Friday, 22 August 2008

Doing The 'Dam

The charm of Amsterdam surely lies in its tangle of the highbrow, the lowbrow, the beautiful, the classy, the tacky and the downright sleazy. Within a few minutes walk, peaceful, picturesque canals lined with specialist shops, boutiques and cafes give way to coffee-shops redolent with the heavy scent of skunk weed and pink-lit windows full of posing, partially-clad prostitutes. A stroll through the flower market and the stalls selling antiquarian and second-hand books can, with one turn, lead to shops selling sex-toys or magic mushrooms and streets lined with porn picture palaces and theatres advertising banana shows. Even though I had a reasonable idea of what to expect, the blatant display of wares which are banned in other countries fairly takes the breath away.

But aside from its unshockability, probably the most alluring aspect to Amsterdam is its ambience. The laid-back approach that matches the gentle pace adopted by the city's countless cyclists as they pedal at joggers' speed through the streets, often chatting into their mobile handsets as they go. People smile tolerantly at the spontaneous outbreaks of group singing accompanying the gaggles of merry-makers and the tables of canalside cafes are full of people gossiping and giggling over cups of coffee or glasses of beer - tourists and residents alike. As a visitor, you aren't made to feel like a necessary evil ripe for a rip-off, but genuinely welcome with smiles and courtesy abounding. Although the endless stream of raucous hen and stag parties heady with intoxication and titillation must wear thin to Amsterdam locals, time and time again I overheard them showing around their out of town and foreign friends, describing their city in tones of pride - window hookers and dope-purveying coffee shops included.

One piece of graffiti we saw as we climbed up to the overpass towards Camping Zeeburg asked, "Why can't everywhere be more like Amsterdam?"
It's tempting to agree.

For the record, we did visit one of the coffee-shops, which provided a novel setting for yet another backgammon session. We chortled over the window displays of a couple of sex shops and read with interest the menu in a Smart Shop, but turned down the opportunity to experiment with hallucinogenic varieties of fungi. We admired the undulations of the red light girls through the glass, but passed by and likewise declined to enter any of the establishments offering live sex shows, although we're told up to a third of the audience at the classier venues tends to be women.

In case you're interested, a spliff rolled with organic hashish or pollen costs from €3.50, a dose of Mexican mushrooms (the mildest type) will set you back around €12, a live sex show costs around €30 (including a free drink), oral favours or a quickie is €30 and a basic session with one of the hookers is €50 for 15 minutes. If you want to know the price of a gramme of weed, you can always ask the city's mayor.

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