I’m not going to fall into the typical tourist trap of thinking that I saw much of The Netherlands for having visited Amsterdam (that will have to be left to another trip), but how can you pass on a stopover in such a place? If you’re imagining us idling by canals and browsing the flower markets, unfortunately that wasn’t the case – on our first day we did a walking tour during a downpour, the day we left it had snowed. I was also told it was a bad idea to walk around the red light district with my camera out, which combined with the weather accounts for the few photos I ended up getting.
Red light districts are not really my scene, but in Amsterdam it’s difficult not to stumble into. The world’s oldest profession covers the old town, along with adult shops, ‘coffee’ shops and bars, criss-crossed with beautiful canals and old leaning buildings. Many red windows with women (and some men) beckoning surround the old church, which sounds strange until you find out that the clientele would pay a (monetary) repentance after and even before getting down to some sinning. These days prostitution is legalised and regulated, in an effort to crack down on human trafficking amongst other things (whether this is effective or not is another debate). Another controversial aspect that Amsterdam and the Netherlands is known for is the ‘toleration’ of soft drugs such as cannabis, in order to focus efforts on cracking down on harder drugs.
Besides learning about the seedier side of Amsterdam, we learned about some art at The Hermitage Amsterdam, where the Van Gogh Museum’s key pieces are currently being displayed whilst it’s being renovated. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the much more succinctly curated collection was much easier to absorb for an art appreciation newbie like me, and included admission to a fantastic Impressionist exhibition. We also visited the Secret Annex, the tiny back area of a warehouse that Anne Frank and several other Jews hid during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Reading the book as we travelled and then seeing the place in person, it struck me how amazingly positive and optimistic Anne was in the face of such adversity – I think I would have gone crazy not leaving one tiny, cramped apartment for two years! Her story is heartbreaking and beautifully written, I recommend reading it whether you’re heading to Amsterdam or not.
My favourite things about Amsterdam are the beautiful canals and architecture – as land tax was based on the front width of the house, some are really narrow (one is the width of a door!), and being built on reclaimed land some tilt sideways. Most tip forwards, both to protect the facade from the weather and so goods can be hoisted from a beam at the top and stored in the upper levels. The city looked beautiful covered in snow, although I’d like to return someday in warmer weather to check out the flower markets!