I'm going to have to write about our trip in instalments - there's a lot to write. But first - having read my heading - let's get the bit that everyone who knows us wants to know: yes we did investigate the red light district and no, the sex and the aching feet are not the result of some adventurous new position discovered as the result of our investigations.
Amsterdam is a fabulous city: easy to get around and easy to just be in; everyone speaks English - willingly; and the public transport system would make John Prescott blush (remember his cunning plan for a ten year integrated transport system? - the one he hastily dumped on Stephen Byers when he realised it couldn't be done). Famous for its liberal culture the city has a generally relaxed feel; Amsterdam's citizens are neither gushily friendly nor stand offish, more that they are simply happy to share their space with you no matter who or how you are.
I know you probably won't believe this, but our sojourn into the red light district was actually to visit a church. De Oude Kerk is Amsterdam's oldest and grandest church with burial records dating back to 1300 but, as if that wasn't enough, it also has a magnificent organ (that is not an invitation to skip ahead to the smut, by the way) and, at the moment, contains the World Press Photo of the Year exhibition. This is an international annual contest to do exactly what it says on the tin: find the best press photo of the year. The winning pictures in a variety of categories then go on a world tour.
It was stunning; I'd already seen the wining picture in The Independent, but the large scale photos really take your breath away. The subject matter is often grim and I take my hat off to the art of photographers who have the gift of composition and can use it under circumstances that would leave me diving for cover. If you get five minutes click on the link to see an on-line gallery of the winners; but, even better, if you get chance to go to the exhibition, do.
The irony of the juxtaposition of stark media images, a beautiful place of worship and window brothels not 15 metres from the rear wall of the the church, was not lost on me as we stepped out onto the Voorburgwal, the canal that bisects the dark alleys of the Red Light district. We had chosen our moment carefully, not wanting to get our pockets picked in the crowds of lascivious lads later in the day, mid afternoon was sufficiently daring for our sex tour. Even then though ladies in windows plied their trade to passing men - it's always men - who bargain shamelessly for a better deal on their desired method of having their snake milked. I'm sorry if that is a little blunt, but my overriding opinion is that that is all it amounts to; even our Rough Guide warns unwary young men not to expect the romantic encounter they hope for: it is an extremely practical service.
In the interests of journalism I assiduously studied the lady window occupants, though was made to suffer for my art with a hasty clip round the ear off Mrs C. She needn't have worried; the whole thing was unappealing and seedy. The alleyways are liberally peppered with live sex shows and DVD bars with private cabins: I had to explain why someone, who might not be able to afford the fifty Euro fee for a window visit, might opt for a cheaper private DVD cabin.
All that said, once we'd agreed on our joint moral stance, there was great fun to be had giggling and snorting at some of the more extreme sex aids offered for sale:
"Good Lord, you'd put your back out with that thing!"
Our moral stance? The other notable inclusion in this legalised leisure centre for the lonely, was a large number of sex health centres and other centres offering support for people involved in the sex industry. The Dutch view seems to be more pragmatic than liberal: deal with the world as it is rather than sweep the unseemly bits beneath the carpet and hope they will go away. I admire the Dutch approach.