Amsterdam is as lively as a good Roman Trattoria
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Amsterdam is as lively as a good Roman Trattoria

From its art to its sleaze to its heart of darkness, you’ll never have enough time to explore this city

brunch Updated: Nov 19, 2016 20:27 IST
amsterdam,travel,anne frank house
The “I amsterdam” sign near Rijksmuseum attracts selfie-lovers and revellers every day (Saubhadra Chatterji)

It is meant to be a kind of improvised Dutch music and dance.

As it is, I have a limited understanding of international music. On top of it, half an hour before the show, there are just nine people at Bimhuis, the riverfront concert hall.

It looks like my first evening in Amsterdam may be a flop. I head to the bar for a beer. By the time I finish the second pint, a sizeable crowd has gathered. I grab another pint of Grolsch blond and sit.

The backdrop is a glass wall, through which the Eastern Dockland lights pour in, creating a magical effect. Two women take the stage. No microphone, no accompanying music. Monica Akihary starts playing with her voice and a young woman breaks into a slow dance. Then, two new artists emerge for a dance on drum beats.

Fifteen minutes into the show, I find I have forgotten to take a sip.

Two lessons learnt: never underestimate the power of music, and that of a Dutch beer!

Bicycles are the favourite mode of transport for Amsterdammers (Saubhadra Chatterji)

The overflowing platter

Amsterdam offers a lot of choices – except shopping – to its guests in the evening. In one of the most densely populated cities of Europe, almost all shops pull down their shutters by sunset.

But the city doesn’t sleep early. At 9 pm, with temperatures falling rapidly, I enter Rijsel: a French-Flemish restaurant in a quiet neighbourhood by the Amstel river.

The place is as lively as a good Roman Trattoria. All customers, except the two of us, are locals. They mix food and drinks with endless, loud chatter. It’s a packed house on just another Wednesday evening.

We order mussels, Flemish chicken roast with vegetables, and a fish soup. The server asks for my choice of poison. “Dark beer,” I reply. Five minutes later, she puts a bottle labelled ‘Wild Jo’ on the table. I am worried when the food arrives. How can two of us eat so much? The portions are twice of what you get in a Delhi restaurant.

Ruchira, my wife, suggests that we order less next time. I propose to increase my beer intake to help digest the food. As usual, she has the final say: “We have to walk more.”

At the edge of the red-light district, in the oldest part of Amsterdam. The red lights above the window mark rooms for female sex workers while the blue lights signify transvestites (Saubhadra Chatterji)

Sex, drugs and...

Amsterdam has an excellent tram network, plus metro-rail and buses. But the best way to see the heart of Holland is to walk.

Armed with a Rick Steves’ audio guide, I turn left from Damrak to Warmoesstraat for an Amsterdam landmark: the red-light district.

Every city has its version of a sex trade hub, but Amsterdam takes it to a different level. On the one hand, it’s about in-your-face sleaze and soft drugs (coffee shops legally sell marijuana), on the other, it’s about a culture of freedom that makes Amsterdam arguably the most liberal city in the world.

And it is possibly the only red-light area where a guy can take his wife or girlfriend!

The walk starts near a shop with a yellow signboard that reads: Het Gulden Vlies. In English it means “Golden Fleece Condomerie”. It sells an amazing variety of condoms, including some that possibly can never be put to use.

Irish pubs dot the area, but visitors are glued to the shops selling erotica. S&M starter kits, bondage materials, whips, masks – you name the kind of sex and there’s every product related to it.

The lane named Wijde Kerksteeg leads to the core of the red-light zone that also houses a famous church (see how religion and prostitution co-exist). Busty women in fancy lingerie stand behind the glass in small rooms flooded with red light. “If the light is blue, then it’s a transvestite,” a guide explains to a tourist group.

The trade is organised. The women are unionised and even have a child-care centre.

We walk down to the neighbouring canal that offers a splendid view of the old city. This is one of the oldest parts of Amsterdam, founded after a dam was built on the Amstel in the 13th century.

I find the original Bulldog outlet – the first marijuana shop of Amsterdam. Armed with a proper menu, the shopkeepers patiently explain the specialty of every weed. They also prepare a joint for the customers.

I come out of Bulldog better prepared to appreciate the ‘laal batti’ culture. More windows light up. The area wakes up not just as a cauldron of sleaze, but also as a hotspot of culture. European and Latin American restaurants co-exist peacefully with sex shops.

With a variety of gables, the facades of the traditional houses are a visual delight (Saubhadra Chatterji)

Light and dark

Just like it’s impossible to see the entire Louvre in a month, Rijksmuseum needs at least a week.

“We just have an hour,” I tell my wife. So we head straight to the Gallery of Honour. The greatest paintings of the Dutch Golden Age are on display. At the end of the gallery is The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s most famous work.

Nearby, Van Gogh has an entire museum dedicated to him. My wife gets so carried away by his Sunflowers and Almond Blossoms that she buys a bundle of souvenirs from the museum gift shop.

In the upscale Jordaan neighbourhood, a hub of writers and poets, stands a renovated house on Prinsengracht, which reminds not only the city but the world about a dark period of human history.

There is always a queue to enter the building. As we go inside, it transports us to 1942, when two Jewish families had to hide in a secret annexe of a building for two years until one morning in August 1944, when Nazi SS officers knocked down the doors. Behind a bookcase lies the secret path to the annex. On a wall, are pictures that Anne Frank pasted between 1942 and 1944. In the dingy rooms where two Jewish families stayed, my senses go numb for a few minutes.

From the darkness of Anne Frank House, I step out into the bright October sun.

And then, the bells of the Westerkerk church – the only sound from the outside world Anne Frank could hear – chime again.

From HT Brunch, November 20, 2016

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First Published: Nov 19, 2016 20:14 IST