It’s a cold February day in 1994 and I’m in an Amsterdam police station trying to wrap my tonsils around the Dutch word for stolen. As in my wallet, which a light-fingered local has just helped himself to.
But it wasn’t just my cash, credit cards and London Underground Pass the pick-pocket relieved me of that day; he also stole my love for the Dutch capital. Two decades have unfurled since that naïve young backpacker was so careless with her possessions; surely the time has come to kiss and make up with Amsterdam?
Apparently this city of 811,000 doesn’t share my enthusiasm: I arrive to a sky the colour of an old bra and a wind that’s determined to climb into my coat. Turning right out of the handsome 19th century Centraal Station, the strong smell of marijuana tickles my nostrils, reminding me that, even at 9am on a weekday, this is one of Europe’s most permissive cities. When the hotel can’t find my booking, resulting in a tortured dance of broken English, hand gestures and a language that plays fast and loose with vowels, I start to regret my decision.
A bit of a re-hash
Fortunately, things get better. If the test of a great city is reinvention, then Amsterdam has a PhD in metamorphosis. Yes, the red light district is still a thing, unruly British stag parties still flood into the city’s blood-stream like the hallucinogenic drugs that are available everywhere, and even the main shopping street is lined with shops peddling mind-boggling sex toys. But Amsterdam has been busy in my absence, managing to pull off that most impressive of tricks – cleaning up its act without losing its rebellious, quirky edge. After three days, I discover it’s not for nothing this compact, lively and youthful capital was recently voted one of the world’s best places to live.
Stolen wallet aside, one of my enduring memories of Amsterdam is of the hippies and druggies who wandered the streets, glassy-eyed and on an indefinite hygiene strike. I’m not sure what happened to them – either they grew up and morphed into the sort of responsible parents I see cycling with their offspring, or they were moved on. In their place is a design- conscious eco-city where ridiculously good-looking men and women in expensively cut coats and black-rimmed glasses get around in emission-free canal boats and electric cars, which they charge at free sites dotted around the city. Even the bus shelters have solar generators.
One thing I’d forgotten about Amsterdam: how it thrusts breathtaking scenery at you wherever you go. “I didn’t realise how beautiful this city was,” says my husband, who remembers precious little of his first visit beyond ‘coffee shops’ and their mind-altering wares. Fortunately, the city is as flat as a pressed tulip, allowing us to easily wander the patchwork of cobbled streets and marvel at tiny lanes and narrow houses, the result of a 16th century tax imposed on the width of each three-storey dwelling. If they look a bit wonky, a local tells me, it’s because the houses were designed to lean forward so goods could be winched to the top windows directly from boats without hitting the building. These days, they’re where people with money like to live.
We’re two years too late to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Amsterdam’s protected canal system, which wraps around the medieval city centre like the threads of a spider’s web. Known as the Venice of the North, although with more canals than its Italian counterpart, Amsterdam is built on 90 islands, divided by concentric canals (which were awarded Unesco Heritage status in 2010) and united by 1500 bridges.
We jump into a water taxi to explore the three main canals – Herengracht (Patrician’s Canal), Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) and Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) – as well as the Zwanenburgwal, made famous by local artist Rembrandt who lived in a house overlooking this canal in the former Jewish quarter. Meticulously restored to its original condition, his house (Rembrandthuis) is now a museum, including his studio and room where he displayed and sold paintings.
It’s not all we see of the city’s aquatic veins: some 2500 houseboats line the water-ways and Amsterdammers, it seems, dislike curtains. “Only foreigners use curtains,” says one local. “In Holland, having no curtains says ‘I’m very open, I have nothing to hide’.” Just be prepared to avert your eyes if, like us, you see more than you expected.
Bags of culture
There’s exhibitionism of a different kind at the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s most important cultural institutions, which opened last year after a 10-year, $537.5 million refurbishment.
Featuring the world’s largest collection of Rembrandts, including his Night Watch painting, the makeover of the 19th century building is nothing short of astounding. But with 5000 paintings on display in 200 rooms, the experience can be a little overwhelming. Museums are, in fact, no harder to find here than canals. If you’re not ‘arted’ out by the Rijksmuseum, try the Van Gogh Museum, where more than 200 of the tortured artist’s works are on display, or the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, which features Cézanne, Picasso and Mondrian.
I’m not sure what the architects were smoking when they designed the Stedelijk’s extension, but it looks uncannily like a giant bathtub. It is, however, in the smaller, more unusual museums that the city comes into its own, from the Houseboat Museum and the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum to the Erotic Museum. And any woman in possession of the shoe/handbag gene will fall in love with the Museum of Bags and Purses. More than 4000 bags line the shelves of this three-storey canal house, from 17th century leather pouches and 1920s beaded fripperies through to the latest Vuitton, Gucci and Prada.
The collection encompasses the precious, the highly covetable and those that fall into the WTF category, from the handbag made of a leopard’s head to the armadillo bag complete with face and feet.
When in Holland
It’s a little disconcerting to go from hand-bags to the Holocaust, but at the Anne Frank House, we queue patiently to pay our respects to the plucky teen whose diary was published after her death in a concentration camp. We’re not alone: the house where two families hid from the Nazis for two years is one of Amsterdam’s most popular tourist attractions and despite the cold, the queue unspools around the block. But the wait is worth it, and we climb the stairs to the annex in silence, watching videos, reading quotes and looking at photos which illustrate how cramped and uncomfortable conditions would have been. Traces of their occupation remain but the rooms are bare, stripped of their contents by the Nazis.
When Anne’s father Otto, the only one of the annex’s occupants to survive the war, returned in 1945 he requested the space remain empty to symbolise the void left by the millions who were deported and never returned.
The bicycle, or fiets, is top of the food chain in commuter-friendly Amsterdam, and the preferred mode of transport for everyone from pinstripe-clad businessmen to the royal family. It’s estimated the number of bikes outnumbers residents, who collectively cycle an estimated 2 million km a day. We do as they do and hire bikes to ride to Waterlooplein, the city’s largest vintage market, where my aim of finding a cool collectible to challenge the airline’s weight restrictions founders when I discover this market is more tat than treasure. Still, our trip isn’t a waste: I sample the best cheese I’ve ever tasted at a small, independent stall.
Dutch cuisine isn’t the most exciting in the world, but there’s a reason foods such as vinegared herring have graced plates for hundreds of years. If you’re at all squeamish, you might want to avoid the local way of eating these fishy delights – ie holding them aloft by the tail, tilting back your head and lowering the herring in. And while frites with mayonnaise are basically fries dressed up, they’re as deliciously calorific as I remember.
Anyone who’s ever tried to rekindle a love affair will tell you it isn’t easy; but as I head to the airport, I experience what the Dutch call ‘gezellig’, a word that roughly translates to ‘good feeling’. Thank you Amsterdam for giving me another chance...
Words by: Sharon Stephenson
Photographs by: Martin Haughey