Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Back to my love city

My travels last week brought me to a place that was the destination of my first "major" hitchhiking trip more than three years ago - Amsterdam. I remember the excitement of heading out for Queen's Day, the Dutch national holiday, with my significant other and discovering the city together at day and night, marking spots I still remember, even after deliberately deleting all but one of photos from this trip. If I had to list 20 best memories in my life, probably around 5 of them would be connected with Amsterdam. Though times have lapsed for me, this is still my love city. Coming back, I set myself a mission to find the spot that became my cozy hotel for two nights in the beginning of May 2009.

From the very first moments in Amsterdam the weather had no mercy of visitors, so I directed my steps to the Museumplein; or to be precise - to Van Gogh Museum. Going there was one of the things I hadn't done during my first visit in Amsterdam; now there was no way to give it a miss - especially considering the fact that soon a major part of the collection will relocate to the Hermitage Amsterdam for over half a year.

The museum features the richest collection of paintings, drawing and letters by this tormented painter. Apart from paintings by Vincent there are also paintings by his friends, contemporaries, masters and followers. One can fully observe the evolution of van Gogh's art here - from dark, sullen tones of the Dutch period to explosion of color in Arles. Make sure to read the scripts adjacent to most of the paintings to enhance your understanding of van Gogh's art - in my opinion his paintings can only be fully understood if you're familiar with his biography. Due to the huge popularity of museum a better solution to save your time is to book your ticket online and head straight to the main door instead of waiting in the hours-long lineup. Photos courtesy of

The Potato Eaters

Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass

The Yellow House

Vincent's Bedroom in Arles

Portrait of Camille Roulin

Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background

Wheat Field with Crows

No matter how bad the weather might be, rain wasn't any excuse to stop me from doing something. I spent entire days wandering the tiny streets and canals. The very center of Amsterdam is small but discovering its hidden gems will take you lot of time. Amsterdam was spared major bombings during World War II, hence the street pattern and most of the architecture remained intact since the 19th century. You can see how the city spread throughout ages. There are four major concentric half-rings around the pit center: Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. Some buildings have an inscription telling when they were built - houses along the oldest canal, Singel date even as early as the beginning of 17th century.

The first thing that strikes when you look at the buildings within the borders of the old parts of the city is how narrow and tall they are. The reasons are historical. Property in Amsterdam was taxed according to the width of the building at the base. Taxes were very high, so in order not to get ripped off, people built houses that were wider on the top than at the bottom. Some houses in Amsterdam are so narrow they're easy to be missed, tightly enveloped by much wider neighbors, like houses at Singel 166, Oude Hoogstraat 22 or Kloveniersburgwal 26. Another house that appears to be very tiny is located on Singel 7, but it's only its frontage that is so narrow, the back is wider.

Singel 166

Kloveniersburgwal 26

Singel 7

Many of the houses are slightly slanting to one side. The soil they were built on was regained from the sea so it's very soft and unstable. Houses had to be supported by wooden platforms 13-15 m deep that tended to shift. Many houses tilt forward as well. Since the staircase is often too steep narrow to carry furniture upstairs, the houses were built this way on purpose to avoid hitting the walls by heavy objects pulled up through the windows. That's also the explanation for placing hooks atop each house to haul heavy things to the upper floors.

Another thing that can't pass unnoticed in Amsterdam is omnipresent coffee shops. The streets in the center are lined with both commercialized ones, like "Bulldog" and small private-owned ones, offering marijuana, hashish, ready-made joints, space cakes, magic mushrooms, marijuana growing kits and smoking accessories. It's only alcohol that you can't get there - it's forbidden by law to sell weed and alcohol in the same place, but some coffee shops ignore this policy. Though it's illegal to sell or buy marijuana in the Netherlands, the Dutch government turns a blind eye to it, claiming there are more important things to be taken care of than weed smokers who bring considerable sums of money to the national budget.

Despite this permissive attitude, Amsterdam might soon cease to be a paradise for weed lovers. A new law is going to be introduced in January 2013, stating that no foreigners are allowed to buy drugs in the Netherlands. This policy has already been enforced in May 2012 in provinces neighboring with Belgium, France and Germany, in order to avoid the inhabitants of neighboring countries popping over the border for cheap weed.

Canals of Amsterdam are lined with houseboats. Due to increasing problems with finding an accommodation in the capital more and more people go for floating houses. But you can also notice boats that serve different purpose. Many restaurants are located on a boat and there's a floating museum where you can have a glimpse on how living in the water looks like. On Singel 38 there's even a Poezenboot, the only shelter in the Netherlands for abandoned cats where volunteers take care of the strays. Worth a visit if you're a cat lover. There's no entrance fee, but donations are welcome and well-deserved - the workers are doing a really good job here.

Last time my venturing outside the very center of Amsterdam was limited to the northern part, full of green areas, easily accessible by free ferry across the IJ. This time I headed west and strolled along the diagonal streets and canals of a cozy district, Jordaan, once inhabited mainly by working class and immigrants, today one of the most expensive and desirable places to live in the capital. With its streets named by flowers, hidden gardens and doorsteps decorated with flowerpots, it lives up to its name, given by the Frenchmen in 17th century. I must have walked these streets a few times, always stumbling upon a tiny detail that attracted my attention.

