There’s a sure way to unlock the secrets of Amsterdam—explore by bicycle.
This is the city of bikes, with around one million mostly timeworn machines. You see them crammed into metal racks on every street, bolted three-deep to canal bridges, spilling out from the multi-storey “bikepark” at Centraal Station, and perhaps being sold on the sly by the bike thieves who operate in Dam Square.
Some years ago I shared an apartment overlooking the houseboats moored alongside the Binnenkant, and on my first weekend in the city I paid good money for a sorry-looking bicycle from a hire outlet. The frame was branded with the name “Quicksilver,” but the bike was neither of those things. It was painted a muddy-brown, it had no gears, and the brakes (such as they were) were operated by pedaling backwards. I only invested because the company I worked for was located on the far side of the city and walking was impractical. By fluke, I ended up with a key to the contradictions at the very heart of Amsterdam.
My morning commute was a revelation. I would breeze over the Amstel River and weave through the clouds of marijuana smoke eddying outside the tourist coffee houses on Rembrantplein, then glide up and over the cobbled bridges that span Amsterdam’s most picturesque canals, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. From there, I followed the curving tramlines running alongside the Singelgracht, coasted through the vaulted tunnel beneath the Rijksmuseum and crossed the cultured green of Museumplein, passing just meters from the Van Gogh museum.
On weekends I circled Vondelpark, resting only for a koffie verkeerd and spicy appeltaart at the Blue Teahouse, or headed south to Amsterdamse Bos, a sprawling, forested zone that feels like Central Park grown-wild. Other times, I took random turns through the winding streets of the Jordaan, with its thin, cheerful townhouses and colorfully painted barges, or dawdled among the open-air bookstalls at Spui Square and the displays of tulips near Koningsplein.
By night, with my dynamo lights flickering dimly, I passed cruise boats squeezing beneath illuminated bridges, or gawped at the lurid neons of the glass cubicles and grotesque sex clubs of the Red Light District.
When I grew thirsty, I’d secure my bicycle with a chain that cost more than the machine itself and drink Heineken in snug brown cafés. The locals I met had an easy humor and a relaxed charm, and were every bit as laid-back as you would expect (even if they did seem mystified by the English stag groups that visit the city). Always, and without exception, they struck me as effortlessly mature.
Riding on Quicksilver, pedaling from the sublime through the seedy and back again, it wasn’t long before I started to develop the idea for a crime novel set in Amsterdam. And when my central character, a burglar, needed a getaway vehicle? Why, the solution was obvious.
CHRIS EWAN is the creator of Charlie Howard, mystery writer and professional thief-for-hire. In the comedy caper novel, The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam (published by St. Martin’s Minotaur), Charlie travels around Amsterdam on a stolen bicycle.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.