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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Slumming it in Amsterdam

23 April 2001 12:26:01

Wanderlust strikes again and the Easter weekend finds me in Amsterdam.

I left for Amsterdam with my long-time friend Harv who'd been on contract in London but was now 'between jobs' and had a yen to see the nightlife.

To tell the truth, I was a bit concerned when my usual guide book failed to turn up a stunning list of must-see attractions. Okay, so there were a few galleries, the odd canal or two and about a hundred churches, but nothing really stood out. The main reason for visiting Amsterdam seems to come down to smut and drugs.

Fair enough, I thought, smut and drugs it is.

An hour out of Gatwick we coasted into Schipol, barely leaving the hosties enough time to whip away the potted airline meal and fix their makeup. The airport was efficient and customs a breeze and we were out and onto the train into Amsterdam Centraal in the space of twenty minutes.

Our first port of call, the Budget Hotel Euphemia, would be our home for the first two nights. Due to the popularity of Amsterdam over the long weeekend, we were forced to relocate to the famous 'Flying Pig' for the last three days of our stay, but more about that later.

After settling into our room we rolled out into Amsterdam to have a look around. The first nice thing we discovered is that, despite the alarming size of the map, Amsterdam is very much built on a pedestrian scale. The prominent use of bikes within the city has obvious advantages and the centre of the city (and most of its attractions) can be covered in a brisk twenty minute walk.

From the southern canal district we walked up into the centre of town along the Kalvestrasse shopping mall. Amsterdam feels a lot more like a modern American city than a stuffy old European trading port. The open streets and suburban spaces reminded me more of Chicago than they do of the haphazard clutter of London. The canals help, they give the city a sense of space unequalled by car-cluttered towns. More power to pedestrians!

The shops on the mall were disappointingly familiar. The globalisation of commerce means that nestled between 'Bijenkorf' or 'Hema' were familiar names like 'Marks & Spencer', 'The Body Shop' and 'Timberland'. Blech. Amsterdam is a truly cosmopolitan city and the Dutch all speak good English so the place lacks any true 'culture shock'. Not once did I have to trot out my guide book Dutch which was probably a relief for both myself and the population.

On the following day I persuaded Harv to join me for a smidgen of culture. Following my convention of avoiding big name galleries, I chose the Stedelijk modern art museum. For Easter they had devoted nearly the entire gallery to works by Dennis Hopper - a distinctly non-Dutch individual. Not what I was looking for. His photography was quite good and some of his paintings weren't bad but I couldn't see a huge amount of imagination in his work. On the whole, a little disappointing.

From the Stedelijk, we walked up past the Van Gogh museum (known locally as 'The Mussel' for the impressive new aluminium clamshell wing designed by Kishio Kurasawa) and into the tip of the Vondelpark.

The Vondelpark, like most of the city during our trip, was undergoing some heavy reconstruction in preparation for a royal wedding. On the edge of the Vondelpark we stopped for a coffee and I was once again reminded of the difference between coffee in mainland Europe and the rest of the world (including the warm, dirt-flavoured brew they serve in England). From the park we turned north towards the centre of the city and crossed the Singelgracht which roughly marks the outer rim of the inner city.

There, in a small pedestrian mall, we found a group of middle-aged men clustered around a giant board, battling out a hard fought and lengthy game of chess. Deciding that our perambulations had left us a little peckish we retired to a nearby establishment for lunch.

In the theme of familiar icons, the restaurant we picked was one a branch of the chain of Japanese restaurants found in London called Wagamama's. The food is simple, quick and reliable Japanese dishes like the gyoza and chicken ramen. Reliable anywhere from London to Sydney but not particularly cheap.

Later we came across a bright orange store called (strangely) 'Australian Homemade', a confectioner specialising in chocolates and ice-cream. I bought some chocolates and we filled the rest of the afternoon with idle shopping before heading back to the Leidseplein for dinner.

After a long day we were looking forward to a suitably satisfying meal and doubled back to an Argentinean steak house we had seen earlier. We combined some excellent steaks with a bottle of Argentinean syrah and as the evening progressed, the convivial atmosphere turned to one of those rare life-spanning one-to-one's that you can only achieve with the best of friends.

I d like to share some of the specific content with you but I suspect Harv would cheerfully relocate some of my vertebrae should he find out. Needless to say it covered life, love and the use of firearms. The subject of the perfidy of women was also covered at some length.

