Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cafe Society

Executive summary by darmansjah

Holland's historic capital is one of the best destinations in which to eat, drink, smoke and be merry.

Tony Davis is blown away by a masterpiece.

The seats are soft, the beer is cool, the lighting is subdued and there's no thud of rap, spinning of pokies or glare of television sport. It's everything a pub should be: warm, cosy, friendly, relaxed.

The background music is the music of conversation, a delightful refrain much of the world seems to have forgotten. People around us are talking in Dutch - single or double, it's hard to tell - but every so often someone switches seamlessly to English, German or French to better emphasise a point to friends, or to the barman, who seems to act as MC, confidant, raconteur and much more to the half-dozen locals seated on stools at the bar.

He pours, he wipes, he polishes, he drinks, he laughs. He pulls a variety of samples when I ask him about homegrown beers and uses my language as effortlessly and unbegrudgingly as almost anyone else in this city - a city I have fallen in love with in a matter of hours.

The final sample is a dark Belgian beer known as Kasteel. The alcohol content is 11.5 per cent. I'm walking, not driving, but I still opt for a lighter, whiter and authentically Dutch alternative known as Wieckse Witte. It's excellent.

My wife tries a Dutch wine, which sounds like a triumph of determination over climate and topography. It's not bad at all. Or maybe the atmosphere has put us in a generous mood on our first night in Amsterdam.

We are in a "brown cafe", the local name for the small, music-free pubs that dot the city. There's a curiously maritime feel to it with the heavy beams, dark wood panelling and old (rather than retro) decor. The nautical ambience is fitting given about 50 per cent of the Netherlands is below sea level and Amsterdam, with almost 100 kilometres of canals, is the showpiece of the aquatic engineer's art.

Brown cafes are not to be confused with grand cafes, which are bigger, more ornate and, in their own way, just as inviting. Nor with the city's coffee shops, which usually put the word coffee in inverted commas and rely on something much stronger for their turnover. More on these shortly.

If "continental" is breakfast code for "small", nobody told the Dutch. Our first day started with an authentic breakfast: a big, boofy affair of cheese, processed meat, bread and eggs. Enough, we suspected, to keep us going all day.

Then it was time to meet Garrit Jan Terwel, a professional guide hired via email. It was a good move: with only four days in town it enabled us to get a solid overview and some local perspectives, and to check exactly how to pronounce the name of the painter who is the subject of various "150th birthday" celebrations and special exhibitions across
the city during 2003. (Those Aussies who argue about whether it is "van Go" or "van Goff" aren't even close. Try "fun ghh-occc-ghh", and spit across the room at the end for good measure.)

Garrit Jan is a mine of civic information. He tells us that 11 million piles have been rammed through the clay and peat bog to support the city's buildings. That the Amstel River is the only natural waterway. That there are more than 2000 houseboats. That the canals on which they are moored are three metres deep and contain 20 species of fish.

Aside from the minutiae - "this bridge used to be a prison, the prisoners would be underneath with their legs in the water, it was horrible" - the benefits of having a personal guide equate to an extra day or two of sightseeing. You visit all those hard-to-find historic courtyards and narrow houses, find the shop where they queue around the block for frittes (french fries) and mayonnaise, and see 100 other sites of interest in a logical order without doubling back or fiddling with the map. And you do it at a pace that suits you.

Amsterdam is described as the first planned city in the world. It has survived largely intact and is steeped with quirky character from the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Among the canal houses and town squares there are more than 40 museums - most famously the van Gogh and Rijksmuseum - and 140 commercial art galleries.

The paintings that van Gogh completed in Holland were dark, flat and conventional, but the museum has a huge collection (more than 200) of the lively and distinctive favourites he knocked out in France. And to celebrate Vincent's "150th", the van Gogh Museum will admit you free this year on your own birthday.

If you prefer older works, the Rijksmuseum houses Rembrandt's The Nightwatch and Pieneman's Battle of Waterloo plus rooms full of Delft Blue porcelain and copious exhibits relating to that proto-multinational, the Dutch East India Company.

Amsterdam's strong connection with the arts is evident everywhere. There are 60 theatres and concert halls and a vibrant publishing scene, much of it in English. The Beach Boys moved to the country for inspiration in the early 1970s and recorded the album Holland ("Gouda Vibrations", as one critic quipped); the city inspired the Jacques Brel song Amsterdam; it even provided the backdrop for the British police
But if art and culture - popular or earnest - are not your taste, other museums cover everything from the Bible and pianolas to the self-explanatory (and drink-inclusive) Heineken Experience. There are at least two sex museums ("very profitable, but neither what I'd call a serious academic approach to the subject," says Garrit Jan), plus three or four dedicated to marijuana.

