by Christine Hayes - Exclusive for Metropole Amsterdam:-
Sunday, 21. July 1996:- Summer arrived in Amsterdam
this weekend. Temperatures were still in the low twenties,
but that's fine with me,
especially when the humidity is high - and when you're
living a few meters below sea-level, the humidity is always
high. There wasn't much of a breeze, so I thought cycling
into town might be a good idea. There is a Dutch law of
nature which says that when the wind blows, it always blows
from the opposite direction to the one in which you are
travelling on a bicycle.
There's always a lot going on in the way of musical entertainment, and in summer it overflows into the squares and parks. The city organizes a series of events in the Vondelpark in the summer months.
The Vondelpark is 'the' city park, running roughly northeast-southwest from the outermost canal of the city centre through the 'Old South' district. It's a playground of lakes, lawns and leafery with three or four different cafe-restaurants at convenient intervals. It's probably one of the safer inner-city parks in the world. I wouldn't walk through the less populated section at the southwest corner by myself at night mind you, but then, I can't see why I would want to anyway.
The cafes are all at the upper end of the park. My favorite is the Vertigo, which is attached to the cinema museum - where, incidentally, they're playing Hitchcock's Vertigo at the moment. Films at this cinema are always shown in the original version, which can be anything from German to Chinese.
Every weekend from June to September there's a variety of entertainment from Salsa demonstrations to African beat, comedy shows to hard rock concerts, puppet and mime shows for the kids in the open-air theatre. All free.
I decided to investigate a concert listed as "The Rednock Band from England" on Saturday afternoon. I thought it was a misprint for "Redneck" - which I assumed to be some kind of rock group. It wasn't a misprint. Rednock is apparently a place near Bristol, and the band was brass. They seemed very good, compared to my limited experience of the genre - watching my brother play the piccolo in the Boys Brigade Marching band at Landsdown Road, and Bavarian Oom-pah-pah at Munich's Chinese Tower.
The air was hotter and heavier in town, and I was glad to sit down for a while. I watched impromptu off-stage acts: jugglers, and athletic types in tank-tops doing dramatic roller-blade turns, while I had a cold drink from the refreshment stand behind the tiered back benches. They serve everything from mineral water and chocolate milk to beer - almost anything that comes in a can - and you can even get wine in plastic 'glasses'.
When I got tired of Big Band Boogie I wobbled further along the cycle paths - there were hordes of cyclists, skaters, mothers with babies in prams, tots on training wheels - and even pedestrians - and stopped to sniff the air at the edge of one of the lakes. The grass was black with circles of people strumming guitars, playing flutes, and just catching a few rays. It looked (and smelled) like the run-up to a 90's version of Woodstock. Even the police-van looked like an integral part of the scene, parked under a shade tree, conveniently close to the ice-cream vendor.
Sometimes you're in luck, and come across a really good group of musicians playing the crowd near the big intersection close to town. On Saturday it was a trio of big, bronzed Australians playing bass and guitar, oozing good nature and rattling out rollicking, foot-stomping ballads which had attracted a bigger crowd than the organized stuff back at the open-air theatre. They were accompanied by a wizard of an accordion player who is a regular feature along these paths, and also the versatile Egon, a young Amsterdam virtuoso on everything from guitar to banjo and harmonica. He looked a bit pale beside all that bronzed health from Perth, but then, it's been a bad summer here up until now.
Since I was supposed to be having a look around on behalf of Metropole, I tore myself away from the tree-trunk which had provided a nice back-rest while I enjoyed the music and left the park by the main gate to have a look at what was going on at the Leidseplein.
I went over the bridge past the Lido, Amsterdam's newest and most central casino. I'm not much of a gambler, but I look at the Lido fondly ever since last 5th December - St Nicholas's Day, and the Dutch parallel to Christmas for the children - when I won 700 Guilders within the first three minutes by a pure freak of ignorance. I like this new complex of shops anyway, because of the story about its architect, who had a fight with the city planners and left the mark of his indignation in the form of a plaque over the archway which says "Don't spit into the wind" in Latin.
