Standing on the Koningsplein bridge spanning the Singel canal, which is walking distance from the Spui (pronounced Spow), a square in the centre of Amsterdam, it’s easy to think one has stumbled onto the city’s dirty secret. A string of boats hugs the dyke, their ugly, sealed backs reflecting uneasily on the waterway. Their overhanging awnings seem to swallow up the hordes of tourists who disembark at the nearby tram stop.
Crossing the bridge, it’s impossible not to be guided by the nose. The oversweet aroma—the rich, exhilarating bouquet of hundreds of varieties of flowers, thousands of buds and full-blooms—settled on the canal banks, is almost a physical presence, taking charge of the olfactory senses and leading them by the nostril-hairs to the Floating Flower Market, the only one of its kind in the world.
A group of British girls gives the tulips, the narcissi and the roses the royal ignore. Excitement levels running high, they pick hash lollies and cannabis pops, which sell for €5 (Rs278) to €6 each. “Many young people don’t smoke today, but they can get a similar kick with one of these sweets,” says Sebastiaan van Essen, who’s helping at the shop.
This is Amsterdam, after all, where cannabis is legal. And should you get hooked to the high, there’s a way to deal with that, too. Gijs Gootjes sells cannabis start-up kits, complete with seeds and fertilizer, for €4.99 to €6. “You can take it through customs, no problem,” he assures the girls. “We’ve had customers from the UK, Spain, Greece… everywhere.”
Despite its faint air of disrepute, it’s the next stall that’s a killer: It is stacked with Venus Flytraps, carnivorous plants that emit a sweet nectar smell to attract insects. Once the fly settles on the leaf, sensors alert the plant to snap shut the leaf and secrete digestive juices to smother and break down the insect for its nutrients. “That’s only in the jungle,” the shopkeeper hastens to add after the gory lesson. “In the city, they grow in round pots or hanging baskets. Like all plants, they take their nutrients from the soil, so it must have clay pellets, bark, coconut fibre and vermiculite.”
Curiosities apart, the spotlessly clean market—no squelchy leaves, no rotting flowers—makes no bones about surviving on the romantic tourist trade. Roses from all over the world are high on everyone’s wish list. “The most in demand are the larger rosebuds from Africa,” explains Gerda, a student who helps with sales to plump up her meagre student stipend. “We sell around 3,000 bunches of tulips over a weekend, but the Japanese and the Spaniards, they love roses. I once had a Spanish couple ask if we would send them 1,000 orange tulips to Barcelona for their 25th wedding anniversary and they sent us thank you letters and pictures of the event.”
For those who prefer growing their own tulips, there are bulbs, which cost upward of €9.90 for a bag of 50. For those who can kill even a curry-leaf plant, the best options are the washable wooden tulips—or the bright tulip fridge magnets.
Finally, having had my fill of flowers, dead and alive, I wander off to Muntplein, with its famous chiming tower. Across the road, my libertine heart lusts over the tattoos and piercings at Body Cult. I’m determined to acquire a blue unicorn, but Mats, the tattoo-artist, tries to cajole me into getting a black one. “Blue will not show on brown skin,” he tells me.
But it is blue or nothing for me, and I head off in the direction of Rembrandtplein. By day, it is dominated by a statue of the 17th century master; by night, it is the heart of the party district, where the young and the young-at-heart, tourists and celebs, alternative lifestylists and all genders converge. The hip Restaurant Amsterdam is a magnet for same-sex couples and gawking, while not prohibited, is considered gauche.
If you’ve got gambling in your blood, you could do worse than hit Holland Casino. It has everything to make it a night to remember, including women walking around with little more than cigar-trays and pompoms on their butts.
Paradiso, in the same part of town, hosts the best blues concerts in town, with a different programme every night. “Way back in the 1960s, this was where the hippies had their headquarters. Drugs are legal in Amsterdam today, like prostitution is, but it is not the locals who are feared, but the junkies who prey on the city’s relaxed lifestyle and attitudes,” says Piet Bakker, sipping a drink at Paradiso.
Within one km of Rembrandtplein, is Kalverstraat, the never-ending shopping street. Gazing at the stores, it’s quite easy to suddenly find oneself in the RLD, the city’s famed red-light district. Brothels and churches make for easy company on Amsterdam’s streets; so do women as window-dressing—no undressing, mind you—and drawn curtains that are a euphemism for women at work. Stare all you want at the red lights and their rosette reflection on the inky canal waters, but don’t dare whisk out your camera here—you run the very real danger of being assaulted by a prostitute if you do.
It’s typical of the city that a stone’s throw away from the erotica quarter is the Rijksmuseum, home to painters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. Ten euros is money well spent if you’ve ever been awed by a print of Sunflowers or Night Watch.
Once you have had your fix of high culture, ramble down to Leidserplein, sit outside a café and watch the sun go down while sipping a chilled Oranjebloom beer.
That’s precisely when the quarters you’ve left behind are coming to life. The sun never sets on Amsterdam.
Flights:All major airlines fly to Schiphol, but Lufthansa currently gives the best deal with the shortest layover at Frankfurt (around Rs40,000 return, economy).
Visas: A Schengen visa, available from any embassy of an EU country.
Where to stay:For four-star hotels, http://booking.com offers the best deals. Golden Tulip Amsterdam (€99, or about Rs5,500, onwards) is in the heart of the city. Jolly Hotel Carlton (€90 onwards) is located near the Floating Flower Market. Apple Inn (€110 onwards, discounts available) is a charming two-star hotel located close to Amsterdam’s best museums as well as the famous Vondelpark. Shop for budget hotels at http://www.travellerspoint.com/budget-hotels-en-ci-36.html. Orange Tulip is a typical Dutch-style hotel in the heart of the city.
Where to eat:The Dutch aren’t particularly celebrated for their cuisine, but authentic food from around the world is available at restaurants in the city. For typically local pancakes, packed with a variety of fillings, visit Pancake House in Leidserplein. Bagels and Beans, anywhere in the city, is great for a meal on the run, as is Walk to Wok, if you have a sudden yen for Chinese. And don’t leave Amsterdam without trying the space cake at the Mellow Yellow coffee shop. It hits faster than you think, so go easy if it’s your first time.
What to do:Visit a branch or agency of the Amsterdam Tourist Office (Tel: +31-0-205512525) and check out tourist trips and get yourself free maps. Museum lovers can pick up a Museumcard for €30, which allows access to all the museums at a discount. Buy a strippenkart at the train station and travel all around the city, hopping on and off trams. Or take a canal cruise (http://www.amsterdamboatclub.com/index.html), especially if you’re short on time. The best way to see the city, though, is on foot.
Must visitsThe Peace Palace at The Hague, the Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.
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