Amsterdam by coach with Shearings
"Everyone comes to Holland in the Spring time", apologised our hostess in impeccable English as she shepherded our party though the crowded showrooms of Amsterdam's Gassan Diamonds. There were many parties of all nationalities. Ours was pure English coach tour, Shearings variety. We admired the sparkling crystals, each one the value of a family car or house. Unsurprisingly no-one bought a single gem though we helped ourselves to the complementary coffee and broken waffles.
I have experience of Amsterdam having taken parties of secondary school children there some four times in the 1990s. The city has greatly changed for the better in terms of graffiti and, whereas there has been a lot of development around the ring roads and port areas, the atmospheric canals and town houses are preserved in aspic as befits a UNESCO World Heritage site. Add to the mix a citizenry that is sophisticated and delightful, with a command of the English language to make one drool in admiration. However, there is a But.
Amsterdam can be heaven or hell in springtime. Those renowned canals feast the eyes, but are desperately hard to navigate on foot when congested. And Amsterdam is always congested in my experience. Now everyone knows that the Dutch capital - indeed the whole of the Netherlands - is biker heaven. Conversely though, it is pedestrian hell. Bikes litter the already minute byways along the canals when stationary. In operation they are much, much worse. Venture into one of the ubiquitous cycle ways at your peril. Of course, everywhere is thoroughfare for bikes. Stop to admire the rows of splendid merchants' houses for a reflective moment and before you can say, "Where's the red light ...?" you will be in the slipstream of some irate cyclist, bludgeoned to handlebar oblivion. The citizens of Amsterdam favour robust bicycles of the old school. Great weighty things of substance, and lethal with it. Seriously though, do take care in this beautiful city. Accidents do happen.
If you can't beat them, join them. Hire a bike yourself for £8 a day or thereabouts or, do what we did, and buy a day's ticket for the hop on hop off boat, the so-called Museum Line, where for some 30 Euros or so one can gain admission to Amsterdam's fabulous museums including the unmissable Van Gogh Museum. (We bought our ticket and boarded the boat by Central Station.) So many paintings on view at the museum with two hundred paintings and at least twice that number of drawings. It was very crowded however. Thirsty work. My wife dissuaded me from visiting the Heineken brewery where the high price of admission now includes, I am given to understand, only two glasses of the brew, a major disappointment given more innocent, youthful memories of a low admission price and copious alcohol. Age and alcohol confuse the exact details.
The floating flower market is something of a misnomer in Spring. Yes, the flowers are there but the outstanding feature is the collection of bulbs and roots of all sizes and descriptions. And I don't mean the tulips that proliferate everywhere in their cardboard packaging depicting an intensity of colour that, had I not seen it for myself in the flesh at the astounding Keukenhof Garden, I would dismiss as fraud, save for the jet black tulips that are surely miracles of Photoshop. In any case, planting expensive tulips in April is only just a smidgeon better than sowing snowdrop seeds on the slopes of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Do what I do and order the tulips from the catalogues for Autumn delivery and buy something new for the summer garden. There is an awesome choice in the market. If that birds nest of a root ball or woolly giant spider doesn't produce plants to strike envy throughout the suburban neighbourhood then my name's not Percy Thrower. Oh, and the arrays of cannabis seeds are a novelty to snap with the digital camera - lots of people do. Beware though, our native boys in blue are experts on that particular form of foliage.
The phrases 'boys in blue' and 'in the flesh' bring me to one of the great attractions of Amsterdam - the Red Light area. It's not quite so tawdry as I remember it, certainly in the day anyway. Discretion has found its way into the vice scene, though a stroll through some of the minor passages between the gorgeous houses will reveal rather less gorgeous girls in red rooms separated from you by the merest sliver of glass and basque. All tastes are catered for, I guess. Likewise, coffee shops that are not there for coffee, attract thousands of youngsters and not so youngsters. As for the fumes, I am reminded of that line from Ted Hughes' The Thought Fox - "with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox". It's an odd thing this tolerance of vice and drugs. Maybe it is good for tourism but I'm not entirely sure Amsterdam needs it. Still, as I said, the authorities have cleaned up the graffiti in the last decade and the open displays of pornography that once could give a man neck-ache are gone from open view.
