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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Amsterdam, 1st and 2nd August, 2011.

Day 1

After scrupulous planning, careful consideration and much anticipation, our venture across Europe began in earnest at Ramsgate train station, Kent on 1st August 2011 at 5am. One of the major benefits of living in Kent is the excellent transport links to continental Europe, and we capitalised on this by travelling to Ashford International and then making the hour and a half Eurostar underground train journey to Brussels, Belgium. For the record, the InterRail ticket cannot be used in your native country for bureaucratic reasons and thus it is imperative to plan and obtain tickets from an alternative source. Fortunately, being under 25 allows Eurostar journeys to be heavily discounted and it cost us 35 pounds each for the journey- cheaper than it would be for me to travel to University in Exeter on any given day.

As our stay in Amsterdam was limited to 2 nights, we decided not to stick around in Brussels and test its reported reputation for being the most boring capital city in Europe. The 5 hour journey to Amsterdam was fairly uneventful, although we managed to unwittingly sit in the first class section for 3 hours, before being told to move by a sharp Aryan looking chap, who also reported a couple of North African men. Racism? Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that they didn’t have tickets, a passport, were sitting in first class and freely enjoying cigarettes.

Luckily, Northern Europe was in the midst of a heatwave with temperatures hovering around 30 degrees and arrival into Amsterdam ensured a friendly greeting by the smiling sun. Prior thoughts about the Dutch capital centered around its meandering canals, baroque architecture and its frivolous, liberal side. The latter came into direct attention as we wondered out of the train station and en route to our hostel in, you guessed it, the red light district. Sex and vodka museums, an abundance of tourists (mainly British judging by their pale skins and ill advised tattoos), and international restaurants accompanied our stroll through what appeared to be one of the main strips. Canal confusion led to a delay in finding our hostel, before the neon lights of ‘Hostel Globe’ enticed us into their grungy, dingy surroundings.

The Hostel
Name: The Globe- also a sports bar
Price (per night per person): 23 euros
Positives: Terrific location next to a canal and inside the red light district and a 10 minute walk from the Central station. Friendly, helpful staff who offered a map of the city, and even stored Nadia’s cheese in the fridge. Shows lots of live sports in the downstairs bar, has a happy hour of half price beer (Amsterdam is extremely expensive, and any offers need to be taken advantage of), and overall, a very relaxed atmosphere.
Negatives: Expensive, but to reiterate, this is to be expected when visiting the capital. Dorm of 16 people could have proved a bit annoying, although luckily the crowd we were with were respectful of others. No lift and an inadequate luggage compartment, meaning it is not very convenient for travellers. Bathing facilities were not the best.
Overall rating: 6.5/10- Would happily go there again.

Once we’d settled, and had a little rest, it was time to venture into the red light district and experience its rather bizarre atmosphere. Some people stumbled out of coffee shops (too much caffeine?), whilst others took window shopping to a new level by frequenting the services on offer. It amused me how most of the men visiting the delightful ladies in the brothels were middle aged, and probably had a family at home totally unaware of their activities abroad. Guess that’s why the oldest profession in the world has little chance of ever ending. The less said about the ‘models’ with the neon blue lights in the windows, the better (Trannies). Moving on, we managed to eventually escape the degenerate, decadent trappings of the red light district and casually made our way to a cultural museum. The sex museum that is.

Entry was 3 euros and well worth the money if you can handle the screaming Asians inside. No no, none of that, they’re only tourists. The museum exhibits how sex has been an important part of society for hundreds of years, and uses rather explicit ways to demonstrate this, such as a gentleman flashing and then ejaculating into a glass phone box. Other highlights included a manufactured couple having sex, a history of various sexual genres such as bondage, and condoms and dildos that have not been used for a very long time. Let’s hope not anyway.

All these sexual connotations made me very hungry, and we made our way out of the seedy surroundings and headed in the direction of the Anne Frank museum where we found a traditional Dutch café on the way. A very nice snack platter was served up containing sausage meat, cheese and various other side dishes, accompanied by a glass of Amstel. The murdered Jews would have to wait for tomorrow as we were put off by the deceptively long queue, and instead lost our way again, before walking back to our haunting ground in the red light district. A juice drink was enjoyed, followed by a few beers in the evening, a Gyros kebab for me from an overpriced Greek takeaway, before we went back to our not so cosy rooms and slept in preparation for a busy second day.

