Bicycles

The first thing I was greeted by after walking out of Amsterdam Zuid station, was bicycles. Hundreds of bicycles, stacked high on dual level bicycle racks, bicycles to the left, bicycles to the right, bicycles in the sky, it was Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’ in real life…

Being so exhausted from… well from eating all that food on the east coast of Italy and the full day of travel, I lumbered up the notorious narrow, steep dutch stairwell, into my man Bente’s apartment. Bente was spending new years in Paris and graciously offered me his apartment to stay in for the time I was staying in Amsterdam. Two minutes from de Pijp (the pipe), a street which hosts the albert cuyp street market (more on that later) and fifteen minutes walk from town, I was welcomed by a bowl of chocolate coated marzipan, covered in Hagelslag – a sweet dutch candy sprinkle, which comes in a few different shapes and sizes, mostly chocolate but also comes in coloured candy as well. For the Australians, think ‘hundreds and thousands’ on LSD steroids. I grew up referring to them simply as ‘sprinkles’, and remember optimistically shaking them out of the ‘De Ruijters’ box over every milimetre of my heavily buttered bread, which I happily devoured every morning at my Opa’s place over christmas holidays.

After sleeping for sixteen hours straight, I’d woken up as if i’d been stretched out on a medieval rack. I was sore, tired, barely conscious and just wanted to bury my head under the covers and sleep some more. The travel lag was having its buggerising old way with me. Forcing my fat, christmassy, australian arse up and outta bed, my mission was to explore the red light district for the night. I’d heard things, and I wanted to clarify what I had heard with my own eyes about this interesting dutch city, and it’s unique, one of a kind district. I wasn’t to be disappointed in the slightest, there was a god up there somewhere who catered to my liberal tastes. Shunting off street dealers that were offering me a dubious, varied selection of ‘streetwares’ and sidestepping a pair of drunks outside a pub trying to cut my beard off with their knashing fingers, I began my foray into the red light district.

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One section of the red light district, just before it got busy

Alot can be said for the Netherlands. A flawless train transport system, beautiful canals, bridges, boats, bicycles, olliebollen, stammpot, fedo (more on all this later) and liberalism. Memories of Amsterdam are a little hazy, but I think that may come as no surprise to anyone who has heard of the place and knows me well enough. The dutch are quite liberal in their lifestyles, and people are offered choices here on how they wish to live, which is really quite refreshing from the constant droning of many other places in the world where you are told what you can and cannot do. Being a man of beliefs that you should be allowed to live and make decisions without being tethered to a post, this dutch liberalism is perfectly suited to my personality, where it provides a little more leash of opportunity, freedom and acceptance.

Meandering past the red lit windows of the ladies houses and exchanging cheeky grins with the women offering their services, I sought out a watering hole to wet my gullet. Coffee shops were in abundance, full of punters, with specific menus which listed a great selection of mary-jane, and barista’s that knew the their stuff. Strolling past a few sex bars that were playing host to live sex shows, and the torrential amount of young wieners hovering outside, I found a keeper just off the main district, however the name evades me. The barkeep, in keeping with dutch mannerisms was specific and to the point. She reminded me much of my Oma as a child. Making my order, she was almost stern like before breaking out in a big smile and some raucious laughter, catering to me with my usual double whiskey and pint of Heineken. The walls were adorned with beer coasters and various types of tender, messages scrawled on them from past visitors from around the world. Enjoying my cheap whiskey, I reached for my phone and was smartly rebuffed by Maryann the barkeep, snapping her hand onto mine like a lunging crocodile with a stern “if you’re sitting at the bar, your only job is to entertain me, no phones at the bar mister”! Me gusta, it was a fun change from the usual bars I’d visited so far, it was like the dutch version of the tv show ‘cheers’. There was conversations flying back and forth over the bar amongst us (‘us’ being the entire bar of boozers), curious cocktails of shots being shouted to complete strangers, it was a brazenly awesome start to the night.

There was almost no traffic anywhere in Amsterdam, on the way home I may have passed a few cars here or there, but I felt like I saw more trams on the move then I did cars, the bicycles reign supreme here. The dutch definetly have it all worked out with their bicycle system, why is why they are the most bike friendly city in the world. Having endured enough of the pedestrian loaded streets for the night, I sought peace and quiet on fringe canals fanning out from the city, beckoning to be explored. Bicycles in every shape and colour, like two wheeled colour palettes adorned the ‘brugs’ which gently arched over the canals, while the old streetlights spread soft patches of light up and down the canals, highlighting the soft green moss growing between the stones.

Plonking my fat bum onto the incredibly punctual dutch train system, I was inside Utrecht city within 35 mins. Ok 40 mins, due to the never ending shopping centre attached to the central station, and combined with the hordes of people, it was like a lingering bad smell. I get quite claustrophobic when there are too many people in my direct vicinity, but I quietly endured the loud, crammed, squabbling mall. Finally sunlight blessed me with its warm touch and all was well again! After quickly leaving the chicken coop behind, I began navigating the narrow, nostalgic streets of Utrecht. This was a town to be properly walked around, my kind of deal. Arched cobblestoned bridges hung over the Nieuwegracht (new canal) and Oudegracht (old canal) running through the city centre with bikes stacked like deluded characters on the bridge rails, some hanging over the canal, others upside down and yet others which were so angled on a lean they were about to push over the scores bicycles of lined up along the footpath. It’s quite an easy city to navigate with the Domkerk spire poking out above everything else in the city centre. The main part of town is virtually an island and if you looked at it from a map, you’d think it was only there because the bridges were holding it in place.

