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Amsterdam... so many reasons to stroll

Neil Sowerby stays in a medieval cruck barn and suffers for all his aimless wandering in Amsterdam

Written by . Published on March 8th 2010.

Amsterdam... so many reasons to stroll

Of all the towns to get stoned in, Amsterdam’s the one. But get COBBLED, that’s ridiculous. I never partake of the weed, so no excuses there. And a Heineken nightcap in the quaintly named Van Puffelen bar seven hours previously was unlikely to be the cause of my toppling over the kerb’s edge on the Keizersgracht.

Blame simple clumsiness for my broken metatarsal – an unfortunate finale to our city break (ouch), as I stumbled getting into a taxi to Schipol Aiport.

And we’d been having such a glorious time on, amazingly, our first visit to the gently subversive city of gables and canals, bikes and barges. The Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum were matched by the simple pleasures of wandering between characterful bars and crazy window-shopping in crazy shops.

It was a good thing we were on our way home (good old A and E eventually patched up my foot). Even though its ultra-chic charms more than compensated, our vertiginous attic lodging might have tested the most able-bodied. My poor, busted hoof surely wouldn’t have coped.

Dylan entrance

I don’t know what the Dutch for crow’s nest is but it applied to our suite in the gloriously boutique Dylan Hotel, set among the city’s best-preserved mansions and most picturesque canals.

From the second floor, a flight of steep white wooden steps led us in to a vast airy lounge/bedroom. Huge arching stripped beams dominated. Were we inside some giant windmill or the high-tech prow of a galleon? Our main window overlooked pan-tiled rooftops, with the Keizersgracht canal far below. A canal bus brushed through its ice-splintered surface as tall merchant’s houses sombrely stood guard over the quays at the heart of Renaissance Amsterdam.

Further steep stairs and we felt even more remote from the hurly burly. A skylight among impressive rafters poured pale light onto a long bath. By this point we wondered whether we were staying inside a medieval cruck barn.

Absinthe, a real winter warmer

In fact, the building only dates back to the 17th century, but what a history it has. Originally it was a theatre – Vivaldi conducted here – later a Catholic almshouse. The original brick floor survives in part and superannuated brick ovens line a wall in the hotel’s Michelin-starred Vinkeles restaurant.

Other bedrooms are eclectically designed, according to the whims of Anouska Hempel. Zensation White and Zensation Red rooms speak for themselves. But it is nowhere a riot of minimalism (if that’s not a contradiction in terms).

The public rooms have a warm, glowing wood feel, subtle greys and metal paints enhance the old Dutch maze of corridors and landings and, when on the first night we chanced upon a private dining room candlelit for a function we half expected to find Rembrandt draining a goblet in there.

Inside a typical 'brown bar', De Hegreraard on Noordermarkt

The faces in Rembrandt’s paintings are the faces you meet on the street in Amsterdam, usually belonging to bike riders who wing past you as quiet as ghosts. Continuing massive refurbishment at the Rijksmuseum deterred us from inspecting the Old Masters for confirmation.

Instead we whiled away a dusk hour or two at the neraby state of the art Van Gogh Museum, whose vast collection perhaps suffers from our own over-familiarity with the artist.

No such danger at the Anne Frank House.

Wintry canal scene

Everyone knows the story of the Jewish girl who kept a diary of her family’s two-year concealment from the Nazis during the Second World War. But nothing prepares you for the choking sadness that seizes you as you enter the preserved secret rooms above the family jam factory in the Prinzengracht.

Particularly poignant is the attic room containing teenage Anne’s photo collection. Pasted to the faded wallpaper are pictures of Ginger Rogers, Deanna Durbin, chimpanzees and fashion mag cuttings. When I read the diary entry about peeping out at leafy chestnut trees that she would never be able to touch, my eyes welled up.

Even today no one knows who betrayed the Franks and their kin, sentencing them to death in the camps. Only Anne’s father, Otto, survived to publish the diaries and founded this museum, which attracts 80,000 visitors a year. We were lucky to get there out of season, when the queues are manageable.

Kitsch Kitchen sells colourful domestic chattels

The museum, next to the great Westerkerk church, is a 15-minute stroll from the Dylan, though I would defy anyone not to be lured en-route down any of the Nine Streets, famous for their independent shopping, that cross the concentric canals of the Goerdengracht district.

Tiny Runstraat was our favourite of the Nine Streets. In a short stretch it boasts a shop devoted to bizarre toothbrushes and dental products, the city’s best cheese shop and best bread shop and Gerda’s fragrant florist’s alongside an affordable and very cosy Indonesian restaurant called Cilubang, where we spent just €20 each on its house speciality rijsttafel. This style of dining, legacy of the Dutch East Indies Company, offers soup, rice and up to 20 small spicy dishes – soy, peanut and coconut flavours dominating. This was a lovely, authentic example.

Prinzensgracht, parallel with Keizersgracht, offers a much more vibrant traditional canalside bar scene with Het Molenpad and Van Puffelen the pick. The beer’s great, but I wouldn’t recommend the (Dutch) food at either.

We dined French style and rather over-spent (such was our enthusiasm for the Menu Surprise and wine list) in an atmospheric restaurant called Le Zinc... et Les Dames at Prinzensgraacht 999.

Big dog drools over Amsterdam's best cheese shop

Further up towards the colourful converted warehouse area of Brouwersgracht we popped into the Tulip Museum, the Kitsch Kitchen (on the Rozengracht luridly bright things for the home) and our favourite brown bar. De Hegreraad on the Noordermarkt (hot chocolate recommended) offers all the necessary requirements – nicotine-stained, un-refurbished, table legs that require folded beermats, you get the drift.

This bar’s on the lip of the Jordaan, once where the dockers lived, is now a desirable, low-key warren of apartments and quirky shops. Every window boasts something of offbeat interest. Perfect for rubbernecking.

That about sums up old Amsterdam for a weekend break. By all means visit the big museums and public buildings, the legalised dope cafés and Red Light District if you must, but walking aimlessly is the thing to do.

Just to remember to watch your step. I didn’t – and my last chance of making the World Cup Squad is in tatters.

The Dylan, Keizersgracht 384, 1016 GB Amsterdam.
The hotel has 41 rooms and suites in a variety of styles. Rates from €495 in a Standard Double per room per night, excluding 5 per cent city tax.

Current packages include: Sunday NIght Special: Includes one overnight stay for two persons, a special selection of drinks and bites in the Barbou bar on Sunday evening, a 10 per cent discount gift voucher for the Marlies Dekkers Store, buffet breakfast in Vinkeles. From €295 per room per night in a double room (only valid on a Sunday).Reservations: www.dylanamsterdam.com / +31(0)20 530 2010 / sales@dylanamsterdam.com

Neil Sowerby flew from Manchester to Amsterdam Schipol with bmibaby. Low cost airline bmibaby flies direct from Manchester Airport to Amsterdam up to six times a week. Fares start from £24.99 one way including all taxes. bmibaby offer many passenger benefits including allocated seating, online check in and the opportunity to join bmi diamond club – the UK's most generous frequent flyer programme. For the lowest fares and to book a flight, visit www.bmibaby.com.

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Helen FreeboroughMarch 9th 2010.

Is this accurate or a mistake - £495 per night for a room? In Amsterdam? can someone check.

AnonymousApril 10th 2010.

The cheapest price per room for a weekend in May is indeed 800Euro + (2 nights no breakfast) MC does live it up! For a Canal View you will pay over 1000E per night. And a taxi from Schipol? (there are frequent trains though the ticket machines require some knowledge of Dutch) MC does live the High Life for its Heroes!

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