Just like three years ago, I couldn't give the Red Light District a miss - both during the day and at night. During the day the oldest and most controversial neighborhood of Amsterdam in no way resembles the place it turns into when the night comes. It's hard to believe that these old, idyllic buildings house the biggest maison du jouir in the world. In the Netherlands prostitution has been legal for over 200 years. When it gets dark, this part of Amsterdam becomes louder and more crowded; the stupefying smell of weed wafting out from the coffee shops gets more intensive. Women dressed in revealing clothes sway like Shakira in the red-lit windows, straighten their hair, apply make-up, smother their breast and encouraging men to loose their ties. Fifteen minutes of their work costs the client 50 €; for every kinky variety they have to pay extra. Even the fussiest clients will be satisfied - you can choose girls of all colors of skin (allegedly there's even a native American there), slender and plump, young girls who sell themselves to pay for their study fees and elderly women who might already have grandkids. Sex oozes from every corner; everywhere you look there are video cabins, sex museums, live shows, sex shops selling all kinds of toys, condoms turned into art, fake boobs and vaginas, videos or whatever you name.

It's not allowed to take photos of prostitutes - or you might lose your camera without a warning. Before I heard that random people who notice you break the rule might throw your camera into the canal but this time I learned about even more dramatic way of parting with your beloved possession. An enraged prostitute might even get out of her cabin, tear it from your hands, violently smash onto the ground and stomp on it with her high-heels. However, I bet tons of men would love to see a beautiful girl get as furious as this.

The most bizarre thing about this debauched district is seeing families walking past the prostitutes with kids who don't care about naked women or strange accessories displayed proudly on the shopping windows.

Amidst this dégringolade there's sacrum one would never expect in a place full of sex and indulgence. Nevertheless, placing Oude Kerk in Red Light District had its purpose. In the old days, sailors flocking to the city craved for sex more than anything else in the world after spending months on the sea. During the night they could go wild with girls, early in the morning, feeling too guilty because of their last night's wrongdoing, they could confess their sins and feel free from worries... until the orgy started again.

If you look down, you'll notice a peculiar sculpture embedded into the cobblestone right in front of the church. It's a hand fondling a naked breast, placed here by an anonymous artist in the middle of the night in 1993. It's considered to symbolize every anonymous prostitute from Red Light District. In March 2007 a statue "Belle" honoring sex workers in the world was also placed in front of Oude Kerk.

Staring around at the architecture, I noticed stone plaques that were used to easily identify the house before naming and numbering of streets was introduced by Napoléon. I had a look at the tunnel underneath historical center of Amsterdam, the construction site of a new metro line. Every time I passed the Dam, I stopped to have a look at the creativity of street performers of all kinds, wondering how many of them came from Poland (the giant bubble maker?). In Amsterdam for the first time since time immemorial I went for a guided tour - a free tour offered by SANDEMAN's NEW Europe. My guide, Mattie, did a great job and listening to her talk passionately about her city I could feel how much she loves it. I truly recommend this tour to anyone who wants to amend their knowledge about this charming city. The have a great view of Amsterdam from above, check the rooftop of Science Center NEMO.

Thanks to my wonderful hosts, Arwen and Guido, I could experience Amsterdam like locals - on bikes, of course. I haven't biked since leaving Copenhagen over one year ago, where I used to take one of the free city bikes and swoosh on it for hours, sometimes even taking it beyond the center, which was forbidden. I was beyond myself with excitement when Arwen suggested biking in the northern part of Amsterdam and nearby villages.

Seemingly nothing new, biking in Amsterdam turned out to be quite different than in Copenhagen. Getting used to local traffic takes some time. In the Danish capital bike paths are usually an extension of car lanes, in Amsterdam you can often see separate bike paths for bikers going both directions. What's more, in Copenhagen I've never seen bike paths that create crossings or junctions. In Amsterdam even on a bike you have to behave like a car driver. In Copenhagen bike paths are very wide, usually around 2-2,5 m, in Amsterdam sometimes they're just wide enough to overtake another bike. They also have to be shared with scooters and minuscule Canta cars that have a sped limit of 45 km/h. In Copenhagen bike paths are very well-marked, in Amsterdam sometimes they're the same color as the pavement. Confusing the two of them is very easy for those who are unfamiliar with their appearance. That makes "How-many-foreign-tourists-can-we-run-over-in-one-day" one of the favorite Dutch biking pastimes. In Amsterdam it's very common that you choose your own route across the street, crossing it like a pedestrian would do. In Copenhagen shortcuts like this are almost never to be seen. (To find out more about biking capitals of Europe have a look at this publication.)

In spite of initial confusion I had a blast. First we biked through Vondelpark, a green oasis just a couple of blocks away from our hosts' place, then crossed the center, headed to the northern, residential neighborhoods of Amsterdam, biked along the shore of some islands, got to a small harbor where Arwen stores her boat, saw some Dutch countryside in Nieuwendam and took the ferry back to the center. 31 km in total!


If you want to go local in Amsterdam, head to
MacBike for cheap bike rentals or befriend a Dutch person - in a country that has more bikes than people you'll always find a spare two wheels for yourself.


And what about the quest? Well, I had bittersweet feelings when I stumbled upon the pizzeria where we drank our whiskey with the owner, the spot by the IJ where we downed the bottle and observed the orange party that was taking place on the boats, the background of our first photo in Amsterdam together (I even remember which clothes I wore then), the bus stop where I ate peanut butter with a knife straight from the jar, the playground where I swung barefoot on a tire swing, the park where we went too wild and I told him that kids were staring at us and he ignored my remark, saying they should learn from the masters... But I never managed to find the canal with a weeping willow. This love story ends once and for all but my love for the Dutch capital retains.


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