THREE TOURISTS ARE DEAD.
These were the first words I saw upon exiting Centraal Station in Amsterdam, proudly emblazoned on a flashing banner attached to a portable generator. The rest of the message – which cycled on a screen made of yellow LEDS – explained that these tourists had made the folly of purchasing cocaine from street dealers, not knowing that this was – in fact – white heroin. The implication of the message was clear; get your cocaine elsewhere. Severe though my addiction to cocaine had become on the three-hour bus ride from Brussels, I took this advice onboard and was able to avoid becoming a statistic – this time.
Amsterdam is too cool for me. I’m comfortable with stating this as a fact because I think this is true for any city which has accepted that people must have cocaine and – rather than discouraging them from buying it at all – suggests seeking a reputable source. But somehow, it’s also one of the most welcoming, friendly cities I’ve ever visited. I never feel talked down to in Amsterdam, like I sometimes do on the rare occasions I go to nightclubs or noisy bars back home – it’s all there if you want it, the city seems to say, and here’s this other stuff if you don’t. The Dutch themselves seem to have mastered a refreshingly relaxed attitude which goes well with their surprising willingness to speak a truly excellent English to dumb tourists. So no, we didn’t spend every night in a heroin-fuelled dance craze from which only the most hardcore ravers could emerge unscathed – but I guess I should probably talk a little about what we did do.
I think that it is quite possible that my stomach is still working on digesting all the food that I ate in Amsterdam. I couldn’t begin to guess what about this place might have made me so terribly hungry – perhaps it’s the beautiful architecture or the whimsical canals, or the stories of the terrifying raids of the Gestapo during the Second World War. There’s certainly nothing else that I – or anyone else not prone to unwholesome, offensive and frankly ridiculous assumptions – can think of. For whatever reason, the food there is extremely good and highly varied, and we spent no small amount of time wandering through the idyllic, gorgeous streets with handfuls of steaming fries, burgers, sandwiches, everything. It doesn’t sound like much in retrospect, but the promenade through this beautiful city is – genuinely – one of my most treasured memories of travelling in Europe.
Plus, I’m convinced that those chips from Febo must be fried in that white heroin everyone is always talking about.
As I sometimes like to do whilst away from home, I also jumped at the opportunity to endure a ritualistic humiliation in front of hundreds of strangers, where razor-sharp blades were waved inches from my face, my backside was heavily bruised and my only reward was being part of a group of people I never wanted to join in the first place. While it may sound like I’m describing becoming part of a college fraternity, I refer in fact to the absolute indignity of going ice-skating for the first time.
Still, you can’t fault the location – a gorgeous, open-air ice-rink in the shadow of the Rijksmuseum on a beautiful sunny day. Plus, the people watching – who actually seemed mostly to be Dutch, perhaps it was too early for other tourists – divided their time between cackling at my repeated fallings-down and praising me for my lack of cowardice. By the end of our time on the ice, I could mostly move around without help and had mainly stopped falling over. With many years of careful practice, I may one day do something resembling skating. Maybe. Probably not.
After the museum-rich time we spent in Brussels, we had decided to relax a little on the educational visits once we hit Amsterdam, but not long before we left, we discovered the Het Scheepvaart Museum, which is dedicated to the rich naval history of the Netherlands, which they claim was the foremost naval power of the Golden Age of Sail. I’ve seen both the British and French make the same claim in their respective museums – perhaps they should have a big naval battle to figure it out. The Spanish can come, too.
The museum is pretty great for anyone interested in naval history, both civil and military. It goes into an impressive level of detail, with artefacts like navigational equipment, recovered treasure and dozens of beautifully preserved atlases which – the excellent signage in English explains – were worth a dozen times their weight in gold for their indispensability as a means of charting a ship’s voyage. Each of them is unique and undoubtedly possessed inestimable value to their owners.
The complex also has a replica VOC ship – of the sort used by the Dutch East India Company – which can be visited to indulge the naval fantasies of the casual traveller. Being onboard made me think of nothing so much as Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, but my Assassin-like swagger was promptly interrupted when I hit my head on a low beam and saw stars for a few minutes. Very smooth of me. Then again, with Ubisoft’s programming, I’m surprised I didn’t clip through the ceiling and get flung into the stratosphere.
Ultimately, my second visit to Amsterdam left me with much the same impression as the first – it’s a beautiful place where everyone can find something to do. Yes, it’s true, the city is very cool and very welcoming to people who want to party nonstop, or those who are seeking every kind of debauched pleasure – the lack of photos of the red light district doesn’t mean we didn’t go, by the way, just the photos aren’t allowed – but it’s also just a great place to hang out, chill out, eat and be happy. And that, fortunately, suited us just fine.
To see a gallery of photos relevant to this post, click here. If you instead are filled with perverse curiosity about what the red light district resembles, watch this clandestine video that looks like it was shot by a chimpanzee with a walking frame. Next up, a horrendous eight-hour bus trip to London!