Monday, November 20, 2017
   
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Golden Boy Welcome To Amsterdam

BY AWARD-WINNING TRAVEL JOURNALIST JOHN TREW

I MET REMBRANDT in Amsterdam the other day. He was painted gold from the bows on his shoes to the top of his artist’s beret. From a distance,I thought he was really a gilded statue on a plinth in front of the RIJKSMUSEUM until I caught him winking at a girl tourist in a skimpy outfit; it was 23 degrees and his blood must have been boiling in the searing heat of the autumn sun. I put a generous donation in his cup and he rewarded me with a whispered remark: “If everyone who takes a selfie with me gave me a euro, I would be a millionaire in a week.”

I know Rembrandt was a genius, but how did he know a new English word like ‘selfie’, having died in 1669, for goodness sake? By the way, I used to joke about the main difference between Amsterdam and London: Answer: EVERYBODY in Amsterdam speaks English…

It’s true, and it can make a big difference to a city break if you can get directions, travel advice and tips in your own language from friendly locals who genuinely like the people from these islands as much as we like them. I love Amsterdammers for their generosity of spirit, politeness and tolerance; I just hate they way they change into uncaring, blind monsters the minute they mount a bicycle as they do in their thousands, using me as a target!

Anyway, the Rijksmuseum – Holland’s national museum of art, culture and history -- is looking fabulous following last year’s re-opening after almost a decade of renovation and rethink. The WOW factor is greater than ever, drawing crowds from every corner of the world. Rembrandt is still the Golden Boy, and his vast masterpiece, The Night Watch – a multiple portrait of a local yeomanry platoon in their finest gear - is by far the most popular exhibit.

It is so highly-regarded that full-size bronze replicas of all the main characters have been erected in the middle of REMBRANDTPLEIN, one of the city’s many buzzing squares surrounded by cafés. By far the best of these is the one in front of the stylish SCHILLER HOTEL, founded by a Viennese artist ages ago.The coffee is a few cents more than the packed cafés across the way, but it comes with a generous complimentary dish of mini-macaroons and chocolates. Great value.

Joining the buskers and jazz bands on spring/summer Sundays is the Rembrandtplein Art Market, a colourful collection of local artists and craftspeople selling affordable artworks directly to the public. I had a chat with stallholder NANCY van den BOOM who gave me a half-dozen postcards depicting her highly-accomplished impressionistic oil paintings – in return for a wee mention in TREW’S TRAVELS!

OH DAM, SEE SLEAZY SIDE IF YOU MUST!

ON THE subject of coffee, I must issue this warning: in Amsterdam, do not confuse Coffee Shop with Café. Coffee Shops exist primarily for the purchase and smoking of cannabis; they have tell-tale names like Smokey. If your citybreak coincides with the Amsterdam’s annual Cannabis Cup celebrations in late November, you could almost get high just walking around inhaling the smoke from more than 200 competing coffee shops which are licensed to sell so-called ‘soft’ drugs under civic supervision.

The city is also famous for its liberal approach to prostitution and sex shows. The sleazy side of life has been largely corralled in the RED LIGHT DISTRICT around DAM SQUARE where M&S means porno shops displaying lewd Masochistic & Sadistic merchandise that is said to cause heart attacks among elderly American cruise-ship tourists who have led a sheltered life in Iowa.

I am told that the infamous “ladies in the windows” now tout for business in streets according to their skin colour – white, black, latina etc. In my youth, when I went ‘window-shopping’ for my first and only time as part of a Press Trip which included a well-known local journalist who is said to have returned for more ‘in-depth’ investigation after midnight, the sex workers were not segregated.

Amsterdam’s liberal lifestyles have not led to municipal depravity and moral deterioration. The opposite has happened: It’s a prospering, law-abiding city, packed with people in seach of its uniquely Dutch take on personal freedom and democratic engagement. After my first visit in the 1960s, I wrote that I did not think the city’s experiment in tolerating prostitution and adult pornography would work, but it seems to. I also thought that it would be unwise to let people get high on drugs in public coffee shops, but it seems to have de-criminalised drug dealing and kept hard drugs under control. Let’s hope it stays that way.

The only thing that has changed for the worse in Amsterdam is the virtual disappearance of flower-filled balcony gardens and apartment windows full of pot-plants. The Dutch LOVE floral displays, so how is it that we saw hardly any in private homes when we took the Tram along Route 2 through the nicest parts of the city to the leafy suburbs?

NOT TO BE MISSED…

MY personal highlight was the recently-refurbished VAN GOGH MUSEUM, one of the world’s greatest visitor attractions of its type. I am not saying this because during the six hours of our visit I was roped in to appear in a promotional video being made to get more people to attend the Museum’s Late-Night Friday music sessions; please go to see the spectacular light-show inspired by Vincent, the most popular – and my own favourite – creative genius in the history of art.

