Amsterdam calling

Amsterdam is often called “The City Of Sin.” The only difference is that in Amsterdam, “sinning” is legal.

Sascha Akhtar November 29, 2010

Amsterdam is often called “The City Of Sin.” Incidentally, I have heard every metropolis of the “civilised” Western Hempishere called the same; New York, London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, you name it. The only difference is that in Amsterdam, “sinning” ­­­is legal. But you knew that of course.  In fact, for an enormous proportion of the world, the word, “Amsterdam,” conjures up visions of a utopia of the forbidden. So if you’re reading this, you know exactly what Amsterdam stands for and belong to one of two sets of people in the world; those who have been there and those who haven’t and are dying to.

However, I find this to be a rather narrow view of both Amsterdam and the Dutch people. Geert Wilders aside, what I find the most intriguing local delight of all is the aroma of a highly rational, progressive society. On a recent trip to “The Dam,” as those in the know call it, I re-kindled my love for this nation.

When I was a teenager growing up in Pakistan I used to envisage backpacking through Europe, hopping on and off the Eurorail like teenagers on (American imported) TV. Alas, this was not to come true, for I soon discovered just how complex a fantasy that was. Yes, now there’s the Schengen, which still isn’t easy to get if you’re Pakistani, but in the 90s to swan about footloose and fancy-free on the Eurorail “like Americans” required a separate visa plus fee for every single country you planned to visit.

So that never happened, and this trip to Amsterdam then was the first time I was able to board a train and end up in another country. I waited 18 years for this, and recommend it highly to anyone travelling to the Netherlands via the UK. Doing away with the nerve-wracking experience of flying is the best thing you can do these days. You don’t have to worry about luggage and the journey amounts to no more than four hours in total.

There is something very grounding about travelling by land. I admit I was nervous about going under the sea through the Channel Tunnel, but it was over before I knew it. As I got out at Centraal Station, minus the palava that accompanies arriving at an international airport, I felt expansive with a sense of freedom. If you are a “traveller” like me as opposed to a “tourist,” you will do what I did: I found accomodation away from the hotspots of Rembrandtplein, Leidseplein and Dam Square, which is the town square in the city. There is no joy to be had in visiting the Times Square and Leicester Square equivalents of a city such as Amsterdam for it is infinitely smaller than either New York or London with a disproportionately larger number of people in it at any given time.

Amsterdam is tourist destination Number One for obvious reasons. This makes for an unpleasantly crowded city 90 per cent of the year. There is no official off-season, but unofficially April/May and August/September are months that provide a less-mobbed metropolis for your roaming pleasure. Don't go to Amsterdam in December like I did the first time I visited a few years ago.

December in Amsterdam is absolutely frigid, and I had the pleasure of experiencing (whilst trudging through it on foot) Amsterdam’s first snow blizzard in something like 15 years. So don’t do it. Yes, New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam may sound like a hoot, but trust me, it is far from it, unless of course you’re 18 (or an adult who never grew up) in which case all you care about is yelling “ Whoa!” and “Aweesommme” really loudly, not noticing the sub-zero temperatures. This is no dig. I was 18 once too, and it was great, but now I confess I would rather be warm and not surrounded by a seething global mass of totally wasted tourists puking on my shoes.

But back to places to stay. If you have the funds, Jordaan is hands-down the best neighbourhood you could stay in. It’s not too far from the centre, but it’s far enough that you aren’t forced to engage. Most streets and canals in the Jordaan are named after trees and flowers, and its name is thought to be derived from Jardin or garden in French. The area has a high concentration of hofjes (inner courtyards), many of them with restored houses and peaceful gardens. The house where Anne Frank went into hiding during World War II is located on the edge of the Jordaan, and Rembrandt spent the last years of his life here. So you’d be in good historical company, and the most artsy coffee shop of the Rokerij chain of 4 is located here. I have spent many an hour as a flâneur on the Jordaan streets, only to find myself led to this Rokerij with its Buddhist inspired artwork from floor to ceiling and grotto-like lighting.

I got a package deal on a new hotel called The Fashion Hotel, which I settled for as I found nothing as cheap that wasn’t a total dump. Despite its rather ridiculous name The Fashion Hotel actually turned out lush. It’s not in the centre, which is what brings the price down since staying right next to say, the Red Light District or the Old part of the city is what most people do. This hotel, though, is pretty much a five star hotel at three star rates.

I am gaga for the Dutch view on cycling. To my mind, a utopian society consists of no cars, only bicycles. The morning after I arrived, I got straight to finding a Dutch bicycle rental shop and as luck would have it the hotel rented out bicycles. Perfect.

Some believe the heart of Amsterdam to be the Old Market or the area that includes Warmondstraat (Straat means Street in Dutch) and Damstraat. That may be where the visitors flock, but the true heart of Amsterdam is Vondelpark. It isn’t large compared to other parks of acclaim — it doesn’t even boast splendid feats of gardening, sculputure or fountains, but it has a little of all these things and there is nothing better than using Vondelpark as a throughway when exploring the city of Amsterdam gets hectic.

My first morning in the city, and every morning after, I would leave the clean and quiet Fashion Hotel on my bike, enjoy a leisurely ride through Vondelpark, then voila at the other end of the park was all the hubbub of the city, and most importantly, a host of breakfast opportunities. One must eat a pancake in Amsterdam at least once, and of course the waffles laden with ice-cream, bananas and syrups. Chances are that after having knocked back a nice “coffee,” at an Amsterdam coffee shop, those waffle stands helpfully parked everywhere will be a most enticing destination… a word to the wise, if you have rented a bicycle you must remember where you’ve parked it before you enter a coffee-shop.

Drop a pin on the Google map application on your Iphone because I can guaruntee you will not for the life of you find it once you have tried all the available flavours of “coffee”. That said, you may find you are incapable of getting back on a bike at all… So be safe, we aren’t all cycling experts like the Dutch. The pathways between the canals are narrow, cobbled and shared by transport vehicles, cars, pedestrians and bicycles, so seeing a person in heels, talking on her mobile phone with one hand, clutching one handlebar with the other and weaving in and out of traffic is applause-worthy. Enjoy the freedom to bike, but don’t get killed, or worse, mocked!

Amsterdam is a city in which being a flaneur is rewarding. However, loafing around also needs to be planned. If you want to have a post-coffee shop stroll avoid walking through Leidseplein, or you might find yourself bewildered in the crowds. Plan a route that goes in a zig-zag around the concentric circles of Amsterdam. Sure, going straight down may be quicker, but if you are a true flaneur and want only to roam, you should be in no hurry. The city is laid-out in ever-growing half circles which is fascinating, and if you carve a path for yourself instead of relying on tourist maps telling you where you must go, you will discover off-the-beaten path streets that have the most charm and are less populated. I recommend Kerkstraat on which you will find a fantastic comic book store that sells speciality postcards, the best tattoo shop in Amsterdam Vibe Tattoos, and another coffee shop called The Dolphins that is one of the few with comfortable seating and vibrant murals.

Whilst sauntering, keep a look-out for street art, which is some of the best I’ve seen. Amsterdam municipality has an interesting approach towards graffiti artists, trying to decriminalise the whole activity by creating legal opportunities and places to paint. Head to Spuistraat to get a good eye-full. Afterwards, go to Hill Street Blues on Warmondstraat to round off. Every wall, table and door is covered in tags and graffiti accumulated since it opened, and they play the best drum and bass. The big museums are of course always an option, such as the Van Gogh Museum, the largest collection of his paintings, but if you want something contemporary pop into The Walls, a new gallery on Prinsengracht home to fresh Dutch art.

The canals of Amsterdam are its greatest feature and are worth exploring. Vouchers offering discounted cruises are available everywhere. One thing to watch for as you are gliding down the maze of canals (grachten) are the narrow dollhouse-like 17th century Dutch buildings.

Whilst exploring the city on foot, the best place to eat is MAOZ. It is a fast-food falafel place that is actually like a noodle bar. You can pick from an array of delectable toppings and condiments to go with your falafel, everything is fresh, and they have a multitude of phenomenal chilli sauces and salsas. There is no excuse for resorting to McDonalds or Burger King on this trip- just go to MAOZ at Muntplien where for 5 Euro you can have a hot, delicious meal that won’t leave you feeling ill afterwards.

After a refreshing canal-ride, getting back on your bike is wonderful. Next, you can go shopping; there are some great French labels in the city like Comptoir De Cottonier, and a funky designer jeweller Thomas Sabo that is worth a check-in, and you can go clubbing if that’s your thing but I would recommend staying away from Paradiso and Melkweg which is where all tourist guides tell you to go. See what’s on at the SugarFactory instead. If you want a full-on glamorous club night go to Jimmy Woo which is based around the concept of a fictional Chinese Triad tycoon who enjoys throwing extravagant parties in his opulent, Oriental-style lounge. It’s loud, it’s large and a celebrity haunt. But to truly enjoy your time in Amsterdam, do as the locals do and chill, slowly. Spend a week on your bike, find a windmill, get totally lost, and then find yourself again…

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2010.


SinghS | 10 years ago | Reply I am a bit late for commenting, but I really enjoyed this writeup! I am also glad you were able to enjoy some fine uh......'coffee' in the 'Dam! More power to you :))
NQ | 11 years ago | Reply Wow!!! Beautifully written, now I want to go to Amsterdam so badly.
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