Amsterdam In January

The people of Amsterdam are tall, and good looking, like the buildings they live in. Wearing properly tailored clothes, toting their children, umbrellas held high and somehow also chatting on the phone while precariously steering a seemingly hundred year old bicycle with one hand, they calmly navigate the cobbled streets and bridges of the city, not a helmet to be seen or any sense of peril. I watch in amazement as a young mother approaches an intersection on her cycle. She checks both ways but does not slow down; she and her tiny baby, which she holds to her chest with one hand, rattle by and off into the evening. No one bats an eyelash. In North America she would be arrested.

Effortlessly, they traverse the roads and bike lanes that have been built just for them; the streets their ancestors crazily designed. Were they built as a subtle psychological device meant to mess with foreigners, to make them feel confused and inferior? It works. Surely, they sit, in their cleverly designed apartments, watching us peer at our dumb little maps, up at the street, back down at the map, squinting into the distance, searching for some sign of a recognizable landmark. There aren’t any; they have won.

For their part, the motorists seem to operate under as few rules as the cyclists. They, too, meander freely through the streets of Amsterdam with seemingly no rhyme or reason; a street appears to be a pedestrian causeway one moment, until suddenly you become aware of a Volvo creeping along behind you, politely waiting for its moment to zoom ahead and around you. One way streets run one way, then the other. Cars park on the sidewalk.

The result of this seeming madness is a lesson in how cars and bicycles really can co-exist in harmony, when a little bit of consideration is the rule. The confidence the cyclists display, the cool nonchalance, the “so, what?”, with their un-helmeted children hanging off their sides as they navigate the insane layout of crooked streets and bridges, is proof, that common sense can win.

To the North American eye, and the North American foot, unused to narrow, winding roads and uneven stone, Amsterdam can be an endless hell of cobbled street, canal, bridge, church, repeat.  You need a good, detailed map, which we didn’t discover until our last day when some kind soul finally handed us one properly marked with landmarks and street names, and we realised that our ridiculous, falling apart tourist map had wasted probably hours of our precious time, trying to figure out where the hell we were on it.

House of Bols

We did make it to The House of Bols, which we stumbled across on our way back from the Van Gogh Museum. It honours the oldest brand of liqueur and genevers in the world, and is good if you’re into booze, (we are) and better probably if you’re good and high (we weren’t). There are mirrors, everywhere, and some pretty lame interactive exhibits. But the reward is the super retro-kitch bar at the end (again, mirrors, everywhere) where you can punch your favorite ingredients into a computing machine and it spits out your ideal cocktail. Then a bartender makes it for you. Then you drink it. Other than that it seems like a thrown together way to get people to spend 11.50euro. Perhaps the fact that we were the only people there, surrounded by weird visual effects and LOUD techno music, and that we were practically running through it to make our canal cruise, contributed to the somewhat disassociated experience. The bartender was going to get us drunk, too.  Damn.

Canal Cruise

From there we ran, literally, to our very touristy and cliché canal cruise. It ended up being a night-time cruise, since we kept missing our departures due to getting lost, repeatedly, but it was absolutely for the best. The darkness hid the garbage floating around in little islands, and afforded us perfect, open views into the beautifully decorated interiors of the canal houses.  Voyeurs both of us, we couldn’t get enough of gaping straight into the artful homes lining the banks of the canals.  And the restored houseboats were so charming and cozy looking with their little smoking chimneys and patio furniture.  

Eden Amsterdam American Hotel

A friend had recommended it to us and, it being a short walk from the cruise drop-off point, we headed there for a couple of drinks before dinner.  Thankfully, it was huge, and therefore easy to find.  The grand old hotel was built in 1900, and the restaurant and lounge is cavernous, brightly lit with chandeliers, and genuinely art deco; a perfect spot to relax and pretend you’re a high society person in the twenties.  And who doesn’t like to do that?

If you make it to Amsterdam during the off season, you will find that many of the tourist spots are closed for renovations or simply not open, which is fine.  There is so much to appreciate, just in the architecture of the old canal homes, the design, and the quirky shops and cafes, that if you slow down and let yourself get a little bit lost (which you will, anyway), you will truly get a sense of the city that shuttling from museum to museum just can’t offer.  Dutch people have an embarrassingly good handle on the English language, and usually seem glad to exert their superiority by sending a lost moronic tourist in the right direction.  Be prepared to walk, a lot.  Have an exceptionally good pair of shoes. Seriously.

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