Small town charm and the home of the red-light district
12.10.2007 - 15.10.2007 13 °C
On Friday, October 12th Kyle and I boarded a train to Zutphen, a small town in the southeastern part of Holland, to visit Anne and her son Tim, friends of Kyle’s parents. About half way through the five hour train ride we went through Köln (Cologne) and got a glimpse of the beautiful cathedral there. Hopefully we will get to Köln sometime later to get a better look at it. It was sunny when we arrived in Zutphen, which according to my guide book, and later confirmed by Anne and Tim was a rare occasion at that time of year. Tim picked us up at the train station and we walked to his apartment, which was in the old part of the city. We could feel the cozy local atmosphere as we walked through the ancient streets and we were amazed to see that many of the buildings, despite their excellent build and everlasting sturdiness, were leaning into the street or onto one another. Tim explained that most of the Netherlands lies at a very low alititude, so the land is very wet and complex irrigation systems had to be built under and around each town to prevent the land from flooding. The ground however, was still quite soft, so the foundations of these old buildings shifted, creating the crazily tilting houses. His own apartment was one of the oldest in the town, and we experienced this first hand when we had to climb the endless flights of extremely narrow and heart pumpingly steep stairs. The apartment itself was really nice and you could immediately tell that it was truly ancient: the beige walls were very thick, dark wooden beams crisscrossed the A-frame ceiling and extended to the walls and the floor was slightly slanted. There was a roof top terrace at the back and it offered a beautiful view of the surrounding clay-topped roofs and the church spires.
On a short walk around Zutphen we saw what remained of the old city walls, a beautifully restored church (which we got kicked out of because apparently it was closed), a peaceful park with weeping willows and a rainbow making fountain in the pond, the cute little harbour and a water-works park for children. The water-works represented the intricate water systems Holland uses and consisted of a series of small dams and locks that could be altered by hand to divert the little river running through them. The oldest building in Zutphen was the watchtower, which had now been converted into a three floor, one-bedroom apartment and surprisingly the rent wasn’t even that much (~ 500EUR/month) - there was only one condition: you had to open up your residence to the public at least one day in the year.
Soon Anne came to pick Kyle and me up and we drove to her house in the nearby village called Warnsveld. Her primarily red apartment was of the most tasteful minimalist style and I fell in love with it immediately. We got acquainted over a traditional and quite tasty Dutch meal of sausages with a potato, spinach and bacon stew. After supper we walked into the village to get some beer and along with some Heineken we bought a special dark beer, Kwak, which got its name from an old drinking story. Traditionally it was drank out of a tall tapered glass with a round belly at the bottom of it, and if you drank too fast the pressure would cause the beer in the belly to squirt up and ‘kwak’ you in the face. We talked late into the evening and I really started to enjoy the taste of Heineken. The plan for the next day was to go to Amsterdam, but because Amsterdam is best seen at night we decided to leave in the early afternoon, so that we wouldn’t be too tired to continue exploring by the time Amsterdam awoke.
The next day we slept in and upon awakening I realized that I had a bit of a sore throat and a cough, which wasn’t too bad, but it made me lose my voice almost completely and I spent the rest of the weekend croaking like an old lady with a smoke-ruined voice. Despite that, we enjoyed a lazy morning and then Anne dropped us off in Zutphen. Before we left we did a quick tour of the little Saturday market and I got some fruit and nut snacks for the trip. Tim saw a girl that he knew on the train and we talked with her most of the way to Amsterdam; in fact, she must have been enjoying the conversation so much that she missed her stop! We arrived in Amsterdam at about 5pm and decided to take a canal boat cruise first, while the afternoon sun was still shining. The guide was played in three different languages (German, Dutch and English), so if I missed anything in the German version I could always catch it in the English version. Tim was able to understand all three – lucky guy! Overall it was a beautiful cruise, but it was also quite interesting; I learned that there are over 100kms of canals in Amsterdam, that about 500 are from the 17th century and that most of them are about 2-3 meters deep. The houses built along the canals are very narrow, on average 3-6 meters wide, but in the well-to-do areas the houses were much wider, averaging 10-12 meters, with an astounding number of rooms ranging between 15 and 40. The houses were all very quaint looking with pointed roofs, carved gables and colourful shutters. Each house, even the newly built ones is fitted with a ‘hoisting beam’, which is attached to the top of the house and, along with a pulley system, is used to lift large materials up into the house which can’t be brought up through the narrow stairwells. In Amsterdam however, houses aren’t only found on land: over 2500 boat-houses float on the canals and the government won’t let this number get any higher. The boat-houses vary immensely in style and quality; some are quite large and new looking, with a nice deck and potted plants in the windows, but others are old and shabby, with peeling paint, rotting curtains and broken windows.
