|(The storied pissoir. Get the worst out of the way right away.)|
We were here in 2006, both of us for the first time, and we really fell in love with the place. There's little to dislike, and everything to find endearing about the place: it's manageable in size, English is everywhere, everybody is friendly and easygoing, the town is quite oriented toward visitors. And there's so much that's unique (in my experience, anyway) to this place alone: the canals, and the 1,200 bridges are found nowhere else like this, and the interactions between canals and roadways makes for a zillion picturesque squares and intersections. It seems the most photogenic of cities, not because it's the most beautiful end-to-end, but because there are so many little snapshots of beauty.
But my favorite single aspect of the place is the bicycle culture. I would estimate that somewhere North of 40% of the population of the inner city gets around by bicycle. More than this, they live on their bikes, which means taking the kids places, chatting on their cell phones, picking up groceries, going to and from work--the whole banana. It's a cultural factoid that changes everything it touches. Bicycles are not ridden here for exercise purposes--I did not see a single racing-style bike or anyone in "biking gear" on either visit--nor are they ridden to make an ecological statement (though it certainly does). No, it's just a deep cultural thing, and like Los Angeles having automobiles deep in its DNA, this place is all about bikes. There are no gas stations, parking for cars is a nightmare, and what a liberation it must be to be free of the myriad expenses of owning and driving a car.
The downside is that most bikes you see are studiously uninteresting, and I'd say that 30-40% of the thousands and thousands of bikes chained to every immoveable structure throughout the city are not in rideable shape. A quick glance anywhere reveals A) bikes in incredible profusion, and B) bikes that are missing parts or rusting apart or have flat tires or missing tires. It's more of an esthetic problem than a practical one, since a single parked car takes up more space than 40 piled-up junked bikes; but it is a bit of a visual blight to see, well, so much junk locked to everything in sight.
And come to think of it, it's kind of a dirty place overall, more than I'd expect from a small-ish city. I'd guess this is because there are so many visitors--and they are so often completely blotto--that it would require a whole army to comb the place for trash and broken glass and millions of cigarette butts. Constantly. Every morning brings a profusion of empty beer cans and broken bottles and glasses and paper plates. And occasionally condoms. I mentioned before that despite many permanent outdoor urinals placed throughout the city--"pissoirs," I think they're called--they still have to put up temporary plastic ones in the major squares to keep men from just letting go where the spirit moves them. Not a great reflection on humanity, that.
But these are not the impressions that stick with one. The cheery folks on the canals, the tinkle of bicycle bells warning pedestrians ahead, the good nature of most everyone you meet; these are the things that stay with one. And the sheer number of people here enjoying themselves. We stayed again this year at the Hotel Vondel near the Northern entrance to the Vondel Park, and there is a public square just a couple blocks North of here that is filled with thousands of folks at night eating and drinking and just soaking in the scene. There are street musicians everywhere and dance groups and painters and jewelry makers and a zillion restaurants, each with an outdoor seating area on the square. It's hard not to grab a seat and watch the world go by.
|(The famed flower market.)|
|(The square by our hotel. This is one part of it; there are thousands of folks here.)|
|(If there are Bob Marley pictures, it's not a COFFEE shop coffee shop. Just sayin'.)|
|(For my bud Susie-Q.)|