I know that only moments ago I was in Serbia, and days before that I was in Turkey, but now cast your mind’s eye north and west for I have magically appeared in the lovely and tiny city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands! There, surrounded by 4 concentric half-circle canals is the largest city and constitutional capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Curiously, the government and supreme court are not in Amsterdam — they’re over in The Hague (there can’t be many cities in the world that start with ‘The’, can there?). Amsterdam seems to have retained its title as ‘capital’ after some random clause in the constitution that states that all new kings take the oath and are crowned in Amsterdam. Anyway, at a ‘vast’ inner-city population of 700,000, Amsterdam is the commercial and cultural capital of the country.
This quaint, little city derives its name from the river Amstel, which it dams. Back in the 13th century some enterprising villagers had built a bridge with a dam across the river. Then in some letter from the ruling Count at the time, he exempted the villagers of the ‘Amstel dam’ from paying a toll on their own bridge and thus Amsterdam was born! Now the city is a massive multitude of ‘amstel dams’ crossing beautifully maintained canals that were originally built in the 17th century, a time considered to be the city’s ‘Golden Age’. The canal system obviously made transport (and trade) to and from the city incredibly easy.
Gradually slide your viewpoint forward 300 years and today the same old warehouses still line the canals. The canals are still very much in use, but by tourists. Or locals taking a relaxing Sunday afternoon boat ride after lunch. Or for romantic, at-dusk boat trips with your loved one. Or by a bunch of drunk World of Warcraft players drinking Rosé and calling each other by their in-game names (obviously not us, I’m just giving another common example of the denizens you might find floating around — or in — the Amsterdam canals).
You might be able to work it out from the picture, but if you can’t: Amsterdam is incredibly small. Without the advantage of an aerial photo, I didn’t realise until the end of my first day there; I had walked across the entire city, seeing many of the sights, in about 8 hours. The fact that it’s tiny makes it incredibly endearing though. Having been to Venice this summer, I can now relate it to something: it’s like Venice — only larger, more organised and a lot cleaner. Trees line almost every street and a canal punctuates your traversal of the city every few minutes.
Unsurprisingly, it’s an incredibly laid back and pleasant city to stroll around. Even when the going gets tough and you’re starting to struggle over the bridges (I kid!), it’s one of those cities that has at least 2 or 3 street cafes every 100 meters, all overlooking a canal and smothered in that lovely, dappled sunlight that only trees can provide.
I’ve given a brief, pan over the city, as if you’ve just flown over the rooftops of Amsterdam. Now zoom in closer until you see a motor boat, calmly sliding along the canal. The boat is filled with giggle-snorting geeks, drinking wine and beer, feasting on snacks and the lovely summer sunlight. We phoned a pizza parlour 30 minutes ago, telling them we’d soon be pulling up outside to pick up some pizzas. Stopping outside, Rogier, our host, leans in through the window and pulls out a stack of pizzas, brandishing them like some kind of weapon, ‘Dinner is served, gentlemen!’
Turning the corner, our mouths drop open; and no, not to eat the pizza. We’ve just entered the red-light district of Amsterdam. ‘Why are you gawping, Seb?’ Rogier asks. ‘There… are… naked ladies… standing in windows…’
‘Yeah, but these are the ugly ones; they bring the hot ones out at night,’ he says with a big, knowing grin.
‘Can we hang around until it gets dark?’ I ask, trying to hide the pleading tone of my voice.
So we try to stretch our pizza and Rosé out as long as possible, until the sun finally sets. Sure enough, the wrinkly prostitutes are slowly replaced by cute, lithe young things with nary a wrinkle in sight. The old biddies shut their curtains with a sly smile, and were replaced 15 minutes later by a younger, go-faster models. It was almost like watching one of those time-lapse morphing videos — you don’t really see it happening, but over time the area just became… prettier. And a whole lot busier.
Like most of the crowd there, we were only window-shopping. Occasionally you saw a man knock on a window, step inside and the curtains drawn. Unfortunately, the ‘we’re only here to look, OK, lads?’ didn’t last long. Things were about to take a turn towards the more sinister.
Welcome, Neo… to the real world. Er, The Banana Bar. The wide-eyed innocent types (which I was pre-Banana Bar) among you are probably thinking ‘Ah, a tropical-themed bar.’ Well, kind of. First off, it’s in the red-light district, so every girl inside is automatically naked. Secondly, you can buy everything in there, for the right price. Booze, dances, sex — just reach into your pocket for a wad of Euros, and you’re good to go.
But most importantly — and the reason I was really there — their name isn’t just for show. There are bananas. The girls wield bananas. I wish I was talking euphemistically here; watching a ladyboy’s junk swing around while he/she dances would’ve been a lot more pleasant. No, these are real bananas. You really do think with the ferocity that these girls plunge down upon their bananas that they’re only really satisfied when they’re armed with a banana for a sex toy. Standing up or spread-eagle on the bar. Bent over on the table in front of you.
I think I’m possibly the only person that shuts their eyes, sighs wistfully and feels their pulse quicken while peeling a banana.
Next up, the raw herrings of doooom!