On the birthday of the Dutch King, appropriately named King's Day, it is tradition to dress in as much orange as possible in a spectacle called oranjegekte or “orange madness”. Concerts and all-night parties , even on the canals, make this a major communal event when the whole country lets its hair down.
Amsterdam – Long Read

Living at the speed of a bicycle

Photo by Jurjen Drenth

Amsterdam – Long Read Living at the speed of a bicycle

Hello Amsterdam, a city of beaten-up opafiets, omafiets and bakfiets (grandpa, grandma and box bikes) that are practical and egalitarian. Rich or poor, everyone rides a bike, all the time. Living at the speed of a bicycle helps make Amsterdam one of the world’s most people-friendly cities. The Dutch have a word for it: “Gezellig.“ But it is impossible to translate.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

Outside Amsterdam Centraal Station is a sprawling multi-story parking facility. For bikes. Row after row stretch into the distance, more than you could easily count. There is very little variation in style; most bicycles are beaten-up, old-fashioned, sturdy and black, with little personality but lots of rust. Only a few stand out, a red and blue one side by side, a shocking yellow one there. Each has a wide, comfortable saddle, some covered in a plastic supermarket bag as protection from the rain and to perhaps help distinguish one bike from another. I spot one decorated with a bunch of plastic flowers, others with a basket on the front or a child carrier on the back.

I see a woman wandering around, obviously having totally forgotten where she left her bike, hardly surprising when they all look the same. Only the heavy locks and chains bring a splash of color, bright blues and reds, looking new and more expensive than the bikes they protect.

It strikes me that, while Amsterdam is a city of cyclists, there is no cult of the cycle here. They are mere tools to get around, used when needed but not objects of desire. Perhaps it also tells me this is a not a city of show-offs.

“The bike flat was opened in 2001 as temporary storage during building work in Stationsplein,” says Grietje, a young woman I help when I see her struggling to release her bike from the tight scrum of interlocking pedals and handlebars. “They were supposed to close it in 2005, but there is no way.” She recommends I check out the view from the top but, when I get to the third floor, I am not sure it is worth the climb as the station plaza looks a chaotic mess. The Centraal Station is held in Amsterdam’s embrace but it is not a very loving one. The arms of the canals spread wide in concentric semicircles but the roads all meet here in an ugly and confusing junction of canal tour boats, tram, metro and buses terminals, taxi ranks, cars and, of course, all those bikes.

A city of commuters on bicycles

“There are a million bikes here and around 800,000 people,” says Egg of Mike’s Bike Tours. (“There was another Mike so they called me Egg,” he says, slapping his shaved head by way of explanation.) “For 40 per cent of the population the bike is their primary mode of transport.”

On a weekday morning, I watch the city go to and from work. There is no breed apart of anarchic, sporty types in tight lycra, as in so many other western cities. The cyclist wears an expensive suit, or a thin cotton dress and sling backs. Many bikes have more than one person, a child strapped in a seat, or a woman perched on the rear luggage rack, decorously side-saddle, ankles crossed and chatting away casually to the rider. As I watch parents on the afternoon school pick-up, I note that this ability to hop on the back of a moving bike is, well, learned at school.

All ages are in the saddle, from a dad riding with one hand while he tenderly holds the head of a sleeping toddler, to white-haired pensioners and hand-holding teenagers. The normal bike is the sturdy roadster that they call “opafiets” or “omafiets” – “grandpa bikes” and “granny bikes”. There are also the cargo-bikes or “bakfiets” used to bring children to school and groceries home from the store. Loaded with several children and a pile of bags, they are the Dutch equivalent of the family car. I see a woman riding solo on a tandem, with three planks of wood tied to the frame, men and women carrying shopping bags or a large bunch of flowers in one hand, and several women in various stages of pregnancy.

“Kids grow up on a bicycle and my youngest daughter was almost born on a bike, literally,” says teacher and mother-of-two Margreet Trox. “My contractions had started and I rode my bicycle to the doctor. We have no car, so it was the quickest way.”

I have had three bikes stolen

She tells me she has two bikes: a smart one for weekends, an old one for the city. “I have had three stolen,” she says. “We blame drug addicts who then sell them cheaply. The first time it happens, you curse them. The third time, it is very tempting to go looking for them to buy one yourself, although I never did.”

Several people tell me, in jest I think, that all I have to do to get a free bike is approach a crowd of students standing around with their bicycles and shout: “Hey! That’s my bike!” As they run off in panic, you take your pick of those they abandon in guilt.

Theft is a bit more serious than that, with up to 50,000 bikes reported stolen every year. “Reported” is the key word as most thefts are not recorded at police stations, so the real number is massive. “Bicycle theft is the second most popular sport here after speed skating,” jokes Egg. Not all are stolen, though, with as many as 15,000 a year pulled from the canals every year, many the victims of drunken vandalism. Or just drink. At Café Pieper, a typical canalside pub that the Dutch call “bruine kroeg” or brown café for their tobacco stained walls (although smoking inside is now banned), the barman tells me how he watched a man spend two hours dredging the canal outside with a grappling hook. When riding his expensive bike on the ice during a February freeze, it fell through and he had to wait weeks before he could retrieve it. Of course, it was ruined.

