“That was a bit disconcerting, cycling past those naked ladies,” said husband.
“What naked ladies?” I asked, though since we were in Amsterdam, I wasn’t too surprised.
“You didn’t see the naked ladies?” husband asked. “They were in the windows in that street we just came down, posing in hardly any underwear. I can’t believe you didn’t see them.”
“I was too busy steering round the pedestrians and cobbles,” I retorted. “I can’t believe you did see them. Children, did you see the naked ladies?”
“There were naked ladies?” son demanded, as daughter shook her head.
I shot husband A Look.
I’m getting ahead of myself, a wee bit. The naked lady incident was on our second day in Holland’s capital [at this point I shall address the pedants, one of whom I class myself, with the recognition that Holland is a region, while the Netherlands is the country; also, despite the factAmsterdam is in North Holland, it is not, in fact, the region’s capital – Haarlem is. And the seat of Dutch government is in The Hague, not Amsterdam. I’m going to continue calling the country Holland and Amsterdam the capital, though. Oh, I do bore myself.]
Where was I? Ah yes. Our three days in Amsterdam began with an overnight ferry from Newcastle, a floating hotel of a ship with several restaurants, a gift shop, a cavelit, themed bar with a live band and singer performing easy listening hits, and our tiny wee cabin with two sets of bunk beds. The cabin was so small it encouraged us to leave its confines and explore the multiple stairways and levels; the ship’s spacious freedom our cabin’s polar opposite. We did like the view from the cabin window, though – the good thing about booking so far in advance is that you get the room right at the front of the boat, under the captain’s bridge.
A shuttle bus which really didn’t make full use of its air-conditioning capabilities took us first thing the next morning from Zeehaven harbour into the centre of Amsterdam, where we were deposited on a busy, hot street in front of Centraal train station. The children and I perched on a bench in the sun while husband disappeared to buy some bus tickets. The best ticket to buy is the one-hour or day OV chip card, which can be used on all Amsterdam’s trams and buses. (The trams, by the way, are gradually introducing a system whereby onboard conductors, not the drivers, sell tickets; the conductor sits at a small desk in the middle of the vehicle. This is converse to British train companies’ plans to remove conductors entirely, obviously to save costs. Amsterdam is looking to increase transport staff, to make the services more efficient. Hmmm.)
Our apartment, at Yays Oostenburgergracht, was a mere ten-minute bus journey east of Centraal station… I was going to say “overlooking a canal”, but that’s not much of a USP in Amsterdam. The Yays apartments are serviced rooms in a block with a concierge – we met two concierges during our stay, both very friendly, helpful young women. Arriving so early, we deposited our luggage in the store room – which, also being the location of the public toilet, was unlocked, but hey, no-one else seemed worried about theft, so… – and set off to hire some bikes from Het Zwarte Fietensplan on Czaar Peterstraat.
The bikes were heavy-framed and gearless, gears obviously not necessary on Amsterdam’s flat streets. The handlebars were higher than those of a road or mountain bike, necessitating a more upright posture. Getting used to controlling these bikes was comical for a time – until we realised that the cycle lanes could also be used by mopeds, which zipped past emitting high-frequency, angry buzzing. The two days we spent cycling around the city were great for absorbing the atmosphere and covering more terrain than we could have done on foot, and were also exhilarating and rewarding; but they were far from relaxing. Wobbling as I took off from a red light, someone merged into the lane at high speed from my right, causing another guy who was overtaking me on the left to emit an audible “Woah!” as I almost careered into him. “Sorry! Sorry!” I called, happily. (I was getting quite a kick out of the adrenaline of trying to survive.)
We stopped off for lunch at Instock, a restaurant just round the corner from the apartment, also on Czaar Peterstraat. Its policy is to use the food that is left unsold by supermarkets, overlooked or discarded for its ugliness, such as “crooked fish” (according to the menu), though, as husband pointed out, you’d ask yourself why a fish was crooked. Surely only radioactivity would have that effect? I had “Poké Bowl”, a salad with salmon belly, pickled and raw vegetables, and puffed rice. It was okay. I should have been warned by the words “salmon belly”, but I did think it would be cooked. I’m not sure it was. It was a little too… fleshy for my liking. The puffed rice was good though – like a huge, misshapen prawn cracker, without the prawn flavour.
Suitably refuelled and energised, we set off to cycle to Artis, the city’s zoo, a mere 0.9 miles away. Nevertheless, the journey was hot, sticky and occasionally terrifying, but also hugely exhilarating. The only problem with cycling is that it’s too awkward to stop and take photos – I took fewer pictures of the city than I would have done if we were on foot.
We made it in one piece to the zoo. We had been some seven years before, though husband had no recollection of this until we got into the grounds and it started coming back to him. We seem to make a habit of visiting zoos wherever we go, though I’m not entirely comfortable with them. The first exhibits, though, were in the bird and monkey houses, and were quite brilliant. The animals are not kept behind glass, for the most part, so visitors walk among them, careful not to be standing under a bat when it shits from the ropes off which it hangs above you. In addition to bats, we mingled with sloths, birds, and tiny little monkeys*, if one can be said to mingle with animals you mustn’t touch. And which keep a safe distance from you, scuttling up trees if you come too close. And which happily poo on you.
I quite like Artis. I think it’s one of the zoos that gets it right for the animals, though I wasn’t convinced the lions had enough space. Nor the wallabies. Nor the giraffes. And the penguin enclosure had absolutely no water in the channels throughout; I asked a keeper when we left why this might be and she said she didn’t know there was no water, let alone why. Okay, so maybe the zoo doesn’t quite get it right for all the animals; but its mission remains laudable: to inspire and encourage the public to connect, understand and value nature.
Returning to our apartment, we finally checked in and gave our room the once-over – “I have taken all your bags to your room,” said the concierge. “Wow! Thank you!” we replied. “They’re very heavy.” “Yes, but I am very strong. And you will write a good review for me,” she said drily.
The room was a kooky, high-ceilinged, ex-warehouse space, with a mezzanine level that housed a double and single bed. “Bagsy the double bed,” said son. “Bagsy the single,” said daughter. That left husband and I sharing the sofa bed below. Though we didn’t have a room overlooking the canal, and faced instead the more prosaic car park at the back of the building, the room was spotlessly clean and comfortable, with a kitchenette and ensuite shower room. One wall was papered with life-sized photography of a warehouse interior, by Ilya Rabinovich. Quite hipster.
Once we had settled in and unpacked, we ventured out again for dinner, returning to Czaar Peterstraat to discover Mondo Mediterraneo, an Italian delicatessen with only a couple of tables through the back. The proprietor was extremely cheerful, friendly and helpful; and the food was exquisite: moistly al dente ravioli filled with ricotta and vegetables; oven baked salmon bathed in herbs; and quite the most delicious fava bean salad, with grilled artichokes and a lemon and mint dressing. I was in ecstasy over this last one: “Oh yes!” said the proprietor, “that is one of our most popular dishes!”
Sated, and happily wobbling back to the apartment on our cumbersome bikes, thus ended our first day in Amsterdam. We had the naked ladies to look forward to…
* I would be more specific about the species of these animals, only I didn’t make notes and I can’t find the info on the interweb.