Amsterdam friendly, attractive, safe destination

Call it tourism with training wheels, the ideal trip for someone who thinks she would like to go abroad - if only it weren't so complicated. Call it Amsterdam, a friendly, attractive, safe destination where just about everyone speaks English with a smile.

And everyone drives on the proper side of the road. And you can drink water right out of the tap.

Getting there couldn't be easier. KLM flies out of Dulles five days a week. There are additional flights out of Kennedy Airport in New York for anyone who is into self-inflicted pain.

Usually travel writers arrive in gaggles, to be rounded up by a representative of the sponsoring organization and shepherded from airport to hotel to scenic/historic attraction and back.

This time, however, I was traveling on my own. The crew on KLM was starchy but efficient and heeded my request to ignore me as I slept my way across the Atlantic.

I arrived in Amsterdam in early afternoon, passed through customs and immigration without breaking stride, grabbed one of the numerous free luggage carts and went in search of the train.

Schiphol, outside Amsterdam, is one of a growing number of airports where someone has had the good sense to establish a rail link into the parent city.

A clerk who spoke English as good as mine sold me an inexpensive ticket, pointed me toward the proper track and told me I had about a 10-minute wait for the train - which arrived right on time and exactly where I was told it would be.

I hoisted my luggage aboard, kicked it back into an alcove created just for that purpose and enjoyed a smooth, swift ride through the attractive - though very flat - Dutch countryside.

In considerably less than an hour I was in Amsterdam's Central Station, where signs in several languages directed me to the taxi ranks. Just so I would not feel too homesick, the driver was surly and declared he had to have the exact address of my hotel. (I would have been more impressed if Amsterdam were larger.)

On the other hand, the desk clerk at the hotel smiled at me as if he had been waiting all his life to meet me. Of course I was expected. Management was delighted I was spending the week. My room was ready and someone would execute the maid if anything were not to my liking.

And the young man who carried my luggage not only did not expect to be tipped, he turned down the money I offered him. It is included in the tariff, he told me - a surcharge that appears on all entertainment bills.

What could possibly be more civilized than a country where you are expected not to tip?

Possibly one where even a lone woman can walk the streets in safety at just about any hour of the day or night.

Escorted by the bellhop, I climbed a flight of impossibly narrow stairs, entered my room at the Hotel Ambassade - and fell instantly in love. The room was small by today's standards, but furnished in the style of 19th-century Europe - inlays, veneers, bow fronts and curving legs everywhere.

And a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows opening out to a view of a cobblestoned street, 17th-century houses and a canal.

It was time for a reality check. Yes, I was awake; yes, it was the final years of the 20th century; and no, I had not stepped into a time warp. I also ruled out the holodeck on the Enterprise, but only after some thought.

One of the many incredible charms of Amsterdam is that it is a living, vibrant, modern city that just happens to occupy buildings that date from the late 1600s and and early 1700s.

This is no Williamsburg, no Sturbridge Village, no Mystic Seaport - as delightful as they are. People here are working at real jobs, going to real schools, buying Benetton and Levis, drinking Coke, smoking too many cigarettes, playing soccer . . .

I didn't bother to unpack. Once again I kicked my luggage into a convenient spot and took off.

These were streets that were meant to be walked.

Even for a stranger, Amsterdam is a welcoming, easy city. I obtained an excellent map from the main desk and set out to see what there was to see.

Even in the oldest part of Amsterdam, navigating is simple. There are six canals arranged as ever-smaller horseshoes of water. They are paralleled by streets with related names. They are crossed at intervals by major thoroughfares. You are either walking next to a canal or are about to cross a canal. All buildings are numbered.

And despite a population of about 750,000, Amsterdam is relatively small. You could walk across it on the diagonal in about an hour.

I did, on the first day I was there and several times thereafter.

Amsterdam is a city for walkers. Because Holland is a country reclaimed from the water, Amsterdam is as flat as a pool table. If you are going uphill or downhill, you are on a bridge over a canal. The automobile is banned from many streets during the day, and parking restrictions mean there is no place to leave a car if you have one. Relatively few cars live in Amsterdam.

Of course, there are bicycles, and cyclists take a dim view of pedestrians who wander into the cycle lane. I learned a few Dutch phrases I suspect I cannot use in polite company before I figured out that that was a cycle lane.

I had come prepared with flat shoes and a light raincoat because I knew most of Amsterdam is paved in cobblestones and it is likely to rain just about any time. But not continuously.

And certainly not hard enough to drive a determined walker back indoors.

Not when there is so much to see. Yes, there are museums dedicated to just about any topic: Amsterdam's relationship (love/hate) with the sea; van Gogh and the impressionists, and Vermeer and Mondrian; Dutch fine arts and decorative arts; 17th-century life; the Holocaust; even cats and torture rate their own establishments.

But the city itself is its own best attraction.

The main streets bustle with activity at just about any hour. Shoppers duck into a doorway and emerge a few minutes later with a loaf of freshly baked bread protruding from a string bag. A stop next door adds some cheese.

A few doors down there are cucumbers and tomatoes. Next door to that is a shop selling shoes of such avant-garde design one wonders if it is possible to walk in them.

And one door down is a small store where the most innocent thing in the window is a black leather jacket with the breast area defined in studs - and they look sharp.

We will not discuss the window of the sex shop. This is, after all, a family newspaper.

All of this is housed in an environment that is a veritable paradigm for quaint.

Those historic buildings provide a nice backdrop for the bald-headed girl in the black-leather miniskirt walking with the spike-haired guy with the nose rings and the dog collar. Though I did think the leash was a bit over the top.

Speaking of leashes, Amsterdam is a city of well-behaved dogs and mannerly cats. And none of this nonsense about keeping the dirty beasts out of eating places.

In an immaculate white-and-black-tiled confectionary shop, the owner's huge black-and-white cat stretched herself, emerged from a niche under the cash register and regally strolled over to greet me with tiny cries of recognition. Cats do know cat people on sight, you see.

Did the shopkeeper choose the decor to complement the cat or the cat to complement the decor?

Breakfast the next morning meant sharing a lovely formal dining room with a golden retriever. He ducked under the tablecloth and settled himself at his human's feet. One could wish children were as well-behaved.

On that first day of walking, eventually fatigue and hunger drove me to a small shop where I bought a ham-and-cheese sandwich on excellent bread, a cup of superb coffee and a piece of apple tart to eat at a tiny sidewalk table.

Sticker shock! This snack cost the equivalent of $10. At the time of my visit, the Dutch guilder and the U.S. dollar were almost at parity, five U.S. dollars buying six Dutch guilders.

Amsterdam is a lovely city; Amsterdam is an expensive city. This is not a place to go shopping for quaint souvenirs. The gang will have to be satisfied with T-shirts, probably sporting a rude slogan referring to the city's openness about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

Guides run special tours through the well-known red-light district, where the prostitutes are said to sit in show windows and wave to potential customers.

Having been a street reporter for a good many years, I have seen enough prostitutes that I did not feel any need to go looking for them with a guide.

But the tours have been so successful that trendy little boutiques and smart cafes have moved into the district to catch the tourist in a spending mood. It's anyone's guess when rising rents will oust the ladies of the night, accomplishing what moralists have been unable to do in several hundred years.

Once they are gone, no doubt Amsterdam will create a museum.

No comments: