Tuesday, 12 April 2011

An Amsterdam Interlude

People who know of my interest in cycling tell me constantly that I should go to Holland, which they see as some kind of two-wheeled paradise. I have, in fact, ridden there when I completed the famous Eleven City Tour of Friesland in 1999 on my birthday. This was a very enjoyable event, with some 15,000 participants riding the 230 km course and with excellent organization, but it sure was flat and half of the figure-eight course sure was windy. My attempt to register for the Amstel Gold sportif for next week failed, a course I want to ride because it is quite hilly. I love the idea of the “Limburger Alps.” Not to mention all that beer...

Bike parking at Amsterdam Zentraal station

Anyway, Amsterdam is a reasonable train ride away from D├╝sseldorf to make a day trip possible and on Saturday I went there with a friend to look around a bit. The only express train to the city arrives around noon, which is just too late, so getting up early we took a series of slow trains that eventually got us to Amsterdam after 3 ½ hours and four transfers. The trains were all pretty packed, suggesting that the Dutch rail system has a capacity issue, but everything ran punctually. It was fun to try and read the signs, which look slightly German but not enough to be comprehensible. From the train, we could see how narrow Dutch roads are, and all of them seemed to be bordered by very well-maintained bike lanes, including ones that were nicely illuminated, even out in the country. We saw a couple of riders on racing bicycles out enjoying the fine Spring day.

Amsterdam Zentraal station is really huge and it took a few minutes to get our bearings and find our way out after the lady at the information desk assured us, to our surprise and doubt, that we would not need a reservation on the express train going back to Germany. Leaving the station, we saw the bicycle parking area to our right and this is where I suddenly realized things are quite different here. There must have been several thousand bicycles parked in rows and rows. The bike station also offered rental bikes and repairs. There was a huge banner as well that stated emphatically that “Amsterdam Loves Bikes!”.

Our plan was to just meander through the city and make our way the 2.5 kms to the Van Gogh Museum. There were huge crowds of people, including vast numbers of foreigners, heading in roughly the same direction, so we turned down a parallel side street. I was quite interested in the fact that the roadway was wide enough for a single car and only ran in one direction, whereas the bike lane was considerably wider. It was also very heavily used and one had to take care not to step into the rush of traffic, which is generally silent. I was struck by the fact that in spite of the crowds the city was extraordinarily quiet. We were struck by something else, which I did not immediately realize: we were walking through the red-light district, which actually has red lanterns illuminating the houses where the bad women are on display. They seemed quite friendly as they waved at me, but I was not in the market for this, nor for the marijuana, whose pungent fumes came from the open doors and windows of each of the euphemistically-named “coffee shops” we passed.

"Oma-Opa fiets," aka "Granny-Grampa bikes"

There were a number of bike rental places and we found a shop that sold typical Dutch bikes. These tend to be quite solid in construction and are designed to carry things. The styles range from the “Oma-Opa fiets,” which we think of when the traditional big black (and heavy) Dutch city bike is mentioned, to bikes with big front racks to the Bakfiets, which is a cargo bicycle with a long box in front, over a small front wheel. All of the bicycles appeared to be constructed to withstand direct atomic blasts and had zero sporting pretensions. Observing them in action during the day the reason for this became obvious, as we shall see.

We soon began to cross the series of canals that are such a famous feature of Amsterdam, and many of the buildings lining them were quite marvellous. One place featured not only the usual gables but a huge globe on the roof. The Dutch had a global trade empire at one time, making this tiny nation one of the richest in the world, and the profits of the spice trade, among other things, paid for all these fine buildings. We stopped briefly to sit outside in a nice square to enjoy lunch, which was somewhat more expensive than one would pay in Germany, but the food was good and so was the opportunity to rest our legs and people-watch.

Cheeses, cheeses, cheeses...

Amsterdam attracts a huge number of tourists due to its very central location in Europe and much of the city caters to them. Along with the sex and drugs part, there were a great number of shops selling junky souvenirs and also some local products, such as rounds of cheese that probably weighed as much as an Oma fiets but which I am sure are quite delicious. We did not see a lot of the kind of shopping that would fit some kind of middle ground between t-shirts and fine arts and antiques, and there was the usual presence of multinational shops seen everywhere and which make shopping so uninteresting as local products (besides the crappy t-shirts and wooden shoes) are pushed out.

