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Going Dutch: Queens Day in Amsterdam

I glance out of my apartments’ large window, expecting to be greeted with bridges, bicycles and beautiful buildings. But not today. Today, there is a mass of orange, as far as the eye can see. I am in Amsterdam for Queens Day, a national holiday and the city’s biggest street party. On 30th April each year, hundreds of thousands take to the streets and canals wearing orange clothes, wigs, hats and feather boas. The crowds have started to gather. The street stalls are open for business. The decorated barges, full of people dancing, are blasting out music as they slowly wind their way through the waterways. The atmosphere is building.

I am staying on the Prinsengracht (Prince’s canal), the longest of the city’s main canals. It’s central location make it the perfect base from which to explore the day’s events. Eager to get involved, I head out into the mêlée. Each street is lined with ‘pitches’ where the locals set up shop to sell unwanted goods. The freemarket (Vrijmarkt), as it is known, tends to be more of a social occasion than a genuine commercial opportunity, so prices are generally low, and the tradition is to barter down further. Never one to miss a bargain, I pick up some tulip bulbs and sunglasses for 5 Euros. As I continue onwards, I pass aspiring opera singers, teenagers’ break dancing and Caribbean style bands, all competing for my attention, and money. I find myself a spot one of the cities’ many bridges, the perfect place to people watch and see events unfold.

Festivities actually kick off the night before, known as Queens night. This is THE night to be in Amsterdam, with all the bars and clubs hosting special events to mark the occasion. I had dinner in the Café de Prins, in the Jordaan district. A ‘brown bar’ serving traditional Dutch food at a reasonable price. The band was playing a medley of 80’s classics as I tucked into my rookworst and stampot, sausage and mash to you and me. The restaurant was packed with tourists and locals a like, and whilst I could barely hear myself think, the constant buzz was strangely relaxing. Time seemed to have stood still in that quaint little place. The band started taking requests and as wine continued to flow, the diners began to sing along. By the end of the night, we were all firm friends.

You could be mistaken for thinking that Queens Day is an adult only affair, but that’s not the case. Vondelpark, named after Dutch national poet, Joost van den Vondel is a family only zone today. As I stroll around, I am staggered by the creative, capitalist efforts of the young locals. There are children selling homemade lemonade, face painting, rapping and doing puppet shows to name but a few. It’s less busy in the park, so I take the opportunity to stop for lunch. I hungrily tuck in to the contents of my picnic hamper, bought from one of the childrens’ stalls, whilst watching the talent show on the main stage.

There are rumours of an open air concert underway across town, and I decide to check it out. There’s no transport in Amsterdam on Queens Day, and as I walk through the cobbled streets, I curse my bad choice of foot wear. Thankfully, a friendly local, Raymond, spots my struggle and offers to take me the rest of the way on his barge. I sit back on the deck, with a beer in hand. Raymond is Amsterdam born and bred, and has been coming to Queens Day all his life. Not one for crowds, he takes to the water each year, and I don’t blame him. He’s got everything he needs – a bbq, music, makeshift bar and a great view of the festivities. He plans to spend the day circling the numerous canals, chatting to friends and no doubt helping more under prepared tourists.

Queens Day was introduced in 1949, to celebrate then Queen Juliana’s birthday, and the tradition has continued ever since. I ask Raymond why there is such a fascination with the colour orange. Apparently, as well as being the colour of the Dutch Royal family, orange also symbolises a broader pride in the country, and in being Dutch, which explains why it is such a common sight when Holland are playing football. As we pull up in the Museum district, the cultural hub of the city, I reluctantly leave the comfort of the boat, and wave Raymond off as he continues on his way.

I’ve arrived just in time for the grand finale, marked with the most impressive pyrotechnic display I’ve seen. Perfectly choreographed to music, we all gasp and cheer in delight, as the night sky is lit up with spectacular bursts of fireworks. As the masses disperse, DJ’s start playing in the streets, before heading to the clubs where the party continues. I find myself in the Paradiso club, a former neo-gothic church with an impressive interior. The club is set over 5 floors, each playing a different genre of music. I spot a sofa in the jazz section, order a gin and tonic, and settle in for the night.

Next morning, I head out in search of coffee. Slightly bleary eyed, I walk through the streets I was dancing in only hours ago. All the rubbish has been picked up, the late night revellers have found their way home, and it’s business as usual in the Dutch capital. I feel like I’ve witnessed Amsterdam at its best, a far cry from the stag dos, coffee shops and infamous red lights. Queen’s Day is perhaps not for the faint hearted, but amongst all the chaos, it somehow manages to remain dignified and friendly. I didn’t see a policeman all day, or more importantly, any need for one. Now, where did I put those sunglasses?

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