‘What are people in your country saying about Holland these days?’ one Dutch friend recently asked me. I hadn’t the heart to reply that no one was talking that much about his country. But the question seemed typically Dutch. Endlessly outward-looking and interested, yet charmingly insular and with a slightly off-kilter view of itself. The Dutch character — like the country — is fascinating for that cocktail of conservatism and libertinism, strict rule-making and anarchism which runs through it.
Foreign tourism there has undoubtedly suffered in recent years from an exaggeration of just one side of that complex character. And although this seems mercifully to have declined in recent years, Amsterdam remains a victim of its culture of licence. Take a budget flight during certain times and you could forget you are going to one of Europe’s cultural centres. Many of your plane companions will be looking forward to smoking cannabis in a café, consuming something stronger and then experiencing panic attacks as they imagine themselves attacked by puddles. At night gaggles of foreign men stroll the red-light areas trying to look confident but generally exuding that embarrassment anybody must feel at seeing women in glass cages.
Fortunately the city beneath — or rather above — all this is a place which is worth any number of trips. The Rijksmuseum contains a great chunk of the best of Dutch culture, from the Middle Ages to the present, by way of — among others — Vermeer and Rembrandt. The Concertgebouw remains perhaps the greatest concert hall in Europe and certainly houses the greatest orchestra. And although the city has a bounty of such major culture, it is just as good to go in search of smaller happenings. The Dutch have an exciting literary and intellectual scene, as reliant on small readings and discussions as it is on big set pieces.
Of course there is no shortage of places to stay in Amsterdam and there are always plenty of deals to be found. In Amsterdam I prefer those contemporary hotels which seem to me to best suit the city’s character and show off its edge. On a recent trip I stayed at the Andaz on Prinsengracht. My room was decorated across one wall with a huge fish in the shape of a giant spoon. Yet I slept well. The service is superb and the location — right on a canal-front — could not be better.
Great places to eat are no harder to find in Amsterdam than are canals. I recently went to Le Garage at Ruysdaelstraat, run by the popular TV chef Joop Braakhekke. Wonderful food, a good wine list and a chatty bistro-like atmosphere, it did what every Dutch evening should: provided a sense of gezelligheid. Which is one of those odd, almost untranslatable Dutch words. Something like ‘good feeling’, it is the quest-point for most Dutch evenings and on most evenings in Amsterdam it can easily be achieved with no greater stimulation than the city itself.
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