- Andrew (and parents) - 1984
Rotterdam - Andrew - 1994
Amsterdam - Andrew - 2000
Amsterdam, Kasteel de Haar and Utrecht - Andrew and Jacqui - 2004
Rotterdam - Andrew, Jacqui, their Mums and her Aunt and Uncle - 2009
Rotterdam, Delft and Dordrecht - Andrew, Jacqui and her Mum - 2011
Click here for a more detailed map
The Netherlands, often incorrectly referred to as "Holland", is a small and heavily populated country on the North Sea. Much of the country is made up of land reclaimed from the sea and is very flat but very fertile, and can be seen at its best during the Spring tulip growing season. The far south of the country, in the province of Limburg, there are some hills and dramatic river valleys.
The capital of The Netherlands is Amsterdam, a City with a legendary laid-back attitude to life, but also one of beautiful canalside houses.
Together with Belgium and Luxembourg, The Netherlands is one of the Benelux countries.
Sluis is a small town (a very small town) literally just across the Dutch border from Belgium in the Zeeland region of the Netherlands. I visited in 1984 with my parents on a day trip the origins of which have been lost in the haze of time.
I have to admit that passage of time has also burnt away many of my memories of the town. At the time I was in the early stages of Doctor Who fandom, and was something of a zealot for collecting. I had heard that the Dutch had printed some Doctor Who books in their language and I was determined to make sure I bought one. Of course, I didn't realise that Sluis was quite as tiny as it was...suffice to say that after much struggling to explain to confused Dutch people what I was looking for I came home with no Dutch Doctor Who books! So one of my chief memories is of frustration and disappointment; which I'm sure is not really fair on Sluis.
however strongly remember the Windmill.
It was the first Windmill I'd ever been inside and can
as being very interesting, but hugely cramped as the Windmill is about
only tourist site in Sluis.
I travelled to Rotterdam to see Roxette in concert at the Ahoy. This was my first foreign concert and looking back on it, probably marked the beginning of my wanderings around Europe which have taken more of a hold on me since the end of the Castles Project with Roy.
I took a boat to Oostende in Belgium and then a train journey via Ghent and a change at Breda to Rotterdam. I had the afternoon in the town before heading for the concert. The Ahoy is on the edge of the centre of town and it seemed miles away to me, being still a bit green as far as foreign travel went in those days!
The Concert was excellent and
the Dutch certainly know how to party!
I don't remember much about Rotterdam, although I was only there in the town for a few hours really. I must have wandered around a little as I took this picture of the Old Town Hall. I can also remember looking for breakfast and eating one of the worst croissants I'd ever had.
My most enduring memory, oddly, of that whole trip was arriving back in Oostende for my trip home and having to spend a couple of hours in the town and thinking how nice it looked.
The last time I went to Holland it was to Rotterdam to see Roxette in concert; this time it was going to be Amsterdam to see Máire Brennan (the lead singer of Irish group Clannad) on St. Patrick’s Day no less.
Since I had been bitten by the travelling bug Amsterdam had been quite high on my itinerary; it was a place you heard so much about. It was also a place everyone seemed to like, so when I had the choice of seeing Máire in Liverpool, Cambridge or Amsterdam there really wasn’t much contest.
The adventure began by flying from Luton Airport for the first time (nice aerial view of Someries Castle). As the plane descended over Schipol Airport I found myself scanning the horizon - as one does when in the Netherlands - for windmills. Not unusually none came to view. I tried not to think about the consequences of lack of drainage due to windmill absence - Schipol is, after all, something like 15 feet below sea level. Schipol is a large and old airport, so it has none of the whizziness of, for instance, Stansted. No monorails carry you around, it is foot power and a lot of it that is needed to get around this airport. One big advantage, though, is that the train station is quite literally upstairs from Arrivals. The service is good and you are deposited at Centraal Station very quickly indeed. This was something I came to rely upon, the excellence of the Dutch transport system puts our own to utter shame.
As usual, my first thought was to rid myself of my baggage. My hotel, the Hotel Vijaya, was on Oudezijds Voorburgwal on the upper edges of the Red Light District. My second thought after depositing my baggage was to eat and then it was down to the Concert at the RAI auditorium, a maze of ugly concrete buildings which housed a very nice Concert Hall. The show was excellent, and it was appropriate to see an Irish artist on St. Patrick’s Day.
Not much else was doing this first day, it was quite late when I got back to my Hotel and I was quite tired, so I decided to try and get to sleep - something the crowds across the road in the Red Light District didn’t seem to keen on allowing.