The Anne Frank Museum is removed from any criticism. I'll just commence with a warning that the museum must be booked well in advance on the internet if you want to miss the queues. Go there in the morning in spring or summer and queue for three hours in a line of people that scarcely moves. Some helpful American tourists reminded me of this convincingly when congratulating their hosts in loud voices for having the foresight to pay the booking fee of fifty cents and skip the queue. This was repeated without any sense of irony (or sensitivity) three times as they progressed through the heaving queues. A lot of Amsterdam's visitors understand English perfectly and the advice was greeted with much gnashing of teeth and strengthened Euro-American relations. The museum sees over a million visitors each year, as well as 4200 parties of mainly young people. The message it provides from a dark past is salutary. It was my fifth visit, and my wife's first. The simple rooms behind the bookcase together with some measured use of technology combine to provide a compelling experience to reflect on.
I should explain that we visited Amsterdam on our free day, before being taken there the following day as an included excursion from Shearings. Free from the coach we journeyed by train from our coastal base at Zandvoort. The exemplary train journey cost twenty-one Euros return between us for the 35 minute journey. A monitor screen detailed where we were, how far to the next stop; we sat on comfortable seats and station announcements were delivered in English. It all made for an easy journey.
So what else did we do in our two days? First we purchased a map for 3 Euros from Waterstones because we could not find a free one. (This was rectified the following day by our coach driver showing us there are free maps to be had.) We took photographs in the tranquil Begijnhof, a former convent, consisting of a green courtyard surrounded by pretty gardens and houses, reserved for female residents some of whom read books in deckchairs as the rest of us gazed on enviously at the end allowed the public. In a bustling city such oases are few and far between. We searched for a cafe and, as I have learnt subsequently, were fortunate indeed to seize a vacant table at the Singel 404, overlooking one of the ubiquitous scenic canals. The sandwiches were delicious and vast. Frankly, the packed 'lunchcafe' included slow service but that was just what we needed given the crowded pavements. We (or perhaps more truthfully, I) enjoyed a large beer for nigh on seven Euros from the waterside terrace by the Tourist Information at Central Station. One third consisted of the most expensive froth I have consumed outside Norway. Sadly, we did not have time for the Rijksmuseum with its Rembrandts and Vermeers or the equally prestigious Stedelijk Museum for more modern works. For our next visit I think.
And for the record we were on the 'Springtime in Holland' seven day holiday. We stayed at the NH Zandvoort hotel, used by Shearings for the first time this year. A huge modern building, it was stylish, had uniformly spacious and clean rooms, with the best buffet meals I have ever had on a Shearings break, my wife enjoying her vegetarian food and choice of freshly cooked vegetables - you'd be surprised how often she is served vegetarian food without vegetables. The meat or fish was high quality, varied and always piping hot. Too good. I had to cut back after making a complete pig of myself the first night with the pork. The staff were exemplary with their English and courtesy. I would have no hesitation in staying at the hotel when I next take the North Sea ferry to the Netherlands.
A full day was spent at the Keukenhof Garden. People tell me they visit the bulb-fields of Holland. In reality Keukenhof is a cultivated park of breath-taking, unrivalled displays of bulbs. Wonderful wonderful wonderful. And we timed the visit to perfection with narcissus, hyacinths and tulips, even rhododendrons, at their unsurpassed best. The perfume was heady. Time left for Volendam with its inland sea, fishing boats and cafes. Do journey into the small town to stroll through the neat houses and gardens. We also had a couple of hours in Delft, an ancient city full of, surprise surprise, bikes. No time for the city's solitary remaining Delft pottery and museum – well worth a trip from previous experience but there's shops a-plenty, trendy cafes and we bought a combined ticket for the two splendid churches, the Oude Kerk and Nieuwe Kerk. (Old and new, silly - this language thing is a breeze!) Homeward bound we stopped over at Bruges and stayed for a final night at the Ibis hotel in Dunkirk. The Ibis has the Paul Simon mark of distinction: "All right in a sort of a limited way/For an off-night".
A final word for our driver, Stephen, who was a good man all round. He imparted an undoubted love for the country plus an unfailing fund of information borne of experience, wit and intellect. Shearings expect a lot of their drivers. The company provides state of the art coaches but ultimately drivers have to set off towards distant horizons taking responsibility for everything. Shearings should be proud of men like Stephen.
More about IanIan has been retired from the teaching profession since 2011. He was Deputy Headteacher of a secondary school in Lincolnshire for twenty years. Having written extensively on Drama, English and Animation, his blog on the latter topic is one of the most authoritative and widely read in the world. Retirement has allowed him the freedom to travel extensively though he touches base occasionally to tend to his other loves – grandchildren, gardening and ballroom dancing. Practice, he says, makes perfect but not with the spin turn!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Shearings Holidays