PATHE TUCHINSKI CINEMA is an art deco movie palace that even puts East Belfast’s lovely Strand Cinema in the shade. We took a break from gallery-going and watched the latest Woody Allen there in English. The surroundings were more entertaining than the movie! HORTUS BOTANICUS is not just the city’s lovely all-year-round waterside Botanical Garden, its verdant café wins my 2014 T-POTS Award for Outdoor Excellence.

HOW TO PLAY YOUR CARDS RIGHT

I ALWAYS wonder if those City Cards which are a feature of all destination cities nowadays, work out as good value. They usually only prove a bargain if you start early in the morning and make a hurried visit to a dozen attractions,continually hopping on and off public transport which is often covered in the hefty price of the Card.

However, the cleverly entitled ‘I AMsterdam City Card’ certainly proved its worth during our recent long weekend. Karen and I chose the 72 hour version which costs €67 per person – that’s about £17 each per day and you will easily save that amount in admissions to attractions and tram fares alone. It also saves queuing for tickets at the most popular museums and makes public transport easy.

In addition, maps in the Amsterdam City Card guidebook kit are easy to use, and the write-ups on the 50 participating museums and attractions are highly motivational and up-to-date. The Card is also good for shopping discounts in a limited number of stores plus money-off offers in popular tourist restaurants and bars.

Best part of the package for us was the Free Canal Cruise, by far the most memorable way of discovering the essence of Amsterdam which is, after all, surrounded by picturesque waterways that beg to be explored.

We chose the BLUE LINE 90 minute cruise with multi-lingual audio commentary, starting from the city centre,along the celebrated Singel Canal, out to sea (sorry,see) the cruise liners in the vast harbour and back again. I loved every minute, even if the commentary through the ear-buds was lacking in detailed info about the fascinating sights along the route. Bring your Eyewitness or Lonely Planet City guide along to fill in the blanks.

There’s a massive increase in the number of houseboats along the banks since we were were last in the city a few years ago. Not many of them are the highly-decorated narrow-boats festooned with geraniums pictured in the tourist literature. Most are grey ex-barges which provide somewhat cheaper accommodation in a city where apartments fetch London-style rents.

I read a thriller “The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam” before I went, and one of the gruesome scenes was set in a damp,verminous houseboat; this has put me off my romantic dream about living on a houseboat moored between the Van Gogh Museum, the Botanical Gardens, the North Sea Jazz Club and INDRAPURA, the finest Indonesian Restaurant.

I AMsterdam City Cards for 24hr (47€) 48hr (57€) or 72hr (67€) hours can be booked online at www.iamsterdam.com for subsequent collection and validation at the big Tourist Office in Centraal Station square.

ESPRESSO ROOM? MAKE MINE A DOUBLE!

HOTEL ESPRESSO serves free freshly-brewed coffee 24/7 to registered guests, so that’s partly why I reserved a double room through Booking.com for five days at the special internet rate of around £100 a night. Breakfast would have been an extra £8 each, but didn’t look worth it. Our discount rate turned out to be a bit of a bargain, because our visit to Amsterdam coincided with those memorably sunny autumn days over northern Europe which caused the city’s hotels to fill up with last-minute visitors willing to pay the full rack rate in order to get a tan before winter kicked in.

The irony of our hotel’s unlimited free coffee day and night offer was that we each only drank one cup a day – albeit an excellent double espresso worth 4€ -- while heading out for the Number 2 tram across the road every morning.

Also, I have a rule never to imbibe caffeine after 5pm-- mostly because it stops me slumbering during Downturn Abbey – and because it disturbs my sleep in strange hotel beds. Not only that, in Amsterdam – home of Douwe Egberts, my favourite brand -- I was drinking five or six Americanos per day during pit-stops, so I was already experiencing the caffeine jitters by the time I got back to the hotel.

Espresso Hotel is what is now known as a boutique hotel (it has 68 small guestrooms and minimal public areas) but the busy all-female reception staff were smilingly helpful and keen to impart their local knowledge.

Our bedroom was perfectly adequate with just enough hanging space for a couple on a citybreak with a paltry airline luggage allowance, plus a few English-language channels on the wall-mounted flatscreen TV and free wi-fi throughout the hotel.

It’s located on Overtoom on the outer periphery of the city centre, close to the famous VONDELPARK as well as shopping streets, museums and public transport. Next door, believe it or not, is the city’s main Domino’s Pizza outlet and the noise of the delivery bikes at night can disturb guests, according to TripAdvisor reviews, so ask for a room at the top of the house.

There’s a big choice of mostly ethnic restaurants near the hotel headed by KARTIKA a wonderful family-run Indonesian eaterie where the Ramayana ‘rijkstafel’ selection of nine distinctively different dishes plus enough fragrant rice to satisfy a rugby squad cost just 37€ for two (about fifteen quid each).

A five-minute walk away from the Espresso is the stop for the frequent Airbus service to and from Schipol; this costs 5€ each instead of 60€ for a taxi.

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