Amsterdam: starting the New Year with a BANG!

It’s hard to imagine that there could be something about a visit to Amsterdam that is more memorable than the sleazy, brazen display of pink flesh in red windows. Yet there is. For if you visit Amsterdam over New Year’s then without a doubt the main thing that you’ll remember, and indeed that will literally be sonically imprinted into your brain, are the fireworks.

Fireworks are everywhere and everyone gets in on the action. Now I’m not talking about the controlled, organised, pretty fireworks that are timed to music and make you go “oooh, aaahhh”, although there were those as well. The memorable ones I’m talking about are the ones that are set off in hugely crowded narrow streets by vast numbers of random kids. The ones that scream and hiss like banshees while spewing out blinding plumes of toxic smoke, or the ones that are accompanied by seemingly endless incessant bangs that are so loud that you can feel your insides vibrate. The kind of fireworks that have names like “Concussion Powder” or “Bullet Hit” and generally make you yell “arrrgghhhh, mother fucker!” while clutching your heart, which is desperately trying to make up the beats it just skipped.

Just to add a little more peril to the already terrifying feeling, don’t forget that all these crazy pyrotechnics are being dispensed by drunk, stoned, mushied-up adolescents, in the middle of extremely large crowds of drunk, stoned, mushied-up people. Seriously nuts! Someone mentioned that human’s obsession with fireworks on New Year’s Eve originated from the desire to scare away ghosts and evil spirits in preparation for the New Year. I have no idea if this is true, but the way they do them in Amsterdam sure as hell scared me.

Amsterdam fireworks

Mind you the erratic, dangerous fireworks definitely created an awesome chaotic festive vibe of pure mayhem in the streets, adding to the general anything-goes atmosphere of this otherwise extraordinarily pretty town. And nowhere was this anything goes atmosphere more evident than in the bizarre realm of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. De Wallen, as the locals know it (though you’d be hard pressed to find a local there these days) originated when a few enterprising young women realised there was a gap to fill in the market (if you know what I mean), and started servicing the carnal cravings of 14th century sailors who had been temporally freed from their miserable testosterone-ridden oceanic existences.

Girls in Red
Stuck in Customs / Foter

What they created has today become a famous and popular hedonistic pleasure-ville. One and a half square kilometres of sex shops, brothels, gay bars, peep shows, erotic museums, more marijuana coffee shops than you can poke a joint at, and of course hundreds of red windows containing evidently bored, gyrating semi-clad women, mostly of Eastern European or African persuasion.

Personally, I find the idea of prostitution as a tourist attraction rather strange, but tourist attraction it certainly is. Despite the Amsterdam tourist authority’s valiantly attempts to suggest that there are other attractions and sights to behold in the area (like its historic architecture, funky fashion shops, and modern art displays), it is without a doubt the sight of mostly-naked lady lumps in red windows that everyone seems to want to behold (if you know what I mean). Not surprisingly, the larger those lady lumps were, the larger the crowd of men doing the beholding was; so that walking along the street I found I could tell the upcoming cup size by the crowd size in front of her window.

De Wallen
Rungbachduong / Foter

Amsterdam’s tolerance of things deemed illicit in most other countries and its pride at being a ‘free’ city has turned De Wallen into a kind of “Seedy for Dummies” if you will: all the sex and drugs you want, but with only a fraction of the crime, violence and danger that normally accompany these activities. Certainly, the danger/scary factor is nothing compared to the likes of other “red light” districts (say downtown eastside Vancouver, or “las zonas libres” of any Mexican border town).

Recently, however, the Dutchies seem to be getting less tolerant. Hundreds of “windows” have been closed in attempt to deal with the problem of human trafficking, and there’s been talk of banning foreigners from coffee shops, by allowing entry only to “paying members”.

Whether this represents tourism and economic suicide remains to be seen.


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