Amsterdam is better known for its barges and bikes than car-friendly streets. Motoring journalist Victoria MacMillan Bell travelled to the Netherlands, the home of Royal Dutch Shell.
A driving story in Amsterdam, the city of bicycles? A city linked in the main by canals? Is someone playing a cruel joke on me? Fortunately not. There’s no joking involved. As for the cruelty – well, there’s only one way to find out...
Bicycles rule the city for the simple fact that on two wheels, you can whistle through the narrowest of streets while a car will be log-jammed at snail’s pace, caught in one giant three-point turn around a city which prides itself on keeping the automobile at bay.
But I’ve always liked a challenge, and sit me in something compact, a little adrenalin-fuelling two-seater sports car, and I will give those crazy exercise fiends a run for their trainers – while remaining snug and smug should it decide to rain.
My first encounter with the city’s two-wheeled inhabitants occurs as I unload my bags in front of my hotel, the Lloyd, in the hip, eastern docks area. It’s a few minutes before I realise that I’ve become a mobile roundabout, causing a temporary halt in the bike lane. The road is dead straight for about half-a-mile either side of the hotel, so how they hadn’t spotted me is anyone’s guess. But I quickly realise that those foolish enough to venture into the bicycle lane will inevitably attract internationally recognised statements of abuse.
It is dusk here on Oostelijke Handelskade, a 2km long island on which my hotel sits. I fire up the motor and set a course for the city centre. I cruise past some old warehouses, most of which were constructed in the late 1800s and named after the countries the ships and steamboats were sailing to. But these warehouses are slowly disappearing and being replaced by ultra-modern buildings, including the stunning Muziekgebouw Concert Hall, an incredible marriage of glass and concrete. I pull over to get a better look.
In the distance I make out Nemo, Renzo Piano’s ship-like science museum which stands high out of this virtually flat cityscape. But there is so much more to see, so I cruise along the roads alongside cyclists and trams, under a bright, white moon. Many residents are escaping Amsterdam for the weekend, like the ebb and flow of tide.
I move on to Prinsengracht, the location of Anne Frank’s house, extended in 1999 to great effect. Here at 4am, only the ripple of wake from a passing swan interrupts its reflection across the water. It is so tranquil. In contrast, nearby Jordaan is a Mecca for cafes, art galleries and studios, and even at this hour its inhabitants are slipping in and out of doorways. While other residents of the city continue to sleep, I head to another art zone, the Fashion and museum District with the van Gogh museum positioned centrally in the park alongside Paulus Potterstraat.
A chink of dawn opens above me, a slash of palest purple among the inky blackness of night. Sitting in the warmth of the car and cruising the cobbled streets around the Rijksmuseum, this is a cosy place to be, despite the temporarily uneven surface. I veer off it soon enough and head along Stadhouderskade, which is suddenly rammed with cycling commuters, trams and buses. Crossing the Binnenamstel canal with its bridges made famous by Van Gogh, I feel as though I have stepped into one of the artist’s canvases.
Shops are opening now, closed signs are coming off doors and Amsterdam is stretching its limbs in the morning sunshine. Breakfast calls and so does the road home, sadly. I like Amsterdam and its people. There are many ways of seeing the city, but by night in a car that can provide warmth and comfort has got to be the best.