A GUIDEBOOK perused before departure warned that Amsterdammers could be blunt to the point of seeming rude.
Perhaps that’s inevitable, I reasoned, in a city that has become a global magnet for pleasure seekers jetting in by the millions, many lured by that infamously liberal attitude to sex and drugs.
Yet that was far from the first impression on touching down in the Dutch capital from Inverness.
Admittedly, sex and drugs weren’t on the agenda for our family break.
Rock 'n’ roll had lured me there for my only previous visit to the city as a student slumming around Europe by train on the cheap. A visit coincided with a gig by a favoured band of the time (The Mock Turtles, anyone?) at the Melkveg music venue.
This time, with children in tow, I was in search of an alternative, less stereotypical, more family-friendly face of the city.
And we seemed to have found it within minutes of negotiating our way out of the massive global air hub that is Schiphol Airport. There was no way of knowing for sure but the initial signs pointed to a mass outbreak of niceness.
It started with the shopkeeper selling us snacks at the train station. There was a cheerful greeting and a welcome to his country when he picked up we were from out of town. He then pointed us in the right direction to catch a train straight into the heart of the city. Good start!
The niceness continued with the patient ticket seller handling enquiries from left, right and centre. Amazing how far a simple smile goes in a situation like that in cutting through the anxiety of the traveller. And the pleasantness continued with the stranger in the street who insisted on deploying his Google Maps app to ensure we located our side-street lodgings.
Later, we’d have reason to be grateful to the fellow train passenger who confirmed our suspicion that we were travelling in the wrong direction before calmly explaining exactly what to do to get out of the pickle. And, of course, all delivered in flawless English.
First impressions last, and first impressions were good.
The re-establishment of an air link between the Highland capital and Amsterdam via national carrier KLM helped propel a proposed family jaunt there from “one day, one day” to the top of the holiday to-do list. There’s the appeal of the direct flight right there.
The taste of stroopwafels handed out in the street in Inverness by KLM during pre-launch publicity helped seal the deal. Simple, but effective, marketing.
We’d opted to try a self-catering apartment in search of a home-from-home vibe that would allow us to live amongst the locals and yet have the freedom to come and go as we chose. There are some interesting and funky looking hotels and hostels beyond the usual well-branded brigade but we’d left it a little late in the day to make bookings at a reasonable rate.
Kiki’s Apartments on Maarten Jansz Kosterstraat (we relied on the niceness of strangers to locate; Google has an app for that if you choose to be self-sufficient) was reached in about 15 minutes via a tram from the mighty transport hub that is Centraal Station. The train station is reached by trains running every ten minutes from the airport. From there, trams snake out to every corner of the city while trains reach into the rest of the country and on into continental Europe.
Now that’s what I call an integrated transport system.
Spacious, super-warm underfloor heating and all the mod-cons you'd really need for a few days made the apartment we found online look like a decent bet. Domestic thought it may sound, don't underestimate the delights of a washing machine when travelling with children. For us, it meant the ability to simply travel with carry-on hand baggage.
The apartment was close to a tram stop, ensuring we’d find the various attractions we wanted to visit, and so ticked most of the boxes. There was space We’d have got it cheaper had we booked much earlier, but ain’t that always the way? Top tip: when travelling, planning well in advance pays big. We all know that: the trick is acting on it.
And for the young, budget traveller just looking for a place to rest their head for the night, hostel-style choices abound at reasonable rates. TripAdvisor will give you a steer through the eyes of other travellers, though it pays to read lots of reviews to get a fair overall assessment.
The I Amsterdam city card proved a value-for-money purchase, providing unlimited travel on buses and trams for three days and encouraging adventurous jaunts to various corners of the city. As a family of four with two children (aged 13 and 10), we went with public transport and our feet.
But the real joy of Amsterdam’s transport system is the city’s love affair with and perfect suitability for, cycling.
Flat streets + generous, wide cycle lanes = pedal heaven.
The streets are filled with sturdy, old-fashioned, upright bikes with super-practical carrier baskets (often fashioned from beer crates). And – joy of joys – there’s not a square inch of the ridiculous, body-hugging Lycra that seems mandatory for any self-respecting cyclist over here.
In Amsterdam, people dress in their everyday (or work) clothes when hopping on their bikes. There’s a delicious practicality to cycling that just makes it look so satisfying. When we return – and we surely shall – we’ll certainly look into hiring bikes, taking a deep breath and going with the flow.
When going to stay in another city for a few days or a week, you can take a variety of approaches. On one extreme, you can try and get around as many ‘must-see’ guidebook attractions as you can within the typically limited available time.
On the other, you can just go where the wind blows you and see what appeals, swept along on a tide of spontaneity.
Both have their merits but we went for a combination, determined to visit the likes of the Van Gogh Museum, the massive Rijkmuseum and Anne Frank Huis in addition to wandering neighbourhoods on foot and jumping on and off trams as the spirit moved us.
