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01.03.20 — Travel

Amsterdam

As mentioned at the end of my last post, Design Event Extravaganza, and continuing with the theme, I spent last weekend over in the Netherlands, attending the Awwwards Conference, a series of talks on the state of digital design. The trip was paid for by Erretres, and so me and my colleague Zoe jetted off from Madrid to Amsterdam on Wednesday evening straight from work.

With the busy weeks in the office preceding the trip, I hadn’t had much chance to do my research on this country that I’d never visited, and so I rocked up without even being entirely sure if they use the euro or not, where exactly the hostel was, or even how we were to get from the airport to the city centre. The same chaotic approach also went into my packing, as I spent half an hour the night before flying throwing stuff into my backpack rather willy-nilly, before hauling it to a client’s office in the centre, back to our office on the outskirts of the city, and finally over to the airport.

To summarise, the whole trip was rather spontaneous and chaotic, which was somewhat refreshing.

We arrived in Amsterdam near midnight, and fired up trusty ol’ Google Maps in order to make our way to our hostel. Hopping on a bus and discovering the first example of what would become many services which only accept payments by card, we eventually rocked up near the hostel and traversed some of the city’s streets by night.

Upon finding the hostel and checking in, we didn’t waste much time in getting off to bed, as we’d to be in the DeLaMar Theatre at 8am the next morning in order to register, pick up our passes, and grab a seat for the start of the conference!

The following morning ran pretty much like clockwork: I managed to be up, showered, and waiting for Zoe on the steps of the hostel in good time. The two of us then set off to the venue, catching our first glimpse of the city by day, albeit through a grey haze of rain. Google Maps then proceeded to fail us, dragging us down a back street two blocks from where we should have been, but we soon orientated ourself and wandered into the theatre.

After picking up our passes and free goodie bags, contained in a cool tote which has now become my new favourite shopping bag, we took our seats in the auditorium and waited for the talks to begin…

A harpist plays music on the stage at the Awwwards Conference in Amsterdam.

Then followed a day of awesome presentations by some really interesting speakers, ranging from the dark patterns used by some UX designers to the current state of accessibility, and even tips on how to overcome creative blocks and build great design teams. In between the talks, me and Zoe got chatting to a guy from the Netherlands, and also made the important discovery of a nearby supermarket in which to buy some belated breakfast.

The auditorium of the DeLaMar theatre in Amsterdam is filled with attendees of the Awwwards Conference.

After the day’s talks concluded at about six o’clock, the two of us headed back to the hostel for a siesta, as we’d planned to then head into the city centre itself for another networking event. It was a bit of an odd introduction to the new city, as the conference was on the city’s outskirts, and our first introduction to the canal-bisected streets of the centre was by night.

We caught a tram to said event, which took place in the rooftop suite of an office building, a place we couldn’t find thanks to Google Maps acting up on us again. We then came to the conclusion rather quickly that Google Maps really doesn’t like Amsterdam, but we weren’t too fussed as we managed to arrive before all the food and drinks had gone.

The evening event made for another interesting few hours, with presentations of new design software, talks on copywriting, and the chance to chat to some of the speakers from the day’s main event. We got chatting to the creative director of Büro, a design studio from Porto in Portugal which I have always been a fan of, as well as the developers of Framer, a new interactive design tool. I also discovered the wonders of Chocomel, a brand of chocolate milk that I took to drinking after discovering that the only beer on offer was Heineken. Bleugh.

Wooden slats between two buildings with the morning sky in the background.

The second day began with much brighter skies and even a few rays of sun, but the city remained freezing cold. After I couldn’t get in touch with Zoe, I wandered off to the event on my lonesome, snapping a few photos of the sights along the way and picking up some breakfast from the aforementioned supermarket.

A Mini Cooper, a bicycle, and an old gas lamp in front of old red brick houses in Amsterdam.
A blue tourist boat sits docked in a canal in Amsterdam, with the light of dawn breaking in the sky above.
The sun rises over the streets of Amsterdam.

