Finally, I arrived in Amsterdam after 6 hours – a ridiculous amount of travel time for an hour’s flight. Heathrow was chaotic with extensive air traffic delays – goodness knows how they will manage the Olympics.
While sitting in the plane prior to take off, I had some concerns when the Captain announced that a passenger did not show up for the flight and they were proceeding to offload a bag from the aircraft’s hold. I could see all the action taking place outside my window. They located the bag, which was a large brown one with green zippers and a blue ribbon on the handle – exactly like mine. My goodness – did they really take my bag off the plane? Surely they had made a mistake? Without further ado, the hold doors were shut, and we were pushing back and taxiing for take-off. I spent the next two hours in a lather of sweat as to what my options would be on arrival in Amsterdam. Bag … or no bag?
On arrival in Amsterdam, and passing through customs in less than 10 minutes (Heathrow take note!), I approached the baggage carousel with great trepidation. Miracles do happen! There right in front of me was my suitcase. People must have thought that I was a bit of a nut as I jumped for joy and hugged my suitcase in delight!
My stay for the next 5 nights was at the Sofitel Grand right in the heart of the old city on an island between two canals. The hotel is very gracious and attractive with a successful mixture of modern art and thirties styling in a building that is 500 years old.
Canals, yes, but tulips, no. I discovered that it was white asparagus season instead! What a bonus – I now embarked on a five-day mission to hunt down these delicious morsels.
As luck would have it, the hotel has the best seafood restaurant in Amsterdam – Dutch seafood prepared in a French style – Fins and Vins! It was fantastic. I had a tartare of sea bass <img src="” alt=”” />with pickled vegetables and Iranian caviar matched to a glass on Moet. Then grilled turbot with squid ink and farfalle pasta and minted peas matched with a chenin blanc from one of France’s leading wine makers. Both were equally visually appealing and looked like plates styled for a Vogue magazine shoot. Stunning!
Amsterdam is often described as the Venice of the north – there are more than one hundred kilometers of canals, about 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. Walking along a canal near the hotel I found a lively bar with chairs and tables outside to take advantage of a spot of sunshine and to take in the view of the passing canal traffic. It seems that the majority of “Amsterdammers” enjoy Sunday afternoons boating along the canals, drinking wine and munching on herrings. Their craft range in size and age, from impressive modern motorboats to the traditional wooden canal boats. All craft were loaded with family and friends enjoying the rare sight of blue sky and sunshine.
While sitting beside the canal, I struck up a conversation with four chaps from Manchester who were there on a buck’s weekend. Amsterdam appears to have a healthy reputation as a destination for these kinds of parties as all sorts of mischief awaits these punters. They assured me that they looked but did not touch! This area of Amsterdam is on the edge of the red light district where shop fronts display all sexual sorts of gadgets and gizmos. Prostitution is legal and is practised in shop fronts where patrons can wander along the street, either window shopping or making a purchase.
While enjoying the sunshine and a cold beer, I observed a pair of moorhens in the canal building their new home ready for the chicks arriving soon. They have selected a most unusual location – inside the curve of a car tyre dangling from the edge of the canal and about one metre above the waterline. Obviously, this tyre is used as a fender for the many boats and barges that ply up and down the canal. However, these industrious little birds have claimed it as theirs.
Mrs Hen sits in the nest carefully arranging the assorted bits of flotsam and jetsam that Mr Hen brings to her. The accumulation includes all sorts of manmade bits of rubbish that has been swept into the canal or has been dropped from the sides of boats. Their “bricks and mortar” include: plastic, fabric, paper and rope. These were all carefully woven around small sticks and reeds that Mr Hen dives to the bottom of the canal to retrieve.
They beaver away all day. Mrs Hen is in charge of the decoration and is very choosy about her building material and exactly where they are positioned. Mr Hen is an aggressive sentinel and fends off any passing water birds with great pluck and courage – even those who are 10 times his size, such as the beautiful white swans that glide along the canal.
A few days later when I passed by to check on their progress, I was amused to see that there was a very large white feather protruding from the nest. Obviously, Mr Swan came off second best during one of these skirmishes and Mr Hen was able to present to his wife a very handsome trophy.
The elegance of the “Hen House” is matched by that of the human houses lining the canal. These are uniquely beautiful in their stature and symmetry. During the 16th and 17th century the government of the day raised additional funds by taxing homeowners on the width of their houses. Thus, the houses are very narrow but make up for the lack of width in height. They are between four and six storeys high and are adorned by imposing gables that are decorated with intricate plaster or brickwork. The gables are not just for show, but have a specific practical purpose. Protruding from the gable is a large beam where a block and tackle would be suspended to enable the home owner to move their furniture in an out of the house as the doors and stairs were far too narrow and steep.
Amsterdam is a city ruled by the bicycle. They virtually have right of way in all circumstances – roads, pavements and plazas. There is 400 km of bike paths, where about 1,000,000 bicycles are a significant presence in the city. In 2005, about 54,000 bicycles were stolen and another 25,000 ended up in the canals. There is a specific “road gang” which drags the canals regularly retrieving bikes which have made their way to the bottom. <img src="” alt=”” />Adding to this approximately once a week a car goes off the edge and has to be dragged out as well.
I was not inclined to join the bicycling population. Having ridden in the back of a cab around the city on a number of occasions I know that the taxi drivers have a very malevolent streak and are inclined to use the bicyclists as a blood sport. The game is all about being “chicken” – who will give in first, how fast you can drive without hitting a bike, how quickly you can slam on the brakes without a bike decorating the front of your car and, the best one, driving through the middle of a herd of oncoming bicyclists and watching them scatter all over the road and pavement. Meanwhile – I was in the back of the cab gripping my seat belt and slamming my foot onto my imaginary brake pedal while muttering obscenities under my breath.