I’d been wanting to write something about Amsterdam for some time. The Dutch are tolerant, liberal and are so laid back, they are almost horizontal, in contrast to their town houses which are characteristically arranged vertically, with small rooms and several floors. Usually curtainless, one sees people eating or walking around in them in various stages of undress, at least that was the case on the picturesque island where we stayed with friends. Our Mexican hostess said much the same about her home town, adding that houseowners usually left their doors open as well. Only the tourists gawp, rudely. The message is clear, nothing to hide. In France, the situation is precisely reversed. French exteriors are often shuttered and nondescript, rarely as interesting as the inner courtyards and there is often a nightly ritual of closing the shutters. It occurred to me that this might be because Holland has a history of Protestant reform, and France is predominantly Catholic with attendant guilt.
Tourists arriving at Central Station however, invariably do gawp at the sight of the multi-story ‘bicycle flat’, a parking structure used by thousands daily and unless your ride is pimped in some recognisable way it might be difficult to locate it. One has to bear in mind that bicycles outnumber people in Holland and they are everywhere – car parking being prohibitively expensive. Not for the Dutch the flamboyant, flat-handlebarred multigeared varieties so beloved of the French – these are tall Oxford machines with no gears and curved handlebars, their riders expertly weaving in and out of pedestrians, who are expected to get out of the way, or along specially built cycle lanes. There’s something almost erotic about a tall, willowy Dutch girl with arrow-straight back, skirt billowing, and hair flying, chatting to a friend on a mobile phone while effortlessly negotiating all obstacles around the University. The public transport system just – well – works. Trams and buses get you, hassle-free, wherever you need to go and if you don’t happen to have exactly the right pre-purchased ticket, that’s OK too. We headed south toward Dam Square, flanked by the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church, built 1408, newer than the Oude Kerk – there must be a joke there somewhere) to the west and the National Monument, commemorating the victims of World War II, to the east.
Shopping in Kalverstraat, we found the alley that leads to the Begijnhof, a peaceful hidden courtyard edged with charming homes of single women who pledge their time for religious service. There’s also a tiny chapel where a magnificent baritone was rehearsing Vaughan Williams for a concert that evening.
Beyond this lies the rest of Amsterdam: a series of concentric and bisecting canals, known as the Grachtengordel (canal ring). Lined with centuries-old gabled canal houses, the area is beautifully intact, not just a preserved open-air museum; it is still the functional heart of the city, vibrant and energetic.
The canals are punctuated by churches that can be used to navigate the city. With its distinctive blue crown, the tower of Westerkerk (West Church) is the tallest in Amsterdam, dominating the skyline near the Anne Frank House and the Homomonument a testament to Dutch liberalism.
Being gay isn’t exactly compulsory but, there’s – er – a lot of it about…Following the canals southeast brought us to the quaint shopping and dining quarter called the Negen Straatejs or ‘9 Streets’. Wandering further crosses humpbacked bridges and through alleys filled with countless café terraces. These often give directly on to a canal – regardless of health and safety. The British or the French would insist the café owners build small retaining walls or chain-link fences – not so the Dutch. It’s not apparently unusual for a customer, full of beery bonhomie, to topple backwards into the canal, to the riotous amusement of all. It’s only about a metre deep, so the chance of fatality is slight. I was given a whistle-stop tour of the red-light district from a friend who used to live there, and who had a disturbingly encyclopaedic knowledge of what kind of attractions were available in any one of a dozen tiny alleyways flanked by full-length windowed doorways where the occupants were displaying their wares quite unashamedly – they pay taxes after all.
Brits, unsurprisingly, head for Oudezijds Voorburgwal, and find the original Bulldog ‘coffee house’. It might be a bit passé now, but this is where it all began back in 1975 and Number 90 is generally recognised as having been the first ‘coffeeshop’ in Amsterdam. Not the best cannabis in town but the orange juice is good and, being in the heart of the red-light district, the views are interesting. The police are, it is said, tolerant towards Brits who wander up and down, stoned off their faces. Did I? What do you think…?The Dutch are great readers, so I felt quite at home, not least in the iconic Bibliotheek – a seven storey, open plan library with a self-service restaurant offering some of the best food in the city and also the finest views.