It is a city that does not apologise. It is uninhibited and frank, take it or leave it. Most do take it, because the level of candour which they come across in Amsterdam is rare and quite so refreshing.
Candour, cheese and cannabis make for a heady amalgamation in Amsterdam. They are such tangible commodities in the hip capital of the Netherlands that it would be quite alright to layer up the Dutch penchant for frankness with a hunk of golden Gouda and munch on it.
If you do survive the fast bikes in Amsterdam (let me know), you would find the Dutch propensity for frankness disarming as it is beguiling. It seeps into the very fabric of life in Amsterdam. We, in turn, let it seep in to us on a cold November weekend when we strolled along the canals, past handsome, gabled houses. In warmly lit rooms, people gathered around tables with glasses of wine and couples curled up in armchairs with books by windows remarkably untrammelled by curtains.
On a freezing winter’s evening, nothing feels more heartening than indulging in voyeurism. Then you hurriedly remind the self that staring is rude, and why, you must avert your eyes. Some put this no-curtain predilection of the Dutch to their Calvinist background which calls for an open disposition in life. But simply explained, they do not expect peeping toms, and in the old times, it is maintained, wives kept a light flickering at the windows for their husband to return safely from the seas.
You know it is as the Red Light District. The locals know it as De Wallen, the quarter which is home to Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam dating back to the 13th century, and the alternate sections of society who are not stashed away in the country. As we explored the area, sculptured tokens of acknowledgement of the sex trade stood out near Oude Kerk. From the cobbled pavements arose a hand in bronze groping a breast, and nearby, stood a girl in bronze named Belle, reminding the onlooker to ‘Respect sex workers all over the world’.
A German-born tour guide, Michael, who is part of a free walking tour outfit in Amsterdam gave us a succinct introduction to De Wallen and its ladies, including their minimum charges. “The prostitutes are freelancers just like I am. But there is a fundamental difference,” Michael pointed out. “They earn more. Also, they are tax payers with health rights and safety.”
In the network of alleys that made up the oldest part of town, women in minimal bits of clothing strutted behind red-lit window parlours with abandon, occasionally opening the windows to negotiate with customers. The windows revealed, in the backdrop, mini living rooms with lamps, mirrors and wall art. A particular style of prostitution that took off in the 1930s when women would sit behind windows, albeit fully clothed. They were preceded in time by ‘street daisies’, that is, women who sat in long dresses on the streets outside their houses for customers.
But there are more surprises in store for the first-time traveller in this quarter. Such as a condomerie. It is a sort of homage to the concept of safe sex and boy they customise everything, right from colour and texture to sizes and fittings. Then there are erotic museums, live sex theaters, sex museums, lots of coffeeshops where they do cannabis, not coffee you simple-minded thing. And at the end of it all, if you have had a drink too many, a ‘Hangover Information Center’. When I spotted that strange clinical place with men in white lab coats (straight out of the sets of a sci-fi film), in a space that was once a brothel, I remarked to the husband, “Now we have seen it all”.
In Amsterdam, Gouda is eternal. It will have you instead of the other way around. Pronounced How-dah, the gouda is a yellow product of extreme goodness made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk and is named after the Dutch city of Gouda in which it has been traded since the 12th century. When I sunk my teeth into the salty, aged varieties, I had struck gold. My chosen ones were mostly the crumbly aged kinds made from sheep’s milk and a gouda that is named after the Dutch queen, Maxima. The Dutch love their queen, more than their king, and that is enveloped in a bite of the cheese named after her. You can find it in the Amsterdam Cheese Co. Yes, I know, you should send me a gift in gouda for spilling the beans on it.
Beyond Cheese and Cannabis
There is a big beyond. Named Amstelredamme after its beginnings as a dam on the river Amstel, Amsterdam got its rights as a city only in the early 14th century. Though the dam was built by locals in the 12th century after the city was continually flooded by waters from Zuiderzee (it means South Sea but it is basically a bay of the North Sea).
The city’s past points to its origin as a small fishing village but by the 17th century Amsterdam was wealthy – it gives you an insight into the industriousness of the Dutch that it became the wealthiest city in the world at that time. Spice trade was its mainstay and it spawned the formation of the world’s first transnational outfit, the Dutch East India Company and subsequently the Dutch West India Company. The headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, Oost-Indisch Huis, still stands in the centre of the city, as does the West-Indisch Huis which housed the Dutch West India Company. Over time, the city spread itself out beyond its oldest part which is centred around De Wallen. I could not figure which city has more bridges and canals, Venice or Amsterdam. There is often an ongoing comparison between the two with Amsterdam referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’. I could surely have counted the number of bridges and canals in each city, but then I would have also needed a significant number of doobies to tide me over that.
There are some things you have to do in the city. Though I do not believe in must-do lists, here are a few suggestions:
A walking tour for a basic orientation.
Spot remnants of the city’s medieval, defensive walls that were torn down in the 19th century. You can see the first wall if you take a canal cruise. How to identify it? Some poor, unloved soul has decided to put out a marker by inscribing ‘Love Me’ on the wall in bold white letters.
This is the city of artists, so how can you not find your way to the Rijksmuseum, eh?
Wander into the Jordaan quarter that is just the most charming neighbourhood you will come across. It was a district for the undesirables during the 1600s when the city was a ironically enjoying a boom time. Immigrants, poor artists and refugees found place in the tightly packed houses in the quarter but now that very part of the city has been transformed into a chic, bustling hub peopled by artists. Beautiful, vintage boutiques and quaint stores add a peppy tone to it. During your walks in its quiet alleys, keep your eyes peeled for the inner courtyards that were originally built to house old women.
Bordering the Jordaan is Anne Frank House, which is an important place to get into not for any other reason but that we cannot and should not forget. If you would not like to faint from standing hours in a queue in the latter part of the afternoon for on-the-spot tickets, booking a slot online is a good idea. Also I shall send a prayer for you – that you shall not be tailed by amorous couples indulging in PDA in an atmosphere that can only make you choke up with emotion. Behind me were a couple who could not stop smooching and feeling each other up, loudly enough to make me want to turn around and look into their tiny brains.
When you buy doobies, do make sure you do so at a coffeeshop. Not on the streets of De Wallen. Illegal peddlers emerge once dusk falls.
Spicy Woks and Intrepid Strangers
I have to make a last note – which is this that you must walk into Wok to Walk. There are outlets of it all over town. They will spice up your food tales of the city and possibly make you chat with strangers. On a spectacularly cold day when icy winds had made the prospect of a spicy wok meal a welcome thought, we sat chowing on our respective plates when from opposite us came a laugh with the line, “I always do that to my partner.” Meet Ben. An Aussie from Queensland who was on his Grand Tour of Europe for a month. Stories exchanged with strangers are sometimes nuggets of gold which you would not happen upon if you were not at that place and at that time. Isn’t that quite a wonderful fact of life?
And do look left and right before you cross roads. Remember the way your parents would school you as a child about the dangers of not doing that? Well, that is a life lesson you will need to be armed with to evade the whizzing wheels of terror in Amsterdam.