After a frantic text from Diane the night before we were due to fly to Amsterdam and an OMG moment, when I realised that I was not going to be able to take two cabin bags, one of which contained my camera and lenses, I set about repacking a larger case full of clothes and unbreakable camera accessories which would now have to go in the hold at a cost of £25. Why airlines cannot be bothered to standardise their requirements I shall never know, it makes it so difficult if you are taking anything other than a normal suitcase full of clothes. The flight was ridiculously short at 40 minutes but it took a further 20 minutes to taxi into position. We left the airport in search of a bus hoping this time we would manage to get off at the right place. Once again we were lucky – or perhaps the Dutch actually coordinate bus times with flights – to find the number 197 bus as directed by the information sent by our hotel. Hoping to avoid the situation we found ourselves in, in Seville, I asked the bus driver what number bus stop we had to get off at. He was very confused by my question and pointed to a very sophisticated electronic timetable above my head saying, ” No numbers, it will tell you when to get off.” I was very impressed.
Having reached our stop we began to follow the map to our hotel the ‘Iron Horse’ in Leidseplein. Busy looking at the map, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by bikes all ringing bells frantically. It became clear that we were actually walking, not on the pavement as we thought, but on the cycle track that is used by both pedal bikes and motor bikes. We both jumped in fright on to what we then realised was the pavement and I yanked my heavy suitcase out of their way. We came to a large junction and a bend and looking at the trams and buses, in what seemed to be a wall of metal, we opted to walk further to a level crossing. We walked up and pressed the button and stood and waited as usual for the little green man. At this point we were both nearly ‘taken out’ by a motorbike speeding along the cycle track, we were totally unaware we had strayed from the relative safety of the pavement yet again. He hooted and we jumped out of his way. We couldn’t work out and still can’t how you can push the button to stop the traffic in Amsterdam without standing on the cycle track at the same time. We learned very quickly that bikes have precedence over everything and everyone and that most did not stop at a red light either so just like in Seville we had to run and hope for the best. By the end of the week, we realised, that even when you are able to work out what is pavement and what is cycle track, you actually can’t always walk on the pavement as bikes are left there blocking the way. In fact we were told that there are now so many bikes in Amsterdam that ‘parking spaces’ are few and far between. Realising we were dicing with death each time we needed to use a crossing we attempted to position ourselves in the middle of a crowd in the vain hope that we would be the last to be crushed by wheels.
At first we thought the hotel was a bit odd. It looked a bit like a posh youth hostel as there was a very small reception area and adjacent to that a long corridor some of which was outside. This cold corridor led to the rooms which were adequate, very clean with the usual facilities. My bed however was very narrow and I spent most of the week trying not to fall out of it! It was late when we arrived so we dumped our stuff and found a nice quiet bar across the street where we enjoyed our first glass of wine and the famous Dutch chips!
Having had a terrible night’s sleep we were both looking forward to our continental breakfast. We were not disappointed, limitless coffee and the usual European selection of cheeses, meat, bread, fruit, yoghurt and warm croissants with the addition of omelettes and beans. Very nice!
Rather than attempt an exploration of the city on foot we bought a ticket for the red boat with the aim of jumping on and off and getting our bearings before planning the rest of the week. We set off to find the ‘boat stop’ and enjoyed a thirty minute conversation with two Americans and two Australians. We were chatting away when a boat arrived, we showed our tickets and he shook his head and told us we needed a completely different stop. We set off on what was to become quite a long walk. I yelled at Diane each time she strayed onto the cycle track and she yelled at me.
The ‘captain’ of one of the four red boats was very amused by our cameras and yelled out to everyone that the paparrazi had arrived. Passengers turned to look at us and I immediately tried to obscure my very bright cream Canon lens from their view. We headed towards Dam Square where we were hoping to set up our tripods and take some long shutter speed pictures of the crowds milling around. We enjoyed the peace of the waterway and the views of the beautiful Dutch buildings as we meandered under low bridges and navigated sharp bends. On arrival at Dam Square we were so disappointed to see that a huge fun fair occupied the whole area. The big wheel turned slowly and a spinning chair lift spun in the blue sky to the sounds of screams. I couldn’t believe it. For me it was the equivalent of a fairground on Trafalgar Square. It was an eyesore and totally obscured our view of this beautiful place. Disappointed and feeling claustrophobic in the crowds we decided to head to Central Station to take some inside architectural shots and perhaps some longer exposures as we had our tripods with us.
We set up our tripods in one of the large halls in the station and began taking pictures. Neither of us really knew what we were doing and most of our shots, well certainly mine, were not what I wanted. I either got just feet or I got normal bodies I just couldn’t work out the settings to get that nice movement blur. Feeling frustrated we decided to explore the harbour behind the station. We took a somewhat circuitous route around to the harbour where we saw a pretty cafe across the water. We waited patiently for twenty minutes for the bridge across to close so we could find a table in the sun. We watched young people enjoying an impromptu swing whilst we lazily enjoying a huge bowl of nachos and a great tasting lager! Heaven!
We got back on the boat and were greeted affectionately by the same Captain who again announced our arrival to everyone. We sat for a while enjoying the views and the wonderful array of very expensive house boats that adorn the edges of the waterways. We got off at a random stop and set off on foot, wary all the time of speeding motorbikes, pedal bikes, trams and buses. Diane couldn’t seem to stay on the pavement area, at least where it was obviously a pavement, and we both felt we needed eyes everywhere to stay safe in this very busy and somewhat chaotic city.
Finally we stumbled upon Rembrandt Square. I had stayed in a hotel on this square three years before but this time, not only did the whole of Amsterdam seem busier and more chaotic and crowded, but the square seemed to have taken on a more colourful existence. The statues were draped or dressed with a variety of adornments. We struggled to find a meaning to it all. A number of people were smoking dope outside the Coffee Shops and the pungent smell hung in the still air, afraid we might get high and then get knocked down by a bike we moved on swiftly!
We found the flower market where there were signs saying, ‘No Photographs’. We took a few inside surreptitiously and several outside, before walking on to explore further. We wandered by some unusual shops and on our travels we met a very exciting looking gentleman who reluctantly agreed to let me take his picture. We watched a caricaturist at work and finally found the hub of the bars and restaurants in the Leidseplein, where the ‘Hard Rock Cafe’ dominates the scene. Street chess players entertained us as we sat with another lager in the fading sunlight. It was too expensive to eat there, so we opted for Wagamama’s instead. The meal was great and the service faultless. It had been a busy and tiring day and despite wearing walking boots my feet ached from walking four miles on the uneven, herringboned pavements of the city. I was so glad to return to our hotel in one piece. We both decided that we would need to escape the madness of Amsterdam if we wanted to find some peace and enjoy our photography. Utrecht looked wonderful in the guide book!