Sunday, 22 June 2014

Ashby to Amsterdam - Day 3

The ferry really was very good - our room was palatial, as good as any mid-priced hotel and with the best sea view ever. By 7.00am we were on Dutch soil, not quite tiptoeing through the tulips but clipping in ready for the final stage.
Ferry cabin

It was a bad start - we couldn't get any help from the GPS and we spent 20 minutes riding round looking for a signpost or someone to ask. We found a dog walker who told us to head for The Hague and we'd pick up the Amsterdam signs from there. When we asked how to get to The Hague she just said 'Go that way' and pointed.

A bit further we saw two youngish lads on bikes - we asked them if we were on the right road for Amsterdam - they looked at us in disbelief - 'I don't know' said one 'We go to Amsterdam on the train'

Much has been said about the Dutch and cycling - how they have invested in a cycling infrastructure and how much we could learn from them. It has to be said that the cycle lanes are impressive, usually one on either side of the road, separated from traffic and with a right of way over cars. The roads aren't as busy as over here and of course it is flat. I read somewhere that of all our neighbours the Dutch seem the most like us but the country feels so different to ours so far.

We stop to photograph our bikes in front of a windmill. 150 yards further there is another one, then three in a line - soon we've lost interest. As we get to The Hague we are still having difficulty with the GPS - Gary stops, as he has on a number of occasions and rides down a street to see if we're on the right track - I pause not sure if we are on the right track and Gaz carries on. I realise he's not coming back but by then it's too late - he's up the road somewhere. A phone call 10 minutes later confirms what I already knew - Gaz has pedalled off not realising I'm not following - by the time he looks round he's covered 5 miles - he tries to explain where he went but I can't see any of the landmarks he describes. In the end he comes back and we join up after wasting a good half hour!

Through The Hague we pass into more rural countryside, the land of Erasmus and Rutger Hauer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh - a few more windmills, dykes, quiet roads, mostly new buildings. Pretty unremarkable really. We pause in a village for a coffee and a cake - we sit outside, opposite a supermarket. There is no car park for the supermarket just a big bike rack - no one seems to use a car for shopping - just an endless stream of bikes, people have panniers or baskets on the front or both, they load their shopping and they're off again - it all works so well.
more windmills

It's another steaming hot day as we edge towards our goal. And talking of goals I suddenly realise England will be making their debut in this years World Cup competition tonight - another late night then. We follow a road alongside a river for a while - there are some expensive speed boats moored alongside luxuriously appointed property on the other bank - a whole row of them. Not long after we spot our first road sign for Amsterdam and we're riding through some sort of park - lots of trees, grassy patches with children and families playing, loads of intertwining narrow paths. Soon we're lost again. The GPS and the signposts have differing opinions on which way to go - strangely we opt for the GPS. We ride alongside a river, marked out into lanes ready for a rowing match, then we approach the edge of the city, the roads grow increasingly busy, more traffic, more bikes, more buildings - the cycle lanes are filling out, there're all shapes, sizes and ages - a constant river - it must be the world's biggest peloton.

As the city sprawl grows we are faced with the alarming prospect of attempting to cross a major road junction - this is not so easy - traffic, people, bikes - all moving independently in different directions and not necessarily corresponding to the indications on the traffic light system. We just follow the person in front - straight through a red light - brushing past pedestrians, deflecting granny overtaking on her solid steel Dutch roadster with a couple of grandkids in the basket on the front of her bike.

bikes everywhere
The GPS gets us through the traffic and into the general area of our hotel. It's hard to describe just how many bikes there are on the streets of Amsterdam - it's like an ants' nest exposed to the sun, there seems to be bikes everywhere, travelling in every direction, then there's the treacherous Dutch cobbles and tyre grabbing tramlines - it looks chaotic to the casual visitor - and yet everyone seems to be acting normally - it's strange but exciting. We meet up with the girls and finally get to the Hotel - we've made it. Almost 300 miles ridden - Ashby to Amsterdam - its another one ticked off, and another tattoo to fit onto my thigh, or calf, or wherever I decide to put them. If I ever decide.

We get showered and changed and then head out into the city - we decide the best option is to keep moving, its either that or we'll drop asleep. We have a beer and while standing on a bridge over a canal with flower-decked barges and families of coots below - we decide on a boat trip around the canals, very reasonable at around €10 a head. I last about 10 minutes before nodding off as the sun streams down through the glass roof of the boat. Afterwards we find an old bar down a side street, almost pitch black inside, there's jazz music playing, a chandelier that carries the dust of the entire twentieth century and a mysterious spiral staircase in the corner leading who knows where? As our eyes adjust to the darkness and the dutch beer soothes the aches and pains we slide gently into the chilled atmosphere of Amsterdam. My mind drifts to thoughts of liberalism, the detritus of vice, the open drugs culture - everyone know what Amsterdam is famous for - it's not food or cultural destinations - it's fun, sex 'n' drugs - and in these two preoccupations you can view the Dutch dilemma - the tug of liberty against probity. The two longest queues in Amsterdam are outside Anne Frank's house and a live sex show. Anyway, time to get back to the hotel - The England/Italy match is about to start.

It's Sunday. A bad start to our World Cup campaign. We decide to visit the Van Gogh museum. This is a good choice - we spend the fastest three hours I can remember exploring the various floors - its a big space and there's enough to keep us interested. We finally emerge via the museum shop €100 lighter but contentedly humming Don McLean's 'Vincent' all the way to the next stop, conveniently situated just across the road - The Bols Museum. You may have some recollection of seeing a Bols bottle somewhere, maybe at the back of your drinks cabinets or that of your parents - But without Bols there's be no Gin - and the world would be a sadder place without Gin.

After the tour and half a dozen cocktails we were ready for anything. The Red light district is situated alongside a canal. There is a museum of eroticism, various 'erotic outlets' and girls standing in windows - at first glance they look like mannequins. It's all very open and clearly well organised. No one makes a fuss, no sign of any policemen (we never saw a policeman the whole trip). Seeing prostitutes standing in shop windows is an odd sensation - It is impossible to ignore that the girls are Asian, African, Eastern European and the clients are Italian, Spanish, German and English - Neither the girls or the clients are Dutch - they are pleased to be liberal about prostitution; they just don't want to be prostitutes - and don't want to visit them.

We decide we need to eat and turn onto a street full of restaurants - we opt for Cau-Cau - a big, loud space, black walls with silver highlights, modern furniture and high ceilings with a relentless post-modern hip-hop beat thrumming on a continuous loop. The menu is unashamedly carnivorous. Detailed descriptions of various cuts of Argentinian beef. It's not cheap but sounds good. We order.
The Steak is tasty and tender, an agreeable lump of perfectly cooked muscle - the best I've tasted in a long time. The fries come in varying thickness and there's an interesting side dish of garden peas with chilli. Afterwards, back in the hotel bar, we muse over the trip and deliberate on our next challenge - this one has worked out so well, it will be a hard act to follow.

Amsterdam is an agreeable city. It's human sized and it doesn't blind you with ostentation. It's a nice place, commodious and comfortable. I'll be going again.

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