Day 2

Our first night’s sleep was OK, but my paranoia led me to waking up a few times and checking whether our sealed steal locker had been perpetrated. Whilst paranoia may be a symptom suited to the trappings of Amsterdam, checking our locker at regular intervals in the night became a consistent feature of my hostel experience. Nadia, on the other hand, slept like a baby.

An early start was accompanied by a pastry snack and a dash of lemon ice tea, something continental Europe always has an abundance of. With this, we headed towards Anne Frank’s House, one of the most popular museums in the city, and patiently queued for about 20 minutes. Luckily, we managed to get away with being 17 year olds, despite my scruffy stubble, and paid just 4 euros each; a 6 euro saving if I can remember correctly. The museum effectively portrayed the conditions in which Anne and her family lived while hiding from the Nazis, and it has got to be noted that the house itself was incredible. There could definitely be worse places to hide in the world, but discovering that Anne had not encountered fresh outside air for 5 years gives its own sense of perspective. For some reason, photographs are never allowed inside museums such as these, and Nadia’s attempts to defy this were consistently prevented by an oversized woman in front of us who kept getting in the way of the shot.  

Talking of fat, the Amsterdam guide books had frequently mentioned the necessity to try ‘traditional Dutch chips’ which were apparently fried in a different manner to the usual in Blighty. Unfortunately, the decision to include ketchup back ‘fried’ and we were instead greeted with overly soggy remnants of potato. With the sun still blazing, we strolled on and walked aimlessly across the meandering canals and ended up at busy square, complete with a joyful cover band, cafes, restaurants and a water fountain to boot. All very pleasant.

Before long, it was time to go to the Central train station and arrange our travels to Berlin the next morning. Expectations to pay a supplement train fare, the InterRail website constantly claimed that a 10 to 20 euro extra charge would be required upon high speed journeys, were gladly not fulfilled and the 5 hour trip to the German capital was organised for 7.30 am. On the way back from the station, we popped into the vodka shop, or ‘museum’ as it loosely labelled itself, and chatted to a friendly Russian man. Bit too overfriendly maybe, he keenly enquired as to whether we were descendants from the former Soviet Republic, giving me an opportunity to display my linguistic capabilities: ‘Niet’, I replied. Interestingly, or not, Alexander and Nadia are popular Russian names.

Going back to the cesspool, I mean hostel (it was ok, just a bit dingy, like an endearing swamp), we grabbed some warmer clothes and walked into the red neon lights and party atmosphere that characterises Amsterdam. For some, this atmosphere could be seen as just a bit too seedy and uncomfortable, as exemplified by our walking past a ‘live sex show’ arena and a particularly greasy haired chap becoming frustrated by his failed attempts to entice people in. It seems his frustration finally boiled over after we declined him, as he delightfully muttered to Nadia something along the lines of: “Come inside and you’ll see men with much bigger dicks than your boyfriend”. Whether this insult tactic ever proves successful remains debatable.

Anyhoo, we eventually found a bar along a canal and sat and watched as men snuck into brothels and then sheepishly emerged again half an hour later. The barman himself was a bit of an oddball, who’s English was slightly unclear. This led to the following exchange:
Me: “What beers have you got?”
Him: “Lots of beers”.
Me: “Erm, which ones?”
Him: “What do you want?”
Me: “What have you got?”
He then quickly and incoherently listed them, expecting me to understand. I realise that I’m the foreigner who should be speaking Dutch, not the other way round. Maybe Double Dutch would have been more suited to this man though.
Me: “ Can I have a Corona?”
Me: “ Oh, fair enough, two Amstels then please”.

An extremely elongated conversation that must have thrown him off track, as he forgot to charge us. Seeing him as the aggressive type, as we left I approached him and tried to pay which again led to another exchange:
Him: “What do you want?”
Me: “Erm, to pay”

A bizarre end to a city that thrives on the bizarre and the extreme. All aboard the train to Berlin!

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