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Utrecht old city fringes

In true dutch style, everyone was on their way somewhere to do something, it never seems like there is an idle moment in this country, however all this action and momentum comes without the brutally rushed, painful, crushing, crowded soreness of my hometown. I spent most of my day on the canals, people watching, bicycle watching, bridge watching and wandering about in no general direction. I was charmed just by the canals alone. A level below the street, right on the waters edge were private residences, shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. Green moss took ownership of the stony paths down here, shining proudly from the glow of the old lights on the canals. Low topped ferrys softly snuck by under the bridges, as I meandered along the water, while above me, people were on their way to meet with friends or family at bars and cafes. Beer signs hang over the doors of the pubs and cafes, Grölsch, Heineken and Amstel signs displayed out the front of pubs. Families, partners and friends cruise around on bikes together and it’s a gift to see everyone cruising around, chatting away on their bicycles while on the way to the next destination, small children placed on the handlebars or bundled into the small seats on the backs of the bicycles. It’s kind of beautiful to watch them go about their bicycle lifestyle.

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Volvo’s are cool, especially in Utrecht

My favourite part of Utrecht however, was on the Nieuwegracht (new canal). As I walked up the cobbestoned road, I happened upon a set of small stone ‘brugs’ leading into the houses, and below these were porches, old grainy timber ones sitting on the water, the floor almost level with the canal waters. Weather beaten chairs with peeling paint sat next to rustic wooden tables barely small enough to fit on the small porches on the water’s edge. Just a step up from here, were miniature wharves resting on the canal water, just big enough to fit a chair, or two very small chairs at most. Teamed with the still reflective water, the arches holding up the stone bridges created a netherworld of tunnels beneath the streets of Utrecht. A few steps more and a large weathered tree was stretching over in an arc over the canal, as if trying to touch it’s roots, I could practically hear the weathered tree groaning in protest about it’s poor unflexible trunk. A vivid vision of an older me entered my mind, an old man lounging back in a rocking chair, a long white beard resting over a round stomach with a fine stemmed pipe in one hand and a beer in the other, blowing smoke rings up past his grandpa hat to make friends with the wind. One day eh?…

Den Haag and I made our acquaintance after a late lunch, where I spent a good amount of time drifting around Haagse Bos and Duinbos, the two main parks about 10 mins walk from the central station. Haagse Bos is a forest in a city (literally called forest of the Hague), and soon as I walked into the foresty park, the noise from the city disappeared and was replaced by a soft stillness and tall oaks. Following the horse trail, hoof prints set deep in the leaf covered mud, I found myself a little slice of woodland heaven in parliament seat of the netherlands. Ducks paddled about in the lake, around the reeds and underneath the small footbridges that had been erected over the water. I continued my airy walk into Duinbos, a wet green park across the way, which plays host to the Clingendael (an institute of diplomacy), a poetic house sitting on the waterfront of the park. Behind it is an ‘olden’ day village, of which contains a few colourful small houses and barns. Bumbling around over the wooden bridge behind the Clingendael Estate, along the paths I found yet another canal, this time lined by soft green hills and the thick trunks of beech’s, limes and hornbeams.

With the sun now retreating and the cool winter night setting in, I made tracks downtown to check out the Peace Palace, an international law administration building. I’m not even remotely interested in law, as my colourful past might dictate, but the architecture is definitely something to rest your eyes on. With the clock tower on the left side of the building ticking away, and the sun falling behind the palace, it made a pretty sight, especially with the setting sun creating a background to offset the blue roof, and red brick facade. As the winter cold closed in on me, my feet marched me down to a lit-up Binnehof as new year light placements were being set up on a small island in the middle of the Hofvijver lake. A 13th century gothic castle on a lake makes for quite a picturesque kind of moment, which plays to the political tune that the city is known for, as it is the oldest parliament house still in use. With lights flaring over the castle spires, and the building reflecting off the water like a drunk, wobbly twin I turned a corner into the resting shadows and wandered up to the two storey Mauritshuis, an art gallery watched over by a christmas tree holding guard behind the tall black gates, which were furnished with gold tips. Not a terrible day of sightseeing completed.

