There is something about the sound of a hand tapping on glass that makes us need to look. Probably it is the brain connecting the sound to that of someone knocking on our window or door. That subconscious link is made in the fraction of a second, before we know it we are investigating. Human beings are inquisitive by nature. So it was no real surprise that when I heard the sound of hand on glass at roughly 11AM, despite being in the middle of the street I had to look and see where the out of place sound was coming from. The knocking became more incessant and I realised I had walked straight past the source, my brain already calculating whether to turn left or right at the canal which lay ahead of me. My inner investigator had other plans and my head swivelled in my best Owl impression. There was no time to hoot before words escaped me. I was looking straight into a pair of big brown boobs. Welcome to Amsterdam.
As the owner of the mammaries tried to beckon to me from behind the window my brain was working overtime again flicking through my filofax of etiquette. How to refuse the offer of sex from a prostitute: 404 Not Found. Damn. Could I plug a different social jigsaw piece into this puzzle? “No thanks, I’ve already eaten.” Probably not… How about the tried and tested nod with no words that is reserved for the barber when he shows the back of your head after a trim? Definitely not, we’re declining here not agreeing. I could employ the tactic that had served me so badly as a woefully under sexed 18 year-old on the streets of Norwich when confronted by a stripper and mutter the immortal lines “I don’t need to pay a girl to take her clothes off for me.” Swag overload. She hadn’t seen me as the paragon of virtue I was professing to be, instead berating me for belittling her occupation. It’s a tactic I use with potential customers myself at work now too. I wonder why none of them ever come back. For the record I don’t work as a stripper, in case you were wondering. In the end, like a cop on traffic duty I raised a hand, gave a half shake of the head and smiled at the prostitute. Thanks, but no thanks. Or wizard, you shall not pass. You choose.
By this point of the interrail experience my hair had started growing out, revealing the grey which has been besieging me in ever faster fashion for the last few years. Perhaps the girl in the window thought I was Richard Gere and this was her Pretty Woman moment. Engagement wasn’t on the cards, I didn’t even have a Haribo ring to offer. Yes, I’m still trying to get that Haribo sponsorship… Gere was certainly not in the air, but the smell of marijuana was. The green stuff (as nobody calls it) seemed part of the climate, its sweet, sickly smell hanging in the atmosphere regardless of where you were in the city. I must admit, for a boy whose only herbal vice is tea or maybe a sprinkling of Oregano on his food when feeling mischievous, and one who has no interest in paying for sex, you may think Amsterdam was wasted on me. Maybe you are right. Spoiler alert.
Hedonism had seemingly snatched the baton of culture from the hands of the tourists at Amsterdam railway station. Ironically, this, the most liberal city on the itinerary was the first in which I encountered a barrier barring my exit from the station without a ticket. A stab in the dark, a QR code on the back of my interrail pass hovered over the screen and I was admitted entry. Phew. Where for the past few weeks tourists of all nationalities had populated the streets I wandered, Amsterdam was littered with British accents. Booze, boobs and bongs were the order of the day. London is only an hour away after all, making Amsterdam a land of milk and honey where weed deals aren’t necessarily done with shady characters in alleyways and you can pick your prostitute from the tank as opposed to a business card pinned up inside a phone box.
Now the previous paragraph probably makes me sound like a miserable git. Some of the time I am, I hold my hands up. But as I sat down to write this post I had been reading Father, Son and the Pennine Way by Mark Richards (99p in the Kindle store and loosely travel based – get in my basket). While the Pennine Way has nothing to do with Amsterdam, a quote from the book caught my attention: “Too many travel writers – seduced by the free trip or pressured by the paper’s advertising department – say everything is wonderful. If you say everything is wonderful then, ultimately, nothing is wonderful.” This chimed with the promise I made myself when starting this blog. To be honest. Honestly, barring a few bright spots I didn’t enjoy my time in Amsterdam.
