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Alternative Amsterdam

by Leanne Watkinson

What kind of image do you conjure up when someone mentions Amsterdam? Perhaps you immediately think of the red light district, the ‘coffee’ shops, or cycling along the beautiful canals and walkways, wind in your hair and native cyclists angrily swerving around you, ringing their bells and screaming at you in Dutch?

Well, set that aside for a minute. I just spent 48 hours experiencing a side of Amsterdam that often goes unseen, and one that’s given me a breath of fresh creative inspiration and a hunger to go off the beaten track more often.

  • So I went to an illegal squat party…

    Not something your average visitor to Amsterdam would get the chance (nor have the inclination, perhaps) to experience, but I’m lucky enough to have a brother who lives there and keeps the company of those in the know about such happenings.

    We heard through the grapevine that a 3 day festival was being held at the residence of ADM squatters. This is a 130 strong live/work community of creators and ‘different thinkers’ who pioneer an alternative lifestyle, and are protesting their looming eviction from this site (you can find out more about them here). On the night, we jumped on our bikes and cycled a good 40 minutes out of the bustling city centre into a very large, very dark and very quiet industrial area out to the East (I think. I actually have no idea where we went).

    We eventually came across two dreadlock-laden, cargo-pant-and-Doc-Martens-wearing men stood next to a makeshift roadblock, and deduced that we had arrived at our destination. After a friendly exchange in broken English, in we went, not quite knowing what to expect…

  • Fire cannons!

    With the backdrop of a disused, half demolished shipping office, we were greeted by an explosion of fire and sound. A man on stilts gathered a crowd around what I can only describe as a fire cannon band. Bedecked in tin armour and playing homemade instruments of metal, they proceeded to create the most unusual sounding, yet thoroughly enjoyable music. The fire cannons made differently pitched sounds each time they were set off, and formed the baseline whilst plumes of flame shot meters into the cold night air. The drummer’s kit was rigged up to yet more fire cannons, which exploded with each beat he played and did an excellent job of keeping everyone warm. Red faced and sweaty-browed by the end of their set, and leaving the stilted man atop a two storey robotic hand (which was created by the squatters, many of whom are artists and engineers), we sloped off to see what other surprises lay in wait.

  • A night of surprises

    As we wandered through the squatters’ plot, the resourcefulness and creativity of this particular group of people became ever more clear. We stumbled upon numerous artworks made from scrap metal and wood, large in scale and incredibly intricate and beautiful; tree houses in woodland clearings that played host to acoustic bands; upturned ships, half-buried in the land, used as pop-up bars for the occasion, and an old bus that had been folded out to create a main stage, complete with light show. The whole site was clearly well maintained, with an eco-friendly, sustainable lifestyle apparently being enthusiastically adopted.

    I went into this night not having a clue what to expect, and what a night it turned out to be. The atmosphere was so collaborative, relaxed and enjoyable, and the people I met were incredibly friendly and passionate about their respective crafts and united way of life. It’s such a shame that such a peaceful, environmentally friendly group of highly skilled, creative people could potentially be forced to end the dream they’re living. If you want to sign the petition against this, you can do so here.

  • The North

    The next day, my journey of cultural discovery continued. We hopped onto the ferry to take a short trip across to North Amsterdam, another disused shipping yard that’s now a haven for artists and makers.

  • Once we set foot on dry land, we headed straight over to some graffiti-strewn warehouses and shipping containers to ogle the bright colours and myriad styles of street art. It was great to see work on this scale, which is replaced every few weeks by the next batch of artists. Whilst we were wandering, we happened to find the door to one of the warehouses unlocked… In we went!

  • Warehouse wandering and an art city

    Once inside, the warehouse was surprisingly light – and filled with art! Shipping containers piled high were strewn with connecting walkways, creating what the artists and designers in residence have dubbed ‘Art City’. It holds a mixture of freelance working space, open artist studios and business office space, and must be an inspiring place to work – there were art installations around every corner!

  • And now we drink…

    After all the excitement of the art city, it was sadly time for me to head back towards the airport. But, being in Amsterdam, I of course managed to squeeze in a farewell drink with my brother.

    Tucked away in a side alley just off Dam Square is the Wijnand Fockink. Established in 1679, this small, dark wooden pub has brewed its own Jenever – a traditional Dutch spirit, much like gin – since its opening day. With the guidance of very helpful staff, we were given a complimentary historical tasting tour of the five types of Jenevre available, and allowed to try some of the 30+ fruit liqueurs before deciding which one (or two… or three…) to drink. Due to the proof, shots are for sipping, not knocking back, and as they’re filled right to the brim it’s traditional to take the first sip from the bar to avoid spillage.

  • All too soon, I was feeling fuzzy and warm and it was time to trip off and catch my flight. My weekend trip to Amsterdam left me tired, happy, and having seen a side to the city that I’ve never experienced before. I can’t wait for my next cultural adventure!

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