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Binnehof

No day trip can be complete without some good food, so on the way back to the train station I jammed on the brakes at an oliebollen cart to rekindle part of my childhood. For those of you unlucky enough not to have shoved these round balls of doughey goodness down your gullets, in short it’s a balled version of doughnut. Or as the dutch may say, the doughnut is the ring version of an olibole. I ordered a couple of the wondrous doughy balls, as well as an appelbeignet and began the munch-a-thon on route back to Amsterdam. Having never eaten an appelbeignet, my privates tingled a little with every bite, why had this never been introduced to me before? Slices of apple wrapped in soft dough and deep fried, they are a new year’s food in the netherlands, and a delicious addition to anyone’s belly. After hammering the appelbeignet down quicker then a carpenter does a nail, it was time to relive my childhood. Chowing down on the oliebollen, i was pleasantly surprised to find one of them had been filled with rum sultanas. Ingenious bastards, the dutch. As kids, we grew up eating ‘ollie bollies’ (because being australian means you have to nickname everything) every new year, dipping them in icing sugar and pounding them down like fat little monkeys on a banana raid. A perfect fatty end to the night.

Obsessed with the idea of ollibollen, my first mission of the day was to head down to the local bakery and buy 8 of the delicious round buggers, covered in sugar and wrapped in a paper bag. On the way back to the apartment I couldn’t help but stop by the Albert Cuyp market in Oude Pijp, and drool over poffertjes (small dutch pancakes), dutch chicken covered in cheese and a chilli barbecue sauce, herring rolls and waffles. Walking through de pijp there was clothing apparel, shoes, stalls selling anything from gum to toothpaste, a dutchman calling out to me over a hot counter offering me a bite of his chicken. I couldn’t help myself and had to get a tub of chicken with extra cheese and chilli sauce, and while I made a mess of that, I also pulled up smartly at the herring stall and ordered a herring roll with pickles and onions. As a young dude, I was always sticking my grubby paws into my brothers jars of rollmop herring and sneaking off with a good fillet of the stuff, but I’d never even considered having herring on a roll before. What a sweet way to enjoy a late morning, herring roll in one hand and chicken in the other, bag of ollibollen hanging off a pinky finger and cheese clinging to my hairy face, I juggled the food procession home, gaining a few quizzical looks on the way.

After finishing off a nice fat joint of ‘Power Kush’, I enjoyed the street scenes the moment new year arrived, my bag of ollibollen keeping me great company. Bangs and booms were slowly increasing in regularity before the new year came, but once new year had arrived I had to check out the local scene to watch families wander out into the street, loaded with armfulls of fireworks as if they were going to wage war with the first day of January. These people are crazy over fireworks, everywhere I looked there were people bringing out their fireworks for a street display. Red bottle and sky rockets were whistling up haphazardly into the night sky, multicoloured missile batteries were firing skywards from the pub across the road, ‘banger’ bombs could be heard booming all over the local area, long strings of firecrackers were thrown into the middle of the road, snapping at the cars driving past. Repeaters, artillery shells, strobes, roman candles, you name it, these people had it. They are passionate for fireworks in this country, and when I say passionate I mean they love the bloody things. It was my first new years away from home, in a new city, and witness to a funny, crazy street style celebration. It was a really cool experience, seeing all the locals get together and celebrate their own way.

New years day brought with it the gift of sunshine, which shone down the canalled streets, occasional booms still rendering across the city streets, which were snowed under in red paper, a remainder of the previous evenings celebrations. On my to the cinema, groups of young people filtered and scanned through mountains of red, looking for any remaining fireworks that could be set off. Continual booms, bangs and hisses accompanied my walk through town, I couldn’t help but laugh on my way down to the heart of Amsterdam.

After a eye glazing Star Wars, it was time to begin the hunt for some stammpot, another dish from my childhood. A dish which is virtually mashed potatoes with veges mixed in, usually a sausage or chunky slice of bacon thrown on top. The door swung wide and in I went, very hungry and after ordering my sauerkraut stammpot with sausage, I sipped away on my heineken, eagerly awaiting dinner. As I tucked in i envisioned a supersized family pot full of mashed potatoes and sauerkraut thunking down on a wooden board, and horseshoe shaped dutch sausages being slapped loudly onto serving dishes. While a machete sized butchers knife cut through the sausage, hot bacon spec was sprinkled over the potato, flavourful fat drizzling down in tiny rivulets off the top of the mountain of potatoes. Fresh ‘grandma’s’ apple pie followed with a good hit of vanilla ice cream, dolloped on the side of the plate. A perfect soulfilling, heart warming meal for the cool dutch winter.

Over the course of that evening I managed to catch up with my friends Denny and Lalita on the eastside of town for a few cups of tea and exchange stories, I hadn’t seen these guys for a few years, so it was awesome being able to catch up with them in Amsterdam. Part of the joy of travelling is meeting up with both old and new friends alike in different destinations you never dreamed you would get together in. The whole world becomes your playground, the world itself becomes your local city. It’s similar to getting on the blower and calling my mates back home and organising to meet up down at Greenlees (our local) to catch up over a steak and a few schooey’s. ‘Oh you guys are in germany now? Sweet dude I’ll meet you in Munich, let’s go for some dinner and a few schooeys’. It’s the same deal across the world. We spent the evening talking about our experiences to date, our future plans and reliving the spring days of our adventurous youth. Ah, to be young again! After a long stroll back to Oude Pijp we parted ways, until we meet again my friends!

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