We battled around the busy ring road and arrived at Amsterdam’s City Camp promptly at 10am to bag a space vacated by that day’s departing motorhomes. We were in luck and given one of five remaining spaces that were available in the aire, in a highly secure compound next to the city’s shipyard.
We’ve visited Amsterdam before and this time planned a two day stay primarily to see its art collections. It was also an opportunity to put to the test some acquired ‘trip-nouse’ or usefully learnt lessons in surviving on a shoestring in European capital cities!
Walking through the nearby dockyards to the free ferry terminal, we passed a strange community of shipping containers decorated in colourful graffiti and industrial-looking sculptures of iron, steel and drift wood.
A small army of dumper trucks and diggers were clearing away broken wooden sheds, bales of straw and plastic sheeting. The area had been the party ground in the previous week for the city’s annual Pride celebrations.
It was surprising to see the amount of land still open for development along the riverside. The city is home to 800,000 in the centre with 1.1million living in the wider ‘urban’ area and perhaps 4 million in the greater metropolitan district.
International business and banks have been present in the economy since the ‘golden age’ of the 1700s and the price of land in an area that is restricted by water is high. Little wonder that expansion is taking place in the industrial docklands. Next to our aire some local graffiti protested against development of a green space.
Cycling is a large part of Amsterdam’s character, and there are 400km of cycle paths that criss-cross the nearly 100 islands and more than 1,200 bridges that make up the centre. The speed at which the locals travel on two wheels is hair-raising especially in combination with clanging trams and hooting buses and taxis. How everyone survives the day intact is a miracle. We quickly honed a sixth sense for rogue scooters.
In the picturesque centre – fortified on frites and mayonnaise – we dodged the throngs queuing at the kiosks that sell tickets to each of the museums and instead entered the Rijksmuseum directly to buy tickets at its reception desk. With one of us still a member of the NUJ the fee was significantly reduced as the Nederlands, the original home of the ‘free press’, welcomes visiting journalists.
We selected the collections of Dutch masters, which included rooms full of works by Rembrandt, Breughel and Hals. Scenes of wintery skaters in pantaloons and full skirts hung alongside epic sea battles against the Spanish and British fleets, noisy peasants caroused in taverns or toiled at work in muddy fields, fabulously clothed patricians posed as historical characters and sober dignitaries in broad brimmed hats and white linen collars carried out the business of trading diamonds, money and tulip bulbs in the banking houses and civic buildings of the ‘golden age’. Best of all were the quiet domestic scenes painted by Vermeer luminous with light, colour and grace.
Buying a 24 hour travel pass meant we could plot our own tour of the city on its network of trams to take in the gorgeous sights of the distinctive and tottering town houses alongside the canals, as well as the grand architecture of the public theatres and galleries.
Later it was time for a beer and in a city that draws 5 million people a year partly because of its night clubs, bars and cannabis cafes, there was only one place to go. We meandered through the picturesque winding streets of the oldest part of town, lined with leaning and step gabled merchants houses now home to swanky art dealers, designers, fashion houses and the famous residents of the ‘red light’ district.
The red-curtained windows of the (rather rudely named) ‘quartier putain’ were largely open for business and women in underwear gazed out at the passing trade. It was sobering and a little sad to see in daylight. The women themselves seemed weary and worldly wise.
Back on the ferry we spotted a ‘beach bar’ which we found by following some students into the back of a shipping container and entering into a packed restaurant. The concept was akin to the ‘ruin pubs’ in Budapest and was a unique and hugely popular money spinner inside some old ‘maersk’ containers.
We joined city workers the next morning for their commute across the river at 7.30am. It was interesting to compare with our own daily Southern rail experience. The sun was shining and the water was flat as smartly suited young men and women dashed alongside us off the ferry to their city jobs.
We got coffee to eat with a breakfast picnic whilst the city council workers quickly and efficiently cleared the streets of the night’s debris and small street cleaning vehicles sprayed the cobblestones with clean hot water.
Having booked tickets online for the 9am opening of the Van Gogh museum we were rewarded for our early morning efforts by heading straight to the top floor of the three storey museum and having private access to the collection of paintings that include the beautiful Almond Blossom, Irises, Wheat fields, The Yellow House, The Bedroom and self-portraits.
Three small glass cases showed his private belongings of a white alabaster horse, a yellow and brownish ceramic jug that looked highly reminiscent of his thickly oily swirling paint strokes and a still-brightly coloured stuffed Kingfisher.
There was also a deeply moving exhibition that explored his ‘insanity’ and showed the last painting though to have been begun but not finished on the day of his suicide, some tree roots.
We talked about our reactions to his beautiful art on a tram ride out to the end of the line. Simon has now seen four of Van Gogh’s paintings of Sunflowers; here in Amsterdam, also at New York’s Metropolitan, at Paris’ Musee d’Orsay and at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.
We headed into a locals’ corner bar in sight of Centraal Station and enjoyed the sights of excited newly arrived visitors with suitcases, and bustling commuters heading home.