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The International Writers Magazine: Amsterdam 2011

City-Pick Amsterdam: the city, the guidebook and the footsore tourist
Chris Mills
We took a trip last month to Amsterdam; a weekend trip squeezed in between work and school commitments. It was to be a brief taster of all that the city has to offer if one only had a bit more time to spend there. I took along with me the literary travel guide City-Pick Amsterdam (Oxygen Books, edited by Heather Reyes) which I had been sitting on for a while without actually putting to good use.


This was finally to be my chance to put the guide book to the ultimate test. But things never really go according to plan, do they? The reality of the case was that I did it slightly backwards and didn’t actually get around to reading half of the book until after I had come back from Amsterdam. I managed to read the introduction and several pieces (the book contains excerpts from over 70 writers) but I didn’t read solidly. Quite clearly I now have to return to the city and visit the places I managed to read up on afterwards but missed seeing this time. I certainly recommend at the very least browsing through the guide before venturing forth because the personal accounts here give the visitor a flavour that a conventional guide book won’t capture. I wish I had read more before going because now I have an itch to return and explore further Amsterdam’s streets, canals and history. But more from the guide book shortly.

Unfortunately, the one thing I actually did do before travelling was to get sucked into reading some ‘Trip Advisor’ reviews on the hotel that we had booked into (Hotel Citadel). I am not entirely sure whether the site is a Good Thing or not. It seems to me (on admittedly a brief acquaintance) to be full of reviews from people who obviously didn’t do their homework before going somewhere and then complain about stuff afterwards. It looks to me as though a lot of people don’t read the large print let alone the small print when they are making a booking. I say this because in spring I booked a stay in York at a Travelodge hotel and then idly skimmed through TA reviews afterwards. Many people complained about parking (the lack thereof) and left luggage facilities (ditto) and yet the company website quite clearly stated the situation in the first place. I don’t drive, but I must admit that a left luggage facility would have been handy. As there wasn’t such a thing to be had it would seem pointless to make a fuss about it. But I digress. To return to the Amsterdam reviews: I was pleased to see that our prospective hotel had a pretty good press on the whole and was praised for its good breakfast buffet selection (always a good thing to have). It was referred to as ‘charming’ and ‘clean’ which seemed most satisfactory.

But back to literary Amsterdam: In his introduction to the literary guide to the Dutch capital Sam Garrett describes the city thus, ‘Giddy Amsterdam, staid Amsterdam. Empress, fishwife, lady of the night. Hero, artist, traitor, beggar. Visionary, Calvinist and clown’. It’s a bit of a daunting description really, considering that we have only got a weekend to get to grips with all of those personalities. But in a couple of days you can only really scratch the surface of any city I suppose, let alone one with as much going on as Amsterdam. And with a child along on the trip, there’s a limit to how much giddy night time activities can be accommodated. So that’s a visit to the Sex Museum marked down for another time then I suppose.  The guide book is divided into sections covering different aspects of the city’s history, culture and geography, beginning with a clutch of extracts attempting to explain the hold that Amsterdam gains over those that come to know the city well. Some pieces have been especially translated for this anthology (for instance excerpts from Cees Nooteboom and Peter de Graaf to mention but two). Not surprisingly, water and the canals figure largely in people’s hearts and minds and there is whole section devoted to ‘Water, water everywhere...’  Nobody mentioned Trip Advisor though, which can only be a good sign I feel.

We walked (and walked and walked) along canal paths, craning our necks up to look at bits of buildings and down to look at lovely house boats on the water. Thank goodness for a pair of flat boots and dry weather to walk around in. There is so much to look at that you could easily just spend a day wandering the streets. In one extract from Cycling Amsterdam Kelvin Whalley explains how it is that so many of the old buildings are so tall and narrow; a width tax no less. His wife then swiftly steers him through the red light district where women are making good use of the windows in those tall houses, ‘I tried to explain that I was just curious to sample the diverse cultural nuances that make Amsterdam simultaneously traditional and racy..’. Don’t try that one at home.

Not that there is any need to walk or cycle as there is a very efficient tram network around the city. Living in Dublin where we have two tram lines crossing the city that don’t intersect, it is refreshing to encounter a transport system that appears to be geared up to facilitating route hopping to your hearts content. We didn’t really set off with any firm plan other than an intention to visit the Van Gogh Museum later in the day. In the end we paid a visit to the Artis Royal Zoo (founded 1838) before finally reaching the famous sunflowers.

The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the Van Gogh Museum, despite my total lack of preparedness for the queues or the high level of security in the place. And if I’d only discovered the Amsterdam tourist card before arriving we could at least have been saved some of the queuing. I cheerfully admit to being the kind of person who would really like to have the whole art gallery to myself and not to have to share it with hundreds of other people who all want to look at the same paintings at the same time as I do. Bearing that in mind you can imagine how frustrating is to finally get to see paintings only seen previously in books ‘in the flesh’ but then to have other people’s heads in the way when you are trying to see what is arguably the most famous painting on display.

group theatre Chris Evans in an extract from The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam rails against the ubiquity of Van Gogh’s The Sunflowers, ‘It’s a wonder the average visitor knows that Van Gogh painted anything else’. To balance this tartness the book includes a lovely, thoughtful piece by César Antonio Molina where he introduces the reader to his favourite works at the museum (and yes, he does mention sunflowers).

I was reading a couple of excerpts on visiting the Anne Frank House, but I have to come clean and state here and now that I didn’t end up visiting it despite it being one of the ‘must see’ items on a trip to Amsterdam.  I read the famous diary many years ago as a teenager and promised myself that one day I would visit Anne’s place of hiding. So why, after all these years did I not then make time to go on this trip? I think probably because I have mixed feelings about her former home and hiding place being a tourist attraction at all. Obviously people who are familiar with her history want to go, and so do I, or at least a part of me does. Part of me is squeamish about the intrusion into what would have been her private space.  Perhaps David Sedaris has the right idea in his irreverent approach to a tour round the iconic building, ‘My months of house hunting had caused me to look at things in a certain way, and on seeing the crowd gathered at the front door, I did not think, Ticket line, but, Open house!’ He then goes on to decide what improvements he would make if he bought the house. Another writer, Salil Tripathi writing of a visit to the house, recalls that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, threatened with loss of citizenship drew attention to the fact that the Dutch had betrayed Anne Frank also. Thus, sadly: the traitor of Garrett’s introduction.

This guide book has had more use after the trip than before it (see above) and acquired a fair few highlighted and marked passages for future reference. Next time I really travel though, I will be so much better prepared. I also have a date with Rembrandt, sadly neglected on this trip, my interest reawakened by the extract from Sylvie Matton’s Rembrandt’s Whore.  It has to be said that the book is also a great armchair travel guide; just read a few words from a gifted travel writer, shut your eyes and away you go. No need for queues, passports or security checks. Club class please!

© Chris Mills May 2011

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