If there's one thing we Brits do better than the rest of the world, it's train seating. What's wrong with a nice bit of moquette, Europe? Why do you hate having comfortable bums? What's wrong with colour? The Amsterdam Metro's seats are nice and everything but they don't have the soft yet firm touchability of the Tube. They do have an interesting quirk, however, which is the names of stations inscribed in them:
But think how much nicer that would be in a coloured moquette.
Rokin is deep beneath the street of the same name, a long strip of station with exits at both ends and plenty of room for circulation. Every one of the Noord-Zuidlijn stations had a portion of its budget devoted to artworks, and the theme at Rokin was archaeology, with blown up representations of the treasures uncovered during the construction of the line.
Treasures-slash-stuff your dad keeps in his shed. I rode the long escalators up to the surface, giddy with delight at my first underground station, and emerged at the southern exit on Rokin. Time for a sign selfie.
I really hate it when my bottom lip sticks out like that.
Now this - this was Amsterdam. City centre canals and boats. It was barely nine am on a Sunday morning and the party capital of Europe was largely still recovering. The main activity was a crowd of tourists being loaded onto a tour boat, all of them looking a little lost, their guide treating them like a herd of particularly lazy cattle that needed to be harangued into place. I ended up at the Muntplein, with its historic tower and a McDonalds I could exploit for its toilet (it cost €0,70 to use it! Outrageous!).
I'm not sure why, but Amsterdam slightly befuddled me. I normally have an impeccable sense of direction - alight from the train here, turn right or left, follow this road and you're there. Something about Amsterdam, however, knocked my gyros off - I frequently had to return to Google Maps on my phone to try and locate myself. I think it came down to never quite getting the hang of everything being on the opposite side of the road, including the trains. I would expect to be dropped off on the left hand side of an island platform, and actually I was on the right; I'd look both ways at an intersection, then a bike would appear in the wrong direction. For some reason it never properly sank in. Perhaps it was being there for such a short but intense period of time. Perhaps it was the massive quantities of skunk I smoked while I was there.
The point is, I quickly realised that instead of walking in a straight line south, I'd somehow managed to go in a diagonal to the Rembrandtplein, and then, when I'd attempted to correct myself, I'd gone in the wrong direction again. (I refuse to go back the way I came - that's the coward's way). Instead I found myself on the Reguliersgracht, which was not where I'd meant to be, but which turned out to be a very happy accident.
That is the home of Miss Tiffany Case, smuggler and heroine of the classic Bond movie Diamonds are Forever. James Bond nips up to visit her (third floor), barely disguised as a burglar called Peter Franks, and they exchange quips while she wanders around in her underwear and he wears fake plastic fingerprints. Like much of Diamonds Are Forever, it is light, frothy, and utterly delightful. A couple of scenes later 007 beats a man to death in the elevator of the building because, you know, it's a Bond movie.
As time has gone on Diamonds Are Forever has emerged as one of my favourite Connerys. It's essentially a comedy with a bit of action thrown in, a perfect way to spend a couple of hours, with its tongue rammed so hard in its cheek it practically burrows through. It's the campest Bond film, camper than any of the Roger Moores even, with a loungecore score by John Barry that I would hum to myself for the rest of the day (a mix of Tiffany Case and The Whyte House, mainly). The Bond films have gone too serious for my tastes - one of the things I enjoyed most about No Time To Die was it had a ridiculous sci-fi plot again, and some actual fun - and I sort of hope the next one features something as joyous as a pair of homosexual assassins drowning an old lady in a canal.
Having tipped my hat to Miss Case, I rechecked my co-ordinates and managed to find my way to the Vijzelstraat. Ahead of me was De Bazel, an astonishing lump of Brick Expressionism that squatted across an entire block of the city centre.
The building was built for the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, a sort of mini Dutch East Indies Company, that moved increasingly into banking and became the ancestor of the present day ABN-AMRO. De Bazel was built as the headquarters by the architect Karel de Bazel, opening after his death, and was subsequently turned into the Amsterdam city archives. It's a fantastic, beautiful building, utterly dominant to the street, like something out of Gotham City.
I crossed a couple more canals and found Vijzelgracht station buried underneath a large road junction.
Escalators took me down from the street to the subterranean ticket hall. Am I weird for liking outdoor escalators? There's something weirdly futuristic about them, an upgrade of boring old stairs. Liverpool One has a few and I always find it slightly exciting to step off the street and onto one.
Below ground I was a little disappointed. Vijzelgracht was grey. Shiny, yes; clean, absolutely. But grey. After the mural at Rokin I'd expected more.
It turned out they'd saved the budget for a giant portrait above the other set of escalators. An LED screen showed a picture of Ramses Shaffy, one of those 1960s European artists that don't seem to have a British equivalent - a little bit Sacha Distel, a little bit Serge Gainsbourg. He straddled acting and music, with his own theatre group, and seems to have become a national treasure through being louche and decadent. He had affairs with men, he drank a lot, and he smoked like a chimney, and when he died he was so well regarded there was a campaign to name Vijzelgracht station after him (he lived in the area). This was politely declined, but they put up a portrait of him at the entrance.
