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Double Dutch

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We were bored of New Year. Same bar, same music, same people. We fancied a change and so thought about Europe, more specifically we thought about Amsterdam. But how do we organise that at such short notice? It was Boxing Day, flights to Holland's party capital were all gold plated and the only available accommodation came in 20-minute slots and were administered by a woman they call Miss Whiplash.

Amsterdam New YearTempting it was not, so having faced the reality of another New Year's Eve ducking fists and bottles in a rowdy Midland's mining town, the five of us thought again, and came up with this; we would drive to Dover the morning of New Year's Eve.

There, we would get a ferry to Calais, slip through France, into Belgium and on to Amsterdam. We would arrive ten hours before Auld Lang Syne, stay up through the night and drive back the next morning. 24-hour party people we are not, but for £83 on the ferry, it would be a Marks and Spencers adventure on a Poundland budget.

And that, thankfully, is how it all panned out, right up until the point we rolled into Amsterdam. Park the car, stretch, add more layers, food, wander. That's the plan. "Watch out for the silent assassins", warns one of the group. Trams are what he's talking about, with it quite apparent that to get in their way is to wear one as a hat. The Dutch cyclist is less deadly, but certainly more difficult to avoid as they dash from hash cafes thinking they're being chased by a giant Dalmatian dog.

Amongst the rest of the afternoon crowd there's the odd sprig of grey hair and sensibility, but for the most part it's twenty-something's with woolly hats over their ears and pockets stuffed with fire-crackers. We'd been warned that by midnight the city's savaged by the sight and sound of a million miniature explosives, but queuing for the cash machine at lunchtime we weren't quite ready for a 'napalm bomb' nearly blowing off our trouser legs. In Northern Ireland you'd think IRA, in Spain ETA, but here, in Amsterdam it's some French tourist with a mind for madness and a handful of cheap Chinese noise-makers. But grateful we are, for a big slap around the face is just what the five of us need right now. We'd just driven 500 miles, been up 10 hours already, and now, very swiftly, were realising we wouldn't be back under the duvet for another full day.

Thankfully, the ten-foot phallus in the sex museum helps widen the eyeballs, and with vintage pictures reminding us that pornography isn't just an internet phenomenon, we're soon full of beans and back out on the main street - Damrak Street - to witness the mood change at nightfall. Gone are the families and children. Gangs of roaming youths take their place and even in a group of five it's difficult not to feel intimidated. Another fire-cracker explodes beside us, and, with a nagging sense that we should have stayed in England, we decide to service our bellies and slouch down in an all-you-can-eat steak house. As the coats to keep out the cold and sporadic drizzle come off, those who've been to Amsterdam before admit they've never seen anything like it - more people, more mayhem, more sinister.

Amsterdam And then, for those of us who've never been, there's a bizarre sense that as neither sex tourists nor drug users, we're a little bit out of place. 'When in Rome' is what one of the group recommends, but clearly, looking for a wing-man for his own depravity, he would say that.

Turning left off the main strip, the red light district sprawls out like a child's artistic doodle. The streets are short and narrow, like York or Canterbury, with opposing houses sloping to a pinch at their eaves. Tourists of all creeds and colour drizzle through the tight spaces with hands guarding wallets and eyes as wide as saucers. Many are here to figure out if they've got the conviction to take up a very simple proposition. Do they pay for sex or do they not. You can sense their dilemma. Most of the girls are attractive, some stunning, and under red light they sit and use their bodies as bait. If a man hesitates, the door opens and he makes his decision. If he goes in, the curtain closes and he pays money to have sex. Twenty minutes later he emerges, the woman sits back on her stool and for the next eight hours the cycle repeats.

The nervous are encouraged, those who succumb are celebrated, and while one crowd barges and elbows its way past the other, it's a sad reality that with legalisation comes acceptance. There is no taboo here. No moral judgement to be made. If you want it you pay for it, if you don't, you simply carry on wandering until your resolve weakens and you go in anyway.

Midnight finally arrives, with a million fireworks blowing the black sky to smithereens. And the Dutch don't sing Auld Lang Syne, in fact they don't sing anything at all. Instead, someone simply tosses another fire-cracker into the crowd and we all lose another ear-drum. It's only when the revellers fire rockets at each other that we decide it's time to move on. Tripping over broken bottles, stumbling into unseen bollards and negotiating the overflow from the open-air urinals, we finally burst from the crowd and collapse on a park bench.

Amsterdam New YearIt's five hours before we leave for the ferry, and with no place to sleep we decide instead just to wander. And so we do; past the drug dealers and peep shows, through the mounds of exploded banger wrappers and under the canopy of fireworks still being launched from rooftops. Burning piles of rubbish clog the air with smoke, while to my right a man with a plant-pot on his head fills the gutter with vomit.

Clearly, in Amsterdam there's a poison for every palate, and New Year's Eve is the night the capital takes its overdose. A freak-show city with gargoyles at its gates and hallucinogens in its water supply, it offers a real glimpse under the rim of civilisation; a world in celebration of squalor and unwavering excess... a Terry Pratchett novel come alive. And the most bizarre thing about the place is that amongst the prostitutes and drugs are families living a normal life. Along the main strip, sandwiched between a gyrating blonde and an Indonesian lady-boy, we spot a family-home with the occupants enjoying a civil game of scrabble.

The contrast couldn't exist anywhere else and yet, for all the potential there is not a sliver of trouble. There's no police presence, no riot squads or horse-mounted cavalry. The only aggression is towards men taking pictures of prostitutes; the only violence aimed at that big Dalmatian dog still in pursuit of the man on the bike.

Amsterdam again By 3am we've seen enough, walked enough, spent enough. Back at the car we sleep... badly, and then two hours later we point the nose of the Renault south and fumble through fog so dense it makes the man with the plant-pot on his head seem sensible. Thankfully, the weather clears just in time for my stint behind the wheel. We'd been operating a drinking timetable to ensure a sober driver at the wheel, but it isn't the Jim Beam and coke that's the problem at 6am, it's fatigue.

With the other four asleep, there's no company but the faint beat of the radio. Sick with tiredness and a line of imaginary black dogs barking from the roadside, it's a gruelling slog through France and down to the ferry.

We should stop for a rest, pull over, pour a coffee and inhale a lung full of crisp winter air. But we don't. Instead, we cram it all into 24-hours and prove, without doubt, that if you're going to go away for New Year, do it properly.

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