Paul Tierney slips on the backpack for a ‘student travel’ experience to Amsterdam to see just how much fun it still is…
The fun starts at Victoria Coach Station, a place struggling to maintain composure in the face of human chaos. Gormless people with limited spatial awareness mill around in search of meaning. Staff are thin on the ground and announcements are garbled. I’m truly puzzled how a hub of such confusion manages to operate with any level of efficiency. Ten million people pass through this greasy garage every year, apparently. Most of them are here tonight.
The Spaniard and I are on our way to Amsterdam, student style. We would have flown like normal people, but the cost of last minute tickets is ridiculous, and the Eurostar route even more insulting. From just £35 one way, comes the claim, which is no doubt true in some cases, but completely unrealistic if you’re feeling spontaneous. So, it’s the bus for us – low brow but low price – and the glamour starts here.
We’re taking the rough with the smooth. What we save on getting there can be splurged on food, hotels and canal-side cheer. I’m not against slumming it if there’s luxury at the other end, although the Spaniard seems less convinced. I try to appease him with a Pret a Manger baguette (crumby, in both senses of the word) and a couple of sleeping pills I’ve gleaned from my dad. Who needs leg room when you’ve got that kind of meal deal? I also buy a bottle of Malbec from the Sainsbury’s across the road, which we drink in clandestine gulps at a table outside Starbucks. Jealous?
It makes Luton Airport look like The Ned. The arrivals hall is heaving with budget-wary migrants, attempting, perhaps, a last-gasp attempt at freedom of movement
Looking around this oily cathedral, there are pigeons scratching about in dirty puddles, hollow-cheeked boys cadging cigarettes, and an air of ennui you wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards. It makes Luton Airport look like The Ned. The arrivals hall is heaving with budget-wary migrants, attempting, perhaps, a last-chance stab at freedom of movement. There’s none of that here. It’s nose to nipple in the backpack area, brilliantly illustrated by beleaguered-looking students doing the traveler’s tango; swerving and crashing into one another like drunken sleeping bags. Death by billycan looks like a distinct possibility.
We’ve got a twelve hour stretch in front of us but feel #blessed. I have Zopoclone in my pocket, a cashmere blanket in the rucksack, and I’m off to Amsterdam for goodness sake!
The driver looks normal, if a little vacant around the eyes. There is no security here, and you’re welcome to stick a coffin in the hold
At 8pm we are primed for embarkation. There is no-one manning the office; just a dirty, shuttered window, so we presume check-in will happen on the coach. The driver looks normal, if a little vacant around the eyes, scanning my phone and taking our cases in a transaction taking less than five seconds. There is no security here, and you’re welcome to stick a coffin in the hold should you feel the urge.
Of course, we’re at the very end of the queue, so the chance of being split up looms large. As is the way, every double seat is taken by just one person, all staring selfishly out of the window in the hope they don’t get chosen. There should be a rule about single travelers. Will I have to WhatsApp the Spaniard for conversation all night? Endure the stale breath of a sleeping stranger? I feel like shouting these thoughts out loud, but realise it will not ingratiate me to my fellow passengers. After all, I’m going to be spending quite some time in their dishonourable company.
Ultimately, we are forced onto the back seat – schoolboys’ favourite the world over. This might be construed as a result, but there is a large African lady taking up four of the six spaces, mostly with bags of indiscriminate wares. I must say, she seems lovely, but I do hope she’s not going to talk all night. Chatting loudly on FaceTime, the woman eventually bids goodnight to a daughter in Lagos and looks ready to hit the hay. Me? I’m squashed into the far right-hand corner of the coach like an anchovy in a can. It’s either the safest or most dangerous spot to be. At this juncture I really don’t care.
There’s a clearly ‘refreshed’ English guy; pin-eyed and loud of opinion, who thinks he’s flattering the elderly Jamaican man by saying things like, ‘black don’t crack’ and ‘One Love’ in cod patois
It’s quite a cast of characters down here, a Channel 5 reality show come to life. There’s a clearly ‘refreshed’ English guy; pin-eyed and loud of opinion, who thinks he’s flattering the elderly Jamaican man in the seat behind him by saying things like, ‘black don’t crack’ and ‘One Love’ in cod patois. He also keeps declaring that Tottenham Court Road is in north London. Nobody can be bothered disputing his stupidity. Opposite sits a girl we nickname ‘Yentl’, her hair pulled up into a felt baker boy’s cap, which she peers under like a shy Victorian stowaway. Then there are the ‘Benelux Girls’ – virtual triplets wearing purple turtlenecks and retro glasses, who all look like Thelma from Scooby Doo and put me in mind of a particular Smiths’ lyric. I consider ‘writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl from Luxembourg’ just to pass the time, but soon think better of it.