The lines fade in and out, representing parts of his life, though it's difficult to see properly when you're on a descending escalator; the transitions are too slow to really get a hold of what's happening.
I tried listening to some of his music on Spotify, and let's just say it's very much of its time. The nuances are obviously lost on me due to the language barrier, but it all sounds a bit like the overwrought Eurovision entries that were submitted until Sandie Shaw dragged it kicking and screaming into the Sixties. Ramses does have a very soothing voice however. I guess you had to be there.
Vijzelgracht has one more secret; it was built with passive provision for another metro line. The Oost-Westlijn would go across the city, as its name suggests, interchanging with the Noord-Zuidlijn at Vijzelgracht. The chances of the line actually being built, at this moment in time, are slim; the city was semi-traumatised by the construction of the Noord-Zuidlijn, and needs time for a breather before it tries anything like that again. I found reference to a premetro - putting the tram lines in a tunnel across the centre - but nothing more than a suggestion.
Another quick trip south and I was at De Pijp station. While the other stations on the 52 are islands, De Pijp had to be squeezed into a narrower site, so the two platforms are above one another.
Escalators take you up to a mezzanine where there are pastel coloured wall panels. That's your artwork. It's very... nice. Like a giant Farrow and Ball sample card.
I managed to take the sign picture for this one as I was actually ascending the escalator, which is why I look a little bit smug. On arriving at the top a homeless person barked some Dutch at me and I had to flee in confusion so the smugness didn't last too long.
De Pijp also got one of the few above ground buildings on the line. Most of the time the entrances were slotted underneath existing squares and plazas, but here they demolished corner buildings and built a new one with the metro entrance at the base.
Do you see what I mean about the lack of signage? That single M - R-Net on the corner is the sole indication that there's a metro station here. There should be a coloured, backlit band with De Pijp on it, something to grab the eye, something to draw you in. You can't see that this is a metro station until you're up close, and even then, it's a mystery which one you've stumbled upon until you're practically underground.
The district surrounding the station was a little tackier than the centre, a bit more rough and ready, the kind of area that sells phone cards to let you call abroad at cheaper rates. There was an "expat" store with a giant Union Jack in the window that lowered the tone, while there were now large apartment buildings in among the traditional townhouses. Small restaurants filled the shop fronts.
There was also this cat in the window of a shop, a cat I am 100% certain is haunted. I don't know what the shop was selling but I know I don't want it.
Walking in Amsterdam is so easy and relaxing. Obviously it helps that the highest point in the city is a speedbump, but it's also a city that encourages strolling. You can breathe. The traffic isn't too bad - a network of motorways sends you around the city and stops you from coming close - plus the many trams and cycle lanes make motorists bottom of the list of priorities. There are trees and surprising green spaces everywhere. And all that water. Never underestimate the calming influence of happening across a body of cool, gentle canal, reaching away from you. It's a pause in the city, a place to inhale and readjust.
Speaking of things I was stupidly impressed by - that building is a supermarket, Albert Heijn: basically the Dutch Tesco. While it looks like a traditional building, it's actually spanking new, and that clock in the clock tower is in reality an LED screen that switches between the time and little messages about the store. I found it fascinating.
I'd reached RAI Amsterdam. This is a complex of halls and exhibition spaces built to house conferences and gatherings and, if you're a homosexual reading this, the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970. That was the one after the four way tie, where the Netherlands literally drew a short straw to host it, and a handful of countries boycotted; I'd like to say it was all made good when All Kinds Of Everything swept to victory, but Dana has some awful political ideas, so that's that ruined too. (The UK's entry was Knock, Knock (Who's There?), which is a proper banger).
The central square, and the station beneath it, are called Europaplein, and it's a reminder that Europeans really like being Europeans. This may sound obvious, but even when we were still in the EU, before we became this miserable little racist island shouting at foreigners on the edge of the continent, the UK never really embraced its European-ness. There were European flags all over Amsterdam, flown outside businesses as well as political buildings, and sometimes just by people on their homes. It didn't seem to be statement - it was simply a part of their being. Calling a massive plaza in your business district Europaplein seemed like an outward reach - we are a small part of something bigger, we look outside our borders, welcome visitors. Or perhaps my little Remainer heart was just thrilled to be in a place that looked forwards for a change.
Below ground, Europaplein station is emblazoned with a series of photographs that I think are meant to convey Serious Businesspeople At A Conference, but actually come across as stills from some 1970s Euro thriller. The man and woman in the black and white photos have a strange tension to them that's a little unnerving; every picture looks like you weren't meant to see it. Add in the pink shapes between the pictures and I felt like I was in a Dario Argento film. I mean, look at this one:
Tell me that man isn't about to get stabbed to death in some kind of lurid giallo. I hunkered down against the wall and pulled my shirt close. I wasn't about to get pushed onto the tracks by some sexually confused psychopath in a trenchcoat, thank you very much. I had more stations to collect.