Winter always calls for some festive travels with my friend Holleigh. Previously we’ve done winter breaks in Frankfurt and Marrakech; this year it was Amsterdam. Our friend Stimps also came along for the ride this time.
It has always bothered me how few of the countries that are so local to Great Britain that I’ve visited. The Netherlands particularly which is probably linked to a passion I have for some of their national footballers (Dennis Bergkamp in particular) and therefore wanting to know what their home country is like. Odd, I know.
Anyway, in line with my general travel planning habits, I booked some cheap flights with Easyjet on a whim and sent a message to numerous friends asking if they would like to join. And voila! A pre-Christmas Amsterdam trip was on the cards for a princely flight cost of £68.
Fast-forward a couple on months and we’re at Gatwick airport having a pre-flight pint (Brewdog IPA, yum yum), enjoying a catch-up as we do not see each other nearly as much as we should. We finish our pints swiftly but on the way to the gate we hear the final call for passengers for our flight. Oops! Cue running through the remaining airport corridors, a moment of fear as we approached the desk and thought it was too late, and then finally into our seats. Not quite the relaxing start to the festive frolics as we had expected! Further transport issues in the Netherlands when we got on the right train to get us to Amsterdam Central, but managed to get off a stop too early.. I promise I’m normally a lot more organised for these escapades.
We stayed in the Floris France Hotel which was just off Oudezijds Kolk only a few minutes walk from the train station and the red light district. It was a basic but well located hotel with a good continental breakfast in the Irish pub next door. As with all European cities there was a plethora of Irish bars, and miraculously we managed to frequent three of them!
On the Friday evening we went for a short wander around the streets adjacent to our hotel and started to appreciate the distinct “toothy” nature of the buildings alongside the canals. They really do look like poorly aligned teeth; all crooked and leaning sideways or forwards! Our meandering led us to a small Italian restaurant where we stopped for food. I’d love to tell you where it is as the food was delicious, but unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the place and a little poking around on Google street view hasn’t helped me. One bad part of this is that mid-way through the meal Stimps realised that she had been a victim of pick-pocketing; we had only been in the city for 3 hours! All of her Euros and Pounds, train tickets and bank cards were gone. Thankfully her passport and plane ticket were still in the hotel, but of course this put a shadow over the weekend. After going back to the hotel to cancel Stimps’ cards we decided to have a couple of quiet pints in the pub next door. Struck up conversation with a very drunk British expat and his dutch colleague which provided some entertainment for the night.
On Saturday we managed to see quite a bit more of the city. The only pre-trip planning we had done was to book tickets for the Anne Frank House Museum and I am glad we did. We skipped straight to the front of the queue to enter at our allotted time. By the time we left an hour or so later the queue to get in was down the street and round a corner, and this was mid-morning! The tour of the house itself was very interesting; I did not know any of the specifics of the house or the story of the people who helped the Frank family and their friends during their two years in hiding. The size of the secret annex surprised me; admittedly it was left unfurnished at the request of Otto Frank, yet it still seemed bigger than I had expected. However, the rooms are made to feel as dark as they were when they were being used and it’s unfathomable to think how eight people managed to stay holed up in such dark, close quarters without being able to ever go outside. It was a slow tour because of the number of people visiting the house, but that added to the sincerity in the atmosphere. There was no way to escape, which gave me time to feel the emotional reaction to the atrocities that went on during WWII, not just to the Frank family but also to the other millions of people who lost their lives. I’m not ashamed to say tears welled up more than a few times.
We walked a lot on Saturday; from Dam Square to Museumplein to see the iamsterdam sign and onto Vondelpark. We then decided to head back into the centre and ambled around turning left and right as we wished. We ended up ambling in a big circle, but meant we were able to see lots of different residential areas as well as the usual touristy haunts.
One lovely hot drink stop and another amble later and we embarked on a mini pub crawl. Basically we decided to stop in pubs which had a Heineken sign outside whilst we headed back to the hotel to freshen up. After one such stop with an overly friendly (and likely high) cat we stumbled across a gem of a pub on Spuistraat, but again I have no idea what it was called. What made it a gem was that it had a host of fine craft beers including some from the Brouwerij ‘t IJ brewery one of which is now one of my favourite beers! Also, the owner only spoke broken English which is really refreshing! The night continued with some average fast food, more craft beers and chat with friends.
We also took a wander through the red light district as on the previous night we had only seen it in the early evening and we wanted to see it in full swing. Not that we really knew what to expect apart from women standing half naked in windows. And that was pretty much what it was. It felt very odd observing these women. I couldn’t help but wonder why they are there: is it out of choice or something more sinister? I fear it is the latter, despite the legal status of prostitution in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, I did not manage to have a conversation about this with anyone from Amsterdam as I am genuinely intrigued by the industry.
Our final day encompassed a lie in followed by our planned walk to explore the east of the city. It was not particularly inspiring; all generic architecture or industrial buildings depending on which area we walked through. We walked down Entrepotdok on the way to the windmill; I was shocked by how one block of flats could be so wide (200m+) but impressed that each section was named after other places in the Netherlands (I think…). The windmill was lovely and juxtaposed well against the industrial buildings surrounding it. My treat was that the Brouwerij ‘t IJ brewery was right next door! Sadly, it is undergoing refurbishment until April 2015 so no tours were available and we were there in the morning so the bar was not open, but should I ever return to Amsterdam I will be sure to go back there!
We then headed back to the centre via the docks. There were some magnificent ships in the harbour outside of the Maritime Museum which made for a lovely photo opportunity. We then climbed the stairs to the roof terrace on top of the Nemo building to get a view of the city. It was at the top of that building that we realised just how flat Amsterdam is and that the only workout our thighs had had were from walking up the steep, narrow stairs in various buildings we had frequented!
All in all I enjoyed my weekend in Amsterdam. We all enjoyed the laid-back attitude that emanates from all corners – expect perhaps when you’re a poor tourist who almost gets squished by one of the thousands of cyclists! It was strange how quiet it was; compared to other European cities I have visited Amsterdam seemed a bit dead at times. Certainly walking around in the morning or in the parts of the city that are not particularly touristy it would not be uncommon to be the only people on a street. Very serene, but also quite eerie at times. I had a great weekend with friends, but Amsterdam has not captured my heart this time.