Those bright spots will be covered in the interests of fairness. Science lessons at school taught me one thing. You have to conduct a fair test. Before we get there though it’s time for Free Range Ben’s open, “it’s not you, it’s me,” note to Amsterdam. And hindsight being the wonderful thing that it is has allowed me to accept that it really was me. Firstly I was fatigued. This may sound like a strange comment to make but travel is tiring. A point I will dedicate an entire post to. Almost three weeks being constantly on the move had caught up with me. Secondly, I had spent that time surrounded by fellow tourists, I was in tourist mode. To appreciate certain aspects of Amsterdam you have to be in reveller mode. I couldn’t change gear for the life of me by this point. I was a lost cause. Amsterdam is the ideal spot to hit with your friends for a let your hair down weekend away. My friends weren’t with me. It was also the last stand of the interrail trip. While I wasn’t chasing THAT dragon, I was chasing the dragon of making sure I squeezed as much out of the experience as I could. There was just no more squeezing to be done. The man from Del Monte said an emphatic no.
The man from England did have a smile on his face when it came to the Heineken brewery tour on the other hand. The brewery tour is a subject that I have flirted with writing an individual post on. My reservations come from the fact that despite what you may believe, all brewery tours are basically the same. But I love them. While comparing and contrasting notes of my favourite brewery tours so far (Guinness, Carlsberg and Heineken) I realised that there is a cookie cutter for success. The brewing process and history of the brand are illustrated and usually intertwined. Next comes an interactive feature, pouring a pint for yourself, or in the case of Heineken stepping into a simulator to become the drink itself being bottled. On the other side of this simulation you are handed half a pint of Heineken, declaring, “proost,” before moving along on your merry way. Beer companies are renowned for clever advertising and usually the next stop on the tour centres around previous campaigns. Heineken have had partnerships with high profile Football and Rugby competitions in recent years, as well as the James Bond franchise so I was like a kid in a candy shop. Or a man in a brewery. The tour comes to a conclusion in a neon lit underground bar where you can exchange tokens for another two half pints. Pulled yourself, or by one of the members of staff who seem to be in perpetual motion collecting tokens and pouring beer at a rate of knots. If you want to enjoy the beer I suggest the latter option. Where Heineken really excel is that the drinks in the bar don’t have to be the end of your tour experience.
Extending the tour was an option I took when booking the Heineken tour. On exiting through the gift shop, naturally, you walk across the road and board a boat on the Amstel. This boat offers a guided tour of the waterways and you can also enjoy a beer onboard. Heineken naturally. Wallets out though, you have to buy this one. You are then dropped off at the A’DAM Lookout, complete with admission for one of the best views of the city. If you’re feeling brave you can have a ride on Europe’s highest swing. Despite the beer in my system I wasn’t feeling brave. This package is available through the Heineken Experience website and is called the Rock the City experience. I would highly recommend taking this option if you intend to visit Heineken while in Amsterdam.
Back in my hotel room on the final night in Amsterdam it was a time to reflect on the preceding three week and more so on the previous two days. In Amsterdam I missed out on some sights that I would have loved to have seen, such as the Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank’s house. The latter was on me. Bookings are taken two weeks in advance and I was too immersed in whatever I was doing that day on the trip that I forgot to book it. My ultimate Amsterdam regret though is that I didn’t get involved in the cheese culture. Of the dairy kind, not herbal. At an hour’s flight away from London, this is something I can always put right and I intend to do just that some day. With this in mind, and the knowledge that I would be back in my own bed just 24 hours later, I vowed to myself to make the most of the time I had left before I had to go to the airport.
The last day of the interrail tale had arrived. And I succumbed to Amsterdam. I stood in line, surrounded by excited voices as the booth moved closer and closer with every step. I paid my money, took my ticket and stepped beyond the pay station through the doors. Before I knew it I was standing at a safe distance, restricted by bars watching a dance. Was this to protect the patron or the performer? Perhaps both. She swayed from side to side like a metronome, rhythmically shifting her weight from one foot to the other. I had been the first person to be drawn to the dance but soon there were plenty of others beside me, behind me. In my personal space. I could feel excited breath on the back of my neck. I wish I had bars around me too. The spectacle was brief however and as quickly as it began, the porcupine turned its back and resumed normal porcupine activities. Amsterdam Zoo turned out to be an ideal way to wrap up three weeks of exploring Europe.