My boyfriend had bugged me for months to take him to Amsterdam. We’re both Irish but for some reason I have always had a strange fascination for Holland and the crazy Dutch. I spent a summer there as a penniless student, picking tulip bulbs in a village near Amsterdam. Perhaps my passion for Holland had rubbed off on him (or maybe his motives for visiting Amsterdam stemmed from a different type of passion!). Either way, last February we booked a couple of flights, a few days off work and headed for ‘The Dam’.
Arriving in Amsterdam
Our flights were with Ryanair from Shannon to Charleroi. Yes, I know that it is in Belgium but we decided to see as much as possible on the road. (Ok, so the flights were cheap). We hired a car and drove up to Amsterdam. The Michelin Route Planner said it would take 2.5 hours. Word of advice for everyone; never trust the Michelin Route Planner completely. Four and a half hours and three near-death experiences later we arrived in Amsterdam.
We had booked a room at the Park Hotel near Leidsesquare. The hotel was gorgeous – very elegant with an air of grandeur about it. The rooms were large, which is unusual in Amsterdam where space is at a premium. There were fresh flowers in the bathroom and an amazing view of the Van Gogh museum from our window.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat in the restaurant downstairs we decided to take a walk into town to see what Amsterdam has to offer. The Park Hotel is situated very centrally, beside the Vondelpark with the Musemplein behind it. Leidseplein itself has lots of nice cafes and bars. However, we decided to head straight into town and get the touristy part over and done with.
First stop was Central Station. I had forgotten about Holland’s fixation with bicycles. Beside most major European train or bus stations you would expect to find a multi-story car park. Beside Amsterdam Central Station however, there is a multi-story bike park. I kid you not! The building was at least 10 stories high and looks capable of housing about a million bikes. Must be fun at 3 in the morning when everyone’s trying to find their ride home!
We wandered over the bridge past Central Station and suddenly found ourselves, without warning, in the middle of the Red Light District. One minute I had my face up against a shop window, admiring a little chair and wondering about the pretty red curtains and neon lighting. Next minute, a G-string clad young woman appeared out of nowhere and resumed her perch on the chair. Shocked, my boyfriend and I scuttled away, giggling like immature school kids.
Beyond the exotic, Amsterdam means a certain way of living
Half an hour later I decided that we had just about got the gist of things – window after window of stunning looking women (no men, I might add). Eventually, I managed to drag my speechless other half away with promises of ‘patat met mayo’. (The only other way to a mans heart is through his stomach!) We walked down to Dam Square and admired the Royal Palace.
Amsterdam is a city steeped in history. It is also a city full of contrasts; unconventional in attitude yet old-fashioned in pace. Its inhabitants are an ethnically diverse bunch of people, with non-nationals making up 70% of the population. It’s easy to see the attraction. Grandmothers on motorised High Nellys ride past tax-paying ‘working girls’ in the city’s Red Light area. Tourists smoke pre-rolled “spliffs” beside nonchalant locals. All of this and more add to the laid-back atmosphere of tolerance that prevails in Amsterdam.
However, the city is not all about sex and dope-smoking tourists. There is a whole different sub-culture of people who travel to Amsterdam to experience the city’s many other delights. Even if, like me, you don’t consider yourself to be very cultured, you will find something that you like in Amsterdam.
There is so much to sample. You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate the beauty of the paintings in the Van Gogh museum. The majority of people standing in the long queue outside Anne Frank’s house are not Jews. Likewise, you don’t have to be a drug-user to visit the hash museum find it interesting.
The following day, after an evening spent dancing at Club Mazzo, we decided to take a stroll through the famous ‘Vondelpark’ to clear our heads. The Vondelpark is one of the many parks that dot the city. The Dutch are famous for their ‘green’ attitude. Amsterdam’s city centre is virtually car-free. Motorists prefer to ‘park and ride’ on the outskirts of the city rather than pay the exorbitant parking fees imposed upon vehicles audacious enough to brave the centre.
Two-wheeled vehicles are everywhere. Pushbikes, Scooters, Harley Davidsons. It is not uncommon to see whole families of locals clogging the bicycle lanes on Sunday afternoons with kids in buggies freewheeling behind. We strolled through the park and hopped on a canal boat that took us on a tour of the city.
A man-made land that’s almost perfect
A network of canals rings Amsterdam. Some of the streets we passed in our boat were obviously affluent. The guide pointed out a few of the wealthier dwellings e.g. the mayor’s house. Then he showed us Amsterdam’s narrowest house and skinniest bridge. In times gone by, people paid taxes depending on how wide their houses were, so it is not uncommon to find many houses whose width is only slightly larger than their front door.
To round off the day, we ate at a nice little Italian restaurant in Leidsesquare and then listened to some live jazz music at the Bourbon Blues Jazz café.
The following morning we rose bright and early. Full of enthusiasm, we set off to visit some little towns we had heard about north of Amsterdam. It was almost lunchtime by the time we had actually made it onto the right exit, having spent the morning trying to get off the massive ring road that surrounds the city. However, when we finally did make it to the countryside, we knew it had been worth the effort.
The Dutch countryside is a sight to behold. Big, whitewashed old farmhouses with thatched roofs are surrounded by acres of perfectly tilled fields. Every inch of soil is utilised in one way or another. Dykes run alongside the perfectly straight roads. There are no hills or mountains, nothing between you and the gorgeous sunsets that light up the horizon before nightfall.
At one point I jokingly remarked that it looked as though somebody had taken out a ruler and drawn the country, with everything so perfect and not a blade of grass out of place. Then I realised that someone probably did just that! (when they reclaimed the land here).
It was now the final morning of our trip. We had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves but alas, it was time to head back down to Charleroi to catch our flight home. We got on the road early to give ourselves plenty of time for our afternoon flight, having spent the night in a cute little town called Medemblik.
However, a dense fog misled us and one hour into our four-hour journey, we realised that we were going the wrong way. We had in fact driven an hour in the wrong direction and had unwittingly crossed a massive bridge connecting North Holland to the province of Friesland.
The phrase ‘burning rubber’ took on a new meaning as we struggled to get to Belgium. We caught our flights and managed not to kill anybody while driving there. However my parting advice if you are ever tempted to plan a similar trip over unfamiliar terrain to the airport; get the train, folks!