Amsterdam was Grace’s idea. I’d never given the place much thought, even though there are cheap(-ish) direct flights with EasyJet. But anyway, with a shared pizza and bottle of wine, we took to the laptop and booked flights and hotel.
Airport security is a nonsense. You knew that, right? It does almost nothing to protect the passengers, and little to deter terrorists. Maybe the authorities think that it reassures the travelling public, but since the constraints are so arbitrary and stupid, I doubt if that works. I had to take my belt off: a strip of canvas. My transparent bag of gels and liquids was two centimetres too large, which is a security risk because… um?
And beware — EasyJet are really strict on the “one item of hand baggage” rule. Grace had to stuff her handbag into her cabin suitcase.
Still, the flight was uneventful and punctual. I had researched the transit options on arrival. The usual method is the train to Centraal Station, but I’d discovered a bus route (Conexxion bus number 197) which took us direct to Leidesplein, and a short walk to the hotel. In fact, the bus goes right past our hotel, but as we discovered, won’t stop at it. We got out at the stop after, a slightly longer walk.
If you’ve arrived here after searching for “Hotel de Paris, Amsterdam”, I do recommend it. The staff were friendly and helpful; and the room clean, well-equipped and cosy. Compact though, especially the bathroom, but fine for two people. Our room was on the street side, meaning there was tram noise until 12:30, plus a few inebriates straggling home after, but if you want silence, don’t choose a hotel in a city centre.
After a brief turnaround, we walked the short distance to Leidesplein. We knew that the streets running SE from there are packed full of restaurants. And the competition is so high that many have people outside to hassle passers-by. Grace didn’t care for that much. We picked a pizzeria and packed in a pizza each.
After dinner, we explored at random and came to Rembrandtplein, another lively area. We took a foray into the famous or infamous Red Light District. I followed Grace into a female-oriented sex shop. Tasteful. She said it reminded her of the big Apple store on Leidesplein. iVibrators all around. Nearby, prostitutes were posing in their red-lit windows.
Then we got happily lost, but eventually found our way back to Leidesplein, and liked the look of the bar at De Balie, a political-activist cinema (Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina had been there a month previously at the showing of the movie “A Punk Prayer”). De Balie has beers on tap from Brouwerij t’IJ, all of them 8% and upwards in strength.
It was raining when we got up, but the plan was to “do” the museums, so we would be indoors. We were going to buy the “I Amsterdam” card, which gives free entry to many museums (although not the Rijksmuseum), free transport and a canal cruise. From the maps, we knew that there was a tourist office to buy the card on Leidesplein, but we were amsterdammned if we could find it. You’d think that making the place conspicuous would be the first requirement for a tourist office. Anyway, we walked on to the museums and found the we could buy the card in the museum shop.
However, the was a huge queue (in the rain) at the Rijksmuseum. We decided to try the Van Gogh museum first (free on the card, and with priority entrance). We were able to join the shorter queue, but still had to stand for ten minutes or so in the rain.
It was interesting, but I decided in the end that I generally liked the non-Vincent paintings in the collection more than his. There were works by artists known by Van Gogh, or who had influenced him: Monet, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec. I even liked Gauguin’s better. Upstairs was a collection by Félix Vallotton, famous in the 1890s for his political and social woodcuts in stark black-and-white. I liked these, and his paintings, more than Vincent’s too.
When we left (after lunch in the museum cafe) we found to our suprise that the queue at the Rijksmuseum had almost gone, and we were soon inside the huge railway-station-like hall. Probably the most popular exhibits in the galleries are the Rembrandt paintings, and the large “Night Watch” must be the top one. I don’t think that we saw absolutely everything, but museum fatigue was setting in.
However, there is one Amsterdam museum that everyone talks about: the Anne Frank house. We jumped on a tram and set off for it. When we got there, some time after four, the line of people waiting was hundreds of metres long. I think closing time is five, so we had little hope of getting in. Grace checked with the ticket office, where the helpful chap suggested booking a specific time slot on line for the following day.
Disappointed, we wandered off, arrived at Dam square and to cheer us up, did some window-shopping among the upmarket make-up and fashion franchises in De Bijenkorf. In the cafe, I used their free wifi to check on the Anne Frank bookings and found that, contrary to what had been suggested to us, the earliest available bookings were on Saturday, five days away. Since we were going home on Thursday, we had to accept that it was a failure. Tip for visitors: book your slot before leaving home.
It’s a short walk into the Red Light District, where Grace dragged me into the Greenhouse Effect coffeeshop. We bought a ready-made spliff (no rolling skillz between us) of a “mild” variety. I felt very little effect. Grace became a little sick, and we had to go out for air.
We walked back towards our home zone. Off Leidesplein again, we chose a restaurant at random, a place called Tong Ah, which was mediocre in the end. I ordered Kung Po chicken, only to be told that they had run out of it. In retrospect, that was not a good sign, regardless of whether it was kung, po or chicken which they did not have. I asked for duck instead. When it arrived, it wasn’t bad, but had been chopped up on the bone, so most pieces contained bone fragments. I don’t know if that is the traditional Chinese way, but I didn’t care much for it.
