A November 2004 trip
to Amsterdam by jaybroek
Quote: I spent two long days in Amsterdam pining for home and the Blonde. To take my mind off the pain, I wandered around the beautiful city, had a few beers, ate in fancy restaurants, and had a few more beers until my heartache was dulled. Seemed like a sensible approach.
"A strange language spoken in Flanders and consisting largely of the consonants v,s,c,h,r and k. Dutch is surprisingly easy to learn. Simply fill your mouth with crisps and then speak English and German simultaneously without breathing."
Or so say the rather unkind A to Z Guide of Belgium.
For me, Dutch is the language I heard when left alone with my paternal grandparents. Melodic to my ear, it comes laden with the heavy smell of Opa’s pipe, delicious cinnamon-flavoured biscuits, and Halma. It is as close as another European language comes to English and, with the timbre, intonations, and some shared vocabulary, it is easy to be lulled into thinking you understand what’s being said-a lot like being drunk really.
Despite my Dutch heritage, this was only my second visit to Holland. A conference had come to light that appealed to my new employers, so a 2-day trip to Amsterdam came my way. The Blonde found it difficult to believe that I could possibly be going abroad without her. She still doesn’t quite accept that I actually attended the conference when I said I did and didn’t just gallivant around on some sort of one-man stag night. That may be because she read the notes I took in Café Belgique of course.
While there is much that is dynamic and bustling about the Old Centre, my Amsterdam had a small-town air. One or two turns off Damrak or Rokin and one can claim an enchanting humped bridge for oneself. I found myself gazing down canal after canal, the autumnal trees partially hiding the elegant canal houses, with their sober, almost-dour facades topped off with a late flourish of eccentric gable. This was my Amsterdam at dawn-me and the odd insomniac cyclist that is.
My wandering took me as far as the Magere Brug over the Amstel, where I watched the sky turn pink above the skinniest swing bridge in town. It took me around the Grachtengordel, a more elegant example of rapid city expansion you couldn’t wish for. It also took me through the Red Light District which, at dawn, is having the trash taken out and taking deliveries just like any honest-to-goodness place of business. Just don’t dwell on what those deliveries might contain.
The Amsterdam bar and restaurant scene is pretty cosmopolitan; you will find something to your taste. Van Harte on Hartenstraat is one really cool spot–you could chance your arm like I did, although you should probably book ahead.
And the last one is more of a tip to myself. If I get to another conference in Amsterdam, I may have to be a little less geeky and play hooky for an afternoon. I last visited the Van Gogh museum 11 years ago, and my senses are about ready for another burst of Vincent. And then there’s the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk . . .
Wait a minute-I wasted two days in the conference! Time to book some more flights I think.
Amsterdam was built with barges in mind. Now that their day has gone, the bicycle and tram have taken over. Virtually every road in the city centre has a dedicated cycle lane; I wandered into them regularly when consulting maps, taking pictures, and generally not looking where I was going. The Dutch cyclist can make the seemingly harmless tinkle of a bell sound quite insistent as they bear down on you.
The centre of the city is a pleasure to walk around, and the area covered in this journal needs nothing else. In fact, a modicum of fitness should be sufficient to allow you to cover the majority of the city’s sites on foot.
The owners of the Terminus cheekily use a photo of the imposing Beurs van Berlage in their promotion. Those not wise to the wily ways of advertising might be fooled by this. Ho hum. At least its imposing bulk provides a ready landmark when you’re standing in front of Centraal Station and looking up the Damrak. The hotel itself is tucked in the narrow Beurstraat, behind the old stock exchange, where it succeeds in looking the picture of sophistication alongside its neighbours. We’re in Red Light District fringe territory here, so the impression is somewhat relative.
The lobby is a pleasant-enough space with a bar to the rear, a smattering of comfy sofas, and the customary pair of shifty East Europeans in black leather and scowls. The receptionist spoke English as well as any Dutch person (better than me) and directed me to my first floor single bedroom. Despite forgetting my piton and crampons, I spurned the elevator to tackle the typical Amsterdam staircase and surveyed my accommodation.