After the hour long canal-boat cruise, we plunged into the red light district and it was beyond anything we could have imagined. The first thing we noticed was the delicious marijuana smoke aroma wafting out of the smoke-shops and onto the streets. The streets themselves were lined with sex-shops, pubs, smoke-shops and of course the famous window displays, but most of them were either empty or had their red velvet curtains pulled across, so we figured that most of the ladies must be eating their supper. We searched for the Cannabis College, which was said to have marijuana plants in every stage of development displayed, but it wasn’t at the address we had. Tim showed us to The Bulldog, the first smoke-shop in Amsterdam, and we purchased some New York Diesel. We explored some more of the streets, but felt quite hungry, so we stepped into a nice looking restaurant and enjoyed some pasta dishes. The food was filling, but not spectacular and we were eager to get back to exploring. It was now fully dark, and as we walked past the display windows the velvet curtains had been opened and scantily clad ladies beckoned to us from all directions. At first it was really quite shocking and I felt like I shouldn’t look at them, but soon I realized that they didn’t care at all, so I got over my timidity and enjoyed the sights. Most of them were quite young and were relatively decent, if not all together good looking, but you could find women of all kinds, and I mean every kind and some of them were less than pleasant to look at. Tim told us that a lot of girls do it to get through school and that it wasn’t looked down nearly as much as it is in other countries. Living up to its name the whole district actually glowed red and it felt like we were exploring a different world. We went back to the Bulldog to enjoy some of the New York Diesel, but it had gotten quite packed, so we went back outside and sat on a bench near a canal. The streets were filled with every type of person and I could have just spent the whole evening watching the different personalities walk by. Sketchy looking people would mutter drug names as you walked past, hoping to catch your attention and sell some to you, but it was best to pretend that you didn’t even hear them. Overall it was a completely bizarre experience and nothing I could say could describe it completely, but it was totally energizing in a way and I could understand how people got stuck there and never moved on.
We caught the last train into Zutphen and spent the ride home drinking beer on the train. By the time we got home we were pretty tired, so we headed straight to bed. The next morning we left before lunch and drove to a huge national park, which was originally the humungous estate of a duke in the medieval times. He had built his castle deep into the forest and laid paved paths all through the forest, so that his carriages could ride smoothly. There was nothing left of the castle and most of the paths were just dirt now, but you could still see the medieval bricks in some places. The vast park was famous for its large population of wild hogs and a rare species of deer, but unfortunately we saw neither. We did, however, see a lot of striking bits of nature and on our three and a half hour walk we passed through many different types of forest. At first we were in a mixed forest, with quite a lot of underbrush, and then a deciduous area, with tall, proud looking trees and rolling, leaf covered hills, and then a dark coniferous forest with gnarled trunks and eerie silence. The weather was just as beautiful as in the past two days and it felt like a perfect fall day. Near the end of our walk Anne and I found a blackberry thicket and paused to pick a few while the guys walked on; despite a nasty prick I got from one of the bushes I still enjoyed every last one of them. Many other people were out on the myriad of trails and we could tell some of them were lost, but soon we were the ones lost. It had been awhile since Anne and Tim had been in the park, so they weren’t sure where we were exactly, but they followed their instincts and thankfully we ended up finding our way out. It was already late afternoon and Kyle and I realized that we wouldn’t be able to make our 6 o’clock train home, so we decided to stay another night. Anne had to work early in the morning, so we said our sad goodbyes and moved all of our things to Tim’s place. We spent the night talking about Tim’s intensive biking hobby (I really would like to see some of his tricks one day), playing with his two cats, Trash and Tribal, and watching English comedy videos. Kyle and I reflected on our weekend and decided that Holland had the beauty and quaintness of Germany, but that was somehow cuter and definitely greener. Another thing we noticed was that almost everyone rides a bike, even more than in Germany; bikes and bike paths were everywhere!
We really enjoyed staying with Tim and Anne and I’m so happy that we got to meet them - they’re awesome people! Thank-you Tim and Anne for making our Holland experience so wonderful!