‘You’ll probably take a day trip to Mexico one day’.
That’s how I understood something my boss said to me, one Monday morning in 2015, as he tried to understand himself what my fascination with travelling was. One fact did arise though, and that in the time it took me to commute to the office from home, I could arrive in another country. That country, was the Netherlands and it was a place I had frequently visited for work.
Amsterdam left me curious. The well known perceptions of a nation with legal highs and a red light district seemed to have placed it in a completely different bracket of travel for me. Visiting neighbouring Belgium offered an interesting variety of speculoos, the European Union, and a vintage car show flanked by the steel ball structure of the Atomium. But just as the structure was interconnected with molecules and strands, Amsterdam brought its unique connectivity to me, in an new way.
Landing at Schiphol, was going to be far from gate-to-hotel, since the Polderbaan is the major hub’s fifth runway (yes, Heathrow you have a lot of catching up to do) which is situated some kilometres from the main terminal. Prepared for a taxi time of up-to 20 minutes, we initiated a steep descent and approach, landing on the closest runway to the terminal and out in record time.
Like most European airports of connecting size, Schiphol airside is one long horseshoe of gates, passengers and the odd shop. With a major renovation underway the airport seems to be coping well. The time made up in arriving at the gate early was quickly consumed, with quick footfall through various outlets, and ending up at the baggage carousel only added another 20 minutes.
A double-decker train later, I was pushing my way down with bag in tow, into a scrum, of what felt like a few hundred people, down a single escalator to the exits at Amsterdam Centraal station. It was in the morning, and having bikers firmly establish their presence and wheel through the pedestrians, down the narrow exits was something a Londoner visiting for the first time would find interesting, but not unfamiliar.
Once outside and taking in a new view, I quickly realised that this was a biker’s city. Move over cars and trams, the bike was the mode of transport that Amsterdam took to. Driving and crossing on the left brought with it a triple wave of the above, trams, cars and bikes. The smallest of the three was definitely the one not to be underestimated.
Choosing to discovering a city by water, either if it’s dissected by a river or if it sits on a coast out to sea, or an ocean gives a completely different dimension. As the chatter of multi languages passed over the subtle voice of the canal boat voice, many dots started to be connected themselves, just as the many canals naturally meet each other on the water.
The history – and practical meaning behind certain aspects of the houses that looked down onto Amsterdam’s canals gave depth to the whole experience. Each of the features behind the ornate facades and narrow, tall buildings were brought back to life, as we were taken back in time when these were erected.
I was there on a Sunday as well, and Sundays were made for enjoying the seas, lakes and rivers. They provide an essential break from concrete structures that trap our minds on a daily basis, and allows us to think beyond, into nature. I’ve stuck to a rule that I’ve found essential to any place I’ve been to – discover by water. In fact, my first escapade into seeing cities from the water started in a smoky, chilly Istanbul.
A very still set of water runs through the narrow locks of Amsterdam, rather than the crashing, dramatic tides of Lisbon on the Atlantic coast, or even down the River Thames in London with it’s river boats. I looked out to the water from the sandwich place I had stopped at. No runners, but cyclists. A very different crowd indeed, as there was more chance of crashing into a cyclist rather than a runner.
But, Amsterdam is accessible. Once you are there on the ground, if not by bike then on foot. Since it is a very flat country, they also have an amazing rail network that will take you to the likes of Rotterdam and The Hague.
Taking the slow lane can yield the most amazing results. I have clocked up an untold number of walking miles wherever I go in the world. Now, where did those windmills suddenly come from?