I’ve come to Amsterdam for the second time, the first time having been somewhat of a washout (it rained solidly for 3 days). My good friend Hillary is determined to improve my experience of the place she grew up, so I’m staying at her beautiful flat, and she will be my personal guide for the next few days! I’ve arrived on possibly the best day of the year one could arrive in Amsterdam… Kings Day (Koningsdag). This annual celebration has been going on for 135 years now, although for the first 132 years, it was Queens Day.
Hillary advised me to bring something orange to wear, but I’m really not an orange kind of girl, so I ignore her request. I soon feel left out as we enter the Vondelpark and a swarm of locals are parading around in the bright sunshine, some clad head to toe in orange. Luckily, Hillary has lent me a beautiful orange scarf which I wave enthusiastically in the breeze.
We join some friends at a bar in the centre of the park for a beer. The sun is out! This is the one time of year that people are allowed to sell their personal possessions at the free market (vrijmarkt). Jumpsuits and other relics from the 80s are amongst the goodies laid out on the grass verges each side of the path, much like a car boot sale. It seems to be a family affair, as young kids join in with attracting attention by performing, singing, playing musical instruments, dancing etc. We pass a couple of kids doing a slightly wobbly breakdance, and another one playing an unidentifiable song on his recorder. There’s a lot of tempting cake and biscuit sales along the way too. There are free hugs on offer and smiles have infected literally everyone I pass.
Exiting the park, we come across a tightly-packed street party with a loud DJ playing popular party hits. Golden confetti sparkling in the sunshine, intermittently rains down on the excited crowd. We squeeze our way through, all the while dancing. Now we have reached the gay quarter. We grab a €5 burger from a nearby BBQ and watch half naked med pull their best moves to the Lady Gaga song blaring from the speakers. Next up, Hillary takes us to her favourite bar in the whole world, the Duivel (the devil). Its a small bar playing a very fine selection of old skool hip hop. I refresh myself with a GnT, while my friends indulge in some more smoky delights. Not being a smoker myself, I step outside for fresh air and am greeted with the hilarious sight of a tall, lanky, middle aged man wiggling his hips in an attempt to hula hoop. Two small girls giggle as he fails miserably. He is now obliged to buy a bag of jelly sweets from them.
Even though the music is great, its a shame to stay indoors while the sun is still out, plus one of the girls has taken a little too much smoke and needs reviving with a tasty Dutch snack called Bitterballen, so we make our way down to the pubs in the centre and find a place to sit outside at a bar called Fonteyn on Nieuwmarket. Nearby a band blast out a very good rendition of the Pulp Fiction theme song. My friends order beers and a plate of Bitterballen arrives – they are small fried balls of ground beef, gravy, butter, flour and seasoning formed into soft, hot little balls. Apparently it’s rude to either take the first one… or the biggest one… or the last one… at this rate, I’ll starve… !
Continuing along the canal now, we see tipsy revellers partying on their boats and wonder how many might drunkenly topple and fall in the canal today. We join a few dancing strangers and their dog. Something big crashes loudly into the water but we don’t see what it is before it is completely submerged… probably an unlocked bike, and not a local, since nothing resurfaces. If I were to compare this celebration to the Notting Hill Carnival, I’d say this is a lot calmer and more chilled. Although, Carnival is packed into just 4sq km, whereas the whole of Amsterdam covers some 200sq km and the population here is a lot lower! The vibe is definitely more relaxed.
The next day will stick in my mind for a very long time to come as I was really not prepared for what awaited me at the flower show. After a 40 min ride on a packed bus, I am greeted with the biggest, most spectacular array of flowers (mainly tulips) I have ever seen in my entire life. This incredible show is open for just under 2 months every year (22 March – 13 May 2018). Kaleidoscopic seas of vibrant colours as far as the eye can see, weaving through the wooded landscape, lit beautifully by the blaring sun. What a treat. This is seriously my idea of heaven (minus all the other people milling around).
We have prepared well and bought a packed lunch. We sit on the soft, green turf to eat, as glorious wafts of flower scented air fill our nostrils. This is divine. I remember seeing a meme which said “There’s no wifi in the woods, but I promise you’ll find a better connection”. Well, that’s not quite true here… since you will find that there is free wifi in this park. The Netherlands has probably the fastest internet connection speeds in the whole of Europe, with a LOT of free wifi spots. No wonder Netflix has their European headquarters here!
Aside from the tulips, there are hyacinths and daffodils which give off yet more beautiful smells. I really never knew there could be this many varieties of tulip! Some raggedy, some looking like they are on fire, some black as olives. For the full set of pictures, here’s a link to the gallery. The centre of the park has a big lake with stepping stones, surrounded by glorious woodland. Bronze sculptures are dotted around the park, like hidden bonus points, my favourite being a stunning Angel, by Dutch artist Jack van Iwaarden de Vreede.
At the other end of the park we hear a strange type of music coming from a large stationary machine with bells and whistles which looks a bit like a huge organ grinder. The music sounds a little eerie to me but it certainly gives an air of tradition. At the back side of the machine, we can see it eating its way through the holey paper, which gives it the instructions on what notes to play. I could stay in the park in the sunshine all day. Well worth the €29 entrance.
THE ARTIS ZOO
Our final day arrives and as we have a child in tow today, we decide on a visit to the Zoo. I haven’t been to a zoo since I was about 7, and I’m a little bit sceptical if I’m honest. Worrying about whether the animals are getting the right treatment, and whether they should be there at all. But Hillary reassures me that the animals are well treated and cared for here, which puts my mind at rest somewhat. Instantly, upon entering, there are more stunning flower arrangements and beautiful trees. We see camels, elephants, a puma, gorillas, seals, penguins, wolves, vultures and also a wonderful butterfly enclosure (which is as hot as a sauna)…! Again, well worth the €15 entrance.