Continuing along the canals we came to the Flower Market, which offers a staggering variety of bulbs of wonderful decorative flowers, along with the inevitable Cannabis seeds (available as a “starter kit” for neophytes) and then soon found ourselves at the Van Gogh Museum, located behind the grand Rijksmuseum, which is noted for its Rembrandts.

The Van Gogh Museum is really superb. Of the 900 paintings the artist completed in his active period of only 12 years (that’s 3 paintings every two weeks, with no time off), the Museum owns 200, plus sketches, watercolours and a lot of his letters, including those two and from his brother Theo, who acted as his dealer. I am sure at the time of his early death at 37, nobody thought Van Gogh’s art would have much staying power but he was quickly appreciated as a forerunner of modern art. His paintings (along with those of Pablo Picasso) are prominent in the list of the most expensive paintings sold, which would be of some comfort to an artist who, in his troubled lifetime, managed only to sell a single painting.

One of 37 self-portaits painted by Vincent Van Gogh

The Van Gogh Museum houses some of the artist’s finest works, including “Wheatfield with Crows,” and one of the famous “Sunflower” paintings. It is a comprehensive examination of the development of the artist, who came into his own in Arles. There are other excellent paintings by the Impressionists as well, including some great Monets, a nice Renoir, a Seurat, and a marvellous Cezanne picture of Provence.

A Bakfiets cargo bicycle

Leaving the museum, we found a little bakery and bought some refreshments, enjoying them on some steps of a house facing a canal. More people-watching and this time I focused more on the bicycles and how they were used. My suspicions always were that Amsterdam is not the kind of place you would like to ride if you enjoy cycling fast, dashing up and down hills, through curves, feeling the pleasure of speed, the sensation of flying. No, Amsterdam cycling is totally utilitarian. The car has been replaced by the bicycle (along with the streetcar) as the principal beast of burden. It is unlike any other place I have seen, including Copenhagen. No horns blares, no tires squeal from braking. It is eerily quiet for a major city. Nobody wears cycling-specific clothing, nor, without exception, helmets. Bicycles transport you faster than walking but not by much. I saw the odd man wearing a suit and riding, and plenty of women smartly dressed, often wearing short skirts and fashionable boots with heels. Baskets held groceries or small dogs. One Bakfiets rolled by and we saw two blonde children asleep in the Spring sunshine in the front of the box, followed by groceries, followed by the young mother on her saddle pedalling, followed by another child sitting on a saddle behind her!

No sissy Cryptonite lock here! Check out the serious chain and padlock.

There is an occasional ringing of a bell to avoid flattening pedestrians (being hit with a loaded Bakfiets would probably be like being hit by a piano) but everyone is cycling at a very very leisurely pace. Nobody sweats. This is in spite of the weight of the bikes and the fact that every one is also carrying a massive chain and padlock that probably double the weight of the bike yet again. None of the bikes squeaked or rattled but they all looked pretty much taken for granted.

Amsterdam is twinned with Toronto but there is no similarity between them. In Amsterdam, it is clear that a conscious decision was made to develop a liveable, human-scale city whose shape is not bent to meet the demands of the automobile. It is a completely different lifestyle, reflecting the crowded conditions of the Netherlands and its lack of energy resources, but nonetheless the Dutch clearly have a very high standard of living.

When I lived in the United States, I recall that when the bicycle was suggested as a valuable addition to the transportation network, the response by doubters was generally along the lines of “Well, this isn’t Amsterdam!,” with an undertone of “This is a country of vast distances, not like that tiny place populated with gay socialist potheads.” As one Congressman huffed: "Bicycles are an 19th Century invention!". Much like, say, electricity and cars. Anyway, Amsterdam is not perfect, certainly, but perhaps it gives us an insight into how the world could look in a future where energy and land cannot be wasted and where we might all move at a more leisurely pace, bells ringing from time time.

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