The disadvantage of being this underprepared is that you tend to forget things. In my case it was my toothbrush. The advantage is that anything and everything can be an interesting surprise. And so here, without any further ado, is my Amsterdam surprise list. If you want surprises of your own, read no further.
Not that I was expecting Amsterdam to be ugly. But I was surprised at how, between the grand public buildings of the main streets and the endless pretty detail of the rows of gable-end houses lining the canals, just about everything in the centre was beautiful. On our boat trip on the canal, the guide explained that before Amsterdam houses had numbers, the little windows above each door were decorated to be distinctive enough to identify the houses. I also loved all the practical accoutrements, like the bike rails going down narrow steps to basement entrances, and the hooks at the top of the gables, which are used for moving furniture which is too wide to fit up the tiny stairwells. (We were lucky enough to witness this principle in action during our canal boat trip!) And our hotel was on the edge of town near the end of the tramway, but all the areas we went through on the way were attractive too. I'm sure Amsterdam has its downtrodden districts like any city, but we didn't see them on our visit.
The Size of Everything
|Big mushrooms at the market|
|I'd rather have some delicious Dutch cheese!|
The Glory of Van Gogh
I know he's an easy artist to like, but a visit to the Van Gogh museum opened my eyes to the subtleties of some of these paintings that we are perhaps all a bit too familiar with. You can see the progression in his work as he moved around the Netherlands and then France, and there were several paintings I didn't know at all and really liked. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, the place was packed, so I would recommend going on a quiet weekday if you possibly can.
The Proximity of Prostitutes
We walked through the red light district during the day, as it's not a very clever place to head for after dark. I've walked down the rue St Denis in Paris plenty of times, so I wasn't expecting to be shocked (feeling uncomfortable is another matter) but I was taken aback by the way the women were displayed like dummies in shop windows, but exactly at street level, so that if you looked directly, you couldn't avoid catching their eye. I know there are all kinds of reasons for Amsterdam's approach to prostitution but I don't think it can ever be better than just a lesser of two evils, and strolling through the red light district didn't change my mind about that.
Early Tea Time
We went out for dinner in the centre of town. It was surprisingly hard to find a restaurant that wasn't fully booked (we may have been looking in the wrong place - a disadvantage of not reading the guidebook in advance) and, because of the pouring rain, settled for a little Italian place that was near the tram line back to the hotel. By nine-thirty we were the only people in the restaurant and we skipped dessert because we didn't want to keep the staff there just for us. I'm actually not a fan of French style late-evening eating and could definitely live with this, but Understanding Frenchman was horrified.
Friendly People ... Everywhere
From the moment we stepped on the Thalys in Paris, people were nice to us. I couldn't open my e-ticket on my phone. "No problem," said the ticket inspector. "Just give me your name and I'll check it for you. And is this your first time in Amsterdam? Have a great weekend!" Then there were the cheery bar staff, the people working at the museum cloakroom who smiled endlessly in the face of hundreds of soggy tourists and the lady who stopped us in the street to see if she could give us directions. I don't necessarily agree with the oft-repeated assertion that all Parisians are rude but ... it was a nice change.
We'll definitely be going back to Amsterdam when the tulips are out and the weather is warmer. Here's hoping for lots more nice surprises!