Bikes that are badly parked or appear abandoned will be removed by the city. They go to the Amsterdam Bicycle Center, AFAC, although the locals use a more obscene spelling in that face-slapping moment when they realize it has happened to them. Only 25 per cent are claimed by their owners: many just think they have been stolen. The worst bikes are melted down for scrap, the rest sold off or donated to good causes.

The lock costs more than the bike

“One reason people do not report a bike theft,” says bike shop manager Arjen, “is that the real loss is often the broken lock. The lock often costs more than the bike. The bikes stay in circulation, so the people who really profit from bike theft are the lock makers.” He points out that the big lock is not just about losing the bike but also avoiding the disruption to your plans for the day or the evening when you lose your main means of transport.

Arjen has another interesting observation. “There is no such thing as a driver in the Netherlands,” he says. “There are only cyclists in a car.” Driver awareness helps explain the casual attitude to safety. No one wears a helmet. Mobile phones are in common use. There is no sign of bright safety gear. “Every year, the Netherlands averages about 45 cycling deaths per million inhabitants, compared to the US with 147 cycling deaths per million,” says Arjen. “You are more likely to be murdered in America [48 murders per million people] than die cycling in the Netherlands. We have more people drown than die cycling.”

The clearly marked cycle lanes, separated by curbs from the killer car, must be a big contribution to that safety record. I watch some tourists wander into one, to be greeted by a clamor of bells and shouts. It is the equivalent of walking blindly into traffic on Fifth Avenue in New York, or trying to stroll down the middle of the Champs-Elysés in Paris. Tourist central is the route from Dam Square to Waterloo Square, nicknamed “Suicide Lane” by locals.

Too big to walk across

Why this love of the bike? “Amsterdam’s canal network was designed 400 years ago and it took 300 years for the correct mode of transportation to come along,” says Egg. “It is flat and compact. To bike right across the map of Amsterdam will take you about 30 minutes. Do it with a car and you’re like a rat in a maze. It will take you at least that long and then you’ve got to find a parking space, which is also expensive. For any journey under half an hour, take your bike.”

Paradoxically, I discover that the whole city is also slightly too big to walk across, so I follow his advice. The first thing I learn is that any idea that Amsterdam is flat is just not true. All those canal bridges test my gear-changing skills and thigh muscles to the limit, and there are plenty of gradients.

My first stop is at the southwest part of the city, the Rijksmuseum. On entry, I am greeted by a very large portrait of a banquet celebrating the Treaty of Munster in 1648, showing a group of wealthy militiamen in black clothes with lace ruffs. A caption explains how this feast marked the close of the Eighty Years Wars that ended Spanish rule over the Netherlands and was the start of the Golden Age for the Dutch. “Unlike most of Europe,” says the caption, “the new country was a republic and not a kingdom. Power was in the hands of the burghers.” A nearby model of an impressive 74-gun ship, typical of the ships of the Dutch East India Company, illustrates how much power that was.

Some idea of the wealth these merchants brought home to Amsterdam as they opened up the East and West Indies can be seen in the rest of the museum, with its Delft porcelain and masterpieces by artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. It was not a showy wealth and bright white collars are the only relief from the sedate black clothes in portraits. It is tempting to see continuity in all those dull black bikes in this republican and Calvinist desire not to stand out from the crowd.

“Bikes are egalitarian,” says Egg. “No matter how wealthy you are, if your limo is stuck in traffic and everyone else is biking past, you feel like an idiot.”

The world’s first stock exchange

The burghers shaped the Amsterdam we know, building the canals so the goods of the world could be unloaded right at their door from the port, the real focus of the canal system long before Centraal Station was built. They taxed this precious canal-side land by width, so narrow houses built on piles sunk deep into the unstable ground grew upwards into the familiar wobbly cityscape of today. They built the world’s first stock exchange and named the city’s features in a typically no-nonsense style: New Church (Nieuwe Kerk), West Church (Westerkerk), Dam Square, New Square or Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, which is literally “Front defense moat on the new side”.

They did the same with the countries they settled on their trading routes: New Holland (now Australia), New Zealand, New Amsterdam (now New York, which still retains its “Haarlem” and Brooklyn district) and South Africa, with its capital Cape Town. (And when two Dutch entrepreneurs wanted to start a travel magazine, what did they call it? TRVL.) This laconic habit continues with more recent names such as Centraal Station or Amsterdam Forest. Who knows what giddy madness gripped the city planners when they decided to name a square after Rembrandt?

