Land where the bicycle rules

22:10, Jun 19 2012

There's a shop here that sells only bicycle seats and bicycle seat covers.

And it prospers. For this is Amsterdam, the flat capital of perhaps the flattest country in the world, a land where the bicycle rules.

Outside the central railway station they are parked by the thousand, a vast tangle of handlebars, and most of the bikes are black.

How you identify your own I don't know. Each bike is locked by a natty little horseshoe fixed over the back wheel and most have baskets front or rear or both to carry shopping or children or lap dogs. And no-one, not a single rider young or old, wears a helmet.

No doubt the occasional cyclist falls under a tram and dies but the people are happy to trade a small risk for a hefty convenience, and the authorities are happy to go along with them. We could learn from that.

Every city that wants tourists sells an image of itself. Amsterdam's bipolar. You can see the symptoms in the souvenir shops. On the one shelf stand miniature wooden clogs, glass tulips, milkmaid dolls in traditional costume and working models of windmills.


On the next shelf are dope-bongs, sex-toys and postcards that would make a postman drop his bag. The quaint, vaguely historical image bangs up against an image of raunch and debauch, a city of permission granted, and of the two the latter seem closer to actuality.

To get into a coffee-shop you need to show proof of age. The shop sells only one type of coffee, but offers an extensive menu of dope types, graded by strength, to be smoked on the premises. Though if you want to smoke tobacco you have to go outside.

Yesterday outside a bar a shaven-headed man in an England football shirt came barrelling over to my table. He had the sort of face you would prefer not to exist. "Red light district?" he shouted. I gestured away to the left, across a sweet bridge humping over the canal.

"Cheers mate," he said, grinning and setting off with purpose.

In a minute or two he will have reached the little nest of lanes where the women stand behind glass, like fish in aquariums. All but naked, softly lit, they beckon and wave and smile the fake smiles of the unlucky. Groups of roistering men, barren of sympathy, gawp and laugh and point and barge against each other in lurching, lust-driven happiness.

It is better, perhaps, that this inevitable trade should be done thus in full view rather than underground, but it offers an unendearing picture of our species. And the men behind the trade, the traffickers and profiteers, remain in the shadows.

Whatever it is that they come for, the flesh or the tulips, the windmills or the dope, the tourists come. There are streets in central Amsterdam, just as there are in central London, where you barely hear the native tongue.

Dutch is a sort of softened German, and the Dutch people are large, affable, cheese-fed intermediaries between the Germans below them and the nordic races above. I have yet to meet one of them who does not speak good English, often more precise English than the English speak.

The owner of the cafe where I am writing this says that they learn the language partly from school but mainly from television where they watch the BBC with subtitles in Dutch. Four hundred years ago the Dutch were the wealthiest people on Earth.

They won that wealth by the usual means of trade and war. What enabled both was shipping and what enabled the ships was canals. Today those canals carry mainly tourists in long skinny pleasure boats with roofs of glass.

The city's a sort of dilated Venice. As in Venice the buildings often rise sheer from the canal banks, tall narrow buildings built of a distinctive small brick and topped with a pediment of ornate plasterwork. From that pediment juts a beam with a hook to winch in goods and furniture too large for the narrow stairs.

This is a fine city to wander in. The waterways ease the mind, the buildings the eye and the warren of lanes offers shelter from the weather.

But above all it is the near car-lessness of the central city that pleases, that relaxes the heart, that makes the place feel welcoming and good to occupy. The only threat to life is the warning tinkle of the bicycle bell.

Those charged with rebuilding Christchurch could do worse than come here with open eyes and ears and minds.

The Press