After leaving, we had the remains of the spliff for dessert, and I took the giggling Grace home via Café Soundgarden, in the same street as our hotel. I think Soundgarden must be Amsterdam’s equivalent to The Menagerie in Belfast: scruffy, even seedy, but a meeting place for musicians and like-minded freaks. We liked it.
We thought we might go to club Paradiso in the evening, a gig by Tinariwen, and set off to reconnoitre. On the way through Max Euweplein, where the casino, Hard Rock Cafe and Aran Pub are, we noticed B&B cafe and had a nice breakfast. Then we took the canalside path and emerged right beside Paradiso, which is a converted church. There seemed to be nowhere to buy tickets or anything, but at least we knew where it was.
According to the guidebooks, the Albert Cuypmarkt is excitingly diverse and multi-ethnic. Well, not all that exciting, but it is a large, trashy street market, which is OK. After walking the length of it, we got a tram to the old town centre and explored their Chinatown, including a visit to the Buddhist Temple, or at least the public hall at the front. We like multi-ethnic.
Next it was to a very different recommended destination, the De Gooyer windmill. You can’t actually get into the windmill, but the attached building, a former public baths, is now the home of the biggest small brewery in Amsterdam, Brouwerij t’IJ. We’d already tried their beers (recommended) and tried a couple more.
Unfortunately, the brewery pub doesn’t serve proper food (you can buy a plate of cheese for four euros) and we had been hoping for lunch. But after beers, we bought a couple of supermarket sandwiches instead, and walked the short distance to the zoo, entry being free with our “I Amsterdam” cards. The unique feature of the zoo is that some of the enclosures are open to visitors, a highlight being the big, red, furry ring-tailed lemurs. You can get right up close. And in an indoor enclosure, you can walk among fruit bats, birds, small monkeys and tiny mouse lemurs.
Fortunately the gorillas are kept behind armoured glass, because the dominant male of the group is a huge, terrifying creature. And one of his family demonstrated another behaviour I wouldn’t want to be near: eating his own fresh shit. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind.
We took a tram back and took a rest before going out. Again, having read the guidebooks and websites, we had a destination in mind. A very short distance from the hotel is the Blue Pepper restaurant, which is widely considered in the sources as one of the best Indonesian restaurants in the city. And one of the most expensive, but “what the hell” we thought. There is only room for about twenty diners, but it wasn’t busy and we got a table. Excellent food and Amster-damn the expense.
We hadn’t kept a tight enough timetable to go to hear Tinariwen (early gig) but we wondered if Paradiso would be open as a club afterwards. No. We had no plan B, so we had to improvise. Or wander indiscriminately, which is quite similar. We took a tram to the Red Light District and made another tour. It was later at night than the previous time so more of the girls were showing their wares. We had a couple of drinks and made a visit to a coffeeshop to sample more of their product.
It was then that we realised that it was almost twelve-thirty and the trams would be going off duty. And, in fact, we just managed to miss the last one from outside the Royal Palace. There is a night bus service, which our free travel included, but we didn’t see any and set off on foot (Grace in heels). It took a long time to get home, but not a single night bus came along. In the hotel, we finished off the spliff. (Next morning, I was horrified to read in the hotel’s visitor booklet that it is strictly non-smoking. Bad, bad people.)
The previous day had been Pancake Tuesday, and the Dutch pannekoeken are famous, but we hadn’t got our act together to eat any. Partly, I claim, this was because we were very confused by the presence of a building on Leidesplein with a large, illuminated “Pancake Corner” sign, and yet it was actually a sports bar with beer, television screens and no pancakes in sight.
However, one of our finds that night had been the actual Pancake Corner cafe round the corner, and that was where we went for breakfast. We both had bacon pancakes. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.
Fully refreshed and fortified, we walked down the Singelgracht canal, crossed at the Rijksmuseum and came back up to the Blue Boat Company, one of the options for our free canal cruise. It’s pleasant enough and mildly informative, and at least it saves walking (which we’d been doing a lot of). We did get to see the IJ, which felt almost like the open sea. We passed close to the replica sailing ship, the Amsterdam, which I hadn’t seen mentioned in any of the guidebooks. It might be worth a visit.
The plan for the afternoon was shopping. The “9 Streets” is an area West of the centre with a grid of streets and canals, and more boutiques and clothes shops than you could shake a stick at. We did them all and Grace very nearly bought a party dress. (She looked beautiful in it.)
Somehow we managed to make the walk home longer and more random than necessary, but after a break in our room, we went out for dinner. Our destination this time was very close, the “Eat At Jo’s” cafe which is part of the Melkweg club. The food is simple and filling with a kind of hippy vibe, and quite economical. Next to the cafe their gallery had a photo exhibition “Freaks Come Out At Night” [http://www.milanboonstra.com/freaks.html]. Yes. Yes they do.
It was a pleasant evening, although one beer outside in the square was enough for my icy metabolism. We resorted to the bar in De Balie, for farewell-to-Amsterdam drinks.
We had to be out of the room at the crack of dawn (ten) to catch the bus to the airport from Leidesplein, but we made it with time to spare. The flight home was a little early too, bringing us back to the Northern Ireland rain. Welcome home!