With a couple of days off in The Netherlands, there was only one place to go – Amsterdam. After checking in to our sweet little Airbnb house, we headed down to the wharf where we grabbed a quick “hipster” coffee and hopped on the free ferry across the Amstel river into Amsterdam Centraal. The ferries are all completely free and carry pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds and even miniature cars to and fro every 6 minutes all day and every 12 minutes literally all night (Manly Ferries please take note). The plan was to hire some bikes, and Camilla had specially researched a budget bike hire place (that won’t be named) where we would save €5 per bike per day for a “pre-loved” bike that would undoubtedly be lovingly restored to the highest level of quality and safety. Um, the “pre loved” part was right on, but the quality and safety aspects were overlooked somewhat. Basically, the bikes belonged on a scrap metal heap, but at least they worked just enough to get us from A to B, and the brakes had just enough stopping power for us to stop at B, only narrowly avoiding a collision with C (car). So we stuck with them and thought of all the things we could buy with the €5 we saved.
We were pretty tired, so we thought a nice relaxing thing to do would be to take a leisurely ride across town to Vondelpark to chill out on the grass (no pun intended).
The traffic was insane. There weren’t actually many cars and there was no actual traffic jams, but there were cyclists everywhere, weaving in and out with little regard to safety or logic. I thought I was the only one who rode like that! We didn’t realise it at the time, but we had happened upon not only evening peak hour, but the frenzy of people rushing to go and watch The Netherlands’ play Chile in the World Cup. Amsterdam is impossible to navigate. No matter how closely you study the map, you will be lost again by the time you get to the next intersection.
Whenever I ride my bike in Australia, I always think “Why doesn’t everyone do this?” and in Holland, they do. Why the Dutch alone understand the beauty, fun and incredible practicality of the humble bicycle, I cannot say, but I’m certainly grateful that they do.
The next day Lear, Rosalie and Matilda joined us, and we all went into town to get an extra bike for them (at a different bike shop as we were hoping for a bike with proper brakes, a baby seat, and maybe some lights). As we were mounting our bikes Rosalie expressed some concern about her cycling abilities. “Don’t worry, Rosalie”, I started to say, “it’s just like riding a… Never mind”. Our first destination was an organic cafe, which we immediately started heading in the wrong direction for. In Amsterdam you are always lost and this was certainly no exception – eventually we just gave up and stopped in at a cute bagel shop for some tasty nourishment. That was as much riding as Rosalie could take so we decided to split up.
Our cute little bike gang. Photo by Eileen who was staying home with a cold. We thought she was faking it, but the seriousness of the situation was driven home when she actually refused the offer of a coffee.
We had to decide whether to use our limited time in Amsterdam to visit the highly reputable Van Gogh Museum, or go to a seedy drug den. The choice was a no-brainer. Myself (purely for the sake of journalism, I attest) and some companions (who cannot be named) headed straight for one of Amsterdam’s infamous “coffeeshops”. As we walked in, the smell was strong and unmistakable, the decor was funky and the vibe was relaxed. So far, so good. Trying not to look too much like tourists we casually sat down at a table and did our best to look like we knew what was going on. We plucked up the courage to approach a waitress and place an order for a dose of their finest, green, hand-rolled, “herbal tea” with a knowing wink and a tap on the nose. Palms sweating, we awaited the delivery of our goods and within a minute she was back coolly handing us cups of delicious, steaming, but completely inert jasmine green tea, hand rolled into little tea balls. Can we do nothing right? We shrugged our shoulders, took a sip of tea and soaked up the atmosphere. It was like a cafe crossed with a bar and was surprisingly agreeable. The clientele were friendly and laid back, the music was tasteful, no one was rowdy or obnoxious, and paradoxically, the smoking of ordinary tobacco was strictly prohibited by law. If my mother hadn’t brought me up so well (thanks for reading, Ma!) I might have ended up as stoned as the tabby cat that lay sleeping on the window sill the entire time.
After some more failed attempts at navigation it became clear that the only thing to do was to go with the flow and see where you ended up. It was at this point that I really “got” Amsterdam. It is at once highly civilised and very accepting of all sorts, a combination that is all too rare. The Dutch seem to be pretty cruisey – if anyone was a candidate for being on the receiving end of road rage, it was me, but I never got yelled at, even when riding like someone who didn’t know which side of the road was which. Combine that with the fact that most people cycle along at quite a leisurely pace and you can see why the relative chaos of the cycling traffic is entirely bearable.
Rosalie being taxied home by Christi past the incredible labyrinth that is the multi-storey bike rack at Centraal Station. Shortly after this photo was taken a certain photographer/journalist/amateur cyclist (who cannot be named) got a little over excited and crashed straight into these two, causing quite a spill!
That night Camilla and myself went for a romantic late night ride in Amsterdam’s other infamous feature – the red light district. It was just as crazy and just as out-in-the-open as people say, but you can’t gawk forever so after a short time we tried to leave but (as usual) headed in the wrong direction, going deeper in. What was incredible was the immense size of the red light district – it seemed to take up half the city! The other thing that I noticed in the night time was the incredible abundance of “coffeeshops” – they were literally everywhere, not just in the red light district but scattered all over the city centre, catering for the uber groovy to the ultra seedy (but still far less seedy than an average night club).
While Matilda stayed clear of all the coffeeshops and red light districts, she got up to some mischief on her own, which we discovered after receiving several mysterious text messages in Dutch. When we eventually got around to translating the messages, they turned out to be from the Dutch police, saying “ATTENTION! You may have unconsciously dialled 112. Please keep this number for emergencies only.” Oops.
I’ll leave you with this random arty photo by yours truly.
Stay tuned, folks! I swear I won’t ramble as much in the next episode…