The Dutch are very proud of their free-thinking nature, as Garrit Jan kept reinforcing. At the flower markets (open every day), you can buy more than the tulips Holland is famous for. Three euros ($5) will get you a large box of cannabis seeds.

In the interests of research I visited two coffee shops and learned a ready-rolled joint costs around 3.60 euros. A "sommelier" can talk you through maybe a dozen varieties of loose grass and hashish, all ready to be ordered from a restaurant-style menu. The atmosphere inside was much like any slightly tatty, inner-city Sydney coffee shop.

Up to 150 are sited among Amsterdam's more regular shops and restaurants (as are many sex shops with graphic window displays - be warned if travelling with kids). The coffee shops are in the strange position of being not strictly legal but highly regulated. Most can't, for example, sell alcohol.

Government fact sheets claim that directing attention away from the sale and possession of small quantities of soft drugs allows for more policing of heroin, cocaine and synthetics. Holland, it is claimed, has the lowest number of drug-related deaths in Europe.

This visitor couldn't quite decide whether the Dutch approach to drugs was good or bad, but it is certainly a grown-up one. It probably works best, however, in a city where bicycles rather then two-tonne 4WDs are the main form of transport.

Amsterdam is a city I found dirty, seedy and threatening in the early 1980s (as did many others). It's been cleaned up enormously. This time around, even the famous girl-in-the-window red light area seemed more like a vibrant restaurant district than a typical big city sleaze strip.

To best experience it, hop onto one of the city's 600,000 or so bicycles. Whistling along beside the canals, to the shriek of seagulls, past pedestrians, trams and just the occasional car was so much fun I could scarcely wipe the smile off my face. If there are any rules they are not immediately obvious, but everyone seems to know the part they play in this apparently random flow.

In less than 20 minutes you can completely cross the city. You'll want to do it again and again, and to lap the magnificent Vondelpark. There's simply no better way to become part of the life of this unique and charming city on the water.
Destination Amsterdam

Getting there

Various international carriers fly from Sydney to Amsterdam. Check travel agents for schedules and pricing.

Staying there

Amsterdam is less expensive than, say, Paris and London, but that doesn't mean it's cheap. Staying on the picturesque waterways carries a premium.

Budget: the Museumzicht is a small hotel on the top floors of an old house near the Rijksmuseum. Double room 70 euros ($120) a night.

Middle to high: Ambassade Hotel is a luxury B&B comprising 10 canal houses from the
17th century. It's a favourite with writers - Peter Carey, Robert Dessaix and Umberto
Eco are in the guestbook. Double room 180 euros a night.

Top end: the Amstel Intercontinental, the height of luxury, is on the river in a magnificently restored heritage building. Double room 490 euros a night.

All hotels can be booked via the Amsterdam Tourist Board. See

Shopping there

In terms of clothing and accessories, all the usual upmarket suspects - at the usual prices - are represented in the streets around the Museum Quarter. The two favoured Dutch luxury items are Royal Delft porcelain and diamonds. Potential buyers of both are well catered for on Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat, where a Royal Delft gallery offers regular demonstrations of painting and production. Gassan Diamonds next door offers free tours. These are surprisingly interesting, even for those who don't count diamonds among their best friends. In explaining the four "Cs" which determine the value of these ultra expensive rocks (carat, colour, clarity and cut), our tour guide, Mirjam Zilvold, laid out 263,000 euros ($455,000) worth of unset diamonds on the table in front of us.


Where do you start? Perhaps with an Amsterdam Pass, which can be bought
from train stations, hotels and tourist offices for one, two or three days (26, 36 and 46 euros respectively). It's valid on public transport, gives free entry to many museums and includes a canal boat tour and discounts on restaurant meals, bike hire and more.

But it doesn't cover the Anne Frank House, which is a must. Entry there is 6.50 euros.

Amsterdam is a terrific walking city, every block bringing something new and interesting. The Jordaan district is particularly good on foot, with its charming village atmosphere, oddball shops, leaning buildings and clever incorporation of old and new.

After taking in the Museum Quarter, relax in the large and peaceful Vondelpark.

Hiring a guide for a day is a useful, though not cheap, option. Ours cost 185 euros ($320), which seems to be the going rate. Garrit Jan Terwel can be contacted via; or email the Amsterdam Tourist Board on

Getting about

advantage of this city is that language is no problem: almost everyone speaks several languages well. This is a land where people wait until you speak before seamlessly answering in the same tongue.

Trams and trains don't cover a great portion of the city, so for mobility within the centre it's hard to beat a bicycle. You can hire them for about 10 euros a day from most hotels.

Watch out
As in any large city, you should be on your guard against pickpockets and scammers. Nicking bicycles seems to be the crime of choice (the reason, perhaps, why even bankers ride old clunkers), so carefully lock up your rented two-wheeler.

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