The Piccadilly line out to Heathrow at rush hour is fucking awful, but is still infinitely preferable to spending over 30 quid on the Heathrow Express, robbing transport bastards. I found K without too much trouble and we were soon through security and catching up over our first holiday beer. It was a pleasantly surprising and tasty brew from a craft brewery in Greenwich and almost enough to make me forget my stifling and crowded tube journey.
Amsterdam is little over an hour from London by air, so, after barely enough time to scoff a tiny but free packet of British Airways ready salted crisps, we were soon landing at Schiphol airport. (It goes without saying that the train from Schiphol to Amsterdam Central Station was about a third of the price of the Heathrow Express, for a marginally longer journey.)
The capital of the Netherlands is obviously famous for its lax drug laws, but bloody hell, my first memory of the city will always be an aromatic one. On exiting the station, I was struck by an overwhelming whiff of marijuana. Who needs to smoke it or consume it, just wander the streets and practise your deep Pilates breathing if that’s your thing?
It was past 11.00pm, but there were still plenty of people around so we didn’t feel too intimidated rocking up in a strange city late at night with only a vague idea of how to get to our hotel. With a style that definitely failed to reflect the thousands of miles we had cumulatively successfully travelled, we somehow managed to work out where to buy a tram ticket, where to catch said tram, where to get off again, and how to reach our accommodation. Regrettably, said hotel did not exactly resemble the photos on their website and they’d given us a double instead of a twin, but it was clean and fairly close to the city centre, so we smiled sweetly and tried not to feel too disappointed, after all, we had cheap-looking, neon-coloured, glass Buddha head statues in our Thai-themed bedchamber, what more could we desire?
Our first day in the city dawned cold, blustery and grey, providing a fine excuse to nip into the first coffee shop we came across. Not that kind before you get any wild ideas, this one was bright and airy, with big wooden tables and benches, a well-stocked bookcase and strong, hot coffee. However, the communal layout was betrayed by technology, as most of the café’s patrons sat alone at their laptops, engrossed in their own private endeavours. One such individual appeared to be touching up (artistically speaking) a picture of two mating pigs, the mind boggles. But on the whole I’ll admit my interest was piqued by the array of tasty, Scandi-chic style, 30-something men that appeared to be residing in Amsterdam (I’m not including the man with the pig fetish, obviously).
Our most sensible option on such a damp and dreary day appeared to be a museum, and there were many to choose from. Amsterdam, like Ironbridge in my previous posts, offers up the option of purchasing a combined museum ticket, or Museumkaart. It is valid for one year and costs €54.90 for adults and €29.95 for youngsters up to 18 years of age. However, I was disinclined to spend all of my time in the city traipsing around museums, and K had already explored several on a previous visit, so we just chose the biggest and surely the best: the Rijksmuseum.
The Rijksmuseum had finally reopened in 2013 after 10 years of renovation work and from outside the epic grandeur of the building suggested that an impressive tourist experience awaited us. We joined what was thankfully a brief queue, but having stood for ten minutes in the wind tunnel that cuts through the ground floor, separating it into two sections, I wasn’t keen to spend much more of the day outside. People cycled past our shivering and windswept line on a series of rickety and random bicycles, including a very bouncy, pillar-box red tandem. It was great spot for people watching.
The museum was full to the brim, everyone having had a similar plan for escaping the winter’s day outside. Entrance cost €15/adult and the museum would serve as several hours of dry, warm entertainment. The layout was a little awkward at first as we were trying to avoid the tourist hordes and couldn’t quite work out how to navigate around the first floor without exiting back through security. However, eventually our wanderings did lead us to some pretty cool Javanese art and antiquities, including some grisly looking guardian statues. We struggled to catch a glimpse of some Van Gogh paintings: obviously those with little time on their hands were limiting themselves to the rock star exhibits; we marvelled at wooden carvings of religious scenes that must have taken hours of intricate skill to produce; and were stunned by the now renovated Great Hall and its multi-coloured brickwork and elaborate stained glass. But what I really wanted to see was Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’.
The Rembrandt gallery, just off the Great Hall, was again absurdly busy, but the paintings awaiting our perusal were no tiny Van Goghs; Rembrandt had produced some of his paintings on such a scale that they had at some point been scandalously trimmed to fit into someone’s art collection. I was dumbfounded. I had no idea they were that big. As a child I had been a little disappointed at the Louvre when I had finally caught sight of the ‘Mona Lisa’, she was just so small and insignificant. ‘The Night Watch’ (De Nachtwacht), however, was basically the IMAX of painting experiences; I almost felt like I had stumbled into a scene from the seventeenth century. I half expected a young and mischievous Oliver Reed to hop out of the painting dressed as one of the three musketeers and, whilst giving everyone else a slightly salacious wink, drag me off to be ravished in a hay barn. A girl can but dream.
The Rijksmuseum was exhausting and we by no means saw everything, but it was certainly worth the ten years of renovation work. On leaving we wended our way along the river to Leidsplein where we refuelled with a couple of pints of Amstel at an Irish bar, followed by a cone of salty chips and mayonnaise, the best kind of takeaway food. It was getting dark as we explored the streets, finding ourselves once again at Central Station. A Christmas market was pitched along the road connecting the station with Dam Square, so we followed it down, stopping briefly for an overpriced glass of glüwein. Two years previously, when I was still living in Germany, K and I had met for a weekend in Berlin and were probably spoiled for other Christmas markets forever after drinking glüwein with shots of Amaretto, huddled against the rainy night in a far superior German Weihnachtsmarkt.
Slightly disappointed by the numerous food stalls (chocolate tools anyone?), and not much else, we gave in and hopped on a tram back to the hotel and a tiny Italian restaurant in a quiet back street that we had been assured was great. The food was good, but they had run out of pizza. What kind of Italian restaurant runs out of pizza? I don’t know whether it just showed that people were clamouring for their cooking, or that they were just incredibly badly organised. However, day one in Amsterdam had been chilly, wind-swept and a bit soggy, but we had eaten well and experienced a hearty dose of culture.