By David Martin
Amsterdam is a magical city, quite unique. A network of canals mesh with a grid of streets, giving it more than a touch of Venice-like charm.
Bikes are by far the most popular way to get around. There are cycle lanes and shared paths but bikes just flood all the streets. They often don’t follow general traffic rules, reflecting the liberal spirit of the Dutch capital. And in one-way streets, I am told, it is legal to find bikes going in both directions.
We were lucky to have a friend living in Amsterdam who showed us around. Sigrun took me on a personalised two hour bike tour of the highlights of Amsterdam – what an experience! She loaned me her son’s ‘Dutch donkey’ to ride. It was, in fact, a pretty reasonable bike, sturdy but with three gears, all you need on the flat landscape there. The only disconcerting thing was the sizeable front luggage rack, fixed to the frame so that it didn’t turn with the handlebars but I soon got used to that. Like most other bikes, the handlebars are flat and the riding position is upright. Almost no-one wears helmets, just a few keen lycra clad athletic types.
We rode into the afternoon peak hour traffic, like the Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s everyone for themselves but the main game is to fit in with the traffic flow, across your path, from head-on, and every other direction. The street grid is a constant stream of bikes, pedestrians, motor scooters, trams and cars, mostly without traffic signals or ‘give way’ signs’; surprisingly the main rule is give way to the right.
Near misses are the order of the day; I saw one young cyclist attending to her smart phone as she poked her front wheel out into an intersection, to have it whacked by a passing motor scooter, but nothing worse. It’s all done in a calm and efficient way; everyone makes it work. A rider may call ‘halt!’ to a pedestrian apparently oblivious to their surroundings. I am an experienced cyclist but I was in a super-alert state for the whole two hours.
The sun shone for us as we stopped by the historic Westerkerk, the Amstel River/canal, the famous ‘skinny bridge’ (Magere Brug), the Vondelpark and more. We rode on the most famous cycle path in the Netherlands, passing right through and under the famous Rijksmuseum, the cycle path Amsterdam citizen are the most proud of; it even has even its own Facebook page.
We visited the amazing central train station and the nearby ferry terminals, seething with people afoot and cycling. There are some extraordinary bike parks there: the ‘fietsflat’, a multi-story affair holding thousands upon thousands of bikes. At the ferries nearby is a compound with rows and rows of two-level racks. People rush in to retrieve (or deposit) their bikes as they head to or from the ferries across the water to northern Amsterdam.
We stopped at the Bibliotheek, Amsterdam’s public library. Opened in July 2007, the Amsterdam Public Library today stands as a modern architectural gem on the Oosterdokseiland, an island built on land reclaimed from the sea. The library is spread over seven floors in a cutting-edge design. A sure measure of a city’s sophistication, for me, is the quality of its public libraries. Amsterdam’s is impressive; there are books and more: music, video resources, magazines and journals and computer terminals. Great to see, in this digital age, the civic investment in human capital in Amsterdam.
My wife in not a confident cyclist and she opted to sit this one out, a wise choice I thought after the ride.
As the sun set in clear skies we finished our day as the dinner guests of our Amsterdam host. We later walked home along the canals through the cool night air.