A recent free weekend gave the opportunity for an escape to the continent. Along with a couple of bus industry colleagues, the plan was to make our way across the Netherlands, into Germany, up the Rhine, across to the Harz Mountains then finally to Berlin for the plane home. The rules were fairly simple – public transport all the way, sampling as many different operators using as many different modes as possible. We tend not to dwell anywhere too long – you can learn an awful lot about somewhere in very little time – so this seemed like a reasonable adventure for four days.
The collective agreement was to start at Schiphol Airport on Friday morning and head straight off to the south of the country, the rest of the Netherlands having been decisively covered in a previous trip. However I have never spent any time in Amsterdam before, so decided to travel the evening before and explore the city on my own, before linking up with my colleagues on Friday morning.
The Teutonic theme to the trip started before I even left the UK however, as complex domestic arrangements meant I had to break the rules right at the start and drive my car to Gatwick Airport, to endure the misery of long-stay parking. What more appropriate carriage could be waiting to whisk me to the terminal than the first of many Citaros! With Britain in the grip of arctic temperatures, it at least offered the attraction of being warm!
In no time at all I was in the airport, where my holiday was rudely interrupted by a final dose of real life. Having earlier had the office phone diverted to my mobile, I had forgotten to cancel the diversion before leaving work, with the result that Velvet Enquiries were briefly handled from a bench outside Starbucks in Gatwick North Terminal. My final moments before exiting the UK were spent remotely reuniting two Thornden School parents with their offspring’s lost PE kits!
The most impressive feature of Gatwick Airport is the world’s largest air passenger bridge – a walkway that takes you thirty two metres above the ground and over the top of one of the taxiways, allowing travellers the highly unusual sight of aircraft taxying beneath them! It was with childlike excitement that I discovered that my plane’s departure gate required me to cross this bridge and I lingered for as long as I dare, until finally an obliging British Airways plane turned and passed beneath my feet.
Unfortunately I had lingered so long that most of the rest of the passengers had overtaken me, and with Easyjet operating a “first come first shoved” approach to seat allocation I was alarmed to reach the back of the boarding queue with the departure gate still a distant speck on the horizon! Luckily I was able to board just in time to nab the last remaining window seat and in good time we were aloft, on course for the Dutch capital.
Having left Gatwick in temperatures some way below zero, it was a faint hope that the continent would be enduring a heatwave, but nevertheless my hopes that things might warm up a bit were soon dashed by the Dutch captain’s brief announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, the weather in Amsterdam is the same as in London, only more cold!”
My regression into childhood continued throughout the flight as I sat with face pressed to the window on a beautifully clear night, taking in such panoramic scenes as Southdown PSV’s depot on the outskirts of Crawley, the elegant seaside metropolis of Southend-on-Sea, bustling Europoort and an accident scene on the A4 motorway, before finally settling down bang on time on the north-east facing runway at Schiphol.
Having revived my treasured OV-Chipkaart with credit, I was soon enjoying the smooth comfort of a double-deck train ride into the capital city, where I emerged from Central Station to find it snowing. Luckily my hotel was only a short walk and I was soon ensconsed in my top floor hotel room at the surprisingly characterful Tulip Inn Amsterdam Centre.
Having dumped my bag and with not a moment to lose, I launched myself once more into the sub-zero temperatures outside and immediately realised my hotel was right in the middle of the city’s infamous red light district! Being of faint heart and prudish manner, I of course kept my eyes straight ahead as I wandered along street after street lined with establishments of dubious virtue.
I couldn’t help but be amused at the sight of a shop apparently selling nothing but vibrators, although it was not so much the store’s contents that amused me as its name – “Na Na, The Most Vibrating Shop”. I would have taken a photo but frankly, I wasn’t brave enough to stand in the middle of a busy red light district aiming my camera at a shop window full of sex toys!
My progress into the heart of the city’s seedy underbelly was marked by escalating fruit references. What started with a shop a few doors from the hotel selling “banana toys”, gave way a few yards later to a club advertising (among other attractions) a “banana show” before finally climaxing a block further on with the proudly named “Banana Bar – Live F***ing”!
I had heard many tales from friends in the UK of Amsterdam’s notorious attractions and had always assumed them to be grossly exaggerated. What I had imagined would be maybe one or two streets turned into block after block of lurid establishments.
Given that the majority of voices I heard as I wandered the streets were British males hunting in packs, I can only imagine that this side to what is probably otherwise a charming city delivers significant tourist income. Otherwise, why would a country as ordered and efficient as the Netherlands tolerate such a sordid centrepiece to its capital city?
I’d love to remember Amsterdam for its elegant buildings, graceful canals and bustling precincts, but in fact my abiding memory will be of scantily dressed ladies writhing behind red-hued glass doors, tapping on the windows to attract the attention of passers by, about as unerotic scene as it is possible to imagine on that freezing night!
It was with some relief that I finally emerged from a side street to be confronted with the impressive facade of Centraal Station, and decided that the only late night activity that I needed was some serious train watching, so I spent a pleasant half an hour dodging the drug dealers on the station platforms.
For me the romance of train travel is no better summed up than by a departing sleeper train, conveying its weary occupants on life-changing journeys to distant cities many hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Whenever I’m in a foreign city I love to watch such trains heading on their way, and as the City Night Line to Zurich drew out of the platform, I imagined the destinies of those whose faces peered at me through the windows. For some maybe only a short vacation, but for many their last glimpse of familiar comforts, knowing they would wake up the following morning to a different existence, with all the uncertainty and excitement that entailed!
As I explored further, my melancholy musings were soon banished by the most exciting of all possible discoveries – a secret bus station! Hidden at first floor level at the back of Centraal Station, this vibrant terminal hummed with life even at 10 o’clock at night, despatching buses into the outskirts and surrounding regions well loaded with Friday night travellers.
The most exciting feature of Amsterdam’s Secret Bus Station however has to be its amazing Control Room. Quite unlike any similar facility I have encountered anywhere on my travels, I will be making a point of sending a picture to the architects employed by Sainsbury’s on the proposed redevelopment of Eastleigh Bus Station, and making it a condition of my support that the town’s future transport interchange enjoys such a space aged centrepiece!
Finally exhausted, I returned to my room and lay down to sleep, only to wake up later feeling quite disorientated and dizzy – quite amazing given that I had (unusually for me) consumed no alcohol at all! It was only after sitting for a few moments to regain my bearings that I realised the entire hotel room sloped from right to left, with the top of the bed several inches lower than the foot! How ironic that of all the things that I had seen in the Dutch capital that could have caused a rush of blood to my head, in the event it was a wonky hotel room that did so!
The following morning dawned colder still and snowier, and after a brief farewell visit to the secret bus station I was on a train back to Schiphol Airport, ready to meet my colleagues and continue the adventure...