Saturday 22 July 2023

North and South

I was raring to go.  I was pumped.  I leapt out of bed, showered, clattered out of my hotel and across the silent plaza at Amsterdam Zuid.  It was early enough to be dewy still as I headed under the motorway and into the station.  A swipe of the app, through the barriers and up to the platform to find... no trains.  In my enthusiasm to get out, I'd neglected to notice that on a Sunday the trains don't start until 07:38.  I had half an hour to kill on the platform.

Fortunately the architects around the station had given me plenty to look at.  Zuid is the Dutch version of Canary Wharf, a business district with its own World Trade Center, except all the buildings have been designed by people on LSD.  There are no bland glass boxes here.  Every building was fragmented or cracked or in some way broken up to make it look different.  

The last time I was in Amsterdam was 2007, when the BF and I came here for our anniversary.  It was a freezing cold February (don't meet your future husband in winter, it's really inconvenient) and the city centre was an absolute mess.  This was because the city was digging its newest metro line, the M52, and having all sorts of problems in the process.  Amsterdam's soggy soil and preponderance of canals made all the digging difficult; there were collapses and subsidence, while whole streets and plazas were torn open to allow the works to continue.  A planned opening date of 2011 came and went, and the line finally opened in 2018.

This was the line that drew me to Amsterdam's Metro in the first place.  I don't really want to dig into the Freudian implications of this but I love a tunnelled underground station more than almost anything in the world; I don't think I'd be half as keen on Merseyrail if it didn't have those stations deep beneath the earth.  It was a little bit of a disappointment therefore when I got off at Noord station, the northern terminus, and it was not only above ground, but it was actually on an embankment.  That's not what I was after.

You can't argue with that stylish look, though, a glass roof enclosing the two platforms.  I headed down to street level and took my first sign selfie.

I should warn you right now; the signage for the Metro is not great.  In most cases it's a subtle blue sign above the ticket gates, rather than a nice totem out on the street for everyone to see.  From a design perspective this is aesthetically pleasing.  In terms of drawing attention to your wonderful transport network and providing a sense of place, not so much.

Before the Metro arrived, crossing the Ij from the north of Amsterdam to the city centre meant taking a ferry.  Now there's a direct train every few minutes and the property developers have moved in.  Noord station was surrounded by brand new apartment blocks to take advantage of this incredible transport link.  Judging by the two people loitering outside the station in, let's say, a "medicated" state, gentrification has not yet entirely taken over, but it's certainly on its way.

It's still a work in progress, mind.  While the skies around the station are full of cranes and towers, across the Elzenhagensingel there is a stretch of scrub and rough land.  Cycle paths, laid out for a development that hasn't yet come, swing through bare soil and weeds.  I walked up to the road via a set of concrete steps that were almost overgrown and reached a swing bridge.

All nations contain multitudes.  Every cliché you've heard about a country can almost certainly be disproved immediately.  That being said, there's something immensely pleasing to find a stereotype confirmed within minutes of travelling.  I looked over the parapet of the bridge and right beneath me was a canal leading to a windmill.  Welcome to the Netherlands.

I walked along the canal path and got closer to the windmill.  It was marked with Anno 1792, and a neat little plaque gave its history to passers by. 

The path curved round, passing the bottom of a bridge that crossed a dyke that had failed and which they'd simply left open, and into a row of adorably tiny houses.  Each one looked comically pretty, a Disneyworld construction that couldn't possibly be real, but had cars outside and pictures in the window. 

I walked into the Noorderpark, a long strip of greenery that straddles the canal.  Sunday morning meant it was filled with joggers and dog walkers.  People stopped to chat while their dogs played.  It was warm, but not too warm, the shade of the trees making it cool and pleasant to walk.

I was, I realised, utterly content.  The almighty stress of the previous two days fell away.  I realised just how tense and agitated I had been for a long time and now it was lifting off me.  A stroll in a park, exploring unfamiliar paths, being alone with nothing to worry about except where to go to next.  It was blissful.

I found myself smiling for no reason at all.  I was simply happy to be here.  

Soon the park ended and I was at the edge of a large road junction.  Like its brother at Noord, Noorderpark station is built between the carriageways of a major road.  It's a handy way of building a permanent way without intruding on private land.  While Noord's glass roof reached over the tracks on either side, Noorderpark's was centrally positioned, curving down to the platform like an insect carapace.

I headed down to the platform and realised for the first time that the options for travel to each end of the line were quite literally Noord and Zuid - North and South.  You noticed this straight away I'm sure, but I'm a bit thick. I found this disproportionately amusing, and it'll be a shame if they build the proposed extensions to Schiphol and Zandaam and lose the pleasing symmetry.

For the time being, Noorderpark is the last station before you head under the river and into Amsterdam's city centre.  There is a concrete box around the tunnel at Sixhaven, right on the edge of the Ij, ready for a station in future, but it's in an area of low density housing, parkland and marinas at the moment.  The potential usage levels are low and so any idea of building it has effectively been taken off the table in favour of extensions.  Until that happens, the next station is Amsterdam Centraal, though that wasn't going to be my next stop.  I decided that iconic station needed a proper visit, above ground, so my next stop was a little further south in the city centre: Rokin.

No, the odd faces in front of station signs aren't any better just because I'm abroad.

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