ANDY WEBB - AMSTERDAM JANUARY 2001
Thursday 11 January - Luton-Amsterdam
I met up with some of the others at East Croydon, where we got a train direct to Luton Airport Parkway (£9.80 single). We were joined by the rest when our train stopped at Kings Cross. Our group was made up of mainly people who had gone to the Glastonbury Festival together last year, Ralph, Gina, Rich, Jason (Jagger), Simon and myself, as well as our good friends Zoe and Dave. One of Ralph's mates, Dan, was to join us on the Saturday. A short bus transfer dispatched us at the airport after our 1 hour train journey. We set up camp in the airport bar, toasting the imminent departure. Check in was relatively painless, perhaps made slightly more complicated by people trying to get past the hand luggage restriction (Oh and a brief chuckle at ancient passport photos!). It wasn't too long that we were over the British Channel and landing in Holland, 45 minutes to be exact, not bad for £39 return.
Despite some warnings, baggage reclaim wasn't too much of a trauma, apart from finding mine and Dave's bag's sitting somewhat suspiciously in the middle of airport concourse! From the airport we boarded the double-decker train which would take us to Amsterdam Centraal Station....
Here I was again back in one of my favourite European cities, slightly more colder this time though. We boarded a tram just outside the station, unsure of where to buy tickets we presumed that there must be a conductor on board. Well, no, a free ride, plus an interesting standing position in the middle of the tram where the floor moves around. We got off at Leidseplein at around 9pm, not far from our hostel. There was a lot more building work going on here, than when I came 2 years ago. Using expert map skills we were soon at the entrance of the Flying Pig Palace hostel, overlooking Vondel Park. The room negotiations seemed to go reasonably well, and it wasn't too long before we had dumped our stuff and were enjoying a 'proper' Heineken in the bar. In fact I hadn't even managed to get my stuff up to the room, before I was offered a pipe, I think everyone is going to like this place!
Spurred on by Ralph's restlessness for a Coffeeshop we disembarked into town, a bitter cold chill at this time of year made us grateful for lots of layers. Our first stop was rather brief, as the Rokerijji, which is highly recommended by the way, had little in the way of seats, one of the disadvantages with a large group. Anyway we gradually found our way to a coffeeshop called Easy Times (just off Leidsestraat), playing kicking Reggae music, more a bar than a coffeeshop, we intelligently sat right next to the bass speaker. Many beers and spliffs later we stumbled back to the hostel.........I must confess I need help to unlock the door of my room!
Friday 12 January
Our view from the hostel room overlooks Vondel Park, although it seems that they are doing some major pipe laying at the moment, I guess it is better for them to do all of this in the winter rather than the summer. The cool fresh air is a good tonic in alleviating the excesses of the night before. After paying our accommodation costs we ventured in search of breakfast, this we found in a little cafe called Balkje on Kerkstraat. The service was admittedly pitifully slow, but not maliciously slow, no-one really seemed to care anyway. After a feast of eggs, bacon and baguettes we wandered around for about an hour taking in the ambiance, avoiding the cyclists and the trams. The best way to see Amsterdam is to just wander, you come across a lot more unexpectedly. It is refreshing to be in a city where the buildings don't dwarf the people and block out the light. In fact it almost feels like you could push over one building and the rest would fall like dominoes.
After deciding we all needed to warm up, we ventured to Rookies on Korte Leidsedwarsstraat, which I remembered as being a good place for Pool. It took us a few wrong turnings to actually find it, but nevertheless we were rewarded with great atmosphere and great beer. Me and Ralph challenged a few of the locals to a game, unsurpassed by the difference in Pool rules we won both games by default. It is so easy to let the time fly by in Amsterdam, no sooner had we arrived than it was late afternoon. Everyone split up to do there own thing for a few hours, and reconvened just before 6. a few games of cards later we followed our stomachs to El Torado on Leidsestraat, which I must recommend as an excellent steak house. The Dutch definitely like their meats, as well as generous portions of salad, the wait was definitely worth it.
