City Break: Amsterdam

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Went for a short break to Amsterdam last November, the city autumnal, rainy, almost off-guard in a non-touristy way. The Spring/Summer crowds were missing, queues not too bad. The city was all bikes and motorised scooters, a constant flow, dangerous if you’re used to curb-hovering on Irish streets with not much cycling going on. Our hotel was near the Museum district so we wandered through there every day, betweeen the modern art and Van Gogh museums. We did tourist things, obviously, the Red Light District, the canal boat tour. I was reading Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto, a fine run through of the city’s history with an emphasis on its tradition of liberal freedoms and trade.

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And I was taking photos too, of course. Being somewhere for a relatively short time sharpens your eye, makes you think more acutely about what you want to shoot, capturing the essence of the place because you don’t have time to spare. So the central Amsterdam of museums and old buildings and bars and sex shops was where we were. Tram lines against grey morning skies, banana bread from food stalls, climbing the stairs of the Van Gogh Museum, each section evolving the artist’s style towards the chromatic revelation of the (appropriately) higher floors, lingering around the cavernous, bike-busy underpass of the Rijksmuseum, waiting for trams near the Prince’s Palace on Dam Square (where the autumnal turned nasty and we got soaked in a torrential downpour, had to take shelter in a McDonalds, so sodden the dye from my coat was coming off on the table). Eyeing the neon entrance to The Sex Museum but too sadly Irish and repressed to go in.

With headphones telling us of Amsterdam history, we took the canal boat tour, hop on-hop off, so we used it twice, as much as a means of transport into the city centre as a tour. We chugged dreamily along, passed all these boats and barges converted into homes, Buddha statues and hemp plants in windows, winter light glittering off the viscous swell of water. It was very soothing, drifting along, taking pictures, learning of merchant fortunes and pillars sunk deep into the marshy land beneath these old houses. Eventually it took us out into the waters of the harbour, to more outlying districts, glimpses of working class suburbs beyond the low sleepy drift of the canal boats and the arching vistas of the picturesque bridges.

Apart from the boat tour we travelled by tram and foot. It took us awhile to get our bearings, as it always does in a new city, but eventually we found good places to visit, to eat and drink in, and to photograph. We ambled down the long narrow streets of the old town, especially the Zeedijk leading towards the Chinese district, sudden plumes of hash smoke enveloping us, stopped for a regenerative pint in Molly Malone’s Irish bar, stood at the Kolkswaterkering lock on Oudezijds watching tourists getting their photos taken and boats heading into the perspectival distance towards the 800-year-old Oude Kerk.

As darkness descended on our final night we headed for De Wallen, the Red Light District, found a table at the Cafe de Zeevaart and watched the hordes stream by outside towards the window displays, nightclubs and casinos. Inside an old couple drank whiskies dressed like ghosts from a Serge Gainsbourg video, him in pin-striped gangster suit, her in fur stole, hands like parchment paper, genteel lushes surrounded by boisterous English girls ordering mass rounds of shots and a gay hen party dressed as bishops and cardinals. Outside, in between the neon signs (some of the women on display glowing in blue and yellow fluorescent underwear like extras in a porn version of Tron) the canal remained glass-smooth, disturbed only by autumn leaves and three regal swans floating serenely through the madness and noise around them.

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