Returning to the by now rather delayed account of What I Did on My Holidays: I was really taken with Amsterdam. I think it helped that I had a bit longer there than in some places I visited, and it helped a lot that I was with friends rather than on my own. lethargic_man is the most excellent of travel companions! But it's also a great city and very much tourist friendly.
Various little things went wrong and added up to my reaching Amsterdam about four hours later than I'd planned, which meant I was rather stressed. Actually, meeting up with lethargic_man and curious_reader was fine in spite of the delay, and in spite of my yelling at Lethargic Man for absolutely no good reason (my apologies for that). We did end up not having time to do much on Sunday evening, other than find something to eat in an Indian restaurant that was tolerable but pricey for what it was. We stayed in the Park Plaza Vondel, which is a fairly generic though not horrible chain hotel.
We were pretty efficient about touristing on Monday. We made an early start to get to the Anne Frank museum before the queues got impossible. It probably wouldn't have been my first choice of destination, but it is extremely well put-together. In some way it mitigated my bad experiences of Holocaust merchandizing in Berlin, because it is very sensitive and clearly aimed to educate rather than shock and titillate.
lethargic_man pointed out to me the Pink Triangle memorial which is just behind Anne Frank's house. It's a very discreet memorial; I could have walked right past it if I hadn't been deliberately looking for it. It consists of a triangular jetty, a triangular paved area, a pink granite triangle about a foot high, and a little booth providing health information and advice for young gay people. It seems right that it should exist, though; it's rare for the Holocaust to be commemorated specifically as an attack on gay people (rather than lumping them together as "the Jews and all the others"). This is partly because people who happen to be gay do not entirely form a distinct community with a clear sense of shared heritage.
We decided we had a little time to see the Amsterdam Historical Museum. This turned out to be very interesting; it basically discussed the history of the city in chronological order, displaying artefacts and artworks from each period. I learned a lot from it, though we didn't have time to see the whole museum properly, and I'm still a little confused about what was going on with all the civil wars and power struggles between Catholics and Protestants! The coolest thing is probably the original shipwrights' scale models used to construct the Eastindiaman ships. Also I got a really clear impression of how artificial the city is; it seems to have risen to prominence as a result of an event that is ludicrous even by the standards of Mediaeval Christian superstitions (seriously: a dying man received the Last Rites, but vomited up the Host, and the Host did not burn when the vomit was thrown onto the fire. The man died anyway, and somehow this was a reason to attract such a regular stream of pilgrims to the nascent city that it became prosperous. Dot. Dot. Dot.) And the city doesn't even have natural access to the sea; they just picked a random spot to build a connecting canal so it could serve as a port. Then half the land the city stands on is artificially constructed and the rest is reclaimed.
We managed to lose track of eachother in the museum (this was a bit of a theme over the course of our stay!) so we were somewhat rushed to make it to our next appointment. When I took the tour of Berlin, they mentioned that the same organization also offers free walking tours of Amsterdam, and since the Berlin one was so good it seemed a good way to get a feel for Amsterdam too. Anyway, we were (just!) in time to join said tour. The guide was a rather sweet Aussie girl, not as much of an intellectual as the Berlin guide, and someone who had obviously very much bought into the Amsterdam myth. She kept telling us how wonderful and tolerant the city is, and how the commercial imperative makes everyone willing to work together and overlook differences, and so on. I don't want to be mean; she did a good job of showing us the city, but she seemed a little bit naive.
Anyway. Amsterdam is very very pretty. I think it has benefited from the fact that its most prosperous period corresponded with an era of good architectural taste. And the canals really help. The only part of the city that is not visually lovely is the former Jewish quarter; not only were most of its inhabitants killed, to add insult to injury the empty buildings were torn apart for fuel during the terrible winter of 44, and the quarter was rebuilt with revolting 60s architecture. Apparently the city learned from that experience and instituted strict planning laws so there won't be any more eyesores. But it's just one more sad thing to add to the incomprehensible mass of tragedies.
Obviously, we had to visit the Red Light District, since it's one of the major tourist attractions. Our starry-eyed guide was full of enthusiasm for how the prostitutes are all unionized and have legal protections, and how wonderful it is that there is so much diversity among the workers, with all races and body types taking part in this magnificent Amsterdam institution. I have some reservations about this rosy picture, starting from a rather visceral reaction to seeing the half-dressed women gyrating in the windows. Still, I think on the whole there are advantages to sex trade being a normal part of business (especially when that is extended to shops selling naughty underwear, condoms, toys and erotic videos, as well as the direct prostitution). I definitely like the way that the Red Light District is an area where one can feel comfortable after dark, unlike in a lot of cities. And there's lots of sexually themed public art, which is rather cool especially as lots of it is actually artistic rather than merely graphic. And it's not like the fact that prostitution is less in my face elsewhere in the world makes it less of a moral problem.
On the guide's recommendation, we had an Indonesian meal in the evening. That was the only meal we ate in Amsterdam that was interesting and good value for money, though it was in a tiny little dive only one step up from a takeaway. It's not surprising that it's hard to find decent and not overpriced food in such a touristy city, at least if you yourself are a tourist without local knowledge. Anyway. Indonesian food is tasty.
Tuesday was the wedding, which I've blogged about already. We were pretty tired after a long and intense day, so we didn't get up all that early on Wednesday. Still, we had time for a couple of hours in the Rijksmuseum, another museum that was high on my list of places to make sure to see at some point in my life. Even though the museum was partially closed for renovation, I was not at all disappointed. Apart from the very obvious things (yay Rembrandt! yay Vermeer!), I rather liked some of the stuff by an artist called Metsu, whom I had not heard of previously. Also, it's very cool to see the famous Dutch style of painting the sky, and then go outside and see the sky actually looking like that. I know that's really trite observation which has probably been made by millions of tourists before, but I was happy anyway.
A little more exploring the city on foot, partly unintentionally as it took us ages to find anywhere vaguely suitable to eat, and we ended up in a trashy "Italian" place. Then we caught the Eurostar train back to London, which was expensive but vastly, vastly less stressful than flying (as well as being more environmental, which was the reason for choosing that means of transport).
Conclusion: even though I only had time for the really obvious tourist clichés, I'm definitely a fan of Amsterdam. Yet another place I want to find time to go back to some time. At least it's reasonably easy to get to from both here and England.