After dinner we all made it back to the hostel bar, the weather was bitterly cold, and a few people were suffering from the excesses of the previous night! After dumping our bags we me, Dave and Zoe realized we had sleeping guests in our room, as a result I was promoted to the top bunk. Perhaps a little concerned by the lack of guard rails, and the very remote possibility that I might roll out of bed, though a wafer thin plate glass window, and plummet three floors to my .........er.........where was I? Oh yes, the Flying Pig is a good place for travellers who want to meet new people, you can sit and chat in the bar which stays open to 3am, and then there is Heineken machine for those hard-core drinkers. At one end is a chill out area with a chess board, this gave Rich the opportunity to invent a new game involving 2 sets of chess pieces. A rather upfront Israeli guy announced that he desired to play chess, but unfortunately wouldn't bend to Rich's new rules, so he was left to try and comprehend the new game, without much success. I won't bore you with any more of tonight as if you have been to Amsterdam, you know what I mean when I say, that you had to be there.
Saturday 13th January
Awoke a few times before I got up, mainly due to our German friends who shared our room, can anyone tell me why you guys always must get up so early! After a brief breakfast of rolls and coffee, Gina, Rich, Dave, Zoe and myself made our way to the Van Gogh Museum, something I hadn't got round to seeing last time. As it was quite early, and off season we didn't have to queue, and at f15.50 represents reasonably good value. Based on three floors, the Van Gogh Museum features roughly 200 paintings and 500 drawings by Van Gogh and his contemporaries. It is wonderful to actually be face to face with so many classic images, and get up close and see how they were painted. You can't help feeling a real sense of pity for Van Gogh, although he became famous after his death, he struggled to make a living, like so many other of his contemporaries. It is his experience with life that really shines through in his work. After our little culture quest we met up with Dan who had just flown in from London this morning. We made our way through Museumplein, past the ice-rink through the Rijksmuseum arches and up to Rembrandtplein, where we stopped for lunch in the Old Bell, a quintessential English pub, which offers great pub grub at good prices and you don't have to wait half the afternoon for it. I can't explain why us Brits go abroad and find an English pub, it wasn't homesickness, just a desire for a decent pub lunch, something which lacks in a lot of the coffeeshops, and Dutch bars I have been to. Be sure to recommend any if you know any!
After lunch, Gina, Rich and myself, strolled down to the Sky Sport's Cafe on Leidseplein. Arsenal vs Chelsea was showing, as Gina was a Chelsea fan at least some of us were vying for an away win.(My team, Charlton were away to Southampton, not exactly a crowd puller.) I find it amazing that in other countries you can watch Premiership football on a Saturday afternoon as it happens, but not in our own country. A word of warning, this bar gets very busy, we only just managed to find seats, and the beer prices are bumped up, I presume to pay for the football. However, if you just want to check results, you can view the screen outside for free! The match for the record ended 1-1, we missed Robert Pires' early goal for Arsenal, but at least Gina was happy to see John Terry claim the points for Chelsea. Charlton, at least, avoided yet another away defeat, they drew 0-0.
After the football we went to a coffeeshop called Dolphins on Kerkstraat, which has a small bar upstairs with table football, with a pool room downstairs. Unfortunately we had the window seat, which was right by some sliding doors, which never seemed to shut properly, so it was bitter cold inside as a result. It seems a lot of coffeeshops are designed for the summer, not the winter, perhaps they should invest in an outside door! After a while our jukebox selections were overruled, but we didn't care, Dave and Zoe soon turned up, and we played a few games of cards.
Our evening was spent at the Wild Style Cafe on Oz Voorburgwal, which rather confusingly is next to Rick's coffeeshop. This was made even more confusing, when the others were trying to find us, I was a given a box of matches with the name, Rick's Coffeeshop on it, so naturally I texted the others to let us know where we were. They sat next door for 30 minutes before realizing we were in the next one! The coffeeshop was very pleasant with a couple of minor birds as spectators, one looked very asleep! The others arrived eventually, they had tried to get into a club, but the queues had been ridiculously long, and in this weather, believe me, you don't want to spend too much time outside. Anyway not much more of any note happened today, oh, except Rich nearly blinding himself with a flash camera!
