The weather just kept on improving and when we left the Anne Frank house there was a clear sky and bright sunshine so we continued our ponderous stroll along the canals working our way south and east as we followed the canal ring and looped around the southern end of the old town. Eventually the girls declared that they had seen enough water for one day and they might like to see some shops instead so reluctantly (I’m not much of a shopper myself) I plotted a route back towards Dam Square through a busy shopping area.
In the late afternoon the streets were busy and for pedestrians in a strange place we had to keep our wits about us because there are three things to watch out for in Amsterdam – road traffic, trams and bicycles.
We are used to dealing with cars but trams are different because you really don’t want to be smeared out by a twenty-tonne Combino flexi-tram at top speed because that would really spoil the day. What makes crossing the road confusing is that even at the same pedestrian crossing all of these different forms of transport seem to have their own separate traffic light system and there are multiple sets of lights so you have to pay close attention to avoid the sort of accident that I nearly had when I saw a green light and started to cross but hadn’t noticed a red light in the tram lane and if Kim hadn’t been alert and stopped me I nearly put a red streak across the front of the blue and white GVB as it rattled past right in front of me belatedly sounding its distinctive klaxon horn.
Bikes can be hazardous too and everywhere there is the melodious sound of tinkling bells to alert pedestrians because it is all too easy to stray absent-mindedly into a bike lane and this can be dangerous because as far as I could see a lot of bikes didn’t have brakes! It is estimated that there are almost half a million bicycles and four hundred kilometres of bike paths in Amsterdam. That is roughly one bike for every two people and how the cyclists must curse the visitors who are unfamiliar with the sort of bike culture that exists in the Netherlands and are forever getting in the way.
Just when I thought I had got this Holland/Netherlands thing sorted…
The shopping streets were busy and we crossed them to arrive in Damstraat, a busy road with tourist shops and restaurants which was lucky because our thoughts were turning to evening meal and we were looking for a restaurant to return to later. We spent some time in a shop selling clogs and wooden tulips, Delft pottery and miscellaneous tourist mementos and then I thought I recognised a restaurant that I had used before in 2004 when I visited Amsterdam with my son Jonathan and after satisfying ourselves that the menu suited our budget the others agreed to go with this rather tenuous eight year old recommendation.
It was cool now in the shade of the tall buildings so we found the sunny side of Damrak and returned to the hotel Ibis and had a late afternoon drink in the bar as the sun dipped low in the sky and finally disappeared behind the Fietenstalling (bike storage garage) opposite and we returned to our rooms to change because our plan now was to walk to the famous red light district.
The Amsterdam Red Light District covers a large area of the oldest part of the city where the buildings are tall, narrow and crowded together with a distinctive glow of fluorescent red lights above the red-fringed window parlours from behind which the scantily clad ladies of the night invite customers with a rattle on the glass and a come to me pout and provocative pose. All rather like I imagine Satan’s front room to look like!
The area dates back to the fourteenth century when randy sex-starved, testosterone fuelled sailors arrived home after a few weeks at sea and has evolved into an area of sex shops, brothels, gay bars, cinemas, dodgy hotels and alternative kinds of museums. Each year, millions of visitors come to see this vibrant and exciting part of Amsterdam, I have been before in 1981 and 2004 and maybe it is just my perception but it seems now to be less sleaze and more entertainment.
Scattered liberally amongst the sex shops and brothels there were the famous coffee houses where soft drugs were openly on sale and being enjoyed by locals and tourists alike and as we walked through an area of undressed ladies of various shapes and sizes and with the hint of dope hanging in the air I thought I was beginning to understand why Amsterdam and the Netherlands is that happiest place in Europe!
We left the red light district and returned to the street with the Argentinean steak restaurant that we had picked out earlier and once inside I was now certain that this was the place I had eaten in 2004. There are a lot of Argentinean steak restaurants in Amsterdam and the waiter told us that this was because the Dutch people like Argentinean steak but I don’t know if that is true or not. What I can say however is that the food was excellent and the meat cooked to perfection and just as I remembered it and had described it to my travelling companions.
After we had finished I congratulated the staff and told the waiter how I had eaten there before but before I had finished he told me this was not possible because the restaurant had only opened in 2006 and as the others mocked me my face went as red as a brothel lamp – I had been so certain!