Travel Writings


A friend of mine who works in a photographic library, and who I incidentally first met in Amsterdam, received a telephone call recently from a client requesting photos to illustrate an article on the city. His immediate response was: “Do you mean canals and tulips and windmills, or sex and drugs and rock and roll?” All great cities have many faces, but few divide quite so dichotomously as does this Venice of the north. The greatest planned city of northern Europe is today one in which beauty and serenity co-exist surprisingly happily with its somewhat seamier underside, and both aspects of this split personality continue to draw visitors. (‘Dikes’ is the only term common to both sets of images.)









Most of the racier elements of Amsterdam have their origin in the city’s long and honourable tradition of religious, philosophical and political tolerance. Developing at a time when many countries were riven by conflict, a precedent for freedom of speech was established early in Amsterdam’s history. The notion of individual freedom of conscience was fought for, long and hard, during the struggles against Spanish domination in the 16th century. This belief stands firm today, with the caveat that no one should be harmed by the actions of others, a factor which sparked off the riots involving squatters in the 1970s.
My relationship with the city began over 16 years ago, when I lived there for six months, between leaving school and going to college. I returned there twice recently, on short business trips (strictly legal, I assure you), and it was interesting to see how much and how little had changed in the intervening period. Of course, I’ve changed too in this time, so things that were important to me back then may not necessarily be uppermost in my mind right now.
If you fly in, you’ll arrive in Schiphol, one of the busiest airports in the world, which still manages to remain efficient, clean and user-friendly. Half an hour’s train ride will bring you to Amsterdam’s Central Station. Like any other big city, accommodation ranges from five star to budget, depending on your pocket. The lower end of the market gets very busy in high season though, so it’s advisable to book in advance. Once settled in, you can start sampling some of the city’s many delights.
Favourite attractions, particularly for culture vultures, include the Rijksmuseum, with its extensive collection of Dutch masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer; the Van Gogh Museum, with over 200 paintings and 500 drawings by Vincent; and the Stedelijk Museum, the national collection of modern art, displaying works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Cezanne and Monet, to name only a few. These three museums are located adjacent to each other, in the aptly named Museumplein. The natural greenery of nearby Vondelpark offers a counterpoint to all this art.
Then there’s the Anne Frankhuis on Prinsengracht, former hiding place of the famous diarist, who died at the hands of the Nazis in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945. This museum attracts over 500,000 visitors annually.
For other people with different concerns, or maybe just the same people in a different mood, there’s the well-known Red Light District, focused around the Oude Kerk. It’s no surprise that one of the world’s principle ports, and the former centre of an extensive empire, should have a thriving trade in prostitution, which has been a feature of Amsterdam throughout its history since the 13th century. Today, the whole area is criss-crossed by a network of narrow lanes, dominated by garish sex shops and seedy clubs, and peppered with junkies, dealers and pickpockets. At night, the little alleys assume a rather sinister aspect, and it is not wise to wander around alone, especially if you’re female. But by day, hordes of visitors crowding in generate a festive buzz, and among the sleaze there are pleasant cafes, bars, restaurants and beautiful canal-side houses to be discovered. In some cafes the sale and use of soft drugs is tolerated by the Dutch authorities, if it remains discreet, though not in as many as was the case a few years ago, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re in the right place before lighting up, if you wish to indulge.
In general, most of the natives of the city, especially the younger ones, speak and understand English well, and are friendly if reserved. In post-punk 1981, I thought Amsterdam suffered from something of a hippie hangover, and the popular culture seemed rather dated. Today, with the emergence of the crusties - the true successors to the hippies - perhaps the city is once again fulfilling its role as a haven for nonconformist youth (and not so youthful) sub-cultures. Though you’ll still see far more Jim Morrison T-shirts around town any day of the week than is really good for your mental, let alone physical, health.









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