Saturday, 28 January 2012

Cheese and canals

We have figured out that the bathrooms are not great, but the complimentary breakfast is AWESOME. So after eating enough to fill a horse, we headed in the freezing cold to Amsterdam Centraal to meet another free walking tour. The same tour company, the Amsterdam equivalent of the two tours we had done in Paris. We had high expectations by now, but this guy was also amazing. His name was Ged and he was from Manchester. These tours also had heaps more people on them, so we had to get used to being in a huge group. We formally began at the National Monument, in Dam Square. Then we walked past a 'tasting-house' - one of our tour guide's favourite spots in the city. It was built back when it was illegal to sell alcohol in Amsterdam, so the owner got around the law by simply allowing people to 'taste' (buy it anyway). We walked through the Red Light District, which is significantly weirder during the day. Here we are trooping round in the brisk morning air, breathing mist into the crisp winter day, and there is a woman in sexy lingerie posing in a doorway. It's really, really bizarre. But fascinating. There is no equivalent in Australia. Between the Red Light District and a church, there is an anonymous artwork set into the cobblestones, a sculpted gold hand on a sculpted gold breast. Apparently it just appeared one day and the council dug it up. But the prostitutes had decided they liked it and kicked up a fuss until it got put back. Our guide explained that the Dutch government is extremely pragmatic about such things, and would rather its citizens be happy. He said any law is breakable in Amsterdam provided it is discreet, it hurts no one, and its brings money into the city. That's how there is so much weed - its not legal, its tolerated. The discreet bit is calling them 'coffee shops', instead of Weed Central of Ganja Palace. The hurting no one bit is that marijuana is a soft drug, that doesn't induce violence and is impossible to overdose on. Because the government is so relaxed about marijuana, they have been able to stamp down on hard drugs, and as a result, Amsterdam has an extremely small amount of junkies and hard drugs. And it is wonderful, of course, for the economy. Our guide also told us, however, that the government has banned the opening of any more coffee shops and there is talk of movements to make weed only available to Dutch residents. So if anyone wants to front up to Amsterdam and experience it like it is, do it soon! We saw a hidden Catholic church, built when it was illegal to be Catholic in the city. We saw the headquarters of the East India Trading Company - oh man, Pirates of the Caribbean movie reference! - which is now past of the University. We saw a women's prison, that has a carving of a woman being whipped over the doorway and the inscription, 'I don't hit you because you're evil, I hit you to make you good'. Hmmmmm.

Houses in Amsterdam have taxes on the size of your house. The wider is is - that is, the more space along the sidewalk it takes up - the more expensive. As a result, houses in Amsterdam are very tall and slim and we got pics of the smallest house in the city. There are some big, old, expensive houses and some of them have carvings on the rooves detailing how the owner made their living (these were built centuries back and included arms dealers with cannons carved on their roof, and slave traders, with people carved on their roof). We saw the Royal Palace and the squats - part of the Jewish Quarter, which was cleaned out during World War 2 and then inhabited by poor people and hippies in the mid-century. These hippies later saved the city from a complete renovation in the 70's which would have seen all the houses and canals knocked down and filled up and a big freeway put through the middle. Thankfully, those tree-huggers and crazies chained themselves to the buildings and again, the government pragmatically conceded. These squats that they lived in are painted beautiful vibrant colours and covered in manic graffiti. It was very cool. We walked through a 'secret garden' - an incredibly peaceful little estate, walled in because I think it used to be a convent? Even now, only single women over 30 are allowed to live in the houses surrounding the gardens. It's a weird law, but that's how the city works. Then we stopped for free cheese. It tasted like very strong parmesan, and was apparently aged Gouda. Delish! We finished the tour at the Homomonument, a memorial dedicated to all in the Netherlands who have been discriminated against and persecuted for their sexuality. It is a collection of pink triangle sculptures. Pink triangles are, as you may know, an international symbol of gay pride, invented by the Nazis who used it to segregate the homosexual prisoners from the other categories (communists, Jews, etc) in the concentration camps. It's a wonderful example of resilience and reclamation. Here, our guide told us about Amsterdam in World War 2. We were sitting in front of the church, whose bells kept Anne Frank going in her many months in hiding. The house she hid in is right round the corner and Anne could hear the bells and wrote about how they kept her sane. We didn't do the Anne Frank House museum today, but maybe tomorrow. Alfie and I did it during our last trip and it was incredibly moving. I would definitely see it again. Apparently when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam and pulled all the Jews out of the Jewish quarter, the non-Jewish residents of Amsterdam were horrified and went on strike for two days. The city literally shut down in protest of the treatment of its Jewish residents. Of course, the Nazi war machine was relentless and evil so the strike soon ended, with people being forced to return to work under pain of death, but for 48 hours, this little city had stood up to the Nazis and that counted for a lot. 

When the tour finished and everyone had dispersed, Alfie, Cara, Sean and I asked our tour guide where a good pub was. He walked us all the way to this little one whose name escapes me, but was wonderful. You could sit on a bench with the radiator under you and the bar right in front of you. When we walked in, there was no other customers. For a good 45 minutes we drank beer, cider and hot chocolate with the bartender who came from country Holland and spoke flawless English. I love the people we have met so far. Everyone has been so chilled and relaxed and spoken to us so easily and been so welcoming to their cities. 

After we had finished at the pub, we went souvenir shopping and found some chips. Then we got another (MUM/DAD DON'T READ) spacecake and headed back to the boat to change into warmer clothes, because we were frozen. Then we walked to a wagamama restaurant and had enormous bowls of ramen for dinner. We stopped to buy chocolate on the way back, and since then have been sitting up in the dining area typing! We haven't planned much for tomorrow, which is a first. We are going to relax, first and foremost. Hurrah!

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