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“Hello gentlemen,” said the man standing beside a doorway with lurid pictures of naked couples behind him. We turned around to face him but did not stop. We knew what he was going to say. He spoke louder this time. “Come on. I know you haven’t come to Amsterdam for the flowers. You want smut and filth! In you come, see our show; we give you what you want! All in a comfortable and safe environment!”
Our early morning arrival at Schiphol Airport went smoothly, as did the train journey into the city itself. And then the seven of us, six men and one woman, headed straight for breakfast. “Full English!” boomed the man at one café entrance. “Only six Euro! Come, come!”
Afterwards, we wandered across Damrak, a main thoroughfare of the city, comprising of endless hotels, fast food restaurants and souvenir shops, heading towards one of the many barge tour operators. Five minutes later, we were off along a canal, taking in the sights of Amsterdam at a leisurely five knots.
“This is the gentleman’s canal,” intoned the metallic voice coming over the speaker as we traversed yet another canal. Behind me, one of our group,
not especially known for his love of culture, was already asleep, and to be honest, I wasn’t much further behind. The tour we were on wasn’t particularly inspiring or even enlightening, but the next statement did catch my attention. “On average, one car goes into the water every day. And at any one time, there are believed to be 30,000 bicycles at the bottom of the canals too.” That did surprise me, especially about the bikes. I looked towards the canal’s edge hoping to see one go in before my very eyes, hopefully with the rider still attached, but everyone seemed to be keeping well back. Pity.
An hour later, we were wandering the busy streets near our hotel, located just a couple of canals away from the Red Light District. Phil, a friend from university twenty years previously had booked it. The crowds were immense. Not surprisingly, the biggest group were young men, either wandering around in pairs, or else as part of stag parties. All looked happy to be there, leery and mostly full of beer. Elderly couples shuffled about, no doubt shocked at the profusion of sex shops and peep shows, whilst families steered small children
past the most obvious of the seediness the city had to offer. In the midst of them all, cyclists tinkled their bells in an attempt to forge paths through the alleyways that made up the heart of downtown Amsterdam.
Venturing down one narrow street, we came towards another series of shops selling sex paraphernalia for every perversion possible. Dildos, rubber hoods, hoses, and other less savoury items were on show in the large gaudy windows. “My god!” uttered Phil, pointing to an enormous plastic penis placed next to a black leather gimp mask. “Look at the size of that!” And then we hit the Red Light District itself.
Packed with tourists, there were large groups of men leering at the girls in the windows, some stopping to gawk, most moving on in a rather embarrassed way. But there was also a sizable contingent of women, pointing and staring, often giggling to themselves. “Hey, Frank,” said a rotund American woman in her fifties who’d just spotted a girl in a window. “Would you look at that stripper! Oh my God! She’s actually dancing in the window!” Frank, I suspected, had already seen her.
From my observations, the finest
quality girls were not on show yet. This was probably due to the time. It was only mid-afternoon. Instead, a collection of larger, or older women, offered their wares, usually with a suggestive wink or a smile. At one window, a lady even lifted her bra to show us what lurked beneath. We hurried on, faintly embarrassed.
The next morning we took a tram to the Van Gogh Museum. The exhibit covered one floor and led us through a complete history of the great man’s work, starting with paintings that looked nothing like what I’d expected. His early work was clearly of the traditional type, showing quite realistic scenes of various descriptions. Before long though we were gawping at the work he became famous for, including The Potato Eaters and the world-famous Sunflowers. Masses of people, most wearing headphones attached to a small commentary box, crowded every painting, and after perhaps twenty minutes or so, Phil and I retired to a café outside. After waiting for everyone else to catch us up, we then visited a diamond factory, before heading to a place to get a drink.
We decided to walk back to the centre, enabling us to
visit Leidseplein, Amsterdam’s busiest square. We would go back there later that night when it would be thronging with tourists hitting the bars and clubs, but for now it was okay. We stopped for a quick drink in one of the numerous cafes.
A few hours later, as night descended, we decided another trip down the Red Light District was in order. And that was when we met the man trying to get us into his sex show. The posters of men and women, all naked, on the outside of his establishment showed what was on offer once inside.
“Come on,” he cajoled, “I promise you will enjoy our show!”
“Maybe some other time.” We wandered on, unable to stop staring at the absolutely gorgeous girls pouting inside the red-neon-lined windows. All of them stunners. A beautiful blond wearing only skimpy underwear must have noticed our gaze because she suddenly opened her door, rushing out towards us. “Hey guys, you wanna come in and fuck me?”
A minute later we were off the main canal onto a Red Light tributary street, noting the further away from the centre, the less alluring the women got. And then
we were back to normality.
A green triangle on the window of a coffee shop meant that smoking cannabis was tolerated within. Inside these establishments, the smell of marijuana was immediately evident. At the back of one café, a counter peddled different types of grass. The young (and sometimes not so young) of Amsterdam queued courteously waiting to buy a selection of the city’s finest. It was all a civilised affair. They even had the cigarette papers freely available on the café counter, with a range or pre-rolled joints or even space cake available for purchase.
And then it was time to go back home. So would I go back to Amsterdam? The simple answer is no. This visit was actually my fifth (once as a child and three times as a university student) and I had seen enough of the city now. This time I had seen much of the cultural highlights of the city, such as the Anne Frank House and the place where Rembrandt lived, but for all its drug tolerance and open prostitution, Amsterdam was still a bit too close for home for my liking. Without the main sights, the city could be any
number of British cities. It was all too familiar.
• Beautiful buldings (6000 of them dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries
• Red Light District - a must see sight for any tourist of Amsterdam
• Easy to navigate
• Everyone speaks English
• Cheap public transport
• Easy going city
• The canals
• The sheer mass of tourists
• Touts handing out flyers
• Getting more and more expensive
• Only one windmill in the whole city, and it is too far out from the centre to reach by foot.
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