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Amsterdam - Off the beaten track


Rembrandt's Plein for a masterful coffee

Amsterdam Noord

Before it was inhabited, Amsterdam North was a seedy marshland area with shifting contours; executed criminals were dumped out here to be devoured by crows and dogs. But as Amsterdam spread, a thriving Dutch working-class neighbourhood developed out of these inauspicious beginnings. Amsterdam Noord is a good place to get a glimpse of traditional Dutch life well away from the crowds in the old town, and there are large public markets here on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday that rarely see any tourists. A free pedestrian ferry crosses the IJ behind Centraal Station to the Noordhollands Kanaal.

Jordaan

The Jordaan was a working class district during the huge canal belt project in the early 17th century: it was where the canal-diggers, bridge-builders, carpenters and stonemasons lived. Now it's colonised by yuppies who are drawn to the good pubs, offbeat shops, enchanting restaurants and weird little art galleries.

It's a great place to wander around, get lost and soak up the atmosphere of people going about their daily business. Houses here are tiny but tidy, with lace curtains and window boxes, and spionnetje (little spy) mirrors attached to the windowsills so auntie Greet can see who's coming and going.

The Jordaan has a high concentration of hofjes (courtyards), many of them with beautifully restored houses and lovingly maintained gardens. In theory, they're closed to the public, but if you do come across one of the unobtrusive entrances, and it is unlocked, most residents won't mind if you sneak a peek.

Red Light District

There's something oddly compelling about the throbbing red light district, where scantily-clad and often utterly bored women beckon from their windows to the passers-by.

It draws in visitors, regardless of moral rectitude or erotica-induced need for smelling salts. It is, in fact, more of a brand name than a call to louche arms. These days everyone knows about Amsterdam and its sex industry.

But you needn't worry about your hormones staging a coup d'etat on your brain - for all its subject matter and worldly denizens it's an oddly unerotic place, albeit an extremely fascinating one.

The district's foundations were laid by the glories of the Dutch empire, reliant on soldiers and their testosterone. When ships came in, the port would get an injection of sea-weary sailors with gold to splash about, and the area - known as the Walletjes - was where women who were willing to soak it up were to be found.

These days, crowds clog the alleyways, peep-shows and alleyways while buxom but mostly-bored sex workers beckon from pink-lit windows. There are 450 of these windows and a street specialising in every taste - Latinos on Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Molsteeg, Asians on Stofstraat, and the 'high-end' glamour pusses along tiny Trompettersteeg by the Oude Kerk.



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