It seemed a rather perverse thing to do on my first full day in Amsterdam, but I was heading out of the City! My destinations were Naarden and Muiden, on the southern shore of what used to be called the Zuiderzee but was now officially known as the IJmeer. Naarden, where I went first, was one of the most advanced fortified towns when it was constructed in the 17th Century. A couple of centuries earlier the whole town had been destroyed by the Spanish who had massacred virtually everyone who lived there. These elaborate star-shaped bastions, earthworks and moats surround the whole town in its entirety and are very impressive, although it is hard to get a good idea of their complexity without the aid of a helicopter (which I didn’t have about me). Naarden was utterly freezing cold. A few spots of rain hurtled at me sideways on in the cold wind which was quite definitely blowing straight off the IJmeer.
There wasn’t much else to hold me in Naarden, it’s a small place and it wasn’t ideal weather for wandering aimlessly amongst small and not very exciting shops. So I went back to the bus stop and headed for my chief destination; Muiden - more particularly Het Muiderslot, the superb moated Castle which stands at one end of the town. The Castle is beautifully preserved, partly due to its never have seen any action whatsoever, and although the guided tour was only in Dutch I still opted to do it. Thirty minutes of phlegm ejecting tour later I emerged to the astonishing sight of a few patches of blue sky. It was still absolutely freezing, but things were looking up.
For more details about Het Muiderslot, see the Castles of Europe pages.
I hastened around the exterior ditch of the Castle firing off photos, making the most of the brief sunlight. Perhaps I was hastening a little too much. When I came down off the rampart I failed to notice a low chain-link fence, at least until something pulled on my leg. As one does in this situation (rather than logically looking down to see what the obstruction might be) I tugged annoyedly at my right leg and then found myself pitching over onto my face. My fall was broken both by my outstretched arms and also by my camera, which was hanging around my neck. My arms ached for the next two or three weeks and I carried little bits of Muiden about in the skin of my hands for sometime afterwards. My camera - or more precisely the lens - was not so lucky.
When I had returned to Amsterdam I attempted to take another photograph. The camera, though, was having none of it. I took the lens off to examine it and tried to turn the focus rings by hand. They wouldn’t budge, they were stuck faster than the man in the Solvite adverts. The lens was, to use the vernacular, buggered. I was quite lucky to find a new lens, and a wider better one too, very easily, particularly as the next day was Sunday and the thought of not having a camera for a whole day would have been distinctly depressing.
I wasn’t going to do much more photography that day though. The daylight was starting to fade, so I went back to my Hotel and dropped off my camera gear and then went to have a look around the Red Light District, or the Walletjes, as it should really be described.
You hear an awful lot about the Red Light District before you arrive in Amsterdam. The various guidebooks are as coy as they can be about it, mentioning the coffee shops, the junkies and the window girls, but without going into any great detail. I am quite used to walking through Soho, but this was not even remotely similar. The first clue is the sex shops, whilst in London the windows are either whitewashed or very carefully veiled, here everything is laid out as if in a butchers window (in fact a few of the displays looked not unlike butchers windows, particularly the wide and interesting range of sausages). There is some irony in Amsterdam's coat of arms bearing the logo XXX!
Then you find the first window girls. For some reason I had assumed that they would be in upstairs windows, in fact they stand behind glazed doors (perhaps they should be called door girls instead). They also come in all shapes and sizes. They also mostly don’t wear very much, which I guess is kind of the point of it really. You very quickly get used to the tapping of fake fingernails on the windows as you pass by. The first few times you look around, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of not doing so. The whole area was absolutely packed and smelt very strongly of the sort of smoke that isn’t strictly legal. All this overwhelmed me a little, so I went off for a breather and something to eat, thinking I might wander back this way later in my stay.
The next day was still grey and cold. I had decided to go and see the Anne Frankhuis before the crowds turned up. I only just about made it. It was 10:10 and there was already a queue. For what is basically an empty building the place was presented very well and very movingly. I had made a point of reading the Diary before I came to Amsterdam, so I probably knew more than about 90% of the people who visit, who merely visit because their guidebooks tell them they had to. When I left the Anne Frankhuis the sun was, somewhat inappropriately, beaming down out of the sky.
I took the good weather to be a hint that today I should wander aimlessly around the canals. This I did with a certain amount of aplomb, wandering up and down Prinsengracht, Herengracht, Keizergracht and lots of other places with names that sound like expectoration (apparently the letters H and G and the CH combination all make a sound like a tuberculosis sufferer, hence the Grachtengordel, the main horseshoe shaped range of canals, is pronounced as Hccckrachhhcktenhhcckordel). Many a tourist could be seen practising their Dutch pronunciation, tissue in hand to wipe their chin of spittle. Through all this wandering I spent much time desparately avoiding death by cyclist, who come at you in complete silence from all conceivable directions...you soon learn to look left, right, forwards, backwards and even, just to be safe, upwards when crossing at any junction.
At the bottom of the Hccckrachhhcktenhhcckordel, sorry, Grachtengordel, is the Bloemenmarkt on the easily pronounced Singel Canal. The Bloemenmarkt is the world famous - and rightly so - Flower Market. Even this early in the year the Dutch love of flowers was evident, the smell and colour were a joy to behold. What it must be like in April or May I can only guess at for the moment. I purchased a whole lot of tulip bulbs, which were ridiculously cheap, and then decided to head back to base to deposit them in my room. On the way back to base I saw, for the first time, the famed Maghere Brug (or Skinny Bridge) one of many bridges of its kind in Amsterdam, but for some reason the one which the tourist industry has picked on to highlight.
The route back to my Hotel took me once more through the Red Light District, this time by day. I was obviously more used to it this time and didn’t feel phased at all. The women seemed more relaxed during the day, probably when there were less punters around. A couple of them chatted to me, although most conversations turned to business quite quickly. One girl stood out though, a really rather beautiful women from Delft called Annie who chatted for some while without even bothering to mention "the job". She bemoaned the lack of Dutch girls working the circuit, but said how much she enjoyed her job. She was intelligent, witty and had charisma. She surely did enjoy her job, because she could easily find other work if she so desired I’m sure. She didn’t try to get me inside her little cubicle, but wished me a pleasant stay in Amsterdam and went back to standing in her doorway waiting for business. This surprised me, but then Amsterdam is a surprising place.
I guess I should now put together some kind of paragraph condemning the Red Light District as degrading, etc., etc., but I’m not going to. Prostitution is always going to be around. Fact. It may be unsavoury, but it’s true. If prostitution is always going to exist then surely it is better done in the Dutch style, above board, clean, safe - the girls even have a union! This is a moot point which some people, I’m sure, will condemn me for voicing. Tough.
Back to the story. I arrived back at my Hotel to deposit my bulbs - tulips that I’d bought at the Bloemenmarkt, remember. Pay attention.
Then I went to find a canal boat tour. This was not a problem. They swarm around Centraal Station like flies on fresh dog shit (something else there is quite a lot of on Amsterdam’s streets). I got on a P. Kooij tour from the marina at the top of Damrak. It chugged out into the harbour and around the canals for about an hour. The sun shone through the glass roof of the boat, the amazing and unique Dutch architecture positively gleamed, the canals glimmered, bikes and trams sped over the bridges and all was wonderful. The Amsterdam effect was kicking in.
After this I went to the Holland Experience, a slightly disappointing multi-media exhibition type of thing. Then, having got the hang of the openness of Amsterdam culture, I took in the Sex Museum of Damrak which was, well, very open indeed but probably more fun if you happen to be a bunch of slightly pissed English blokes who could make lewd jokes, or a crowd of rowdy girls who could sit on the phallus shaped chairs and have suggestive holiday snaps taken - both of these activities were going on whilst I was there.
My last full day in Amsterdam started off brilliantly sunny. It was actually warm! My first stop this morning was the most local museum I have ever been to (in relation to my Hotel). Two doors up Oudezijds Voorburgwal is the Amstelkring Museum. When the Netherlands became Protestant, Dutch Catholics were forced to worship in private. The top storeys of this building had been turned into a magnificent and really quite large Church, known rather endearingly as Ons Lieve Heer Op Solder (Our Dear Lord In The Attic). Ironically, from the window of the top storey you could see across the rooftops of Amsterdam to St. Nikolaas Church, the church built by the Catholics once they were allowed to worship in public.
Wandering, again, back through the Red Light District I noticed one woman, who had been there on both my previous walks down Oudezijds Achterburgwal. She was sitting in her doorway, dressed in the customary lurex underclothing, with her feet up on the sill reading a book. I hadn’t seen her look up ever from reading this book, in fact I watched her for as long as I politely could, and she never looked up once despite the potential punters filing by. I wondered how she ever made a living if she never stopped reading.
