RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT
Gary A. Warner says that if you look beyond the sleaze, Amsterdam is full of treasures
Forget the canals. Forget the coffeehouses. Forget the acres of Rembrandts and Van Goghs. Forget all that wooden shoes and tulips and silly Hans Brinker and his silver skates stuff you ever heard, read or saw.
Before you go to Amsterdam, get your brain around the other Amsterdam. The in-your-face Amsterdam.
The CBD shops that sell postcards of genitals painted to look like Santa Claus. Where delivery boys on pink bicycles deliver marijuana seeds. Where porn and prostitution flourish in the most picturesque red-light district in the world.
Get ready for it, all of it, because it is going to smack you right in the head whether you like it or not.
How you react will determine whether you see Amsterdam as the most liberal, liberating metropolis in Europe or a beautiful old jewel wrapped in an oily envelope of sleaze.
For the better part of two decades, I fell in the latter category. Four times Amsterdam was penciled in on my itinerary, and four times I found reason to get out the eraser.
But when I realized I’d been to nearly every major European city – I had been to Brussels twice – I decided it was time to give Amsterdam a shot.
I’ve always had a long list of reasons not to go. But I came away with more reasons potential visitors shouldn’t repeat my mistake of waiting so long to experience the Dutch metropolis.
Amsterdam has a great airport. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Amsterdam gets off on the right foot.
With its one terminal that has just two levels, Schiphol is the easiest, most modern airport in Europe, a dream to navigate compared with the creaking facilities of London, Paris and Rome. A high-speed train leaves every 15 minutes for the 20-minute ride from the airport to the city center.
I don’t go to a city for its airport (if I did, I’d never go back to New York City). But Amsterdam’s is nonetheless a big plus.
The morning after I arrived in Amsterdam, I was fighting jet lag. I stepped out of my canal-side hotel and wandered the quays for hours.
The trees had lost their leaves, revealing glimpses through the bare branches of old houses that line the waterways. Homes were hung with Christmas lights and garlands – even many of the 2,500 houseboats along the canals were decked out in yuletide finery.
The heart of the city is the Grachtengordel, the three concentric canals that half-ring the city center. Viewing the mansions of the Herengracht, the bridges over the Keizergracht and the houseboats fronting the artists’ lofts of the Prisengracht is one of the most popular strolls for visitors.
In all, there are 47 miles of canals in Amsterdam, and each mile seemed to offer a postcard image: A woman carrying a cello on her back as she pedaled her bicycle toward the city center. A mother singing “Jingle Bells” to her kindergartner as they skipped by. Pre-teen boys bundled up against the cold playing soccer on a canal-side strip, making moves that would fool most Australian high school teams.
When you get thirsty, watch your language. Ask for a ‘coffee shop’, and you’ll get more than a caffeine buzz – it’s the popular term for places that legally sell marijuana and hashish. If you ask for a ‘café’, you’ll likely be sent to one of the 1,000-plus bars in the city. (Do go. Drinking is a wonderful pastime in Amsterdam. Try a light-tasting Hoegaarden or a dark De Koninck beer. Or better yet, a traditional jenever, a gin-like drink often infused with fruit or herbs.)
There are the grand cafés whose luxurious interiors will seem familiar to anyone who has walked into a fancy café in Paris, Vienna or Budapest.
I prefer the old, small taverns called “brown cafés” for their stained-wood interiors and dark, drapery-blocked doorways. Press past the curtain at Hoppe near the Spui Square, and you’ll go back three centuries in time. It’s a cramped but cozy place that’s especially good in the off-season, when the hordes of summer tourists aren’t trying to elbow in for a seat.
Another good choice is ‘t Doktertje, which means ‘the little doctor’, another timeworn spot where for less than $10 you can get a drink and sit for as long as you like. I brought along my journal and enjoyed wasting a couple of hours in the corner.
My favorite of all was In De Waag, a bistro and bar inside the last remaining gatehouse of the old city. This imposing brick pile was once the weighing house for goods, and later the site of the city’s executions. I had a bowl of spliter wtensoep, the traditional stick-to-your-gut pea soup with duck rillettes, washed down with two haze-reducing cappuccinos. Between bouts of reading the International Herald Tribune, I perused my e-mail and watched a Webcast of the surf at Pipeline in Hawaii from one of the café’s computers. The total of a bill is called a ‘rekening’. I smiled at the apocalyptic-sounding word for a tab so small.
