Women clad in black lingerie stand behind velvet-curtained windows. They pick at their nails, text on their phones or leer at the shifty passersby. Everyone wants to peek at the near-naked ladies, but all are too polite to stop and gawk during daylight hours.
Across a canal in the centre of the Red Light District, bars and coffeeshops are set up with the chairs facing the women in the opposite windows, so that people can stare without feeling awkward about it – they’re just drinking their coffee and smoking a joint after all.
Sex shops lining the smaller alleyways are almost cutesy with their array of lewd yet kitsch gear: There are the torture instruments designed to engorge the penis, scanty black lingerie, and a variety of S&M toys. But there are also dick-shaped chocolates, novelty condoms, and inflatable dolls. Seedy-looking dens advertise live sex shows every night.
It’s alright to have a bit of a giggle – I know I did – but it’s worth keeping in mind that Amsterdam’s thriving sex trade naturally means this city is one of the major destinations for human trafficking victims. That’s not to mention how degrading it must be to the window prostitutes, as they’re called, to be objectified so publically.
Along the canal, great cheers erupt and descend every once in a while; another stag do or hen’s night in progress. Their shouts mingle with the chugging of boats – mostly tourist – along the canal and the rattle of bicycles from the city’s many cyclists making their way to meet friends, view art galleries and museums, or browse some of Europe’s finest fashion chains.
Such is Amsterdam, an eclectic mix of voyeurism, high-brow culture, and the unashamedly kitsch. Souvenir shops (those that don’t promote pot or sex) are filled with Delftware pottery – the blue and white china typical to the Netherlands – and all things clogs and tulips. It’s all so parochial it’s hard to imagine this same city is home to the Museum of Prostitution and dozens of brothels.
Amsterdam has a lot more to it than its den of debauchery in the Red Light District. This is a city rich in history and culture – and it does a fine job of showing off these aspects.
History at the Anne Frank House
So there’s the Anne Frank House, for a start. In this remarkable museum, you can cross over the original threshold behind the famous faux-bookshelf into the Frank family’s little annex, experiencing the darkness and claustrophobia for yourself and marvelling that people managed to inhabit these tiny rooms for two entire years.
It was already an old house when Anne’s father, Otto Frank, created their haven during WWII, and the creaking floorboards – now bearing the weight of over 1 million visitors a year – forced these perpetual hiders to remain stationary during office hours so they wouldn’t raise the suspicion of the workers downstairs. It gives you a sense of how precious freedom is – and how easily it can be taken for granted.
Van Gogh Museum
Then there are the art museums, huddled together at Museum Square in South Amsterdam. Among them is the Dutch-based Rijksmuseum and the contemporary Stedelijk Museum, but I went there for one reason only…
The Van Gogh Museum gives a poignant portrayal of this effervescent artist’s life … and his descent into madness. You can track the evolution of his talent throughout the brief ten years (can you believe it!?) of Van Gogh’s artistic career, from the dark portraits influenced by his Dutch heritage, to the bright and colourful landscapes he depicted after his release from a mental asylum.
In the last 70 days of his life, he created some 75 paintings. It’s impossible to imagine that someone so full of life and passion could be so full of despair as to end his own life.
Museums aside though, the best way to experience Amsterdam is on foot, just strolling around its labyrinth of canals and alleyways. Only on foot can you distinguish the whiff of cigarette smoke from that of the joint; both are prevalent.
It was on foot that I came across a certifiable Chinatown. A Chinatown! I didn’t realise how much I missed this mark of a multicultural city until I encountered the tell-tale curvy red rooftops – albeit few and far between – of Chinese temples and restaurants. And canals and distinct Dutch facades aside, it could have been a Chinatown anywhere in the world …
… Except that if you took the wrong turn, you found yourself staring at a window prostitute’s tits.