And then we’re off, onto the mean streets of Belgravia, past the sort of high-end antique shops and mahogany pubs you only see in this part of town. We’re headed for Dover and beyond, but an hour later are still crawling through the arteries of south east London. Lewisham looks less than lovely at this time of night, and there’s a reason the Old Kent Road is the cheapest street on Monopoly. I slip into a sort of chemical-induced anaesthesia and wake up in Kent. Vera Lynn sang about bluebirds and white cliffs. I can see a Costa and a Burger King.
Disembarking for the ferry – ‘The Pride of Burgundy’ – we snake through English and French passport control and make our way upstairs. The boat is swarming with Euro-teens, a tidal wave of pimples and inappropriate noise. I’ve never seen so many brace-lined teeth, and the bar is doing a brisk trade in Red Bull and Pringles. It’s like a JD Sports outlet warehouse in here. Elsewhere, old men recline on plastic sofas, taking up precious space, while their wives struggle with Suduko. I like people-watching as much as the next person, but at 1.30 in the morning I’d rather not see anybody.
England fades away, as do the Absinthe-green lights of Calais. For a moment it feels quite romantic. Then I trip over a bottle of Fanta.
Tottenham Court Road is wondering about gurning, burping and attempting to start a conversation with anyone who will have him. Out of nowhere, Isn’t She Lovely? by Stevie Wonder announces itself from the speaker. It’s the second time I’ve heard it in as many days, but that’s the least weird thing going on at the moment. Out on Deck 9 there’s a smoking area of sorts. If you can stand the wind and marauding French kids, you can see England fade away and the Absinthe-green lights of Calais in the distance. For a moment it feels quite romantic. Then I trip over a bottle of Fanta.
Back on the coach and our motley crew are starting to get their heads down. Even matey has stopped talking his Becks-fuelled nonsense. It’s time to pop another Zop and doze my way past Dunkirk, through Belgium, and onto the flat plains of the Netherlands. By the time we’ve reached The Hague it’s all a bit vague. Eventually, and not before time, we arrive on the outskirts of Amsterdam at 7am, emerging into brilliant, Disney-esque sunshine.
As we reach the city centre it all suddenly seems worth the effort. What a magical place Amsterdam is, brimming with curious cliches – bikes, bridges and bleary-eyed Brummies – but possessing a unique charm everyone should encounter at least once in their lives.
We drop in for breakfast at Hotel V Nesplein, a wonderfully discreet bolt hole with a womb-like dining room, serving goat’s cheese with scrambled eggs and fig jam. It’s not a combo I’d normally plump for, but far more edifying than the muffin bought in haste from a Belgian service station. At surrounding tables, smart couples lean into each other, whispering sweet nothings. Astrid Gilberto chirrups in the background and civilisation emerges in caffeine-sharp focus.
Our first hotel, The Exchange, is worryingly close to the tourist bottleneck spewing out of Central Station. It’s not exactly the most desirable part of the city and stands on a faceless street that borders the seamy red light district. But appearances are deceptive and, once inside, my sinking heart is revived by a compact but cool interior and staff so cheery and normal the last 12 hours are soon forgotten. The Exchange bills itself as a ‘fashion’ hotel but don’t let that put you off. Each room has been designed by a local creative student, and the results, if not couture, are better than hand-made. Plus we’ve got a tiny smoking terrace overlooking the imposing former Stock Exchange, brutalist murals on the wall, and the softest bed this side of Slumberland. Fantastisch.
The Exchange bills itself as a ‘fashion’ hotel but don’t let that put you off. Each room has been designed by a local creative student
After ham, cheese and hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles on toast – you’ve got to love the Dutch) we are soon out and about and demanding high jinx. A quick ‘coffee’ in Kadinsky, one of the city’s many coffee shops is perhaps a foolish start, but the brew tastes good and ‘the colours are amazing’, as I keep saying to no-one in particular, watching a scratchy video of an African witch doctor completely off his nut. I repeat the same line as I gaze at a solemn-looking prostitute sitting in a pink neon window, and again, admiring the tulips gracing cafe tables. I’m not sure what they put in the coffee here but it’s doing wonders for my spectral palette.
‘Somebody’ (always) fancies a burger for lunch but I’ve booked a table at The Dylan, purportedly one of the chicest hotels in Amsterdam, and anticipate something far more inventive. Occo is the hotel’s uber-stylish brasserie, and on this unseasonably sunny day we are led into a discreet, handsome courtyard and plied with roast chicken, creme brûlée and silky, expensive wine. My appetite is on red alert, the food is amazing, and all would be good with the world if my feet didn’t hurt quite as much as they do.
