In Amsterdam the red light district is hard to miss once you’re in the midst of it. There are both neon-lit and colorfully painted signs advertising brothels, sex shops, head shops, and even an Erotic Museum. What most people do not know is that Amsterdam’s red light district has been ensconced in the central area of the old city since the 14th century. Yep. Over 700 years. And, yet, throughout the centuries, the district has always thrived with families, tradesmen and business living cheek to jowl with the brothels and bars. In fact, my guide book says the area was so full of rich folks, that this stretch of canals and streets was known as the “Velvet Canal”. While the area may not be quite so prosperous now — prostitution is now controlled by the government – every block will have at least one establishment with huge, ground-level windows in which the ladies display themselves to attract potential customers. However, because it is so mixed in with business, bars, restaurants and dwellings, the windows’ interiors sometimes aren’t visible until you are literally standing in front of one of them.
Oh – just to set the record straight, the triple-X flags all over Amsterdam aren’t advertising the location of brothels or sex shops. The red flag with the three white crosses of St. Andrew on a black band is the emblem for Amsterdam and thus the city’s flag.
Nearly an Incident
Having now spent four days in Amsterdam – it’s a quick 25 minutes by train from Utrecht – I’ve become pretty good at navigating through the city. A few days ago I managed to get five of us through the warren of side streets to several destinations, one of which was the red light district. It seems like the three people with us, Matt & Caralynn and Veronica, all visiting medical professionals from the States, hadn’t been to Amsterdam before but all had heard of the famous red light district. And of course, everyone wanted to go to the most sought-after tourist destination in the city. We are, after all, tourists.
Let me point out something I have learned here: there is a certain
etiquette that is intrinsic to the red light district. No native of Amsterdam stops and gawks at the scantily clad women lounging, standing, preening, reading or whatever in their individual display windows. For Amsterdammers, it’s just business as usual. Tourists on the other hand, tend to come to an abrupt standstill, point open-mouthed, giggle, turn red, throw elbows at each other and otherwise make fools of themselves. For the most part, the ladies just ignore these ignoramuses, but there is one activity that incenses the ladies – and their brothel’s bouncer: taking pictures.
I can understand this. Who wants to be made fun of or belittled? And the guidebooks warn you: you start snapping pictures of the ladies in the windows, the bouncers or ladies themselves may rough up the witless tourists, and smash their cameras in their fury or toss them in the nearest canal.
So it was with major trepidation I suddenly hear behind me one of our merry band loudly exclaim in sudden revelation: “What? This is the red light district? Oh, I gotta get a picture of this!”
I whipped around and hollered, “No! No pictures! Stop!” I had visions of our group being rushed by half naked women and Turkish bouncers and pricey smart phones and digital cameras summarily tossed into the nearest canal.
Thankfully, she did stop. I explained how taking pictures was considered a gaffe, at best, all the while eyeing some tough looking men lounging under nearby brothel windows and scowling at us: the bouncers.
So, we did what everyone does: stand at a distance and pretend to take pictures of scenic canals amid throngs of gawking tourists while hoping to catch in the frame — at long distance — at least one of Amsterdam’s “window ladies”. The rest of the day went without incident.
Back in Utrecht
So, back to Utrecht. Where was the red light district?
To be sure, it couldn’t possibly be the size of Amsterdam’s, but still. Turns out, it’s similar to Amsterdam’s, albeit smaller by far: all mixed in with family dwellings, general shops and restaurants.
Last week I found it, purely by accident, ambling down a narrow side street I’d walked upon a couple of times before. A twitch of movement caught the corner of my eye and I turned my head to find a red head in a bikini with garters and fishnet stockings lounging on a chaise in a large picture window. Bingo.
As I gazed up and down the street, I realized that about half the establishments had the oversized, ground level windows and there was a tough looking, muscular guy hanging out by himself about half way down the street – all of which should have given me a clue. At a little after noon, about a fourth of the windows were occupied, the others had interior curtains drawn over them. It also dawned on me that the earlier times I’d walked this street, it had been on my early morning excursions to the local supermarket, way too early for the women to be on display.
I looked up to check the name of the street so I could later identify for Michael which of the tiny side streets the red light district was on. I started laughing out loud and just had to take a picture. I think you will all agree with me that a street name has seldom been so descriptive:
And here’s a look at Hardebollenstraat in the morning, about the only time it is safe to take pictures: