A towering black man walks furtively behind me and surreptitiously whispers “hashish” in a rasping voice so deep, that another half octave lower would have ensured that only the local dogs heard the offer. Without having shaken off the effects of an overnight rail trip, and without taking more than ten paces from the platform of Amsterdam’s main rail station, I was still inside the grand 19th century neo-gothic building.
Directions to my cheap hotel take me straight through the centre of the red-light district (Wallatjes) and right near the Oude Kerk (old church). Scantily clad, overly made-up women parade their wares in the shop windows, trying to attract the passing pedestrians. The gentle aroma of cannabis (and probably more) wafts through the seedy alleyways, seemingly ignored by the local police.
Finally I locate my hotel and collapse on the soft but comfortable bed. I am not into drugs and I’ve never had the urge to pay for sex so what is this famed bohemian city all about? Surely Amsterdam has more on offer than sex and drugs.
After an hour’s repose and a decent breakfast, I feel ready to attack Amsterdam. A tour of the canals gives a great feel for the layout of this majestic capital city. Amsterdam sits like a flattened sea-shell, the mains streets radiating from the centre of the shell and the major canals arching in semi-circles across the streets. Numerous low bridges cross the canals making it an ideal walking or cycling city.
Though I’m not exactly an art aficionado, the Rijksmuseum holds the world’s greatest collection of Dutch art from its period as the cultural capital of the world. The collection is overwhelming, meaning many spend only seconds scanning rooms full of priceless Rembrandts, Vermeers, Delft pottery and more. Nothing can prepare you for the mesmerising Night Watch (by Rembrandt), easily found as it will be surrounded by crowds of people. It is a staggering 3.5 by 4.5 metres (around 12 by 14 feet) and is characterised by the lighting of the three featured characters (the other numerous people in deep shadow). Even those uninterested in art fail to be moved by this extraordinary artwork.
Even if feeling a cultural exhaustion, there is more at the superb, nearby Van Gogh Museum which holds a vast collection of his works along with displays about this artist’s most disturbed life (he chopped off his ear and committed suicide at 37 years of age). Almost as stunning as Rembrandt’s use of light, The Potato Eaters highlights a poor peasant family with their grizzled faces eating potatoes under the weak light from a single oil lamp.
Anne Frank’s house (non-descript from the outside) overlooks one of the canals and is where the Jewish Frank family (and four others) hid from the Germans during World War 2 in a secret annexe behind a swinging bookcase for over two years, until betrayed. The house contains a number of items from the time along with an excellent account of the period living in hiding. The entire family except the father died in concentration camps with the teenaged Anne leaving behind a diary presenting a moving account of these harsh times and which has sold multiple million copies (details from reading it at school come flooding back).
The day finishes with a visit to the Old Church (Oude Kerk) overlooking the red-light district. It is the finest of the many churches throughout Amsterdam, maybe as a penance for the apparent relaxed attitude towards sex and soft drugs. This 14th century church overlooks the glorious gabled houses and apartments, so narrow and deep, a throw-back to past times where the government charged property taxes based on the width of the building (note how narrow some of the buildings are in the lead photo).
There is much more to see in and around Amsterdam including Rembrandt’s house, the Heineken brewery, some of the Dutch clichés (clogs, windmills, dykes and tulips), some humming markets and the royal palace. But it takes little time to note that Amsterdam is far, far more than sex and drugs – indeed such a moniker does a severe disservice to this lively, bubbly, expressive travel wonder.