WORLD TRAVEL NEWS ARTICLE
If Paris is for lovers, Amsterdam is for art enthusiasts and cyclists, as well as coffee, pancakes and herring addicts, to say nothing of walkers with an eye for fine architecture. Tim Ware set out to explore.
For British visitors Amsterdam has always been in the first division of city break destinations. After the French capital, it is right there at the top of most people’s list of places to visit.
It’s easy to see why. Let’s begin with art. The Rijksmuseum (www.rijksmuseum.nl) is Amsterdam’s finest and most famous museum and rightly considered one of the world’s best galleries. It can be found to the south of the old city on the aptly-named Museumplein. The museum is currently undergoing a £300 million facelift which is not due to be completed until 2013 and although many outstanding exhibits are not on view at present, you can still see its most famous exhibit - Rembrandt’s illustrious The Night Watch. This massive painting, breathtaking in its scope, was completed in 1642 and was restored after being vandalised in 1975.
The Van Gogh Museum
There is more art nearby in the Van Gogh Museum (200 Van Goghs as well as works by Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec). Whilst a few steps along Paul Potter Straat and you arrive at another ‘must’ – the Stedelinjk Museum, the city’s number one venue for modern art with a great collection of works by Monet, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso.
Were you to attempt to do all this in a day you would be feeling pretty punch-drunk with paintings by late afternoon. As time was limited, I didn’t attempt it, preferring to leave time to explore some of the city’s other delights.
For music lovers - and within a stone’s throw of the Rijksmuseum – I discovered one of Europe’s finest concert halls, the Concertgebouw, another iconic landmark where all big league performers of both the classical and pop persuasions appear.
A good way of getting acquainted with the city is to take a rondvaart, a one-hour sweep along the tree-lined canals and the harbour in a glass-topped boat – cosy even on the coldest and wettest days. The boat is waiting for us at its berth on the quay close to the Central Station. For an hour, we purr through the canals past houseboats - some of which are now offered, apparently, as b&bs with a difference. As we cruise underneath bridges and past the high gabled houses built by successful spice and diamond merchants, sea captains and sundry empire builders, the history of the place drifts by.
Typical Amsterdam Houseboat
But there’s no substitute for exploring on foot. It’s more than 30 years since I first set foot in Amsterdam, and on the surface at least, the city seems little changed.
The hippies may have deserted Dam Square, but the iconic location is still very much at the heart of the city. And the city’s concentric canals, graceful high-gabled 17th century houses, a thousand bridges and many more than a thousand cycles have also survived the world’s relentless march towards modernity.
In an attic inside one of those gabled houses, on Prinsengracht, is where the schoolgirl Anne Frank scribbled her diary during 26 months of Nazi terror. The house is now the Anne Frank Museum, detailing how a little Jewish girl and her family hid for years from the Nazis until they were betrayed and subsequently died in a concentration camp.
Anne Franks' House
It’s a moving place to visit, no more so than when you wander through the tiny attic room which contains Anne’s photo collection. There, still pasted on to the faded wallpaper, are pictures of Ginger Rogers, Deanna Durbin, pretty ladies from fashion magazines and an image of the Chimpanzees’ Tea Party. More than 60 years have passed since those daunting times and the museum ensures we never forget.
A more cheerful experience is to visit one of Amsterdam’s ‘brown’ bars, so-called because of their colour which came, in less health-conscious times, as much from nicotine as old age. The oldest brown bars date back to the 17th century and it’s here, sitting on a rickety chair at an ancient table, you’ll experience what the locals call gezelligheid, a word that is woven inextricably into the Dutch psyche. It means conviviality – a priceless commodity that comes free with a glass of beer or shot of jenever gin.
The Brown Cafe
And no trip to Amsterdam is complete without sampling the local delicacies of herring, which the Dutch treat as seriously as the British do fish and chips, and smoked eel, available from street corner fish stalls.
A herring smoker at work
Still on the subject of food, if you want to spoil yourself head for Envy, a stylishly modern restaurant on the Prinsengracht. Stylish but not cheap – expect to pay around £40 for an exquisite four-course taster menu comprising oysters, pasta, salami, scallops, sea bass and a heavenly chocolate dessert.
When it comes to finding a place to stay, Amsterdam has hotels and guesthouses to suit all pockets. I like the Amrath Hotel (www.amrathamsterdam.com), overlooking the harbour and within walking distance of the Central Station and the heart of the city.
The front of the hotel is shaped like the prow of a ship and there is a nautical connection - it was once the headquarters of a shipping company. The rooms are spacious with high ceilings and come with all the comforts you’d expect to find in a five-star hotel… and a complimentary mini bar. The bar is stocked with soft drinks, beers and wine, but this shouldn’t deter you from seeking out one of those ‘brown’ bars for an authentic slice of the real Amsterdam.
Central Station, Amsterdam
On my final day I caught up with the great painter Rembrandt at Rembrandt’s House. It’s a typical three-storey step gabled Dutch house built when Amsterdamers were Europe’s wealthiest traders.
Like the traders Rembrandt got rich - but unaccountably went bankrupt when he was 51. He was forced to sell off the house and auction his collection of paintings – a fate that has befallen a significant number of the world’s greatest artists.
For more information about this flat but fascinating country visit www.holland.com,
Now - one of the ways to get there from the U.K.
Raileasy operates the Dutchflyer an online, low-cost ‘rail and sail’ ticketing service to the Netherlands.
The service, run in conjunction with Stena Line, allows travellers to take a trip to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and any other rail connected destination in Holland, with an entire rail and sail travel package. Prices for a single Raileasy Dutchflyer ticket from Britain to Holland start at £29.
Leaving from National Express East Anglia’s extensive rail network, including London Liverpool Street, the Dutchflyer takes travellers from their local rail station to Harwich International Port, where they then board a Stena Line ferry for the Hook of Holland. Travellers from outside the National Express East Anglia rail network can buy through Raileasy a ticket from their local station to London Liverpool Street.
Passengers can opt to travel on the day service and make use of the onboard ferry facilities, which include two restaurants and bars, a cinema and shop, or upgrade to a cabin and travel overnight. Overnight crossings start from £51 for a single journey and en-suite cabin.
Visit www.raileasy.co.uk for the Dutchflyer and other Raileasy details.
For other ways to reach and stay in the Dutch capital please see the advertisements at the side of this article .
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