Even though I’d booked a single room, I wasn’t really prepared for it and my karma was bent out of shape. Childhood years in box rooms came flooding back. I’m not sure a room should be taller than it is wide-less a room, more a corridor that’s going nowhere. Still, on the bright side, I could do everything but take a shower from the bed which, despite initial appearances, was perfectly comfortable. Slumping down I discovered the TV, mounted high up on the wall. The dulcet, BBC tones of Huw Edwards restored some semblance of balance to my chakra. Maybe ambient lighting would make the room more appealing? Not quite ambient enough–this is a room designed to encourage city exploration. So I did.
Having slumped into bed sometime later (and somewhat the worse for wear), the tunefully regular chimes of the Oude Kerk were not exactly appreciated at 6am the next morning. Still, the shower and coffee were both strong enough and the rest of the help-yourself buffet breakfast (10€ a day for yoghurt, fruit, cold meats, and assorted bread products) soaked up much of the previous night’s depravity.
Judging by the photos on the web, there are far better rooms in the Terminus and, for a few euros more than the 85€ a night I spent, I could have gone elsewhere for a little more character, a little more space, and a little less bells.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on November 15, 2004
Cantina with a wonderful selection of Spanish food, masterfully cooked and genially served.
Who could turn their noses up at Spanish geniality and masterful cooking in an informal cantina setting? I located the restaurant on the edge of the Red Light District and wandered in.
The restaurateurs have done their best to stave off homesickness in their staff; it reminded me of many a place I have frequented on trips to Spain. A large refrigerated counter inside the door was attractively stocked with mounds of sliced chorizo, olives, and pickled octopus and surrounded by stools for casual tapas munchers. The rear was filled with contented-looking diners and staff doing their best to create an air of genial servitude. Bullfighting posters and crossed estoques shared the wall with large ornamental lobsters and crabs, just in case you had missed the Iberian vibe.
I was found a space on the end of someone else’s table-a common solution to the ‘what to do with the solo diner’ conundrum. To passers-by I would appear to be part of a group and the restaurant would not, therefore, look like a refuge for uneconomical waifs and strays that take up space and don’t linger over expensive desserts and profitable coffees. The menu and bread arrived promptly, setting the tone for the evening. The speed of service stayed just on the right side of hasty.
I chose a mixed tapas starter and "calamares in spicy sauce" from the extensive menu. Several of the options, notably the paella, are for sharing, and the menu is pretty well balanced between fish and meat with bacalau, shellfish, and entrecote making a strong showing.
The tapas, although not disastrous, left me nonplussed. The olives struggled to muster up any flavour, and the octopus leaned towards the slimy. Compared to what was to follow, however, it was ambrosia. I can only assume that, in the Spanish-to-Dutch-to-English translation "watery tomato stew with carrots, onions, and absolutely no spice" got shorthanded to "spicy sauce." The calamari that floated within had given up the fight and succumbed to the blandness of the sauce. My red wine consumption increased in speed and volume to compensate. I kept going much longer than I should have. Couples and families taunted me with their tables groaning under the weight of fragrant, seafood-laden paella. I caught myself scowling at strangers and realised it was time to leave.
When you dine alone, the restaurant is judged solely on your own choice; this impression cannot be tempered by your fellow diner’s more successful decisions. I liked the place, which makes my own experience all the more disappointing. I wandered into the night, seeking solace on a bar stool.
Lange Niezel 29
Amsterdam, Netherlands 1012 GS
+31 20 622 30 50
Situated on one of the streets that radiate out from the old centre across the Grachtengordel, Van Harte is an informal, youthful bar/restaurant with a retro feel. The tables are stylishly simple and well spaced; the interior nods towards a 70s/modernist look.
I arrived to find the place was fully booked. My forlorn expression instilled pity in the young waiter who, after brief consultation, found me a seat on the end of an otherwise occupied table. I was welcome. Here the solo diner was not seen as an embarrassment to be tucked away, but as a culinary adventurer to be applauded and accommodated. That’s how I chose to interpret the staff’s kindness anyway.
The menu was simple: five starters, five mains, and five desserts. The food is best described as contemporary European; heavy French influences are evident, with Filet Mignon and Chanterelle mushrooms available. Veal is very common across Northern Europe and appeared as both a starter and a main course. I chose it as a starter with potato salad, which, the menu kindly informed me, was a typically Dutch dish. My view of typically Dutch dishes is based on what Oma and Opa served up when I was a mere slip of a second generation immigrant: meatballs, mashed potatoes, and deliciously fatty gravy being the staples, with liver and other assorted offal occasionally thrown in when we weren’t looking. It was time I was brought up to date.
After my foolish mixing of grape and grain on the previous night, I decided to stick with beer. Van Harte has a good selection and I opted for Natte, a cloudy dark beer brewed in Amsterdam that I would best describe as sweet and chewy.
The veal and potato salad arrived with an artistic flourish and a smile from my new lifelong waiter friend. The pretentious food critic in me would label it texturally fascinating; his more down-to-earth sidekick would opt for pleasant. The real delight was the main course that followed–pork ribs arched grandly over a sauce of clams and chorizo. I rounded things off with a poached pear and another chapter of my paperback (an important addition for the solo diner if you want to avoid staring at people in a stalker-like fashion). While I lingered over my beer and reading, I never sensed any impatience from the staff; they knew a connoisseur when they saw one-or had they noticed the notepad?
A fine meal in a cool restaurant–this is what dining on expenses should be like.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 15, 2004
Hartenstraat 24, 1016 CC Amsterdam
+31 (020) 625 85 00
The Belgique is a tiny bar tucked into a narrow street just off Dam Square; three small tables and a row of stools at the bar form the sum total of the seating, with little floor space left over. I levered myself up onto a stool and uttered the name printed on the first beer pump I saw.
Anyone knowledgeable about Belgian and Trappist beers will know a couple of very useful rules:
The Kwak went down a treat; it hides its potency behind strong, sweet flavours. I whiled away my time reading the extensively annotated beer menu propped up on the bar. For that short window of time, I became quite an expert on the Belgique’s range of quality draught and bottled Trappist beers. I could have ably assisted new patrons with their choices, based on their palates, fruit preferences, and stances on pasteurisation and filtration. They could always read the menu for themselves and ignore the incoherent foreigner with the glazed look, but that would be their downfall.
It is important to find something distracting to do when drinking alone, such as memorising the menu; otherwise, one tends to drink faster than is good for him. The menu only delayed me a short while, however, and its one-dimensional subject matter kind of focused me on more beer. Somewhat late in the day, I opted for moderation and chose to sample the Floreffe. A comparative lightweight at around 6%, Floreffe was a cloudy wheat beer presented to me in something best described as a beer goblet. I sipped contentedly and pondered whether I’d stumbled on the perfect bar. It had the right level of ambient noise, great beer, and a cat. This could be The One. Of course, I was very drunk, but you have my word on it.
Like so many before me, I arrived in the ‘Dam via Centraal Station. A grand design by the notable Dutch architect Cuypers, its ornate façade is currently obscured by scaffolding. Arrival here pitched me into the heart of the city – the wide, garish main drag that is the Damrak leads from here directly to Dam square. Once a canal that took boats up to moorings in the square, the Damrak is now home to all the tourist-capturing grot one should aim to avoid. I could’ve been in any city if it wasn’t for the trams and the squadrons of bicycles.
The Damrak opens up into Dam square, a wide, cobbled, open space that is the heart of the Old Centre. I found it a pretty soulless spot and felt little need to linger, although circumstances ensured I was never far away. The square is lined with some of Amsterdam’s grander and heavier buildings (an important consideration when you’re building on sand at sea level). The west side is dominated by the Koninklijk Paleis, one of the residences of the House of Oranje-Nassau. It’s a fairly sober affair, designed in the days when the Dutch were an international trading giant and had neighbours to impress. On its north side is the Niewe Kerke, a not-so-new, deconsecrated Gothic church of dominating proportions. I found it a useful landmark; the narrow, bar-laden Gravenstraat runs right behind it.
