At a bit of a loss and currently sat at home with a dog on my feet, I have started reminiscing to past travels. Mostly I’m just anticipating going abroad again in a couple of weeks, but I’ll fill you in on that once it’s underway. So back in the summer I decided to just go for it, so to speak. I booked a return flight to the Netherlands, left my woes behind and definitely didn’t smoke any legal marijuana.
A plane, train and a wander after setting off from South London, I was in the centre of Amsterdam walking with a false sense of purpose in the general direction of my hostel. Having never been to the city before, I was rather impressed with my navigation skills, although it’s scarcely a hugely difficult place to get around.
My hostel, attractively named Bob’s Youth Hostel, was fairly central. It also happened to be only one street over from a small red light district, if that’s what you want to go to the city of culture for. I wouldn’t blame you.
The next day, I woke up (late) and dressed myself with a sense of nervous anticipation for the day, and no idea of whether it was appropriate to just strip and change right there in the 16 person dorm. I did.
The first thing on my mind, in true characteristic fashion, was to find a coffee shop. I read my book for a while whilst revelling in the fact that I of all people was in a foreign country alone. When I eventually tamed my pride and finished my croissant, I made my way onto the streets to start my self-navigated tour of ‘dam.
First stop on the tour – after seeing the Cheese museum and buying some postcards – was the Anne Frank House. Cash deprived and intolerant of queuing, I decided rather than going inside to sit out on the street and just take in the surroundings for a little while. I read The Diary of Anne Frank many years ago and likely when I was too young to appreciate it. However, knowing that story seemed to ground me in that place. At least I was more grounded than the people taking selfies next to the house plaque. Am I right in being somewhat judgemental?
The next place I happened upon was a little Nepalese jewellery shop. Being a big, hipster fan of Nepalese jewellery, I couldn’t help but go inside. This all would have been fine had I not been the only customer in this tiny shop. The owner was a very talkative and an overall nice, interesting man. Can’t knock a guy who gives you a 20% “I think you’re pretty” discount on a pair of earrings. 10/10 would recommend. This is if you are a lone female.
The wandering dragged on for a few more hours. I saw numerous famous locations, went to the Allard Pierson archaeological museum and even helped 2 American tourists with directions. I’m a saint.
On my wander back to the hostel the inevitable happened. In a blissful cloud of self-confidence and glee, I continued along my route before ending up in a new street which was full of men and gently lit with a red glow. I had inadvertently ended up in the largest red light district in the city.
Thankfully none of the prostitutes seemed very interested in my presence. I couldn’t help but be slightly surprised as the the high volume of male punters already crowding through the streets. It was a very surreal experience and it wouldn’t be the last time I ended up in the district.
On arriving back at the hostel, I met a few new people. When I say met, what I really mean is that I thrust myself upon them in the dorm room and made them agree to go for a drink with me. They were very kind and they agreed even though I was probably being worryingly overzealous.
That night I also met an Australia – seemingly I always meet solo travellers from Australia and that hasn’t worked out so well in the past – and the two of us went for a drink upon my request. I’m not an alcoholic. It just seems that way. He took me to a bar called Lost in Amsterdam which looked a little like the set for a budget sex party. We were probably there for a long time and, once I was most likely significantly second-hand high, we headed back to the hostel and regrouped with the girls from before.
Word of advice; when talking to people you barely know, do not approach them with the line “Want to see something good?” and then take them to see the prostitutes you happened upon earlier. It doesn’t always come off well. In this instance though, they were fairly keen. And that is the story of how I toured a group of strangers around the busiest red light district in Amsterdam and ended up with a KFC picnic in Dam Square at 2am. Good times.
The next day was my last in this intriguing little city. I got followed by a man who I swore at, I found that big “IAmsterdam” sign finally, it rained buckets and I ended up in the Banksy/Warhol exhibition at the Moco to escape said rain.
Yet again i found myself eating a lot to pass the time – not a bad plan – and I decided to just take pictures of everything, including a shameful selfie just to prove that I was actually there.
On my walk to the station I passed a couple more red light windows and decided that I had probably had my fill. I didn’t exactly get the classy Fault in Our Stars experience, but I think there was a distinct and sad lack of prostitutes in that book anyway. I win.
Walking out of the station, and following a truly beautiful reunion with a friend who was interning there, the first thing I was struck by were the bikes. The sheer amount of bikes. Sure, I was nearly hit by a few in Amsterdam, but Leiden seemed like the bike breeding ground. In fact, my entire time in the town became a little bit defined by me awful relationship with bikes.
I was to stay in the most retro apartment block I think I have ever seen or ever will see. The lift had a manual door on it. That was terrifying enough for my liking but I did end up getting used to it I suppose.
Leiden was immediately rather beautiful and interesting. Just as beautiful and not much further from Schiphol Airport, Leiden was a perfect escape from the hectic streets of Amsterdam. If you search around you can find poetry painted onto the walls, a wonderful local market on Saturdays and numerous signature canals for those necessary canal pictures. Though hostels are somewhat non-existent in the city, AirBnB actually hosts numerous quaint apartments or private rooms that are affordable in the grand scheme of the country. It is definitely a viable alternative to Amsterdam or, like it was for me, a wonderful second stop on a tour of the country.
That evening we ventured out to a jazz bar on our bikes and drank dark beers. Now that is not a sentence I expected to have to say until I was at least 35, but nevertheless. Leiden from that moment was an undoubtedly very beautiful city. Albeit a beautiful city with a fine glazing of bikes on every flat, railed surface.
I have never cycled after a drink but I would say that I’m a fairly adept cyclist. However I don’t think I’ve been near a bike properly in at least half a decade but probably longer. Therefore, the loud clunking sound coming from my tyre was something that I figured was best ignored rather than dealt with. When this noise became painfully audible to everyone else around though, I was forced to pull over.
My limited knowledge of bicycles allowed me to quickly guess that the valve on the tyre was broken. We weren’t going to be re-inflating it, certainly not after a drink. I ended up perched on the back of someone else’s bike, desperately clinging on. I only fell off once. It was quite the achievement.
With only a few hours in Rotterdam, I really don’t think I got as much out of the city as I would have liked. It is far more modern than Amsterdam or Leiden, however that doesn’t make it any less visually impressive. There seems to be artwork on every street, the modern architecture is impressive, and the huge Market Hall is one of the best places I visited in the country.
The main attraction of the day for me was the slapdash picnic we put together for the park. After being accosted by a rather frightening duck and accidentally eating chicken, it all worked out quite well. Surrounded by friends, food and art was the only way I really could have imagined ending my trip.
The train back to the airport was a sombre one. I wasn’t ready to leave really and someday I will go back. Maybe next time I’ll pick up some tulip bulbs? I certainly would be qualified to give more Red Light District tours if nothing else.