Roy and I spent our annual week abroad in Amsterdam this year. We’d spent a few hours in this most civilised of cities in 2012 on our epic journey back from Corsica, a journey which involved two days of dragging ourselves around airports, including a night spent on the Hardest Chairs Ever at Marseilles Airport, and three flights, each of only about forty to forty-five minutes. Roy thought this option was preferable to getting up at 3am to catch a flight to Paris and from there to London, but after thirty-six hours or so on the road it was obvious that we’d been mad to pick the Ajaccio-Marseilles-Amsterdam-London route home. Corsica really isn’t that far away, it really isn’t, and it really shouldn’t take two days to travel just over 1000 miles in this day and age. Anyway, after a sleepless night in Marseilles, we ended up at Amsterdam Airport at 8am or thereabouts, and our flight to London wasn’t until about 4.30pm, so we got on a train and spent a few very happy hours in the city. We found a café where we ate fried eggs and drank beer, and the first thing we did on arrival in Amsterdam this year was to find that very café and order the same. Marvellous.
We’d booked ourselves into Amsterdam’s Botel: it’s a boat, but it doesn’t travel anywhere and it serves as a hotel – hence Botel! The Botel can be reached by a regular – and free – ferry service, and the crossing takes perhaps ten minutes. The rooms are basic, but reasonably priced and they come equipped with everything you might need. Breakfast is served until 10am which is just what you want when you’ve made a bit of a night of it: time for an acceptable lie-in before nursing your hangover with coffee and more eggs. Here’s the Botel by night:
Not content with sleeping on a boat, we also dined twice on a boat. The floating restaurant pictured below is moored opposite the Botel and it provided us with a wonderfully quiet alternative when we succumbed to fits of middle-agedness and decided that we were too tired to cope with an evening in the frenetic centre of Amsterdam:
Obviously, the first thing anyone notices about Amsterdam is the number of bicycles. Everyone cycles everywhere, and this is a city in which the cyclist rules. The cyclist has priority: motorists are obliged to accommodate those on bicycles, and they do so with a good grace. Every cyclist makes free and frequent use of their little bicycle bells (compulsory in Amsterdam, even on racing bikes) and the pedestrians make way – again, with a good grace. Cycling is by far the best way to see Amsterdam and it’s easy to hire bikes. The brakes on these hired bikes operate when you back-pedal which is an easy and effective way to control your speed, but it does mean that you can’t flip the pedal up to a starting position and this leads to some ungainly waddling before you can get yourself in a position to push down on the pedal and speed off again.
Here I am, trying to be as Dutch as possible, standing with my hired bike in front of a windmill:
Amsterdammers are experienced and elegant cyclists and they seem to have developed the most incredible sense of balance. I was first amazed at the sight of a girl cycling at speed with an acoustic guitar tucked under her arm, but I soon learnt that this feat is mere child’s-play in Amsterdam. Many of the bicycles we saw were equipped with as many as three little baby seats, so the cyclist can deposit the smallest baby on the handlebars, another, larger, child on a seat in front of the saddle, and the biggest child behind. People were cycling gracefully on bikes overloaded with their friends and their dogs and their friends’ dogs, all piled up any old how. I half expected to see someone come cycling around the corner balancing a long wooden plank and a huge sheet of glass, and to be honest, that really wouldn’t have come as a surprise. Here’s one of the more aesthetically pleasing bikes we saw amongst hundreds and thousands of bone-shakers:
And here’s a bicycle made out of bamboo!
Amsterdam also has much to offer in the way of art galleries, including, of course, the newly-opened Rijksmuseum. If you get the chance – go. It contains an embarrassment of riches (which is the title of Simon Schama’s book about Dutch art, and very apt that title is too).
Here I am in the paddling pool outside the Rijksmuseum:
You can just see me peeking through the sculpture there. I’m afraid I forget the name of the artist – all I remember is that it was about thirty-one degrees that day and we were so glad to be allowed to take our shoes off and ease our baking feet into that cool water. Here I am again, just about to cycle along the world’s most expensive cycle path, running through the Rijksmuseum:
The reason this path turned out to be so costly is that the architect was obliged to redraw all the plans once the Amsterdammers discovered that the new intended design for the Rijksmuseum meant that the cycle path running through it would have to be diverted. The cyclists disapproved of this and eventually got their way: the plans to divert the path had to be scrapped and new plans for the museum drawn up…and here is that path, still going directly through the museum:
We also made the trip to Haarlem to visit the Frans Hals Museum where we enjoyed the animated expressions of Hals’ lovely portraits, including that of the lutenist:
And here’s Roy being the lutenist:
And now me:
(This doesn’t work as well for me, because I’ve got a stupidly small kiddy-sized head.)
One more art gallery: we also made the trip out to The Hague to see the Gemeentemuseum, which is at present home to much of the collection of the Mauritshuis, the latter being temporarily closed to visitors. The Gemeentemuseum has a sort of swimming pool aesthetic:
…and again, it is an absolute must if you’re ever over that way. The stuff they have there is just amazing – so much to see, so many famous paintings! But I’m afraid The Girl with the Pearl Earring is currently on tour – she’s in New York – so you won’t see her in the Netherlands for a while. Roy was quite cross about that, but y’know – that sort of thing is what the Internet’s for, innit?
Before we left the Gemeentemuseum, Roy took this pic of me there, and he thinks I should use it as an author photo if I ever manage to publish something on Muriel Spark:
I quite like it. I’m sure I could justify its use with some guff about how the windows within windows represent the intricacies of discourse and the essentially refracted nature of communication, that sort of thing…
Well, look, the slideshow’s nearly over. Just one or two more. Roy developed an enthusiasm for the ‘selfie’, and this is the most acceptable of them, partly because I have a very large gin and tonic in my hand:
The following morning was one of those when I was glad that breakfast would continue to be served until 10am.
We spent a day on the beach at Zandvoort, where snackmobiles such as the one depicted below motor up and down the seafront all day, so you don’t even have to put your flip-flops on to fetch some ice-cream. Roy bought us iced coffees from one of these vans and very nice they were too. The van below sold mostly chips and different kinds of seafood, and we found it both creepy and amusing that part of the van’s decoration featured a packet of chips actually eating chips and apparently enjoying it. Sort of like me eating my own leg and encouraging other people to try some too.
I think there are probably only so many holiday snaps one can tolerate so I’ll call it a day there, but I must include this final view of lovely, lovely Amsterdam:
I loved it. I hope to go back there some day.