Bicycles. Beat up bicycles. Bicycles with children’ seats on the back. Bicycles with children’s seats on the front. Bicycles with children’s seats in both locations. Bicycles with plastic grocery bags over the seats. Bicycles with heavy chains and locks. Bicycles parked outside every single building I saw in Amsterdam. Bicycles with gears and without gears. Bicycles with bells tinkling warnings as the driver approaches from behind. Bicycles with wicker baskets, metal baskets, rear panniers and even hauling platforms up front.
In Amsterdam you can’t miss the bicycles. The stairs all have bike rails to allow the rider to push their two-wheeled steeds up the grade (and down, but that looks dangerous to me…what if it got away from you?). Bicyclists are aggressive about claiming their earned space on sidewalks as well as the narrow, cobblestone roads. Looking before you cross a street is more about watching for bicycles than cars in the Netherlands.
But despite their ubiquity, bicycles add as much charm to Amsterdam as the canals, unending Rembrandt references, wheels of Gouda cheese and the naughtiness of the Red Light District. Strong pumping legs, whether punctuated by athletic shoes, high-end heels or sandals, power this city’s residents to work, home and play. There’s as much pretension about riding bicycles here as there is about flossing your teeth; what’s there to talk about? You just do it.
All those canals. All that water. All those people. You’d think, with that combination, there might be a bit of, shall we say, a dank odor to Amsterdam. Maybe a fleet of mosquitos hovering over the canals, too. But, no.
“Our canals are clean,” shared Pim, the pilot of our open-air boat on an Eco canal cruise. “A couple of times a week we let the water flush out so it’s always fresh. The green color comes from the sand and dirt lining the canals’ bottom. People can fish in our canals and, in some places, even swim in them in the summer. We’re proud of our canals.”
No sewage heads into Amsterdam’s canals (even the houseboats have plumbing hookups). Perhaps the worst pollution is from the cars that tumble into the canals periodically when their drivers demonstrate a grievous lack of depth perception while parallel parking right next to the canals (with no guard rails of any kind, I think I’d stick with parking on the other side of the road)…
Fresh herring. Salted and served with onions and a pair of coin-sized pickle slices. Add a quartet of toothpicks adorned with Dutch flags piercing into the sliced fish. Give the street vendor two euros and that’s your morning treat. Oh, he has vacuum-packed eel, too, as well as North Sea shrimp (so very tiny). But get the herring; you won’t regret it.
The blue and white ferries are free. For anyone! So venture outside the Centraal Station and take a ride to anywhere–and back. Some ferries just head across the harbor while others criss cross each other, taking passengers (more than half whom are aboard their bicycles) to more distant wharves.
Don’t be afraid and don’t hesitate. When the ferry ramp goes down, the flood of passengers washes out fast, emptying the oddly-shaped vessels so quickly that you almost don’t notice the tide change of direction as the incoming passengers push up the ramp and through the boat to stand ready, facing forward, at the other end. If you want to ride the ferry and don’t move quickly you’ll be left behind, just watching as others feel the breeze on their cheeks and the steady churn of the sturdy boats.
I was mystified by these perfectly symmetric boats. Since they didn’t travel in “reverse,” did the pilot drive backwards for half of his shift? Nope. I stopped to watch one entire cycle and saw the trick. The seated pilot (should I call it a “captain” instead?) faces forward as the boat approaches the wharf. He activates the ramp, disgorging passengers, then draws it back up when the last incoming rider is on board. He then pulls a knob and his seat slides backwards, to the other end of the bridge. Another button release and the seat turns 180 degrees. Facing “forward” once again, he pulls away from the shore to complete another harbor crossing.