Opposite the palace is one of the finest and largest hotels in Amsterdam, the Grand Hotel Kraznapolsky. This monstrous 19th-century building was hosting the conference I was attending, and so I have intimate knowledge of some of its many function rooms. I counted five different restaurants within the vast public area on the ground floor. The daddy of them all is the Winter Garden, where we took lunch (it isn’t open for dinner). This grand, bright space at the heart of the hotel is a majestic place in which to eat; judging by the buffets we were given, it would be well worth splashing out.
Competing with the other architectural giants on Dam square is De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’s premier department store and my gift-buying saviour. Luckily for me, late night shopping is Thursday, so the Blonde and the little Tomato got their presents, and beautifully wrapped (for no extra charge) to boot. The kids’ clothes and chi-chi gifts can be found on the topmost floors.
No wander round the Old Centre would be complete without a saunter down the side of the canals Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Picturesque hump-backed bridges straddle the waterways. The omnipresent glow of red light evidently warms the nice young ladies who sit in their windows and watch the happy gentlemen (and couples and tour parties) go by; they don’t feel the need to wear too much, despite the chill breeze coming down the canals.
Form your own opinion about the city’s approach to the ‘oldest profession’; the place has a curiosity value that red light districts elsewhere don’t hold. It hasn’t alleviated the district’s seediness, however; pimps and junkies mingle with the tourists, and I didn’t hang around.
The Old Centre of Amsterdam is alive with action; the place is packed with bars, shops, restaurants, and those coffee shops that make the city renowned in certain quarters. If you want to lose your weekend in whatever is your chosen manner, then look no further.
On my first morning, I opted for a policy of ‘find a canal and follow it’, which led me though the Red Light District in a roughly southerly direction out to the Grachtengordel. The ring of canals around the old centre of Amsterdam are an inspired piece of city planning dating back to the 17th century, when the Dutch were in their heyday and Amsterdam was a wealthy trading port. With ships of the Dutch East India Company bringing vast wealth back from the East, the city expanded outwards and the Grachtengordel we see today was built.
The Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinzengracht are the three canals that form the elegant curve encircling the old city as far as the Amstel. Each is lined with trees and cobbled streets separating the narrow, gabled houses and old warehouses from the waterway. The main arteries into and out of the centre cut across the district but do little to disturb the gentrified calm. I stop on every bridge and try to capture the definitive Grachtengordel image, much to the cyclists' tinkling annoyance. The enormous windows offer glimpses into some of the city’s most desirable properties; I catch sight of mezzanine floors and enormous, expensive-looking canvases. No wonder they had no money left over for curtains.
The district’s canal houses are one of Amsterdam’s defining images; tall and narrow, their individuality is crowned with a flourish of gable. Most date back to the city’s golden age, when merchants wanted to display their opulence, but in a typically modest Dutch fashion. Some seem a little in need of help; you’ll see houses appear to lean on each other, getting assistance in their dotage. As I wander, I discover and jot down numbers for all the charming hotels that I find; I will not make the same mistake again!
On my second morning, I cut through to the Nieuwmarkt and espied the multi-turreted Waag. This fantastical 14th-century building has been through many phases from its origins as a city gate and is now a restaurant and bar that don’t open at seven in the morning. I headed south along Kloveniersburgwal, my target being the Magere Brug over the Amstel. Kloveniersburgwal cuts through the university district and is peaceful in the early daylight, with few people using it as a shortcut to anywhere.
I made it to the skinny swing bridge with the sky glowing pink-orange. The Magere Brug dates back to 1670, and legend has it that its predecessor was originally built by two sisters who lived on opposite banks. Its distinctive arms give the river-crossing something of the formality it deserves. I took the requisite photo, turned my back, and headed back.
Circumstances had forced me into early morning exploration, but it had uncovered a different Amsterdam.
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