Walking and Cycling in Amsterdam

So, we’re off to Amsterdam. We travel overnight from Hull and I’m told we’re in an outer cabin; there is entertainment, there is also a bar and, the coup de gras is a casino. I’m not particularly a casino person although I have been involved with the organisation of ‘pop up’ ones for corporate events using pretend money and I have managed to make a lot more pretend money at those same events. Whenever I’ve had a bet using real money it deserts me like water in a desert so I make a mental budget so that if disaster strikes I can hit the bar with enough money to drown my sorrows then sleep.

Vondelpark Amsterdam

It’s Brexit day so all is well with the world and utopia is just around the corner – hmmm, right! I should have bought my Euros yesterday as the pound is having a few jitters but the result isn’t going to break the bank. I stopped the two hour footslog up and down the High Street to get an extra 60p when I realised my time was worth more than 30p/hour, I still avoid airports where I can though, that’s where you can really become unstuck!

Amsterdam Canals

The Pilgrim is getting quite excited and asks me if I’m taking a ‘proper’ camera. I have a couple of them and neither is light but there’s no restriction on the weight of our bags so in it goes and I must admit that the extra creativity that it’ll enable is exciting.

Hull is looking great in terms of flowers etc but I have to ask if they were late in being informed of the city of culture as there are road works, path works, holes being dug, holes being filled, scaffolding, drilling and stihl sawing nearly everywhere and with it the all pervading dust. The poppies are worth a mention though.

We arrive in Rotterdam to the equivalent of “good morning campers, hi di hi” together with some binging and bonging from a disembodied voice emanating from a speaker in the ceiling. I find it easy to go to sleep but I’m very easily woken so within milliseconds of the first syllable from the voice of god I’m sitting bolt upright with staring eyes and a heart rate over 130 even on the atenolol.

So, be warned, a North Sea morning call is not to be taken lightly.

The journey from Rotterdam to Amsterdam is nondescript in the strict sense that there is nothing to describe. The countryside is flat and varies from 1 metre below sea level to almost 5 metres below, so, I keep asking myself, why is it still land?

There are no bulb fields which is a little disappointing to me and I follow the example of The Pilgrim and go to sleep. Just 15 minutes later I awake to the sound of me snoring and see that one or two of the female passengers are smiling their sympathies at us.

As we begin to enter the city the size of the cycling population becomes obvious. There are thousands of them and they seem to outnumber the pedestrians and the cars. Over the next couple of days I’ll begin to appreciate their position in the pecking order of modes of travel. It’s great that they have such an important status but also unbelievably irritating that they have their own tracks and really don’t take prisoners if a pedestrian happens to walk on one of them. The trouble is that that they park their bikes on the paths reserved for pedestrians. There may be 30 or 40 bikes or there may be 100’s and they’re all parked and locked with huge chains thus blocking the path and forcing the reluctant walker to use the cycle track – QED!

We’re dropped off near the beautiful St. Nicholas Basilica which is near the railway station and guarantees that we’ll be able to find this spot when we return tomorrow evening.

It’s a 15 minute walk to the Hotel Estherea which takes us almost half an hour largely due to me taking photographs and both of us pausing to take in the wonderful sites as we cross huge open squares. We dodge trams that creep-up eerily behind us then ring their bell in the full expectation that we’ll hear it and get out of the way. No sooner have we avoided almost certain death by being hit by one of these multi-tonne silent monsters than we risk major injury from the cyclists. Whilst cyclists may not have the mass of a tram they do travel faster and will result in some significant pain and really nasty injuries in the event of a collision; however, they are also skilful and blessed with a combination of lightning fast reactions coupled with a psychic ability to see the future. I note there are no cycle hats or motor cycle crash helmets – by this I mean in the whole of the two days I spend here I see only one group of 8 who were wearing cycle helmets and they were being trained in the park.

The youngsters pass us two on a bike and the pillion jumps off to help push the bike over a hump-back bridge then hops back on again without a reduction in speed; there is constant laughter. Mothers and fathers carry their children on seats that are mounted behind them above the back wheel, in front of them on the cross bar and also on the handle bars and in some cases all three. There is the occasional tandem, always with the man on the front! Sometimes there are two or three wheeled bikes that have a wooden structure on the front, it’s a bit like a wheelbarrow and it carries anything from ladders and paint to human cargo such as three small children, all of them chatting and all of them smiling. No one wears a helmet not even the kids. This is a very happy and carefree city.

