Mike Meade explores the Netherlands’ principle city
The chain smoking Flemish balladeer Jacques Brel once sang of decrepitude, booze and whores “dans le Port d’Amsterdam”. Things don’t seem to have changed much over the years. It’s still a seedy city, but a fascinating one and most certainly on my list of worldwide “must see” destinations. Transavia fly there twice daily from Nice.
Like many moderately sized cities - especially flat ones - the best way to see Amsterdam is on foot. The canals are omnipresent but, unlike Venice, are not essential to travel within the city. Here, in a town where there are more bicycles than inhabitants, the bike rules with haughty impertinence. Cyclists take no prisoners so always watch out for them because they’re everywhere and unlikely to watch out for you. Better still, rent a bike and join in.
Direct transfer to the centre of town from the airport is frequent by a 15 minute direct rail link. Within Amsterdam, public transportation by tram is practical and simple if you purchase a hop-on hop-off day card. An easy option is to buy a 38 euro “I amsterdam” city guide book which includes a map, a 24 hour visitor’s card for cut-rate tours, museums and attractions and a 24 hour travel card for buses and trams. Validate the travel card on board each time you use public transport.
Culture by the canals
I’m a bit of a Philistine when it comes to culture but if you’re keen on the impressionists, Amsterdam houses 206 of van Gogh’s best masterpieces, so the Van Gogh museum will be a must for the arty types. I gave the Hermitage Museum a try because until September 17 there’s a unique and impressive showing of major works by the pioneers of modern art - from Matisse to Malevich - representing the transitional period between the impressionist and modern eras. I found the early Picassos (when his people actually looked like people), the Matisse’s and an especially captivating van Dongen well worth the hour I spent there. But an hour was enough before the museum restaurant served up some excellent lunchtime fare in very pleasant surroundings.
The Dutch don’t really do lunch in a big way so you’ll find even the most popular restaurants quite empty in the middle of the day when most locals just take an hour off for a beer and a sandwich. Evenings are a different matter and there’s plenty to choose from including ethnic dishes from the former Dutch colonies. But if you want to try typical Dutch cuisine, the superb Restaurant Haesje Claes is the place to go. It’s traditional, elegantly decorated, very popular and justifiably pricey, so do reserve. The wine and beer list is excellent.
Pot and prostitutes
So what about Amsterdam’s reputation for free-wheeling cannabis consumption and shop window prostitution? Both are shamelessly evident but not without a measure of paradox. In my hotel lobby near the central Dam Square there was a sign informing guests that cannabis should not be smoked in the rooms as if that was a normal thing to tell visitors. In fact, cannabis is legally bought and smoked in licensed “coffee shops” where you can indeed drink coffee - but not consume alcohol or even normal cigarettes. If you want to mix your weed with tobacco you’ll have to do it elsewhere.
As for prostitution, it all happens within a 5 minute walk of city centre, along streets where middle-class children pass on their way to school without even glancing at the half naked girls in the windows. There’s a street for every taste - fat, slim, old, young, Caucasian, Asian or black. One warning to the unsuspecting - the “girls” under blue lights are transvestites and the light is usually the only way to tell. Prostitutes - many of them remarkably young and attractive - ply their trade very openly by night and day but don’t try to take pictures or even display a camera in the red light district. I quickly learned that is a no-no.
HOW TO GET THERE Transavia direct daily from Nice.
WHERE TO STAY With 350 hotels and over 43,000 beds, there’s plenty of choice although accommodation in the city is expensive by some standards. I stayed at the central Hotel Amsterdam (per person prices start at 115€ without breakfast) just off Dam Square. Comfortable enough with an excellent 14€ buffet breakfast.
WHAT TO BRING BACK Dutch cheese, and some tasty local breads. There are rather nice woollens but I couldn’t resist the kitsch of painted wooden shoes in the right size for my 3 year old granddaughter. If your tastes are on the kinky side, Amsterdam has plenty of main street sex shops and shop windows with a choice of souvenir condoms in every colour, size and shape - including the most ridiculous ones. Apart from a conversation piece, what practical use is a condom in the shape of a windmill or the Statue of Liberty?
But don’t bring cannabis back to France with you or even smoke it within a few hours of departure. Like condoms in improbable shapes, the magic weed is purely a Dutch thing.