I came out into Dam Square, with the Royal Palace and Nieuwe Kerk, and from here walked down Spui (pronounced Sssschpow, as in ‘cow’ but with a speech impediment). Leading off of Spui is a small alleyway into the Begijnhof. The Hjofes (little courtyards) of Amsterdam are small, formerly private, squares usually grouped around a central grassed area. The Begijnhof is the most famous of these, it was once a Nunnery owned by the Begijnen Order (hence the name). This was a most wonderful place. Just outside one of Amsterdam’s busiest streets was full of cycles, trams and people, here all was tranquillity. I noticed (and photographed) one row of eight houses in a row all of which have completely different gables. The Begijnhof also contains Amsterdam’s oldest house, one of the few wooden ones to have survived various city fires (although how fire could take hold in Amsterdam with so much water around remains a mystery to me).
Attached to the Begijnhof if the Historical Museum which I had a wander around. It was a little disappointing, as historical museums often are, but it killed an hour or so. I then had a break in one of Amsterdam’s famed Brown Cafés, in this case Café t’Smalle. Here I had Poffertjes, tiny fried pancakes with melted butter and icing sugar. Delicious, but not good for my arteries which I could almost hear squealing in protest.
I went from here to the Botanical Gardens, which turned out to be a better move than I had suspected. The main feature of the Gardens is the "three-climate" greenhouse. A massive glasshouse separated into sub-tropical, dry desert and rain forest sections. Whilst in the rain forest section I took a timer photo of myself, once my camera lens had finally unsteamed itself. This prompted a small owlish looking girl to ask me to take a photo of her. Naturally I obliged and we got talking. She was Swiss, which explained why I couldn’t place her accent, from Zürich as it happened. She was visiting friends and wasting a few hours before her train home was due. We wandered around the Gardens, part of which included a raised walkway which gave some interesting views down onto the palm trees. Then we went our separate ways, her south and me north back towards my Hotel once more.
This encounter was, in many ways, an indicator of the Amsterdam effect. Two people from notoriously stuffy countries had started to chat without any ulterior motives. I walked from the Botanical Gardens up the "outside" of the old centre in order to have a look at the remnants of the old city fortifications, Den Waag, the Montebaanstoren and the Schreierstoren, the latter of which being the "Weeping Tower", so-called because the women of Amsterdam would watch their husband’s departing to sea from here. It is now a café (as, indeed, is Den Waag). I found myself back in the Red Light District, quite by accident this time, and emboldened by the complete lack of anything threatening I took a few photos, even managing to capture some pictures of some window girls (although only in the corner of the picture, I was photographing the Oude Kerk - or at least if anyone had asked me I was!). To my surprise no-one rushed up to me and demanded my camera, nor tried to dump me in the canal. I decided to leave it at one or two shots, I didn’t want to push my luck.
Back at base I packed most of my stuff for tomorrow’s departure before going out for my by now traditional "floodlit wander". I almost always wander around whatever city I find myself in taking pictures of it by night. Amsterdam was a bit disappointing in someways, as the only things they floodlight particularly well are the bridges. Still I got a couple of very nice photos, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.
After eating one of the very best Italian meals I’d ever had (finished off with apple tart with whipped cream, which is rather unattractively called "slagroom" in Dutch) I decided to take the plunge. Putting my camera gear in my grey shoulder bag I headed into the heart of the Red Lights. Now I was used to the idea I could see that no-one here was taking hard drugs. Sure, stoned individuals were spilling out of the coffee shops, but I heard not one word raised in anger. A party atmosphere prevailed. The girls in the windows were joking and goading with the crowds of young drunk men (apart from "book girl" who was still deep in contemplating her book - I wonder what it was, it must have been a hell of a read). It was like a carnival, and I enjoyed the evening. When I, reluctantly, went back to my Hotel I thought about Soho, how I had often felt a bit edgy there, how squalid it was compared to the Walletjes. Hmm.
Just as I had really started to slip into Amsterdam mode it was time to leave. The next day I was up early and after a brief coffee in the Schreierstoren, I headed across to Centraal Station and back to Schipol for my flight home.
The bus from Luton Airport took me through Luton Town and a depression set in. How awful to see a town like Luton after such a nice few days. No wonder Luton Airport had never caught on…it had nothing to do with its distance from London, but rather than people arrived in England and the first thing they saw was Vauxhall’s massive ugly factory and one of England’s least attractive towns. As the bus drove down the M1 by Hemel Hempstead and Borehamwood I found myself wishing fervently that I was back in Amsterdam…what a city!
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