AMSTERDAM – The Venice of the North

We fell in love with Amsterdam and its wonderful canals as soon as we arrived.  Out of the blue, as we were walking through the railway station, a couple gave us their travel card for all public transport.  They said it would be good for the next twenty-four hours, and it was.  They were leaving the city and maybe felt sorry for the old codger trudging along carrying a back pack.

Outside the train station there is a parking area made up of three levels.  Each is the length of a football field.  The whole complex is completely dedicated to push bikes.  This, by the way, only represents a very small proportion of the bikes parked near the station, and for that matter, the rest of Amsterdam.  We had arrived in cycling nirvana.  No flashy carbon road bikes mind you, but literally thousands of ‘Sit Up and Beg’ bikes.  They are called this as that is what everyone looks like when they ride.

Each parked bike has two locks.  One is a permanent implement located near the back fork, and the other, a massive chain used to attach the bike to the nearest immovable object available.  Bike theft is obviously an issue in Amsterdam, and many finish up in the canals.

We soon found out that these bikes are not fast, but silent and deadly.  It was actually possible to be cleaned up eight times, from all directions and modes of transport, just crossing the road in front of our hotel.  I felt like one of those open mouth clowns in side show alley on steroids.  Though, instead of a table tennis ball in the mouth, it could very well be a bike.

Because of the success of our small walking tour in Paris, we thought we would take on the Amsterdam version.  Our guide Sean, a Dutch/American who had been an art teacher, has lived in this wonderful city for many years.  He was great and so was our group – just four in total.  It was an excellent way to get started.

On our journey, we soon discovered that the representatives of the oldest profession are still showing their wares in shop front windows.  But it all seems a bit ho hum as these displays of exposure just seem to be a normally accepted part of life in Amsterdam.  No one takes much notice.

That is of course except for the yobbos from across the channel and surrounds.  They arrive in their hordes on a Friday afternoon, and either leave their brains behind at the airport or bring them along for a pickling.  Sean had told us that the worst thing to happen in Amsterdam was the introduction of cheap airfares and three day bucks parties.  One fine young representative of this select group had on a tee shirt with the following message – “If I’m not wasted, the day is”.   I felt like suggesting an addition to the front – “Life Wasted”.

Of course, they are not just here to prove their manhood and drink beer.  They also come for the coffee.  Well, the coffee shops anyway.  We soon discovered that a ‘Coffee Shop’ sells more than coffee.  The unavoidable intake of smoke from the dreaded weed is enough to get high as you pass, and the age of the consumers is frightening.

We learnt very quickly how to escape these displays of insanity and found our way into the quieter back blocks of the city where the locals abide.  It was here we also found a coffee shop that just sells real coffee.  The owner is an Aussie who roasts his own blend and is endeavouring to make his mark in Amsterdam after some success in New York.  He was very switched on.

It was also in this part of town that we found the museums and art galleries.  The Van Gogh Museum was sensational and so was the Maritime Museum.  While we were visiting this particular location, Karyn thought it would be a good idea to attend the simulated sailing exhibit.  SIMULATED SAILING???  After having spent nearly three years bobbing around the oceans of the World, why would I want to simulate the experience?  I have only just recovered from the last episode.  Anyway, as usual, Karyn was right.  It was a good idea and I survived.

We gave Ann Frank’s house a miss, as the line up for entry was over 100 metres long and not budging.  Instead, as Karyn did the rounds of the city by tram, I opted for the highly recommended Resistance Museum.  It tells the story of life in the Netherlands during WW2.  With the occupation, it all came down to a decision to cooperate, collaborate or resist – individuals were just trying to find the best way to survive.

Speaking of which, Karyn and I survived very well in Amsterdam and we had an excellent time.  This is more than I can say for some of the lads.  As we exited our hotel for the last time, I noticed a young kiwi bent over with head in hands and obviously the worse for wear.  He was possibly the same individual who spent the night throwing up in the room next door.

We pointed in the direction of the train station on route to the airport and London.  As we dodged the empty McDonalds wrappings, broken glass, beer cans and cigarette butts, courtesy of the previous night, I wondered about the future of this unique city and whether it can stand the attention.

Then again, maybe I am just an old codger carrying a back pack, and it will survive as it always has.