Amsterdam: Catnip for millennials?
Its billed as the world’s most popular city with millennials. It is certainly heaving with them when we arrive at the end of our river cruise in the midst of the first heatwave of summer. Its the end of May. The thirty degree plus temperatures qualify as a heatwave here because the weather in the Dutch capital is notoriously overcast at this time of year. (It is known for having 200 rainy days a year.) The locals are making the most of the blue skies and sunshine, cooling their feet in the canals, crowding into the river side cafes and above all parading in all manner of craft on the water ways.
We join them.
If you’re new to the Dutch capital then the best way to explore the city centre is by taking a canal boat cruise to get your bearings. As well as being watery highways the canals are also home to a myriad charming and some not so charming houseboats. Many are decked out with window boxes full of sturdy geraniums, some even have floating gardens cunningly attached in wooden dinghies. The houseboats arrived in force during a housing shortage in the 70’s, they sailed in, docked and never left. Now they’re desirable residences and sell for a minimum of 100,000 Euros.
The canals date back to the seventeenth century. They’re reasonably shallow. We’re told they’re three feet of water, three of mud and three of bikes! Locals reckon they take four thousand of them out of the canals every year. Amsterdam is, after all, the biking capital of the world. There are a million bikes for 850,000 people. Cyclists show no mercy here …heaven help you if you step out in front of one …. they definitely have right of way and won’t stop for dopey tourists!
The general rule of thumb here is never park your bike after you’ve had a few. There’s absolutely no way you’ll find it again. There are thousands upon thousands of them parked cheek by jowl in vast open air parks. Its a miracle anyone can find their wheels in this organised chaos but it all seems to work perfectly.
Like that other famous canal city, Venice, Amsterdam is slowly sinking. It was built on swampy land and many of the houses had wooden foundations. The wood works well if the foundations are constantly covered in water but once the air gets to them they begin to rot. This is how Amsterdam’s famous dancing houses came to get their tilt ….they lean into each other, as if they’re dancing.
The lock keepers house (below) is on a spectacular lean but they reckon if you drink enough Heineken it’ll miraculously straighten again!
Cafes crowd the banks of the canals, these are the sort of cafes where your muffin is guaranteed not to have hash in it ….as opposed to the ‘Coffee’ shops which specialise in cannabis of all varieties.
Amsterdam is of course famous for sex and drugs. As you walk the city streets you’ll smell wafts of cannabis billowing out of the various ‘coffee’ shops.
The shops sell all manner of marijuana paraphernalia from seeds to oil and hash cookies. They do sell coffee and food too! Smoking cannabis is legal in the coffee shops. However the law is ambiguous because the production of, trading in and stocking of cannabis is still illegal. Confused? Basically the Dutch government sees cannabis use as a personal choice much like alcohol and cigarettes. You may smoke cannabis if you’re over eighteen and discreetly, in coffee shops. Hard drugs are definitely illegal.
On sex, the government has a similar view. The infamous red light district in Amsterdam has long been a magnet for tourists. When we were there it was alive with blokes from the UK obviously on their stag dos. Its best not to take photos here, especially if its possible you have girls in them. Their pimps can be particularly aggressive, we noticed more than one tourist sporting dubious black eyes. The girls sit in varying degrees of undress, but never naked, in tiny red lit cubicles with a single floor to ceiling window.
The red light serves two purposes. It obviously signals their intent but also its a kinder light to show their charms to best advantage. Every now and then we notice a prospective customer knock on a window and begin negotiations. Just so you know …. 15 minutes will cost you 50 Euros. The sex industry here is heavily regulated and unionised and all working prostitutes are required to have regular health checks. If you come across windows with blue lights, that signifies a transgender operator.
Its undoubtedly vibrant and interesting in the Red Light District. I’m glad I went to experience it but I found it quite disturbing. The girls are used to tourists peering at them but I felt a bit like a voyeur and their vacant, resigned stares were quite haunting.
Of course you can’t come to The Netherlands without seeing a working windmill. You don’t see them in the city but our Avalon river cruise is offering a trip to a Dutch village to see one in action. My better half opts for the cycle tour through the Dutch countryside, which he enjoys enormously. (Pix below)
Designated cycle paths connect the whole region. The fields are full of flowers and you’ll pass through centuries old villages. As my cycling’s not up to Dutch standards I opt to visit the village. Zaanse Schans is just a short bus trip away from the city. Its very touristy but I am captivated by the windmills.
I climb inside one of the most impressive which is grinding limestone blocks into powder for paint.
Its virtually perpendicular wooden ladders are smooth with age and not for the faint hearted but the climb to the upper level is well worth it. I stand on the open balcony gazing out over the surrounding countryside, flat as far as the eye can see, mesmerised by the gentle swish of the huge sails as they pass just metres from me.
You can see clogs being made here. Apparently the wooden shoes turned out to be the most efficient footwear for working in the boggy fields…. they stayed dry for one thing, and they’re also safe …. just like wearing steel capped boots.
The local cheese maker will also give you a brief insight into his craft …. so if you have limited time this is really a one over lightly of all things Dutch!
Despite the hoards of tourists this is actually a living village. People actually inhabit the tiny cottages here . Goodness knows how they feel about complete strangers peering in to their homes, but it must be lovely here when the tour buses leave. A vision of rural bliss. Well kept gardens criss crossed with babbling streams and rickety wooden bridges.
Apart from the windmills my favourites here were the second hand shops where I found wooden moulds used to make the spicy Specula biscuits my kids love so much. Great souvenirs.
Our Avalon cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam has drawn to a close. We feel strangely bereft without our beautiful ship to return to. We’ve become very attached to our luxurious cabin and to the new mates we’ve made on board. We swap emails and phone numbers and vow to keep in touch.