The Leidseplein (plein means Square) is always busy. It's a cross-roads for trams going north-south, ending at the Central Station, and your last chance to ride east-west. After that you have to walk, cycle or drive along the u-shaped canal streets which, if you have as little sense of direction as I have, can be very disorienting. I usually end up going three kilometers to get somewhere half a kilometer away if it's an unfamiliar area.
The city theatre is on one corner between the American Hotel and a square of cafe terraces, opposite the famous Bulldog cafe where the music upstairs is deafening and the soft-drugs outlet downstairs, I'm told, slightly dubious. Once every few years it gets closed down because hard drugs get into the act. I suppose that's why it's dubious.
The open space in front of the Bulldog provides another arena for a variety of busking acts, from fire-eaters to Morris dancers or Peruvian pan-pipers. The most startling show I ever saw on the Leidseplein was beside the cafe terraces. I was sitting watching the world go by when a tinny sound of circus-type music began to issue from one of the cafe fronts. A very muscular naked man - I think he was actually wearing a g-string, but I was too shy to look - did a sort of high-wire act on a rope strung from the pulley in the eaves of the building, and then came around with a box to collect donations. The music was supplied by his portable tape-recorder. That was on a fine day in winter.
In the summer heat, the chic shoe shops and up-market stores of the Leidsestraat didn't attract me, in spite of the 20-30% off summer sales banners . I headed for the end of the street and the flower stalls along the Singel canal. The flowers are cheaper here than anywhere else, except perhaps the Albert Cuyp market at the other end of town, which fewer out-of-town visitors know about. In spite of a bit too much mock Delft pottery and souvenir clogs, the Singel is a great place for flowers, bulbs and plants, from the exotic to the common-or-garden variety.
If you swivel your head a bit - rather than letting yourself by hypnotized by the plethora of petals - you find some interesting things along the other side of the narrow road, like the oriental shop which sells everything from gorgeous decorative fans and silk kimonos to cheap and comfortable slippers.
Down small side-roads there are more terraced cafes and tiny - also cheap - Indonesian restaurants. Actually, they're not really terraced cafes. As soon as the sun makes an appearance - whatever the temperature - the Dutch flock outdoors, and if that means sitting in the middle of a road, on a bench or windowsills, or on a barge berthed opposite the cafe, then that just adds to the general laid-back atmosphere.
The hustle and bustle around the old Mint tower at the entrance to the teen shopping paradise of Kalverstraat and across the road past the supermarkets to the see-and-be-seen cafes on Rembrandtsplein looked too much like a regular Saturday shopping scramble, so I went back down the Singel to the top of Spui and into the quiet Begijnhof, where only pensioners can get permits to live in the immaculately maintained buildings around a square of manicured grass.
Nothing ever happens here except weddings in the English reformed church or the Roman Catholic chapel opposite it - I've been to weddings at both, and the chapel definitely wins in terms of drama and decor - but it's half a minute from the shops and music and markets, and there's a bench against the wall of the church where one can sit down to reload the camera in peace. An elderly American lady chatted to me while I was there, telling me how much she liked visiting the gigantic flower auctions in Aalsmeer, about 15 kilometers outside the city, and Keukenhof near the coast towards The Hague, where millions go to see the flower fields and hothouses - but my mind was on Amsterdam city.
On Friday afternoons, outside the Begijnhof on Spui square, there's a second-hand book market. Good bargains to be had - and quite a few English books. I haven't been to the market on Waterloo square beside the opera yet, but I'm told it's a great place for clothes, especially cottons and silks from Indonesia, China and India.
The food market at the Norderkerk (North Church) specializes in organically produced foodstuffs, and other stalls are wonderful for the wackiest jewelry around; hand-crafted by North African masters of haggling.
It's the markets and cafes that are most fun in the city, the music in the streets and the air of a party just about to happen. And in some places, like the Vondelpark, there's a party going on all the time.
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