Go ahead and make your pilgrimage to the Rijksmuseum to see Vermeer’s ‘The Kitchen Maid’. Take in ‘The Sunflowers’ and ‘Wheatfield With Crows’ at the Van Gogh Museum. Just save time for some of the smaller museums around town.
I enjoyed my visit to the Amsterdams Centrum voor Fotografie on a narrow street just off Dam Square. The collections change constantly at the modernist glass-and-steel show space. One day it may be large-format photos juxtaposing cuts of meat or raw animal parts with flowers. Another day it might feature military-installation still lifes from around Europe.
If there is a must-see museum in Amsterdam, it’s Anne Frank Huis, where the young Dutch Jewish girl wrote her famous diary while hiding from the Nazi occupiers during World War II. She and her family were turned in to the police and she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just two months before the war’s end. Her diary describing her hopes while hiding has become one of the most widely translated books in the world.
One of the great charms of Amsterdam – albeit a sometimes dangerous one – is the sea of bicyclists making their way around the city. People wheel wildly around the cobblestone and brick streets as if they are invincible. There’s no headgear, and even at night there are young men and women wearing black on bicycles without lights. Lights and reflectors are just one more thing to get ripped off – Amsterdam logs more than 100,000 stolen bicycles a year.
With bikes parked outside where they are pelted by inclement weather and preyed upon by thieves, there’s little incentive to ride a fancy 10-speed or gizmo-laden mountain bike. Most are your simple one-speed models that you brake by backpedaling – not very different from what most Amsterdamers’ ancestors would have ridden.
It’s possible to rent a bicycle and make your way around the city as locals do. Just be prepared for some kidney-jarring old streets and maniac wheelers – especially during the morning and evening rush hours – who will be more than happy to run you right off the road.
Until World War II, the Dutch ruled Indonesia, and one of the great treats of a trip to Amsterdam is to enjoy a rijsttafel – “rice table” – which is made up of up to two dozen small plates presented at the same time, including fried rice with pork called nasi goreng, and satay – skewers of chicken, pork and beef with peanut dipping sauce.
Beware the spicy sambal chili sauce. Two of the best places to experience the rijsttafel are Tempo Doeloe on Utrechtsestraat and Kantjil & De Tijger on Spuistraat.
For a more domesticated taste, try patat, the local version of what we call chips. The crisp, fresh, fried potato strands are only a distant culinary cousin to the greasy slabs served up in fast-food joints. They’re served from outdoor stands scattered all around town. One of the best is Vleminckx on Voetboogstraat. Locals have it with mayonnaise – so speak up when you order unless you want your order drowned in the white stuff.
There are a number of big baroque barracks on the main plazas and a few design-oriented boutique hotels like Blakes, the local branch of Anouska Hempel’s London-based temple of trendiness. But part of the charm of a stay in Amsterdam is cozying into a canal-side hotel that’s been sewn together from neighboring town houses.
I stayed at the Pulitzer Hotel, with its sparkling gold lights outlining the roofs of the 17th-century homes that form its facade. Though it’s affiliated with the Sheraton chain, there’s none of the artificial feel of a business hotel.
A perennial favorite among travelers is the Ambassade Hotel, a small hotel made from a string of canal houses not far from Spui Square. One that’s not in a lot of the guidebooks, but that I found charming, is Hotel van Onna, a nice canal-side budget hotel. The rooms are small and Spartan, but I loved its pretty Christmas ornamentation inside and out.
Another small hotel enjoying a lot of buzz these days is ‘t Hotel, an eight-room mansion turned hotel built in 1690 that houses its own antique shop. Rooms look out either on a canal or over the pretty gardens.
I’ve already got a list of what to explore next time. Yes, there will be a next time. First, a return in the spring – I’ll put up with the crowds to experience the flowers. I’ll wander the pretty Leidsegracht canal and go see the Poezenboot – a barge filled with cats – that’s moored on the Singel. I’ll drop into the Amsterdams Historisch Museum to see if it offers better insight into how the 17th-century stolid commercial town became the free wheeling place of today.
After so long avoiding Amsterdam, I want to go back. It doesn’t intrigue like Berlin or warm like Rome. It doesn’t have the treats of Paris or the ease of London. But it deserves better than the just-passing-through Brussels treatment.