Apart from this stipulation, the tour offers a revealing look at the Dutch city’s most famous quarter.
We start with its history. The positioning of a church in the middle of the Red Light District when Amsterdam was rapidly evolving from a fishing village to a trading port in the 1300s was no accident, Axel assures us.
“Sailors had one thing on their mind when they reached land after months at sea – girls. This was a mortal sin in the eyes of God, so it was important to clear their conscience before going back on the ship. Priests sold indulgences (sin-pardoning certificates) upfront… Forgive me father but I am about to sin!”
Despite the fact that prostitution is so entrenched in the city’s roots, it was only made legal in 2000.
Before that, the authorities turned a blind eye, Axel explains. “Now the stance is if we can’t beat ’em, we can tax ’em.” Pimping, however, remains illegal.
“If you’re over 21 and an EU citizen, it takes 15 minutes to register with the Chamber of Commerce. A parking permit takes about two months!” he says wryly, before quipping: “Priorities!”
“Of course, you don’t really see the true nature of the Red Light District at 11am,” he says, before leading us on a tour that aims to cover more than just “erotics and narcotics”.
Yet in Amsterdam there’s no escaping the wafts of cannabis that pepper the air – and questions inevitably arise.
“If it’s good for business, if it’s not harming anyone, and there’s plausible deniability behind the facade of a ‘coffee shop’, then thecity council adopts a policy of soft tolerance”, explains Axel. There’s still plenty that can get you into trouble with the law, including importing and exporting, and having more than 5g for personal use.
A cannabis cookie sold overtly on the street is just a bad-tasting cookie, warns Axel. Without THC, which produces the euphoric state, cannabis is legal. “To get high, you have to go to a coffee shop. If there’s a special brownie for sale, you can make a fairly safe assumption about it.”
His coffee shop recommendation is tinged with a warning: “Snoop Dogg likes the Grey Area. But never go for the strongest stuff. He once had to cancel a concert in Amsterdam because he was too stoned!”
We step inside the central courtyard of an ornate classical mansion – the former headquarters of the Dutch East India Company.
“This is our most important stop – without it, Amsterdam wouldn't be here,” Axel says, telling us how a tiny country turned into a vast empire by dominating trade routes. “At the height of this company’s power, 50% of all ships sailing around the world operated under its flag.”
Sailing was a dangerous activity in the Middle Ages, with one in three ships going down, he says. The Dutch had the idea to combine all ship owners into one company and put ships in convoys for safety.
“The company assumes the risk. It was virtually impossible to lose money. If one ship goes down and 19 survive, you still make money. “The idea was revolutionary at the time. No longer did you have to be rich enough to buy your own ship – you could simply buy a share in the company. This is where stocks and shares were invented – it’s the birthplace of modern capitalism.”
Judging by the number of bikes in Amsterdam, you’d think the Dutch invented cycling too. There are more bikes than people, and they are a convenient way to explore the 60-mile network of scenic waterways. But the canals hide a dark secret under their innocuous looking waters.
“Every year, 18,000 bikes end up in the canals,” reveals Axel, as we pause by the side of one. “The city employs a bunch of people full-time to fish them out.
“It’s a fair question to ask how [they end up in the water]… I’ve only ever seen one guy drunk enough to bike directly into the canal.” He blames mischievous students and inebriated tourists for throwing them in. Even gusts of wind can be the culprit. Clean water is flushed through the canal network every three days, but he cautions against taking a dip, especially the alcohol-fuelled kind. “If you fall in and get your foot stuck in one of those bikes, you’re in trouble. Respect the canals!” he says.
He ends the tour outside Anne Frank’s house, adjacent to the Homomonument, a memorial for all gays and lesbians who have been persecuted for their sexuality. It’s right by Amsterdam’s biggest church.
“This monument exudes the spirit of Amsterdam. We believe that you can live side by side in tolerance, whether you’re gay, straight, Jewish, Christian, black, white, a sex worker or whoever. More than 180 different nationalities live here in peace and harmony, making it one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world.”
Axel leaves us with Anne’s words, written at the age of 14 after hiding from the Nazis for two years: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
It’s a thoughtful end to a tour of an engaging city, which shines brightly like a rainbow-coloured beacon defying our troubled world.