Once I’d found Zoe, who’d been taken offline by the dodgy WiFi connection in the hostel, we took our seats for the second day of talks, and were once again entertained and inspired by another round of charismatic speakers who divulged personal experiences and tips for navigating the world of digital design, but also the design industry in general.

After the presentation of the Awwwards themselves, which are given out for best website and various other categories, the conference was officially over, and so we repeated the previous day’s routine: back to the hostel, a siesta, and then out for another afterparty. This time it was the official afterparty, in which we got chatting to a guy from Canada, and then some designers from Belarus and Germany.

We didn’t stay out too late, as the day after was Saturday and our only free day to actually explore what Amsterdam has to offer. As I said before, it was kind of odd: as I woke up on Saturday morning, I realised that I had been in the city for over 48 hours but still not actually seen anything of note!

To change that, me and Zoe regrouped and headed into the city centre, where we’d arranged to meet two of her friends who were visiting at the same time. After finding our preferred spot to be full and with a waiting list exceeding 45 minutes, we found another café in which to have some brunch and awaited their arrival.

A canal and streets in the centre of Amsterdam, set below a grey sky.

Zoe’s friends met us there, and we got chatting about all sorts of stuff, from design and UK life to their experience as primary school teachers. The four of us then set out to explore the city some more, wandering down Amsterdam’s kooky streets of thin, tall, and perilously crooked houses.

The wonky houses of Amsterdam.
A canal winds through the streets of Amsterdam.

We were informed that the wonky appearance of these houses is because of the uneven settlement of the wooden-pile foundations into the waterlogged land on which they stand, and I guessed that the cranes built on to the roof of each of them was for hauling bulky stuff up to higher floors: the shallow houses have really steep staircases (our hostel’s stairs felt like a deathtrap) and so it would be practically impossible to haul a sofa, say, up them. This revelation came to me when we wandered past a group of guys hauling parts of their new sofa up the outside of their house to another guy who was half hanging out of the window of the third floor. Health and safety’s worst nightmare!

The streets of the red light district of Amsterdam.
A church spire between the tall, crooked buildings of central Amsterdam.

I usually try and straighten the lines of my photos, but this city made that impossible.

After exploring the chinatown district and the central station area, the four of us were once again peckish, and headed to a Sotto, a pizza restaurant that Zoe’s friend had found online. The place was a little way out, but it was worth the journey, as we tucked into a lovely round of thin crust pizzas.

Sotto Pizza in Amsterdam.

With lunch devoured, we headed back to the centre, and soon found ourselves queuing to try the traditional Dutch pancakes at another recommended spot that Zoe’s friends had found. I ordered an apple crumple pancake, and was shocked to find that they were quite literal about the whole affair: my pancake had a huge mound of ice cream and apple crumble dumped on top!

This humongous dessert had us all itching to walk it off, and so we headed out in the dark in order to explore part of the city that we’d not yet been through: the red light district. With the aroma of marijuana following us around, and the regular spattering of the infamous window-fronted rooms, it was an experience unlike anything that I have lived before.

I wondered if I would be taken aback by this very liberal attitude to drugs and prostitution, but I actually found it refreshingly interesting. The streets of the neighbourhood were buzzing with people of all walks of life, and we dived in and out of bars and pubs, drinking and chatting the evening away.

The red light district was not half as imposing as I thought it would be.

Amsterdam's red light district by night.

All good things must come to an end, however, and so after our last drink in one of the bars, Zoe and I had to part ways with her friends and head back to our hostel for our last night’s sleep before our flight back to Madrid on Sunday morning. The return journey wasn’t half as eventful as the outbound flight, mainly because we actually knew where we were going and weren’t wondering what the name of the country was and whether we were about to get charged for using our Spanish cards abroad!

Well, as unprepared as I may have been for this short and busy trip to the Amsterdam, I had a lovely time in the city. I would like to return in summer, however, as I think the biting cold, nasty wind, and endless rain didn’t exactly present the Netherlands to us in its best light. That’s all good by me, though, as I’ve a good excuse to return again! Until the next time, Amsterdam…