The hotel is wonderful. It was built in the 17th c on Singel and overlooks the canal. It’s olde world and wonderfully quirky. We both love the decor and The Pilgrim immediately goes into search mode for her ‘phone to photograph the fabulous chandeliers which are absolutely astonishing.

There’s some light banter from the desk clerk. He tells us that they’re full and we have to come back at three and would we mind taking our cases with us as they’re very busy and they’ll get in the way. Then with perfect timing he breaks out in a smile that will light a room, “Joking!”, he says. This is just before I go for his neck and The Pilgrim begins the process of trashing the chandelier… I pretend I’m adjusting my sleeve.

The room is excellent with more of the quirky decor and bathroom with shower and a bath, I like a bath although this one is for tiny people. I remember being bathed in something this size when I was a child. It was galvanised and was used mostly in the winter as there was no central heating and the bathroom was intensely cold. The tin bath would be brought out and placed on a clippey mat in front of the fire. It was then filled with a combination of water from the hot and cold taps in the kitchen. It runs in my mind that it was always a bit hot and I’d jump in and out of it just dipping my toes and chirping, “Ow, ow, ow!”. In fact, this was the performance whether it was hot or indeed, perfect. I do remember one night when I was sloshing water around by spinning on my bum and watching the bubbles rotate even though I was now stationary. I turned my back to the fire and made the mistake of leaning back against that side of the tin bath. It must have been a particularly well lit fire because that night I burned my back on the bit of the bath side that was above the water level. I cleared the other side in one bound and accompanied it with a scream that would have brought a social worker but I didn’t end up with a burn. My Mam had seen what had happened and had me under the cold tap in the sink before I could breath in enough air for the second squeal. She was a wise and wonderful woman was my Mam and I loved her.

We’re in and out of the hotel in minutes but not before The Pilgrim fills up with a piece of apple pie that is so big it had to the eaten from the sharp end to get it in her mouth followed by some excellent freshly ground coffee all on the house. Nice one Hotel Estherea another tick in the box.

We emerge blinking in the sun and begin walking randomly, the weather renders all plans for culture in art gallery or museum redundant and we explore.

Most of the canals have a variety of trees along their banks and they’re just becoming green. Amsterdam is probably a couple of weeks further forward in the season than Yorkshire, about the same as London and Kent. The trees are Elm, Plane and Lime with significant numbers of Poplar and others. There is a statistic of over 75,000 elm alone so you can see this is a woody city and all the more beautiful for it.

After an hour of exploration we decide on a canal boat trip and there’s a one hour excursion that we can take after a coffee and snack on the roof of a boat overlooking a motley row of buildings that look like they’re about to fall down. I read later that many of them are like this due to being built on wooden piles and they varied in both quality, length, girth and degree of rot. Things appear to be OK where there are lots of buildings together but where there has been additional work or they are standing alone they can adopt the most amazing leans to the left or right but also to the front or back or even a combination so, when you look at the photos, it’s not a lens aberration that you see, it’s real!

There is also the issue of their width and this is due to the original allocation of land being 5 to 7 metres in width to maximise the number of premises on the waterfront which was the means of access. The Pilgrim tells me that because the houses are so narrow the staircases are also famously narrow. This might seem difficult when you want to move house, but in fact, up to this day, people still use the hoist beam on top and the wide windows to move their stuff into the house.

We finish our snack and make our way to the quay side where our boat is poised ready for our trip. If you go to Amsterdam please consider an excursion on one of these boats, they’re informative and you get a different perspective on this beautiful city.

Towards late afternoon we do the tourist thing, a drink at a pavement cafe in the sun people watching. It really doesn’t get better than this.

A quick shower later and we’re out looking for a restaurant for our evening meal. We have two criteria, it should serves Dutch or Indonesian cuisine and we have two names on a yellow sticky supplied by a lovely lady in the hotel. We stop at the Haesje Claes Dutch restaurant and the evening is so warm we sit at a table outside. I go on a recce to trace the Indonesian whilst a beer is arranged at the Dutch. I come back bearing good news and after a little bit of banter with the waitress we pay the bill and make our way a hundred yards to Leantjil Tijger.

The waiter indicates a table for four that has two gentlemen on the inner side leaving the side near the path available to us. It’s standard practice to share a table in Amsterdam but we ask the occupants out of good old fashioned manners anyway. We’re greeted by smiles and open handed gestures that indicate a welcome and our English reticence evaporates. The gentlemen are in conversation and one of them, an American who clearly knows a thing or two about the food so we wait for a natural break in their conversation and jump in with a question about how we use the menu and the reply is poetic. Indonesian food is meant to be colourful and we’re advised to explore the Sundanese choice.

