel, freshened up, and decided to make the most of our last night in the city. We went out to a bar near Leidseplein, and discussed the weekend over an obligatory Heineken whilst other tourists danced around us.
In the morning there was time only for one last pretzel before we arrived at Sloterdjik and boarded the coach for the long drive back to Paris.
I wish, I think, that I had visited Amsterdam when I was eighteen, instead of 22. It’s a delightful city, in which the old brushes up against the new in the most elegant fashion, but these days I’m not as wild as I used to be, and I no longer have an adolescent’s rent-free disposable income. Certainly there’s a lot to see in Amsterdam that I didn’t get chance to – the Anne Frank Museum and Rembrandt’s house to name but two.
I think one day I’ll go back to Amsterdam and investigate it further. Certainly it would be no challenge to spend a whole week there and explore the pretty little streets and the dark canals, but not yet.
For now, I have to get ready for my next adventure – after four months living in Paris, I’m going home next week. But that’s a topic for another post.