Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

17 Mar 2012

Amsterdam

Posted by Will

On Day 10, I reached the great European city of Amsterdam which is probably most famous among foreigners for its canals, liberal drugs policy and red-light district. It’s true: walking around for less than 5 minutes will have you cross dozens of bridges and pass several dubious smelling ‘coffee shops’. The red-light district is marginally more difficult to find (yes, I was looking for it and no, not for a sleazy reason) but that’s not saying much. However, it seems that all the other things that make up Amsterdam get lost in the clamour about drugs and prostitutes. I’m going to tell you about the relatively unknown features of Amsterdam and if you’re so patient as to wait until the end I’ll tell you a bit about drugs and prostitutes as well.

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Firstly, of course, is my take on the bicycles. Amsterdam almost certainly has the most extensive bike lane network of any city in the world. Bicycles easily outnumber all other vehicles combined, are seen chained to almost every railing, and are the most serious threat to the wellbeing of residents and visitors of Amsterdam. Cyclists will not stop for pedestrians (one woman told me that locals often make a sport of running down unsuspecting tourists) and no one appears to know who’s got right of way. It’s everyone for themselves and as a visitor you’re at a considerable disadvantage. Walking around is a constant exercise in ‘pavement awareness’. On the other hand, there is something beautiful about the rows of bicycles streaming along the canals and seeing them chained up on the hundreds of small bridges. An interesting little factoid: authorities apparently pull over 20,000 bicycles out of the canals every year.

‘Wonky’ would best describe the general look of the buildings in Amsterdam. The city was built on swampy ground and as such many of the houses and shops slant one way or another, window-frames are rarely level and some buildings even slope outwards into the road. Many houses are incredibly thin with one measuring only 1.8m across. Given that Dutch people are statistically the tallest in the world sleeping must only be feasible in one direction. Thin buildings came about when the government decided to tax property based on width. Most houses, of course, are terraced, but still appear separated from one another by their different colours (the 1.8m house is red). A few notable buildings include the Old and New Church, the Royal Palace and the small factory where the first pint of Heineken was brewed. My new Japanese friend, Shoto, and I enjoyed a pitcher of Heineken less than 200m from its birthplace – delicious.

p1000047-800A chilly walking tour filled me in on some of the city’s history. I didn’t take in all the details but the golden period between the years 1600 and 1800 oversaw the construction of the canals. Over 100km of canals were hand-dug during this period. Wealth flooded into the city as merchants sent their ships out to India and the rest of Asia. In the early 1600s, Amsterdam sent east almost twice the number of merchant ships than the rest of Europe combined. Ever a city of religious tolerance, people of all faiths settled in Amsterdam over the centuries. This was shattered with the Nazi occupation of 1940-1945 when the Jewish population were first shunned and then systematically transported off to concentration camps. Anne Frank gives the most famous account of the city’s occupation in her diary. Almost every one of Amsterdam’s trees were cut down for fuel during this period which explains why all the trees now are exactly the same height.

Now, as I promised, onto drugs and prostitutes. The liberal attitute towards marijuana gained force in the 1960s and ‘coffee shops’ came onto the Amsterdam scene in the 1970s. So far as marijuana is concerned there is a policy of non-enforcement in place. It is not allowed to light up and smoke on the street and officially you can’t smoke in coffee shops either. Yet coffee shops do exist because the government turns a blind eye. This is part of the authorities’ attempt to lower hard drug use which at one time was at an absurdly high level. As far as I’ve seen, and contrary to some reports, effective legalization of marijuana in controlled areas has not ‘ruined’ or ‘made trashy’ Amsterdam’s city centre. The worst side-effect has been an influx of ignorant tourists.

Walking through the red-light district was, to be honest, a deeply uncomfortable experience. Firstly, there’s really nowhere to look apart from at the ground. Otherwise you’re staring through a window at an unhappy, bored-looking woman standing in her underwear. I felt that most other people walking those streets with me were shifty-looking, although I was probably just affected by the feel of the place. Pimping is outlawed here but prostitution is legal: women rent windows for a set fee, pay taxes to the government and as a result have healthcare and other social services. This does seem better than pushing it underground, but doesn’t make for good strolling. Another factoid: 15 minutes of the women’s time costs 50 Euros.

Anyway, there is my take on Amsterdam after 48 hours, informed mainly by a fantastic walking tour, talking to locals, wandering around and reading some guidebooks. I will be leaving soon (haven’t quite decided when yet) and in doing so will have to contend with the vicious bicycle traffic. Copenhagen is the next big city stop and perhaps you will soon have the good fortune to read another long-winded account of my thoughts there.

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3 Comments already on “Amsterdam”
  1. 3:14 pmpermalink
    17 Mar 2012

    Mumsy

    Loved Amsterdam! Can’t wait for report on Copenhagen! Mum x

  2. 9:21 ampermalink
    20 Mar 2012

    Andrew

    Hi W
    great stuff……and enjoying your blogs.
    A

  3. 11:30 ampermalink
    21 Mar 2012

    Shannon

    Will.I.Am, this is fantastic!
    I will be keeping updated with your progress and if I venture abroad in the next few months I’ll be seeing if you are anywhere near.
    Could have stayed true to your train crew roots though by catching the train around the world but fairplay this seems more exciting…

    Keep up the good work! Shannon xxx