Sunday 14th January
Germans said good-bye noisily! Had a couple of rolls before setting out on my own to see some art exhibitions, admittedly not the best day, as a lot were shut on Sunday. My first port of call was the Stejilik Museum next to the Van Gogh Museum. I had visited it before, two years ago, but decided to give it another go. It is in many ways similar to the Tate Britain in terms of content, it features work by the likes of Mondriaan, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne and Kirchner to name but a few. If it is really up to date contemporary art you are after this is probably not the place. As well as this there was also some bizarre fairground organ recital in one of the halls, which seemed to filter into most parts of the gallery, creating a bizarre soundtrack to the works of art. After the Stejilik I made my way through the Rijksmuseum grounds and up past all the little art galleries in search of De Appel, a contemporary art gallery. Unfortunately, the gallery was changing exhibitions, so instead I made my way to the Amsterdam Bureau (Rozengracht 59), which had some interesting video installation work by Sakia Olde Wolbers, which were kind of futuristic monologues in the realm of virtual reality. The other galleries I had tried were all shut, I must be more organized next time! However it is hard to set a schedule in Amsterdam, as you feel like you just want to take each hour as it comes.
Next stop, the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht, a good time of year to be visiting, as the crowds are considerably leaner. You enter through a modern looking building to the right, and gradually make you way through to where the family had hidden away. I think you would really need to be on your own in this place to really get a true idea what sort of feelings and emotions these brave people went through. When you consider they never went outside for 2 years, and were cooped up in a small space, unable to make any noise during the day, in case the worker's heard them, you can only begin to understand their predicament. Having been to the concentration camp at Terezin just outside Prague, this did not seem as compelling, perhaps because it is almost too touristy. I think I will read the book, as I feel this would be a much better way to understand.
After a brief snack on Falafel's, I joined Ralph, Gina and Rich at Dolphins, where I had a much needed coffee. I have forget to mention, that coffee is delicious here, even out of machines. After this we made our way to the Red Light District, it was still light, but still bitterly cold. As far as I'm aware none of our group so far, had indulged in any of the services on offer, and I must confess I did a few sex shows last time I was here. I have to say, that you don't get much more than two people having sex, for what seems a waste of money. Call me a cynic, but its just the same in Soho, if just a lot more in your face. That said, there are a lot of lovely women on display, and you can't help but look!
We stopped at the ESPN Sportscafe on Oz Vooburgwal which is an English/Irish pub which show Sky Sports. We stopped for a few beers, before a group of Americans pleaded for the table, apparently there was a big American Football match on. Not wanting to deprive them of their game we moved over the road to another bar called Feel's Good. We stayed for a few beers before moving on, oh, and I forgot today was Ralph's birthday.
As is the case with Amsterdam, once you've done all your cultural stuff, you tend to navigate between bars and coffeeshops. I guess it was pure luck we stumbled upon the best place on our last night. At this juncture I can't remember exactly where this place was, only that it was in the Red Light Area. The place in question was called Fat City, and is a two level bar where you can smoke with 2 pool tables and excellent music ranging from techno to bigbeat. It turns out the girl behind the bar was from Beckenham, which is only 3 miles from Croydon, where some of us live. Anyway a major pool competition followed, perhaps due to the fact that we were the only people in the bar all night. Anyway all things considered a great end to the day and to the trip. We all weaved back to the hostel, where yet more cards were played, more spliffs smoked, Dave and Dan had an epic game of chess carefully watched by our Iranian 'friend', until only me and Ralph were left. I admit this was the first time this holiday that I have been in this situation!
Monday 15th January
Our last day, after returning our keys we all made our way out to find breakfast, we found this nice place for breakfast, I must confess I forgot to write it down, but it faces all the bulb stalls on the lower bank of the Singel. The rest of the day was spent doing mundane things like gift shopping, and playing yet more pool in Smokey's on Rembrandtsplein, by this time my energies in trying to write everything down had almost expired, I was beginning to yearn for the comforts of home. We walked up the Rokin, past a derailed tram, towards the station, the weather seemed to be getting colder and colder. The train was on time and delivered us at the airport with plenty of leeway. It was only when we were finally begin our ascent did I begin to feel a great sense of loss. Four days and four nights in a cauldron of temptation, I would say that it is perhaps best enjoyed in the summer, but at least you beat the crowds this time of year. Anyway a good time was had by all, a few people vowed not to smoke so much next time, but then I think you always learn from experience. It would definitely be the sort of place I could happily live, more for the pace of life, than everything else. If you recall the proverb of the hare and the tortoise, London is the hare, while Amsterdam is the tortoise, chugging along nicely, and coming out on top at the end.