Sunday 27 April 2014

'About The Time' ...The Quirks of Amsterdam and The Cat Boat!

'Yarr, I was riding past to verk along de Singel and stopped outside de Oude Lutherse Kerk and looked at zis canal boot and thought....hey zat boot is full of kats!'

A canal 'boot' full of cats!....meaning 'boat' in Dutch that is, said my strong accented dutch guide.... 
I'd been staying at the friendly Shelter Hostel right in the heart of the 'City of Diamonds' and took the opportunity to join their free guided walking tour of Amsterdam on a gloriously light but chilly Friday morning in the core of wintertime in The Netherlands.  Funny enough as cold it was for this chick from Blighty, Amsterdam was experiencing its mildest winter for many years.....only - 6 C. Brrrr. 

The walk had been super interesting....being a Christian hostel guided walk, avoiding anything to do with the infamous Red Light District and our semi-naked lady friends smoking ridiculously sized cigars as they stood provocatively in the obvious red lit windows was understandable so.  After 90 minutes of dodging the overwhelming epidemic of constant ringing bells from passing dutch cyclists as our small group walked through the chill of the city and along the canals, we'd made our way through the charming 'Bloemenmarkt' (Flower Market) stopping off to pick up a pair of little blue clogs (which originally were worn by Dutch farmers because there were no leather shoes available back in the day - but still costing over 20 Euros!).  Passing the flower stalls aligning the canal, my funny bone was tickled at the ironic sight of vendors ever so publicly advertising 'Cannabis Starter Kits' amongst their tulip bulbs without a hint of slyness or discretion. Amsterdam the city of liberation.  Not that marijuana is actually legal in the 'City of Diamonds' in the first place - the authorities just have better things to deal with in Holland rather than chasing blissed out people lying in tulip fields or crashing their bicycles into the canal (the canal bottoms are final resting places for thousands of bikes in the city would you believe!).  
  The tall multi coloured doll like matchstick houses is what I feel really distinguishes Amsterdam's architectural identity in Europe as they hug the web of hundreds of canals circling the cities core.  The slender buildings had been a means to build new homes quickly during the war times after Amsterdam had been bombed, miraculously resting on quite a few wooden fact.... the whole city is....and the air and water are making them Amsterdam is essentially well....sinking.  Check out the wonky house in the middle of the row, The Netherlands answer to the leaning tower of Pisa...

    Woah I'd get sea sickness....amazing how they keep their dinner plate level on their dining table really....

Earlier, I'd taken a canal boat cruise (discounted nicely courtesy of the hostel) and came across a little treasure.... the smallest house in all of Amsterdam, maybe a Hobbit lives there...a very slim Hobbit.  Making the most of every space the Dutch.  Another interesting fact was that the Dutch are actually taxed by how many windows they have on their buildings! the less windows the cheaper!

                                            Aww how cute....a family of Gummi Bears might also live there too...

....and because the houses themselves are so slim, well, you can't really move furniture in and out....the dutch solution...each house has a hook and pulley above the top window under the roof to pull furniture up and lower it down....genius.  The dutch are so clever and VERY direct for that matter.  repeated a question during the canal boat cruise about why the houses lean slightly forwards towards the canals themselves.  The captain of my boat turns to me.

'Its faw za rain, so it vuns off' he answered through his sliding spectacles as the boat motor droned and grumbled, 'Voo ver not paying attenzion to za commentary ver you?' he continued like a school teacher.

Ay Ay captain, didn't appear so.  Don't you just love the Dutch directness.  We English are just too polite to be so direct haha.  Still, I was double checking I had all my facts right and yes the Dutch clearly prepare for the weather.

Now enough praise for the Dutch...our group finish the tour at Dam Square in the heart of the city amid the near silent gliding trams outside the Royal Palace.

'What , a cat canal boat?' I questioned my guide curiously 'curiosity killed the cat right? not this time. 

This was something definitely quirky, in fact, very different and alluringly quirky to me, especially as I love anything to do with animals and had grown up with cats myself.  This is what I especially love about the adventure of travel - something I've never seen before and something not noted in a guide book but a kept secret from a locals observation.  This was just up my street....or canal in this instant.

'Where is it again? where is it on my map' I asked, unfolding my tattered stained map of Amsterdam.

'Errrr.... It's on Singel, here up near de station, de Poezenboot' he said, his warm misty breath fogging the chilly air as he ran his gloved finger up the map to a canal in the north of the city, west of the Central Station. 'It should be open, you can head there now just a short walk away'.

'Is it the same side as the Oude Lutherse Kerk?' I pressed.  I'd discovered I was totally rubbish at navigating myself to the correct side of canals in Amsterdam - finding Anne Franks house was a right pig's ear and I claim to have a university degree in Geography!  I can safely say in the knowledge though that my canal map reading skills got better, with practice.

'De same side' he said confidently, wishing me well.

It wasn't.

