By Michael McCarthy
As a cyclist, I love Amsterdam. Evidently there are over 800,000 registered bicycles, and cycling around the bike-jammed streets and looking for a place to park and lock your bike it seems there are almost as many unregistered. It may be the most bike-friendly city in the world. There are tourist attractions everywhere in the downtown core and you can access them all by bike. The scenery is replete with endless canals and boats and ancient architecture. Of course, as a city full of tourists, finding a place to rent a bike is a snap. I went to MacBike, conveniently located in Grand Central Station right in the heart of town next to the Grand Canal. You can’t miss it. You can rent a bike by the hour or day or for several days. These are not the sort of bikes you find in Vancouver. No one sports flashy Italian racing shirts, shorts and shoes and few people wear helmets. They don’t ride $5,000 lightweight graphite sprinters. Everyone rides bikes big clumsy one speed clunkers. You don’t need 27 gears in Amsterdam; everything is flat. No one pedals faster than 10 miles an hour.
You can rent a bike by the hour, day or several days. The three-day package will give you time to see the essential sites, like the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House and the Stedelijk Museum. There are over fifty museums, which attract almost two million visitors every year. The problem is trying to get into them. I tried several times to enter the Ann Frank House, but there was always a huge line-up at any hour of the day. I think it takes as long to get into Ann Frank house as the people who hid there during the war. The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum are always packed as well. The main attraction for me was simply pedalling around while observing the lives of the people, the charming cafes and local neighbourhoods. I dreamed about what it would be like to live in such a wonderfully scenic city. Just riding a bike through streets almost devoid of vehicular traffic was wonderful. It’s a slower pace, relaxed. Cars are definitely second class. If you need public transit, there are trams everywhere.
Speaking of coffee shops, finding a chair in a café in the summer sun can be a challenge. The first time I went, it was late June, a crystal clear sky shimmering over tree-covered streets. My wife and I trundled lazily along, mesmerized by the charm, keeping a sharp eye out for the millions of other cyclists and – more importantly – looking for a café and a place to lock our bikes. In a city of a million cyclists, the biggest problem is finding a place to lock your bike. MacBike staff made it very clear that bikes were often stolen by junkies, and you would be charged handsomely for a replacement. Pedalling around, every fence, tree, or bike rack in the city appeared to be taken. But then I spotted it. The Dutch Flowers Cafe sported two empty chairs facing the sun. People were strolling around everywhere so we raced a city block and put our bags down before anyone could grab them. Time for a latte and to people watch some more. I strode manfully inside to order two non-fat lattes and maybe a couple of biscuits. Inside, the café was dim and smelly and quiet except for the very old classic rock on the sound system. I think it was Led Zeppelin. Unlike every other café we’d seen, it wasn’t brisk and lively. No one was talking. The patrons sat sullenly, staring at their coffees or at the wall. The barista
standing behind the counter gave me the stink eye. What the heck? I looked around to see if a dog had followed me in. Nothing. I turned around, smiled and ordered two lattes.
“Can’t you read?” muttered the manager. “Sometimes,” I replied cheerfully. “Not Dutch though. Depends on the language involved and the time of day. Seldom before breakfast and never before my morning coffee. Two lattes please.”
“Read this, then,” he said, pointing to a sign hanging just above the coffee grinder. It said: No purchase of coffee without the purchase of marijuana or hashish.
My mouth hung open. I am seldom caught short of words, but this was a first. It was illegal to buy coffee unless I bought some dope first? Amazing! I have travelled the planet for many years searching for stories that personified the place to which I had travelled, but it’s seldom one falls into your lap first day on the job without even looking. It was Amsterdam wrapped up with a big bow, a present. The city was more than permissive, it punished people who were not just as permissive. I’d have bought some hash if I hadn’t given up smoking it 30 years ago. Bad for the lungs. Amsterdam, I realized, was unique in more ways than I knew. But, given that what I really wanted was two seats in the sunshine, I was annoyed. “I’ve been thrown out of better joints than this,” I punned, and stomped outside.
But the story wasn’t over yet. A total hipster dude, a black spade wearing a beret, sport coat, spats and cool shades (the owner, I learned) was standing by our table, pointing the way for us to depart. We had been exposed as un-hip bozos, unwanted and bounced. Tourists! But across the street beckoned a bakery, with two seats available, so we grabbed our bikes and ran. The lattes were great, and so was the sunshine. We locked our bikes on a railing and basked. Where to go next? The Marijuana and Hashish Museum was right around the corner, and the Red Light District was on the same street, but it seemed a little early for porno. We found the Flower District and wandered around the shops smelling the tulips. Ain’t life great? I love Amsterdam.
A different version of this story once appeared in Postmedia publications in Canada. Michael McCarthy has published hundreds of travel articles in many newspapers and magazines. You can read more at www.transformative-travel.ca