Wise words for weary travellers

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 3 October 2017

By listening to suggestions for once, our columnist has an Amsterdam adventure like no other.

Tired of tourist spots, Darrel Bristow-Bovey goes adrift in Amsterdam. Photo by VV Nincic.

I was in Amsterdam in April and the leaves were on the trees and colour was slowly welling in the canals, but I was unexpectedly at a loss. I had the early stages of flu, my energy was low and my curiosity was waning. I didn’t feel like Van Gogh or Anne Frank or sex shows or smoking weed. I didn’t know what to do.

I found a travel guide in a magazine, one of those authoritative listicles that I always half-suspect have been made up by mutinous interns stuck in an office. ‘10 Unusual Things to Do in Amsterdam,’ it said. ‘Number 1: Check out the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky.’

I walked down the canals to the Damrak in the centre of town and found the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky. It was big, but what made it grand? The lobby looked like the concourse of a Soviet train station, one where the trains have stopped running but passengers still sit with their luggage and wait. The floors were tiled like some giant bathroom. I walked through, wondering what exactly I should be checking out. There was a dismal convention in a conference room; there was a restaurant called Asparagus. Did they serve only asparagus? Is that what’s interesting about this place? I looked on the menu. They didn’t serve asparagus.

‘Number 2: Visit Boekie Woekie, Amsterdam’s hidden gem of a bookshop.’ Boekie Woekie, eh? I took a meandering path up the Grachtengordel and paused for a beer, leaning on the railing over the Heerengracht. I saw a man cycling past in traffic with a small boy standing on his shoulders; no one in Amsterdam wears helmets. I finally found Boekie Woekie on one of those streets linking the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht.

It was a sort of art-inflected stationery shop. There were sketch pads and pencils and coffee-table art books. I scratched my head, wondering what made this a hidden gem. The proprietor didn’t seem curious about this strange man standing in her shop, looking around as if searching for clues on a treasure hunt. We had a brief conversation about Bram Fischer and she offered me a piece of fudge from a porcelain bowl shaped like a sheep.

‘Number 3: Take a stroll along the scenic Amstel River. Start behind the train station.’ I walked through the station and found a body of water and started strolling. It wasn’t that scenic, and it also wasn’t the Amstel River; it was the Ij. By now I had realised that my guide to Amsterdam had been written by a psychopath or someone with a sense of humour very much like mine. I wandered up the Ij and found the Consertgebouw on the water and looked around inside while the staff smiled benignly. I crossed a drawbridge and drank a beer at a bar where 200 years ago sailors could pay with live monkeys brought back from Africa or the Indies.

In a cafe I played backgammon with a white-bearded man with a cockatoo on his shoulder; I found a pink balloon in the street and carried it for a while, then gave it to a child; I chatted with someone who said she used to be a call girl. I told her about my travel guide and she told her friends and we all laughed together. The barman gave us all free jenever.

I would like to find whoever wrote that guide to Amsterdam and shake them by the hand. Books and magazines aren’t there to tell us what to do; they’re there to inspire us to go outside.


See more in October issue of Getaway magazine.

Get this issue →

The best guide to weekending in Golden Gate; how to go shark diving (without a cage); exploring the high peaks of the Rwenzoris and heritage homestays with delicious food in Kerala.


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