The meal was expensive but definitely cheaper than London and I didn't have to risk having my brain explode from eating British beef, a definite plus. We retired to the Euphemia philosophically and gastronomically sated.

The next morning we moved to the Flying Pig and Harv ducked off to pick up a friend while I went off in search of some more culture. Given my recent disappointment with the Stedelijk I thought I would risk the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum is Amsterdam's Louvre and houses 5000 of the Netherland's most important works in a sprawling 19th century complex. The interior is well designed and it is a pleasant, if perennially busy museum. I found most of the exhibitions underwhelming (as I often do) but the highlights included Rembrandt's 'Nightwatch' (which has a peculiar luminosity) and an exhibition of black-and-white photographs of Amsterdam's history.

Harv and I met up once more at the hostel, he with his friend Lisa in tow. We dropped Lisa off at her hotel and went to have a poke around Amsterdam's most famous attraction, the red-light district. During the day you could be forgiven for thinking it was simply a residential suburb with some particularly risque shops, but it comes alive at night. The natives, you see, only come out after dark.

Scattered around the streets of Nieuwmarket are strange little shops with multiple rows of glass-fronted booths leading onto larger, shrouded rooms. After dark, the boys and girls of the district come and sit on stools in the windows and beckon to passers-by. Dressed in little or nothing, they sit in the windows and tempt people to join them for bouts of earthly pleasures. Only occasionally did I see anyone accept the invitation.

That night we retired to the Flying Pig to play pool and sink a few beers at the bar. The Pig is a charming little hostel in the finest European tradition of budget dives, much like the Kabul in Barcelona. Effectively this means that what it lacks in facilities it more than makes up in atmosphere.

So it's handy that it has bucket loads of atmosphere.

Your first impression of the 'Pig' (and not necessarily an inaccurate one) might be that you have entered a 1920's opium den. The room is dominated by a large raised area towards the front of the room where, regardless of the time of day, a dozen or so individuals lounge around on scattered pillows, enjoying the effects of whatever substances they have to hand. It's an opium den, cum Irish pub, cum nightclub. There's even a pool table in the back.

The nice thing about the Pig is that they only open the bar to hostel customers, no guests allowed. This creates a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere and your room is within staggering distance should you need to pass out.

The first night we were relegated to the big 22 bed room downstairs. I don't recommend it. It's cheap but you'll have to ignore the stoned couple in the next bed grinding away for four hours straight, if you can.

On Saturday we dropped in at a coffee shop.

To make this clear - in Amsterdam if you want a coffee you go to a koffiehuis, if you want a beer you go to a cafe and if you want to smoke some of the local produce you go to a coffee shop. Inside our chosen venue, we followed the proprietor down to a tiny store window in the basement where we sniffed the various blends he had available. Since we were unable to distinguish much difference he recommended one known as 'bubblegum' which he assured us was very mild and pleasant.

We bought a couple of coffees and retired to a corner with the house bong, having neglected to bring our own. I will happily admit that before this I was a complete virgin when it comes to smoking weed. I've had plenty of friends over the years that have smoked but I've never been tempted to take up the habit, be it tobacco or marijuana.

A bit of experimentation with the bong got me set and before long I was inhaling lungfuls of aromatic smoke.

How did I find it? Mildly pleasant and euphoric but nothing to write home about. Like all substances, an acquired taste no doubt. Harv, with slightly more experience than I, assured me that the Amsterdam weed was much, much, much nicer than the home grown stuff you get in most countries.

Not having gotten completely blasted, we relocated to the 'Boom Bar' in Leidseplein and got some tickets for the late performance of a comedy improv show from Chicago. The team worked hard to entertain but they were up against a tough crowd. At one point, they joked about America annexing small African countries and the predominantly American crowd cheered. I don't think they got it.

Dinner that night was at the luxuriously appointed Mandarin restaurant just next to the Boom Bar (it was raining). The food was generic Asian but predominantly Chinese, the beer was Tsing Tao and the deserts were fantastic - cinnamon ice-cream with cinnamon liqueur sauce and clotted cream.

On the final day we took a brief stroll around the city to gaze at the wholly unremarkable 'Anne-Frank Huis' from the outside. The queues for this most notable of Amsterdam's attractions stretched around the block. We spent the rest of the day shopping instead and retired to our favourite corner of the 'Pig' to play pool and sip beers.

Over a beer with the barman, we discussed the possibility of opening a 'Pig' branch somewhere warm, like Australia.

He was all for it. He would be our first customer he said.

We laughed and drank more beer and pretended it wasn't a great idea...