If you’re a fan of Van Gogh’s work (I am), it’s worth hitting the very impressive museum housing his artwork either very early in the day or much later in the afternoon when the crowds die down. Jostling politely for position with scores of other people in front of a painting you’ve always wanted to see isn’t really the way to go if you can avoid it.
The opportunity to look at the brush strokes on some of those classic works is not to be missed, though. Vincent’s story is told well through multimedia with a special audio commentary for children that went down well with my two. Whereas the Rijkmuseum can feel a little overwhelming, like being thrown into a bottomless culture pit without a guide to find your way back out again, in the Van Gogh space there’s a narrative that helps you along the way.
Amidst some stunning art and culture, the Rijkmuseum finds space for a multi-point, secure mobile phone charging unit, which is a nice touch.
The house in which Anne Frank, one of the most discussed victims of the Jewish Holocaust, grew up and hid in attracts a million visitors a year. The house at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam is where she lived in hiding with her family for more than two years during World War II before being mysteriously betrayed.
Her story is sensitively interpreted and poignantly told inside. The sight of her little bedroom and the actual diary in which she wrote are deeply moving. A good multimedia presentation, including film footage, helps put it all in context.
Avoid the peak-hours queue if you can. It’s a relatively small space for being one of the top attractions in the city, though the ticketing system does somehow succeed in ensuring a reasonable flow of people once inside.
As with the Van Gogh Museum and Rijkmuseum, you’re best to buy your tickets online before travelling. Time is a precious commodity when abroad on holiday and the less of it you spend in queues, the better.
In addition to the well-trodden tourist routes, one of the great pleasures of a surprisingly compact city is simply walking around, along canals and down side streets off the beaten track. Amsterdammers seem no great fans of curtains so you’ll get some great interior design ideas as you stroll. Early morning and then after dusk provide different aspects of the city.
Free attractions such as the Amsterdam Public Library (Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam), a five-minute walk from the Centraal Train Station, are also worth bearing in mind. At 28,000 sq. m it claims to be Europe’s largest public library. A rooftop restaurant with snacks and great views across the city is a bonus.
And then a free ferry from behind Centraal Station takes you to the arty Noord district, where a younger, creative crowd are choosing to live in cheaper digs and commute as necessary into the city to work. In the distance we could see a fascinating looking housing project using recycled shipping containers. I’d love to have seen inside or been able to ask a student living there what it was like. Perhaps next time! For those curious to know more, they looked like this.
In this district too you’ll find a giant warehouse of arty delights - and a very decent fish and chip shop. This was well worth the (free) ferry trip across, as was the sight of hundreds of locals piling on to the vessel with their trusty pushbikes, not a car in sight. .
Public open spaces such as Vondelpark and Westerpark can be reached easily enough. In front of the Rijkmuseum and close to the Van Gogh Museum is a large public square which is perfect for people watching and free street art performance.
The cleverly devised I Amsterdam public art piece provides the perfect photo opportubity locater picture and is a huge hit with people of all ages who simply can’t resist clambering on top. For the record, it was my 10-year-old son’s top memory of the city.
Remarkable for a city which is such an unabashed attraction for stag parties and sex tourists, Amsterdam pulls off the trick of compartmentalizing its attractions such that you need never feel uncomfortable if you’re looking instead for culture and family fun. The Red Light District is, for example, very clearly marked on maps. This upfront approach helps people to find what they’re looking for – and, conversely, to steer clear of what they don’t want to run into.
That said, the unmistakable sweet smell of cannabis wafts from many doorways in several tourist-friendly districts and, if that’s what floats your boat, it’ll be easy to find. Indeed you would have to be deprived of all senses not to!
The Jordaan district is particularly nice for rambling on foot, the city’s love affair with life on the water clear from the houseboats lining several of the canals and the pleasure boats plying their trade. There are various options for seeing Amsterdam’s distinctive tall, slender buildings from the water, a pancake cruise being just one of them.
As a cautionary tale, I’d strongly advise leaving at least two hours for check-in at Schiphol on the return flight. The security checks can be tortuously slow. (Confession: we missed our flight back and spent nine hours awaiting another one…to Aberdeen). Little Inverness Airport scores hugely in that respect on your outward flight with an altogether more relaxed atmosphere. Then again, it doesn’t have 58 million global travellers passing through it every year.
Regardless the vagaries of the Euro and the inevitable uncertainties cast up by Brexit, Amsterdam left an impression of a fun, easy to navigate, outward-looking, family-friendly city with lots to offer. That direct link to Inverness is the ace in the pack for the Highland traveller looking for a quick, easy getaway with the minimum of hassle.
I’d recommend grabbing the opportunity while the going is good. And did I mention how nice those Amsterdammers actually are…?
For further information on Amsterdam, including things to see and do, check www.iamsterdam.com. For flights between Inverness and Amsterdam, see www.klm.com. See also Lonely Planet guide to Amsterdam (www.lonelyplanet.com) and The Rough Guide to Amsterdam (www.roughguides.com)