I suppose that Holland is the country that I’ve visited most over the years. But almost all of those visits have been to the predominantly rural province of Overijssel, to the East. Even the people of Overijssel refer to their country as “Holland”, even though, strictly-speaking, Holland is just another province of the Netherlands, the one that faces the sea. No Scot would say he was English, though.
But, Schiphol airport aside, I haven’t been to Amsterdam since I was about ten years old. I remember it from then as being very clean and very quiet, and also I recall seeing policemen with guns, which was quite scary. One of these things I remembered correctly.
But I’ve long felt a connection with Holland, partly because I tend to look at things from the perspective of a classical liberal, which is how Holland seems to work, and partly because after nearly forty years, I’m still in awe of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, and their team. So it was with great anticipation that I finally visited Amsterdam again, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Ostensibly, I was there with my wife to support our son who was running the Amsterdam Marathon, and half of the second day was spent on metro trains following the route and seeing if we could beat him to each point. Although we did meet up for a meal that night – at an Argentinian steakhouse which appear to be ubiquitous in the city – and visited the Anne Frank Museum with him, the rest of the time was our own.
Our son had arranged accommodation for himself and four of his friends through an organisation called airbnb. We did try to book local hotels or houseboats, but all were fully booked, so we also took the plunge and used the same method. Essentially airbnb brings together private individuals who have space to rent with those looking for such space, with the added benefit of the opportunity to meet a variety of different people. Although forced upon us to some extent, this was a great decision on our part as our hosts were the most charming and helpful people, and the accommodation was lovely inside and out. A Dutch colleague had already told me that the area, the Jordaan, was the place to be in Amsterdam.
In the main, when we weren’t following the marathon, we hung around the Jordaan and the city centre, a mere twenty minutes away, either walking or taking the tram. The Anne Frank Museum is on the edge of the Jordaan. We took a canal trip, amazed at the parts of the city we somehow missed, and visited the Hermitage Museum which had two exhibitions of particular interest, featuring Vincent van Gogh and the French Impressionists.
Amsterdam is incredibly photogenic, although I can’t take photographs this good.
The buildings of the Jordaan and the centre are memorably tall and lean (much like the Dutch themselves). They have the steepest stairs in the world, I would guess, as well as the biggest windows and the smallest curtains. Again, this can only be thought of as a solution to space issues and in their own way are the precursors of skyscrapers.
Much of Holland is below sea-level, including parts of Amsterdam. Amsterdam is the largest single city in a huge urban area, known as the Randstad, which compares in population to London or Paris. The sheer numbers of people, combined with the geography, has forced upon the citizens of Amsterdam a somewhat bespoke solution to the problems of living. Water management is obviously paramount, as it is for much of Holland. Partly the canals were constructed to aid water management but also to provide defence or to facilitate transport, from an age before the motor car. It’s great for everyone that they have to a large extent survived, because not only are they attractive in their own right, but they continue to dictate the kind of city that Amsterdam has become, by restricting the space available for roads. I live close to Hereford, a city of only 50,000 people in England, but one which has far greater traffic congestion problems than Amsterdam.
The picture above is of Dam Square, the closest approximation to a central spot. When we were there the square included a Ferris wheel and other similar attractions. My experience of Amsterdam was not too long but I would say from that, that this scene, of a great city where people rather than traffic dominate, is typical. All over Amsterdam, inexpensive and effective public transport is available. Not that it is completely safe. The main mode of transport is surely the bicycle. There must be one bike for every inhabitant and they are parked everywhere. Legend has it that all the bikes are identical and yet never get lost. This is not strictly true, but most are from, it would seem, a bygone age. The type of bike that Bradley Wiggins would use wouldn’t be seen in Amsterdam. And for the untrained person like me, they could be positively dangerous, and several times I walked out in front of them, and I’m lucky to be here to tell the tale.
The Amsterdam people, in their approach to housing, to transport and their environment, seem to have kept ahead of the rest of us. This can be seen in other ways, too. We have changed our lifestyles in many ways, not the least of which is the relative switch to online retailing. This, together with the financial crisis of 2008, development of “out-of-town” malls, and the current UK government’s insistence on reversing the profligate spending of its predecessor, have resulted in massive closures among town centre businesses. Here in Hereford, the problem of empty shops is acute, and is contributing more than anything to the gradual death of our city. Some say that subsidies are the answer but this would be merely attacking a symptom. The solution, surely, is for towns and cities to become more like the Jordaan, where residences and businesses mingle to everyone’s benefit.
No doubt the Jordaan has not developed in the complete absence of planning regulations. However, it does give the strong impression of successful organic development. Everything is available within a short walking distance, including good quality temporary markets at both ends of the street where our hosts live. Coffee shops and bars (which seemed quite lively), banks and all manner of shops, including the supermarkets of Hereford benefactor Albert Heijn, were all within an easy walk. Most importantly, this is where people live out their lives.
To my mind, Amsterdam, and the Jordaan in particular can teach us a lot. Holland is not perfect, of course – nothing ever is. I was working in Overijssel when Pim Fortuyn was murdered and the Wim Kok government fell over Srebrenica – ironic because apart from the Jugoslavs themselves, no-one was more culpable over the events than the John Major government here in the UK, yet this was not ever a subject for discussion here. Among the non-Dutch, Amsterdam is best known for its tolerance of the sex industry and illicit drugs, two things that have passed me by completely. Undoubtedly, there is much exploitation in both of these areas, which lead us to wonder whether freedom comes at a cost. The Dutch do have their problems like everyone else, but I do get the strong impression that they do realise that problems are soluble despite being inevitable, and that can only be good for both them and the rest of us.
Amsterdam is a big city – because of its commercial and cultural heritage – that manages to come across as a small city, intimate in the way that its citizens interact. In many ways it’s ideal. I will be back, although not before I’ve renewed my acquaintance with Overijssel.