The Spaniard thinks I have a toxic relationship with my boots. He says they are like an ex-boyfriend I can’t forget, but doesn’t understand that they are Blundstones, my ultimate footwear, and that they will last FOREVER.
The fact they are rubbing my instep with all the ferocity of a grant pumice stone is by the by. As is the fact the veins in my feet resemble strips of pappardelle. Despite being crushed to death by Tasmanian leather, I still love them, and hobble on like a martyr to pain.
Sweets is a series of completely individual suites dotted around the city, fashioned from former bridge control buildings
We take the free ferry over to North Amsterdam, a gentrified district where new territory and an intriguing proposition lies head. The city has many great hotels but there is nothing more inventive than Sweets, a series of completely individual suites dotted around the city, fashioned from former bridge control buildings.
Pre-computers, all the bridges on the main canals were operated by workers housed in these cubic dens. They pulled levers and pressed buttons, took tea and ate bitterballen. But 21st century technology rendered these lookouts redundant and for years they stood empty. Now, with remarkable ingenuity they have come back to life as 28 extraordinary rooms. To say they are unique would be to do them a disservice. Some are on busy intersections, other lie close to lakes. If you like architecture and nature and can plug into the joys of retro futurism, Sweets will certainly enhance the flavour of your stay.
We are in Room 101 (a bad omen?) – Gerben Wagenaarbrug – a simple brick building built in 1965 on the edge of a drawbridge that rises above the Kraaienplein canal like a Bang & Olufsen speaker. It looks like a watch tower, but there is no noticeable military presence, just superlative design touches and a vivid imagination. The architectural style has been dubbed ‘New Objectivity’, which sounds like a band signed to Factory Records.
No surprise then that this former place of work now resembles The Hacienda on a spending spree at the Conran Shop. If Ben Kelly did domestic interiors, this is what they would look like, fixtures and fittings in perfect harmony with the modernist lines and original control panels which take up space in the bedroom, The view over the canal is a sight to behold, but I wonder what the folks walking down its path think of the two men in the tower, bouncing on the bed like they’d never seen a mattress?
It doesn’t look much at first but Amsterdam Noord is a former working-class area that’s become home to cable knit students and groomed yummy mummies; think Peckham with fewer weave shops and more omelettes. Further out on the waterfront, where the old shipyards once converged, lies the NEMO Museum, a futuristic edifice that shimmers in the distance like a verdigris sperm whale. Add to this the linear beauty of the EYE Film Institute, plus the Spielbergian A*Dam Tower, and the view is never less than arresting. Modern life can sometimes be rubbish, but the skyline here is far from disposable.
Amsterdam Noord is a former working-class area that’s become home to cable knit students and groomed yummy mummies; think Peckham with fewer weave shops and more omelettes
After a local pizza, much needed contrast is sought. Tonight is all about drinks at the Hotel Pulitzer, which lies back across the water in the lively Nine Streets neighbourhood. A little bird (well, a PR) tells me they do the best cocktails in town so it seems rude not to heed her advice. The bar is a masterclass in lighting, a Georgian, wood-panelled room gracefully converging with an Art Deco bar. The drinks are hefty, along with the prices, but this is a welcoming retreat from the head shops and head cases that often blight the city.
Back in the watch tower, simplicity has become confusing. With only one room per floor I spend a drunken 10 minutes forgetting where the bathroom is. If you like polished concrete and the photography of Ed Van Der Elk, you’re on to a winner. Lovers of en-suite need not apply. I’m completely enamoured with this beguiling installation. Not sure I could spend a huge amount of time here, but for a weekend of quirks and lols it’s got all the bells and whistles your inner hipster could desire.
And what of the journey back? The truth is, I can’t remember any of it and swear I sleep the whole way home. Even the table on the ferry feels like a goose down pillow. I wake up in Victoria virtually teleported. Damn, those were good drugs. Please dad, can I have some more?
Eurolines: London to Amsterdam from 24€ one way. eurolines.eu.
Hotel V Nesplein: www.hotelvnesplein.nl
The Exchange: www.exchangeamsterdam.com
The Dylan: www.dylanamsterdam.com
The Pulitzer: www.pulitzeramsterdam.com
Paul Tierney is a journalist and editor who writes about arts, culture and travel for some of the world’s best regarded publications. He contributes to the Independent, the I, the Evening Standard, Upstate Diary and Neue Luxury. Paul is also the Editor at Large of bi-annual style magazine Ponystep.