Thursday, 17 October 2013

All Kinds of Surprises in Amsterdam

Last weekend, Understanding Frenchman and I went to Amsterdam for a quick getaway with very limited preparation. We'd booked the hotel room and reserved the train tickets and that was it. We did have a guidebook, but it had been languishing on the coffee table for a couple of weeks and I didn't get around to reading it until we were on the train and speeding through Belgium.

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.

Attractive Architecture

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
People from the Netherlands are the tallest in Europe, so I suppose it's not really surprising that lots of things are bigger in Amsterdam. Seeing the size of the traditional bikes, we giggled over the thought of what Dutch tourists must think when they come to Paris and encounter a Vélib. But it was interesting to see how, in contrast to the small-but-perfectly-formed French way of presenting  there seemed to be a whole aesthetic of generosity in everything apart from the houses. The narrowest house in Amsterdam has a front, and therefore a stairwell, that is only the width of its own front door!

Seedy Coffee Shops

I'd rather have some delicious Dutch cheese!
Maybe I just read too many middle-class left-wing newspapers, but I imagined Amsterdam's legalised cannabis smoking to be more the equivalent of sipping a civilised glass of wine on a sunlit terrace than people drinking themselves into oblivion in a dive bar. Not that I would have been tempted to try it anyway, but in the centre at least, most of the coffee shops we saw were mostly filled with very stoned looking young guys and there was nothing about that whole scene that was even remotely appealing. It wasn't something that bothered us at all, apart from the kind of sickly smell drifting out of the doors that seemed to fill certain streets, but it certainly wasn't a plus point either.

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!


  1. Interesting comments! I would also picture these coffee shops as "Starbucks with weed", not seedy (pun intended) places. Strange. I wonder how many locals actually indulge... I mean, is it a stereotype (like "French men all have three different mistresses")?

    I flew KLM twice lately (for my last two trips to France, cheapest ticket was through Amsterdam) and I was by far the shortest person on the plane... and I'm 1.70m (5'6)!

    1. "Starbucks with weed" - that's exactly what I was expecting, but it really, really wasn't!

  2. The thing that most people don't know is that the Dutch are actually not all that tolerant to drugs, prostitution and drinking. They are just like any other northern European country. In fact, I would dare to say that the people living outside in the countryside are very conservative. My opinion is just that they are realistic about life: instead of ignoring drugs and prostitution they have realised that they are not going to go away and to just accept them and to try and create laws to protect people.

    While I agree that it's sad to see the prostitutes, I am happy that they were among the first to realise that prostitution is here to stay, unfortunately (unless you create some kind of dictatorship).

    I suspect that most of those people that you saw spaced out were just tourists. That's something that bothers me about Amsterdam - some people have this idea that Dutch people are permanently stoned and that they should just go to Amsterdam and live out their fantasies. That is not the way the Dutch people are and the rest of the country is quite different. I do agree, though, that Amsterdam is absolutely beautiful and every time I go there I am amazed by it.

    1. I'm sure you're right about the spaced out tourist. And apparently a large proportion of them are from France, the country with the highest teenage cannabis consumption in Europe. Statistics can be surprising, can't they?!