travels to The Netherlands
Now while 'FLAT' takes away some character from the land, the Dutch have some very pretty countryside and towns never-the-less. Much of it remains undiscovered by the average tourist. When it comes to my particular favourites, I don't mind this at all.
Amsterdam is a place that cannot be overlooked, such is its reputation. In the main, the reputation which goes before it is of a seedy, drug-ridden city that you probably wouldn't want to visit - unless you, too, were seedy and drug-ridden. But perhaps you are familiar with those pretty canal scenes and have wondered if this unfavourable reputation is truly justified in the face of such apparent beauty. Well, the truth is that the city is big enough to be seedy, drug-ridden and pretty - in equal amounts! So when you go there, just head for the area that best suits you! And if you subsequently complain that it is just seedy and drug-ridden, then we will all know which parts of the city you spent your time in!
Most people enter the city via the Centraal Station and exit onto the Stationsplein, negotiating their way through millions of chained bicycles. These are an eye-opener in themselves, for in a city where just about everyone cycles, you might expect some pretty nifty bikes. Not so! There are all 'entry-level' models, 'sit-up-and-beg' types, without such luxuries as numerous gears and brakes - although they do generally stretch to a bell. Anyone leaving a shiny new bike chained up would find little remaining but the chain when they returned and would be forced to take for themselves an alternative cycle from a nearby stand. Given this culture, you can imagine why most bikes are not shiny or new. Some say the canals are one-third deep in stolen bicyles, one-third in seawage, and one third in water. Thankfully the latter still rises to the top!
Surrounding this central area in an angled-section horseshoe-shape from the front of the station (in a south-to-west sweep) are the main canals. Roughly speaking, many of the main streets radiate from here like spokes, with minor streets crossing these at right-angles, following the line of the aforementioned canals. Damrak is a main street which leads to central Dam Square: where it all happens - or where people wait and watch for it to happen. As I said, you take your pick as to the kind of city you want, and from our station starting point, if you go around the water immediately to the left of Damrak and head left you soon come upon some canals which, unlike the others described, are like 'spokes' in this 'wheel' of a city, and these add beauty to what would otherwise just be plain seedy: the Red Light area. (If you don't want this area, you now know which direction NOT to head in and cannot justify wandering in it by mistake!) Here the ladies of the night (and day) rent their windows for display, and here they display their goods - themselves ... for rent! A most lucractive business, by all accounts, particularly for their landlords, and the 'display rooms' are in high demand, with different shifts of girls to give passers' by the eye: or anything else they desire. (The girls apparently get younger as the day progresses: which must be nice for them. Amazing what regular exercise can do for you.) This is also a dense area of sex shops that would make grandma's hair curl - and might also curl grandpa as well. But you don't want to know about all this seedy stuff, I'm sure. So watch out for it in some other areas of Amsterdam as well, particularly in the street north-west and parallel with Damrak. (Don't say I didn't tell you where not to go!)
Much more to your taste will be the Jordaan area to the north-west where the Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht canals grace the city with their beauty. This is the place to stroll beside tree-lined canals and drink-in the city's beauty: or a coffee or beer; why not have a pleasant snack here and watch the world and his boat go by. Then, after a well-earned rest from walking - it's the only way to see the city properly - why not walk alongside the south-side of Singel canal to where it crosses Leidsestraat, and on the way take in the floating flower market. (You can't miss it, for the canal disappears beneath the barges which link to the banks via planking displaying the weight of their wares.)
Principal attraction in the North-West section (Jordaan) is the Anne Frank Huis (Anne Frank's House). If you don't know about how this young Jewish girl hid with her family from the occupying Nazi forces between 1942 and 1944, and how she told the world about it via her diaries, then it won't be of much interest to you; if you do, it will almost certain be a priority, so get their early: not to beat the queues, but to join them. Have faith: they do move quite quickly! Disappointing on the outside - it now looks quite modern - the house is still authentic on the inside, and you do get to climb the steep staircase hidden behind the famous bookcase door, and to see the rooms these poor people occupied before their eventual discovery and banishment to concentration camps. It is a moving experience. Don't expect to see the original furnishings - there would be no room for people to pass through, such were their cramped quarters - but models depict the furnishings in the main rooms, and audio-visual displays tell you all anyone could wish to know - in the depth to which they care to get involved. I will certainly always remember this house, and I recommend you to go.
Did I mention the drugs scene yet? If you want them, head for a 'coffee shop', but hopefully you'll prefer a coffee, so will wish, instead, to go to a café. If you're confused by this, then just trust me: all you need to remember is not to go to a coffee shop for a coffee. Easy, isn't it? Except that there's even a floating 'coffee shop' on one of the canals ... but I'm not telling you which one!
You cannot failed to be 'impressed' by the vertical nature of the houses in Amsterdam. What is it that inspired them to build narrow and high? Taxes - what else! Frontage set your tax bill, not floor-size or height; hence the tall, narrow buildings that are so characterstic of the city, especially alongside the canals. So steep are the staircases in these buildings, and so high are some of the bedrooms, that when someone is sick, the ambulance men cannot consider bringing a patient down on a stretcher inside the building. Instead they call out the fire brigade to put up a ladder, and the police to control gawping crowds, and the poor patient descends via the fire-engine ladder and a beefy fireman. I saw this going on myself. Of course, this is also the way that furniture gets in and out of high rooms. A good job all this goes on in order to give the police something worthwhile to do. With so much else permitted, they might get bored otherwise.
Finally, if you want a legitimate excuse to penetrate the Red Light area with a noble cause, why not take a look at the Oude Kerk (Old Church), Amsterdam's oldest, biggest church - not used when I visited. Consider its location and juxtaposition with the 'ladies in windows', then head along to Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40, by the canal, looking out for the steps leading up to the entrance of the Museum Amstelkring, otherwise known as 'Our Lord in the Attic Church'. Here is probably one of the world's most unusual churches that is still in use - and popular for weddings. Hide your eyes on the way along by the canal lest you see things in the windows you would prefer not to see - don't worry too much, no more flesh than you see on the average beach - but don't miss this entrance or you might have the embarassment of having to retrace your steps. Via a maze of staircases and passage-ways you climb up to the only remaining, once-clandestine Catholic church of the Calvinist era still in its original condition. This truly beautiful church spans the attics of several houses. Take your sunglasses or be dazzled by the gold on everything from religious artifacts to organ pipes. This was the only sign of religion I noted in this area: other than half-a-dozen 'vicar-dressed personages' in a bar who were offering blessings upon all and sundry.
One final warning. You need to be very careful about pick-pockets
in any major city today, but Amsterdam offer maximum opportunity of
experiencing this - especially in the 'seedy' areas. The Red Light
area can be dangerous late at night, although during the day and early
evening the number of visitors which pass through - with and without
guides - makes it fairly safe against assult: but not from the 'artful-dodgers'
wishing to check your pockets for spare change. I personally saw two
obvious pick-pockets closely following the tour group I was with and
they hugged closely to the group looking for their opportunity. So
be warned! Even here, drugs cost money!