A couple of beers later and it arrives. There are 15 different bowls of delightful, fresh and colourful foods and initially it looks overpowering but the dishes are responsible for much of the space and the amount is just about right. If you’re an explorer with your food I’d urge you to try Indonesian.

An hour and half later and we’re on our way towards Dam square and a couple of bars later round off the evening in an Irish Bar, it’s only now that it’s chilly enough to force us inside.

Friday morning and a latish start with a promise to hire some bikes. The hotel has coffee which is all we require to nudge us towards a gorgeous day in the sun. We’d already decided on a bite to eat later and go in search of a bike shop. Yesterday they were littered all over the city and I dare say that today would be likewise but we don’t find one, well not immediately; but it does give us the opportunity to explore some wonderful narrow streets and a very special square where the properties are reserved for rent only to women. It has a wonderful history related to the conflicts of faith but the outcome is good and this quiet space in the middle of a very bustling city is astonishing.

We manage to hire some bikes and hit the road like locals, well not quite, we’re not as confident but the cycle paths make life so much easier and infinitely more relaxing for those on two or three wheels. We decide to go to Vondelpark but do it the pretty way by heading in the direction of the railway station first then we follow canals back through the city and entering the park via a detour past the museums.

Vondelpark is fabulous. The youngsters have taken it over and there are hundreds of them in small groups listening to music, making music, talking, walking or biking around the perimeter. There are lakes, trees, shrubs and cafes and when you mix in the weather the whole thing is idyllic. We opt for a hamburger and hotdog off the stall, I really know how to treat a lady! then lie on the grass to eat them.

The Pilgrim does a bit of litter picking and we set off again to do our own circumnavigation of the park and make our way back towards any of the offices that supply our bikes to return them and visit the flower market on the way back to the hotel for our bags.

The flower market is on Singel and is built over the canal with numerous stalls all competing with huge displays of fabulous bulbs, rhizomes and tubers along with all manner of other shrubs and plants. It’s a lovely experience to go there and if you’re not interested in plants there’s always the cheese shops in front of them.

We make some purchases and meander our way back to the hotel. It’s beginning to get overcast now and there are spits of rain.

The luggage is retrieved and we’re on our way to the pick up point, this time it only takes 20 minutes along the canal with the avenue of trees, through the stone clad squares and along the incredibly wide main streets to St Nicholas Basilica where the first of the buses is full and just about to pull away. We wait for the next and find ourselves in luck as there are two spaces left and we can have them.

Sadly our luck ran out at this point and we’re amongst a group of young men on a stag party one of whom is both pissed and has mental issues. It’s a long two hours and I’ll not describe it here but, in a previous life, I taught young men of these ages for 25 years and during that time, even when I’ve seen them drunk, I have never heard any of them quite as obnoxious as this particular gentleman and some of his compatriots especially with reference to their girl friends and wives, disrespectful and misogynistic doesn’t start to cover it and I dread to think how they’re treated. If this is a modern stag event then you can keep it.

Ah, well, they only spoil 2 hours, the rest of this break has been wonderful. A great city and wonderful company. Would we go back to Amsterdam, yes, we’re already planning it.

The up side:
Just before we disembark I bump in to the loveliest couple Chris and Donna and their delightful son Lucas whom we met the night before. Both Chris and Donna have a great story and Lucas is so wonderfully polite. He’s a credit to them and all of their English is superb. Lucas spots me in the corridor as we disembark and he addresses me in English yet again. Wonderful. I also get an affectionate kiss from Donna. Have a great day in the City of Culture all of you.

The voyage back included winning £14 on black jack which covered the £14 stake and I didn’t know that The Pilgrim had set this aside until this morning plus the act last night was a really nice lady who entertained us with some Tina Turner songs and some people in the audience who were incredible dancers.

Finally, we had the ordeal of British customs, only three passport officers to deal with a huge boat load of people but the officers who were doing it could not be faulted, bright and cheerful against all odds, well done them.

We then made a very quick visit to Thieving Harry’s cafe in the old harbour area recommended by one of The Pilgrim’s friends. The breakfast offering is exceptional and thoroughly recommended, thanks Emma Valenghi; great call.

Enjoy the snaps…G..x

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