hg: Amsterdam by Boat

One of the best things about living in Newcastle is the direct ferry to Amsterdam. No disrespect to the Toon of course, it’s a wonderful place, but it’s hard to compete with the Dutch on all things urban.

We decided, during a particularly dank winter Monday in December, to book four nights at a hostel near the famous Vondelpark and to take the overnight ferry there. What better way to start my exploration of overland (and oversea) travel?

We set sail on a Saturday afternoon. I frantically tidied and did the washing up and Naomi spent the morning preparing an extravagant picnic to eat on our voyage, complete with mini bottles of wine and homemade cookies.

Once onboard, we found a quiet place to sit by a window, cracked open a packet of peanuts, and admired the sunset.

My thoughts were interrupted when I spotted a small sign directly above our table: “No personal food or beverages are to be consumed in any public areas onboard.”

Well, you can imagine my reaction. On this bloody enormous boat, the only place we could eat our picnic was in our tiny box cabin. Stale air and no natural light. I don’t think so.

In naive disbelief, I went to study the map of the boat. It was indeed a bloody enormous boat, but upon closer inspection all of that space was dedicated to exclusive entertainment and gastronomic delights, for which one had to pay. The only ‘public’ seating was in what were effectively hallways leading to restaurants or cinemas or nightclubs. What a bizarre set-up.

Of course, it doesn’t take a Business Studies degree (thankfully, as I dropped out of mine) to work out why they do this.

A mere five minutes later, two attendants with clipboards came to enquire which restaurant we’d booked for dinner. We said we didn’t have a reservation and wouldn’t be needing one, thank you. I sheepishly edged my peanuts out of view. They looked perplexed (How are these ragamuffins expecting to feed themselves?!) but left us alone, obviously concluding we were a tad unhinged and not worth their time.

I continued to eat my peanuts in protest before we eventually gave in to hunger (and Capitalism) and retreated to our cabin for dinner.

Despite this, it was a smooth crossing and we arrived showered, refreshed, and ready to find some good cafés - the consumption of warme chocolademelk being our primary goal in Amsterdam.

It wasn’t long before we found an inviting, funky little bar/café and squeezed into a table in the corner. A turntable sat on top of an extensive record collection with a sign inviting customers to step up and choose an album. And we admired the old fashioned till that went BING! when our host gave it a firm rap with her fist.

Amsterdam’s traditional huge windows provided excellent people-watching opportunities. Bicycles whizzed past and people ambled by as we grazed on warme chocolademelk and carrot cake. The lady in the jewelry shop opposite had a good stare at us too, until it was time for her to go home. We watched as she dutifully carried her plants inside and switched off the lights.

Two tiny Amstel beers later and we headed back out into the cold.

***

On our second day I finished my book. I’m usually a slow reader, but on holiday I can power through them like nobody’s business (except yours, since I’m telling you about it). No bother, as it provided the perfect excuse to mosey round Amsterdam’s excellent bookshops.

We made our way to The Book Exchange on Kloveniersburgwal. A bell tinkled as we went in and I relaxed into my usual bookshop reverie. They are captivating spaces. I suppose it’s being surrounded by all that knowledge, wisdom, and history. And a sliver of that can be mine by picking up a book.

Thousands of them were piled up to the ceiling, neatly arranged and categorised. But not too neat, so as to maintain the feel of a second hand bookshop rather than a glitzy Waterstones. We strolled from shelf to shelf, craning our necks to read the spines.

I could’ve browsed for hours but soon set my heart on Coming Up for Air by George Orwell. I’d never read any of his books before and it felt somewhat hardcore to not default to his most famous works.

I took my new toy over to the till and tentatively asked if I could pay by card. The feel of the shop and appearance of the man behind the counter suggested I wouldn’t be able to. He had an air of nostalgia, as if he’d been born in the wrong era, and wore a cardigan, bookish glasses and a neat beard. There may have been a bow tie involved too but I can’t be certain now.

He sighed at my request but accepted, adding that he dislikes giving money to the credit card companies and feels troubled at the prospect of a cashless world. Oh well. He’ll get over it.

I was soon sat in yet another café, warme chocolademelk and new book for company, lost in a tale of pre-war escapism.

***

On the recommendation of a real life Dutch person we headed to Utrecht the following day. It's a picturesque and tranquil place. All the charm, canals and bicycles of The Dam, without the sin.

We enjoyed a thirty minute train ride across the thoroughly irrigated plains of Holland to get there. Naomi was particularly excited about sitting on the top floor of a double-decker train. She has this enviable ability to get disproportionately delighted about rather inane things. It’s a skill I need to practise.

It was a lazy day in Utrecht. And yet, two achievements stand out in my mind:

Another warme chocolademelk was added to our burgeoning tally. And we provided lunchtime entertainment to a couple who watched us do battle with Holland’s infamous fries and mayonnaise. I’m a fan of mayonnaise, a big fan, but they do dollop it on rather lavishly. Naomi was covered in the stuff by the end.

So it was, in fact, a productive trip.

***

If I remember correctly, there’s a running joke that I have a terrible memory. But my synapses fired themselves up to provide an activity for our penultimate day.

During my first visit to Amsterdam, two years ago, I was taken to see an orchestra rehearsal at The Royal Concertgebouw. It’s held every Wednesday at lunchtime and is free, so when we were searching for cheap things to do this time round I recalled that gem.

It’s a sought after gig, being free and everything, so one must arrive an hour before the show to guarantee entry. Picture lots of old people with sharp elbows edging to the front of the queue.

We arrived in plenty of time and filed into a glamorous hall, enduring the inevitable chaos that ensues when four hundred people aren’t assigned seats. Everyone eventually found a pew and settled down to enjoy the show.

A young man strode out onto the stage, broad shoulders and intelligent looking. He was wearing a shiny green silk shirt. Fortunately, he played the violin a good deal better than he dressed. A glorious thirty minutes followed. I was mesmerised by his bow arm, the way it moved with such speed and precision. Almost robotic.

The recital ended with a trio performance - two violins and a cello - of pure drama. Flashes of bow arms and heads diving left and right to the rhythm of the music.

A memorable experience and not a cent spent!

***

In case I haven’t mentioned it, I don’t have a good memory. Due to this, we spent a lot of time wandering around looking for a particular square that I had enjoyed two years ago. We’d forever be rounding corners and I’d exclaim, “This is it!” Only for my excitement to dwindle when I realised it wasn’t the one.

On our last day we finally stumbled across it. The Spui. It’s a bustling square that weaves bikes, pedestrians, and trams together in a perfect dance. Benches are littered around, with some helpfully situated outside my favourite bookshop in the city - Athenaeum Boekhandel - which is so beautifully laid out it could be an art gallery.

One can also escape through an archway that emerges into Begijnhof - an expansive courtyard - which silences the noise and bustle of Spui. A church sits in the middle, surrounded by perfect lawns and encircled by houses of the classic Dutch style.

Precise grids of windows take up the majority of each house front, displaying scenes from people’s lives. The corner of a bookcase, a stylish lamp, an inquisitive cat, someone cooking lunch.

The courtyard was quiet. A postman was going from door to door and a few hushed tourists milled around. Buildings loomed up behind the circle of houses - a reminder of the busy city beyond.

***

And just like that, we were back in Newcastle. Another smooth-ish crossing on the ferry and quick hop on the metro was all it required.

Amsterdam is such a beautiful and varied city and the journey couldn’t have been more convenient. The trip also proved to be an effective way of eating up some of the never-ending January darkness.

Now back at the flat. Unpack, tidy, supermarket. Ah, real life.