The city’s most famous artist made and lost fortunes during the Golden Age and one remarkable thing about Amsterdam is how many traces of Rembrandt remain. You can visit the house where he lived between 1639 and 1658, from where the view of a tumbledown house and a canal, albeit lacking the “forest of masts” he saw then, remains almost unspoilt. Just outside the former city walls, a ten-minute stroll or two-minute bike ride from his house, is the city’s oldest café, where he used to drink. Café de Druif is a tiny, canalside “bruine kroeg” whose brown-stained wooden walls and tiled floors seem unchanged since it opened in 1631.

The bar manager, Ron, comes to the table to take orders, writing them down in a ledger and crossing them out when it is time to pay, a quaint ritual that many local pubs still use. A group of older men stand around the bar, enjoying each other’s company in the warm light of dusk – a merry scene any artist might love to capture.

Amsterdam is gezellig

The Dutch have a word for this scene: “gezellig”. It is impossible to translate but the closest English word is “cozy”. It can mean enjoying the company of friends but it is also applied to people-friendly spaces such as this pub, or even a city. Amsterdam is gezellig, industrial Rotterdam is not. The bikes that slow the pace of a city down to a pedestrian one, that make the streets safe to stroll through, help with that. Opting for cycles rather than cars, building bike lanes rather than roads that sweep away neighborhoods, has helped Amsterdam preserve its history and sense of humanity. A planner suggested filling in all the canals to make roads in the 1950s. Can you imagine how the city would look now?

Casks line the wall behind Café de Druif’s bar, testifying to its origins as a distillery (Likeurstokerij). “It started by making medicines from herbs dissolved in alcohol,” says Ron, pointing out the casks still bear ornate names such as “Frambozen” (raspberry) and “Gember” (ginger). This was the source of the jenever trade, which still thrives in various other local bars, such as Wynand Fockink, which has been sitting off Dam Square since 1679. The spirits here, with lovely names such as “Boswandeling” (a walk in the woods) are served in ice-cold shot glasses, full to the brim, that you bend down to sip from rather than trying to hold.

The connection with medicine continues in the city’s smallest pub, Café De Dokter, just off Kalverstraat, a busy pedestrianized shopping street. Jazz plays quietly in the background as Henny Elout, son-in-law of Jannie and Jan Beems whose family have run it for seven generations, serves me a drink. “A surgeon from a nearby hospital (now closed) set it up in 1798 as a meeting place for fellow doctors and students,” he says. “Then it served only white brandy but, in the 1800s, beer was introduced. There was no running water then, so people drank jenever and, later, beer.” This tiny space is as “gezellig” as it comes, and it is fascinating to think it is as old as the USA, whose Revolution was also in 1798. Thick layers of dust cover the light fittings overhead, adding to the feeling of time standing still.

“My father’s mother was 86 when she retired and before then she had rheumatism so she could not clean above her shoulder. And he never bothered,” explains Henny. “Until 2008 people could still smoke so it is a sticky dust, not flying dust.”

Women for sale behind glass doors

After a drink inside its quiet interior, it is a shock to be hit by modern Amsterdam just outside the door. Not far away, “coffee” houses disgorge the sweet smell of marijuana, while young men dare each other to experience the seedy “Rosse Buurt” or Red Light Area (a euphemistic name by Amsterdam standards), with its women for sale behind glass doors. Centered on Amsterdam’s docks, this sex trade once serviced visiting sailors and still caters mainly to foreign visitors. Locals tend to avoid the area if they can, knowing its undercurrent of crime and hard drugs, while stag and hen parties can make bars and restaurants obnoxious. Cycling in the narrow streets lined with busy restaurants is also a constant frustration when tourists step randomly into the road.

The Dutch do not want to ring their bells at visitors. They do not like a fuss. They get on quietly with life, eating the cheese and milk that has helped turned them into the tallest nation on earth, at an average of 6 feet 1 inch. Who knew? It seems that shopping by bicycle encourages smaller, fresher daily loads, rather than the weekly supermarket car-full, making for much healthier food. All that exercise must help too.

They stand out in other ways. In the 1820s the Dutch were the richest nation on the globe and are still in the top ranks, being more productive than Germany despite having the shortest work week in the EU, at under 31 hours. More importantly, Unicef has ranked the Netherlands as the best country in the world for children to live. In short, they are enjoying health, wealth and quality of life - all part of that “gezellig” feeling. If they think bicycles are the way to go, maybe we should be listening? Maybe our TV screens should be full of adverts selling us sensible black bikes, rather than ever-faster, multi-hued cars enjoying the empty roads of the onscreen fantasy?

“We had a test question for five-year-olds asking which is quickest: a bike, bus or car?” says Margreet. “One boy said: ‘The bicycle. You have to wait for the bus to arrive. In a car, you always are stuck in traffic. A bicycle is the quickest.’ For the test, it was the wrong answer. For Amsterdam, it is the right answer.”

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