I'm searching along the endless line of floating canal boats alongside Singel outside the Oude Lutherse Kerk building, keeping a beady eye open for any sign of a boat inhabited by furry feline friends.  There was no canal boat.  This must be an urban myth or I'm being taken for a gullible foreign fool, I thought.  I then looked up at the sound of a soft yowling coming from the boat over the still water on the other side of the canal.  An adorable white cat is sitting outside next to a food bowl and basket looking out onto the water, penned in by surrounding fencing on the anchored canal boat.

It's the Poezenboot! it really does exist!  

Of course, if this was London I could simply look left, right and then left again (yes the all important Green Cross Code) and scoot on over to it.  But this is Amsterdam, there's metres of water between us! so unless I wanted to swim across (it's January so I wasn't so keen on the idea) I have to walk up to the nearest arching bridge and cross on over to the north side of Singel to reach the Kitty Boat.  I'm tingling with animal lovingness as I draw nearer, thinking I can even smell the smothering scent of feline fur and coo in delight at the sound of hearing squeaking meows as I clamber aboard the boat.  I enthusiastically open the creaking door.

Woah! the smell of cats hits like a punch in the face as it overwhelms me, mixed with that clinical sterile smell of the vets waiting room (yes you must know that smell if you've ever owned pets - or you've just never taken them to the vet).  Thank god I'm not allergic, I think my sister would have died.

I say hello to two friendly Dutch ladies standing behind a small counter briefing an Irish girl and two guy friends about entering the 'main room' and I stand in to listen.  Pictures of numerous cute faced kitty's of course adorn the surrounding walls and I peer in through the clear windows at the clowder of adorable cats beginning to cluster in the open space, looking up curiously to us new visitors.  

'The cat in the window there, 'Cow Cat'' says the darker haired lady.

I glance over to see a menacing looking black and white patchy cat with a piece of its ear missing, glaring with its lime green eyes through the glass back at us standing at the reception - like a security guard.

'Yarr, don't touch him - he scratches' she continued.     

Right - into the feline lair we go.  The Irish girl can't help but coo and ahhh at the cats as they scarper under cages and up into their play houses and baskets - quite literally scaredy cats.  I make a conscious effort to not even look at 'Cow Cat' as I dodge him entering the room and with some of the cats rubbing up against my boots, I go and sit on a step to watch and laugh at the Irish girl who excitedly tries to pick them up much to their distain.  Watching her, something catches my eye behind me.  A hand drawn coloured sketch looking very much like 'Cow Cat' rests in a stand on the shelf reading 'Don't touch me - I scratch'  like a wanted poster for a criminal outlaw, makes me smirk slightly at the comedy of it.  Very good likeness though and I look around the room at about twenty Dutch kitty cats of different colours and characters milling around, licking themselves and coming to investigate my peculiar English scent.  Never before have I ever been outnumbered by so many cats! - they very nearly could have turned me into 'Cat Women' herself.  Then I spy 'Cow Cat' disembarking off the high shelf, his muscular frame thuds on the floor and then begins to prowl towards me.  Oh god.  I don't reach out my hand to stroke him as he draws nearer but just stay still - doing what the picture says.  He brushes his tattered head against my knee and then believe it or not begins to clamber onto my lap!  collapsing himself comfortably onto me and relaxes.  Oh double god.  I lift my hand to riskily stroke his pudgy body.

'Please don't scratch, please don't scratch' I plead to myself, as I begin to stroke him gently but still super nervous he'll lash out and begin to maul me. 

He didn't, but surprisingly began to purr pleasurably. 

Ah ha I'd tamed the infamous canal cat of Amsterdam! maybe he just liked the English....

'Oh he's sitting on you!' said the fair haired Dutch lady in a surprised tone, approaching the cupboard.  

The sound of the door opening was like a starter gun going off, as the cats including my new friend 'Cow Cat' sprang from their hiding places and began to congregate at her feet, butting heads and occasionally swiping at each other in competition as if there was a cat hierarchy of who's mouth was fed first.  They were sadly mistaken if they thought they were even getting a morsel of food as the lady closed the cupboard holding a few unopened cans of food and walked away.  As they dispersed looking quite bemused and pretty ticked off, one gorgeous calm black cat hadn't even moved from his red basket on the shelf.  I got up to affectionately pet him and saw his name was 'Valencia' . 
  The darker haired Dutch lady circled the room cradling another black and white cat (non criminal) with a bright salmon pink nose called 'Renee' and began to tell me that 'The Poezenboot' was started up by a Dutch lady who would bring in abandoned cats.  Word got around town that there was a home on the water for cats and before you knew it, stray cats from Amsterdam and around were turning up on the boat waiting to be re-homed. At least half the cats were permanent residence on the boat including smoldering Valencia but Renee was looking for a home and seemed to be working his charm on her.  

'The Poezenboot' is solely run by part time volunteers without government funding, relying on donations from the visiting public to help keep the cats healthy with vet bills and food.  Of course it would have been nice to have dark brooding Valencia accompany me on any further travels around The Netherlands that I might take - but a donation of a few Euros in turn for a few postcards would have to do to keep the cat nip coming in..... plus a token of thanks to ’Cow Cat' for being so nice....     

Check out The Poezenboot in Amsterdam!

You can also see some of my Photography and a few On-The-Road Video Diaries from The Netherlands               

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