Monday, August 09, 2010

2010 Europe Trip: Amsterdam - The Red Light District

De Wallen, or the world famous Red Light District in Amsterdam was a must-see place on my list. I was having difficulty finding it until we floated through the District on my canal cruise. The boat captain pointed out the Oude Kerk (Old Church) as we went by and I was able to find the location from there.

De Wallen is located in the oldest part of the city, the historic center, and is the best-known red light district in Amsterdam. As you can see on the map below it's not far from the train station.

The area within the red circle is generally where De Wallen is located. Walking one long block from Dam Plaza (Square) down the narrow alleyway next to the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky and then turning left will get you to the bottom of the District. The area is a network of alleys, streets, and canals.

The view of Dam Plaza (Square) at a cafe next to the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky narrow alley. The alley is about 10 feet to the right. You can also take the major street to the left (Damstraat). Make a left when you get to the street and take another left when you reach the end of the long block.

Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands with the exception of street prostitution. Prostitutes rent tiny rooms with glass windows or doors (typically illuminated with red lights) lining the alleys and streets and offer sexual services.

I was hesitant to go alone since I read that while the District was safe in general, a woman should never go there by herself. I went anyway and didn't encounter any problems, though I wouldn't be surprised if a young woman walking around by herself was subjected to harassment. First off, there were so many people walking around and gawking that I felt safe. There were people of all ages, ethnicities, nationalities, etc. There were groups of men and women, couples of all ages (from the very old to the very young), groups of men, groups of women, tour groups walking the streets and on boats, there was a heavy police presence (both men and women), and even the garbage collectors were out in force. Also, there were the bouncers in front of the sex clubs and if things got really alarming there were the bouncers who watch over the girls themselves.

The District full of bars, restaurants, sex clubs, sex/souvenir shops, cafes, and coffee shops. Coffee shops are where it's legal to buy and smoke hash and pot. People who weren't walking around were sitting outside having a drink or sitting inside and smoking.

I was there on a Wednesday evening and it was plenty crowded. I couldn't help but wonder what the place is like on the weekend and/or during a special event or holiday. It must be a madhouse. I started around 5:30 pm and spent time wandering the streets, gawking at the girls like everyone else, and taking pictures. It was too light out and I didn't get the good night shots until much later. I went back to Dam Square and sat at a cafe where this old Irish businessman kept hitting on me. Afterwards, I walked around near the university and stopped in a couple bookstores before walking back to the District a couple of hours later. I was waiting for it to get dark enough to take some pictures. Really, that's all I was doing.

De Wallen at around 5:45 pm. This was the only time it wasn't wall-to-wall people though all the surrounding outdoor cafes and bars were full of folks.

I haven't mentioned the girls themselves yet. Several people asked me if they were naked. The answer is no but they weren't wearing much. Most were wearing lingerie, though some were had on very skimpy swim suits. The girl wearing the most clothes was a young blond woman dressed in an indecent version of a school girl outfit. The girls were of all ages, races, and body types though most of them were young and slender. There were some chubby girls and some older ones too. All of them were beautiful.

One of the many alleys in the district. The windows with the red lights are where the girls are standing.

I didn't take pictures of the girls. Apparently, it's considered bad etiquette to do so. The girls hate having their picture taken and more importantly, the bouncers don't like it. There are stories of people's cameras being thrown into the canal.

Most everyone wandering around the District, including me, were mere gawkers or "window shoppers." We just wanted to what the District was like. Since I was waiting for it to get darker I spent a lot of time walking the alleys and streets in the area. During the first couple of turns the girls smiled but did little else. While I strolled I observed how transactions were negotiated. If you smile at a girl, she'll open the glass door but just a little. The next step is the guy pushes the door open and steps inside but not all the way. The guy remains in the doorway and negotiations for services start. You can tell when the negotiations are nearing their conclusion because the guy has stepped inside the room and closed the door. I read that prices for services start as low as 50 euros but I have no idea if that's true.

Another alley. Right down the street from here is the Oude Kerk (Old Church). There's a semi-circle of windows with girls that surround the church. Very strange.

I got tired of wandering and spent time standing on bridge in the 5:45 pm picture above. A couple of cops were standing next to me, many young couples walked by and asked me to take their picture with the red lights in the background even if it wasn't dark enough. I noticed there were a few lone men who were not looking at the girls, they were hanging around in conspicuous areas like the bridge I was on. I assumed they were drug dealers.

Drug dealing and human trafficking are a fact of life in the District and in Amsterdam, not surprising. The city has taken steps to clean things up in the last couple of years. These realities counter the cheery image the District puts up. I wasn't scared, though. In fact, I was completely relaxed and feeling very self-confident.

I spent some time in the alleys near the Nieuwmarkt (you can see it written in blue on my map above) which is a huge square surrounded by cafes and restaurants. The Nieuwmarkt is not considered part of De Wallen and is on the edge of the District. There were more restaurants and cafes in alleys. A suave, well dressed older man stopped me and tried to get me to go out with him. I gracefully declined. I'd seen him a couple of times earlier that evening standing outside his restaurant.

I realized quickly that while there were a lot of ordinary people walking around, someone like me, an older woman by herself, really stands out. After the first few turns through the alleys the girls started assuming I was doing more than window shopping and began flirting heavily with me. As I strolled past they would crack open the doors and beckon me to come inside. When I've mentioned this to several people, they were shocked but they shouldn't have been. Women have money too and obviously there are some who buy these girls' services.

The view from the same bridge looking in the other direction. You can see one of the main sex clubs on the left there.

A little later I was on the same bridge and an adorable young man, probably no more than 19 or 20, approached me. He was sweet and did a good job chatting me up. He said he worked at the hotel around the corner, had just gotten off work, and wanted to take me there for drink. I politely declined but I still enjoyed speaking with him. It must be tough being a male prostitute in that town unless you cater to other men. The girls get all the attention and I'm sure he or whoever had seen me walking back and forth all evening. I couldn't blame him for trying.

The District at 10:15 pm right after the street lights were turned on.

I finally got the picture I was looking for. I'd waited all evening. It seemed kind of silly to wait that long but since it was my last night in Amsterdam, I didn't care.


anne said...

how very, very intersting, MT - thanks for sharing!

Mock Turtle said...

Yeah, I was wondering how to approach writing this post. I decided to be as honest as possible, mostly for my own sake. Visiting a place like this is not something some people want to do but I know people are still curious about it.

I learned a lot about myself that evening too and while writing it down. I used to think I wasn't open-minded enough but now I wonder if that also means I'm not outraged or compassionate enough. Prostitution itself doesn't bother me per se but human trafficking does. It bothers me that I wasn't more upset about that while I was there.

Thanks for reading,

Jack said...

Nice post!
By the way, if you have any intentions of visiting Red Light District, you should check out The Amsterdam Red Light Guide