After four barely-tolerable days in Brussels, taking in all the graffiti and scaffolding that the city had to offer, I did better with four days in Amsterdam, trading concrete and roadworks for picturesque canals and a laid-back, friendly, tolerant atmosphere. Finally, here was a city I could feel at home in; a city where everyone would leave me alone because they were all too busy getting high or getting laid.
What Amsterdam is probably most famous for was what I avoided. I went through the Red Light District just once, in the morning, holding a posy of herbs to my nose like a Victorian gentleman visiting Bedlam and trying not to think about how I was walking on a thin layer of soap. I was in Amsterdam for canals, tulips and stroopwafels, not cannabis and implausibly-friendly women in windows, but the city keeps everything neatly compartmentalised and I found I could avoid the sleazier parts by looking for people who looked like they wanted to have some fun, and walking in the opposite direction. This also helped me give directions to four young and slightly shame-faced German men, though I went away thinking I ought to try and look less like someone who knew where the prostitutes were.
Amsterdam and I got on well together. One thing I’ve never liked about France or Belgium is every cafe, pub and restaurant being surrounded by a moat of suspicious people giving you a good long look as you approach. There’s much less of that in Amsterdam and I was able to spend time every day browsing menus and peering in restaurant windows before retreating for the evening back to my hotel with its room service and free biscuits. I did eat out once, at Max, which lured in my inner Hobbit by listing ‘starters’ and then ‘second starters’ before the main course. The food was great, the staff friendly and helpful, and it was here I learned that the Dutch really want to give you fizzy water instead of still and there’s not much you can do to stop them.
Amsterdam’s also a good city for cinema. I paid a visit to EYE, Amsterdam’s national museum for film, which involved breaking my rule about never being over open water: getting to the EYE involves a short ferry crossing to a harbour followed by a walk along its edge. The EYE itself is a striking building, all sharp angles and white surfaces, and looks like it was designed first to be abandoned and then used later by film students for their 16mm short films about futuristic dystopian societies with titles like “Stereo Visions” or “Ballardville”. A David Cronenberg exhibition and a Hitchcock season made me wish I’d spent more time there, despite the chilling sense of dread the entire building gives off. Or maybe because of.
The rest of my time I mostly spent criss-crossing canals and cobbled streets, gawping at the buildings while angry cyclists did their best to avoid me. I failed to visit the 200-year-old Rijksmuseum, deterred by a queue of tourists that looked like it was competing with the Anne Frank museum queue for the 2014 Most Soul-Crushing Formation of Tourists award, but it at least put me close to the Vondelpark, the city’s largest park and one that needs to be completely renovated every three decades to avoid sinking. As a park it’s a little banal but I appreciate the effort the Dutch go to in keeping it existing, and it seemed to be keeping all the joggers off the streets as well.
Whereas with Brussels you need to be pretty tolerant of everything around you being distressingly crap, to enjoy Amsterdam you really just have to be ok with the constant smell of weed. It’s a compact, easily-navigable city with plenty of variety, as if Camden, Soho, Mayfair and Crouch End all got torn from London, loosely stapled together and left to float in Holland.