Dressed for Christmas: not all goods are as well wrapped as the amaryllis.

There’s a lot of life on show in Amsterdam shop windows. Claire summed it up with a phrase I wish I had thought of. On her first night she went for a stroll and returned wide eyed at goods on offer in local shops. “Just popped out for a satsuma and a sex toy.”

I think it must be difficult to write a good pocket guide to Amsterdam. I soon ditched my Time Out shortlist guide which assumed I would focus on the red light district taking in cannabis and sex museums on the way. Claire’s Lonely Planet offered aphono2.jpg selection of sights better suited to women of a certain age exploring the city while their menfolk attend a conference. And good places to eat and drink in the evening.

We spent happy hours exploring shops, cafes and galleries along the narrow canals radiating from the Dam. For a laugh, though, we went via the Erotic Museum so we could say we had seen the bike operated dildo mentioned in Time Out. Somehow by the time we got there it didn’t seem so funny.

The red light district, straggling through beautiful old buildings leaning precariously over canals, presents the most peculiar contradictions of Amsterdam. Right beside the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city, promising an organ recital on Sunday afternoon, women of very uncertain age offer their charms in a window display that I find both sinister and sad. Not least because many of them don’t look much younger than me. (When I tell Bobby this a few days later he chokes on the malteser he has just swallowed.)

This is a tourist attraction the city would like to lose, along with cannabis and stag and hen nights. Or so one civil servant told us over dinner. Crime comes with drugs and prostitution, he said.

Yet most of us agreed that Amsterdam is the more exciting for the quirky juxtaposition of human enterprise: sex, chocolate, cheese, cannabis, culture, art and fashion cheek by jowl in almost every street. This is a buzzing real-life city, not a charming museum like Bruges. And everyone we spoke to in shops and galleries seemed so friendly and welcoming. Maybe, given that fruity whiff in the air, they are all slightly stoned.

One odd thing. When I tried to take Ray to buy tickets for the organ recital on our last day we couldn’t find any mention of it at the Oude Kerk door. But the women were still on duty in the windows.


We did make it to Fran’s favourite cafe, Vertigo, during a break in the snowstorm.

By the way, the best thing I can say for the Ibis, an odd monster straddling the Central Station, is that it is close to the centre. So close, the bed in our first room was no more than a couple of metres from the railway track; I swear I could read the headlines in the newspapers of passengers travelling to work. We changed rooms and thought of changing hotels too but there was so much to see in Amsterdam it hardly seemed worth the effort. Next time we will book somewhere else.

PS. I’ve just looked at the Oude Kerk website and there was an organ concert that day. It would have been ideal for a snowy afternoon. What a pity we missed it.


one of the better views from the Ibis