I head straight for the city from the coast, stopping to look briefly around Den Haag, Holland’s third city. With a large business district, the home of the Dutch parliament, and the home of the International Criminal Court. It’s also where the Dutch King lives! Yes, they still have one!
The Netherlands still has a monarchy, like the UK. At one time they were a fiefdom of the Habsburg Empire, being ruled by the King of Spain, but they won their independence and consequently became an early outpost for the new Protestant religion too. Many emigrated to the new world, but even today, Holland is a home for many strict Christians - although you won’t find a lot of them in the heart of Amsterdam.
If you have a bicycle, Holland’s cycle routes are second to none, and there are next to no hills, making it a beautifully easy place to get around. Trains from the coast take some time to make it to Amsterdam as they head inland first, but if you’ve got a bike you can take a shorter route through the Netherlands marshy nether regions as far as Den Haag and save yourself a chunk of change. You can also put the bike on Dutch trains, but you’re supposed to pay extra for it when you book your ticket (plus you also have to pay £5 each way on the ferry. But if you’ve got a folding bike you’re quids in, because you can do both for free).
The Dutch weather is wet even in mid June (bring an umbrella), and right now stopping off on my way doesn’t appeal to me. Rotterdam I plan to visit on my way back (I won’t even make it beyond the station there, a week later, as I rush back to catch an evening ferry home, and even then I only just make it).
Home! Now there’s a strange thought. But there can be no thoughts of giving up and heading back home at this stage. There’s no point getting all English and missing baked beans now, is there?
You can see the Brits wandering around Amsterdam, lost and out of their element - can tell them a mile off, staggering about in their hoodies, their Dutch courage probably fortified by the local brew and other substances. While weed is not legal in Holland as many people think, it’s tolerated by local law enforcement and able to be sold in coffee shops. So many folks come here for the party atmosphere, but also for the fact that literally everyone seems to speak English and learns it from an early age at school (Dutch can be a hard language to master if you’re an outsider, but you won’t get the chance to practice it here).
All in all Holland is very similar to the UK, but also different and disorientating. But travelling’s not so bad once you take that first step. Once you cross the threshold you just have to keep going. I tell myself this, as I get into the city on a grey morning, and head for the nearest coffee bar (for coffee, naturally – it’s much too early for anything else).
The Dutch beer tends to be very strong and very moreish – just one is never enough. The other local specialities are cheese, sugar waffles, bicycles, antique furniture, prostitutes, and cliches about how the Dutch like weed and prostitutes.
You can see the heart of old Amsterdam in one day, on foot, not at all like London or Paris for instance. The city is compact, economical – something the Dutch seem to be good at. They’re very green - as you would be, if your country were so majorly at or below the rising sea level. Further out of the city centre, beyond President Kennedylaan there is a large road, a business district, and then things begin to become more like any other normal country.
You can hire a bike in Amsterdam for around 10 euros a day, which can seem steep, but this compares favourably with other cities in Europe. It’s only around the same price that Stena Line will charge you for taking your own bike on the ferry, for instance. Just be careful – the Dutch streets are full up with all kinds of traffic. The Dutch will also charge you extra for a bike with gears – they’re clever like that.
For the same money as a bike you can also take a canal boat cruise – which is another good value option unless you really need the exercise after all that good Dutch cheese and sugar waffles.
In Amsterdam every intersection of every street is a dangerous mess of bikes, trams, cars, pedestrians and street furniture all haphazardly scattered and competing to make you fall over them - all on the opposite side to what the British are used to.
* * * * *
I don’t know what it is about Amsterdam, but there’s something about it. There are angels in the architecture. It’s much better witnessed without having sampled the local brew, or other things that are available. The narrow, vertiginous buildings are liable to make your head spin, until you fall over. Even the grafitti here is beautiful. It must be the bastard offspring of all those generations of Dutch painters.
I get one Frank Zappa and one Jimi Hendrix vinyl in the little street market in Waterlooplein and consider it a good day. There are plenty of other good record shops, like Concerto, which also sells books, and another large street festival of commerce in the Albert Cuypmarkt, where a kindly Dutch person I meet called Robert admires my bike and tells me the coffee shop here, Katsu, is the best in the City.
Dinner is in a little place called Tuinfeest in the Nieuw Square. It’s an Indonesian receipe – ‘we used to have a colony there,’ as the barmaid explains coolly. I have to thank her for the history lesson, even though she seems a little sheepish about it, but the food is really fantastic. These little corner bars are one of the absolute highlights of Dutch cities for me, and help to illustrate what the British are missing. Instead of talking about leaving the European Union, imposing austerity and importing more free-market theories from America, we could learn a lot from the Dutch model about food, culture, friendliness, freedom, and generally creating a nicer country to live in. In a recent survey by the United Nations, Holland was rated the number one place for quality of living, despite the weather, and I don’t think I have ever seen one single homeless person in all my time there. I am not sure I would want to import the semi-naked women plying their trade in red-lit windows (but actually, then again, why not? It would certainly liven up Chelmsford).
OK, so there are American chains like Starb*cks here too, a really huge one in Rembrant Plein (for tax reasons, the company do most of their business in the Netherlands), but no one comes here to go to those kind of coffee shops. If you come here, make sure you go to a real Dutch place, because otherwise you might as well have stayed at home. Starb*cks can take their coffee and shove it…