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The International Writers Magazine
- European Weekends

Dutch Delights
Barry Dunstall

With a reputation for wild weekends, Amsterdam has finally decided to calm down

So, is nothing sacred? The world as we know it is changing forever. Amsterdam no longer welcomes stag parties. Or, at least, many of the locals are beginning to get fed up with them, and the last year has seen political pressure for tough new laws gathering momentum, reaching as far as the city mayor’s desk.
The traditional stag favourite of undressing and jumping in a canal, for example, is frowned upon these days. And urinating in public – the perfect end to any good night out – is met with a fine of about £30.
But if the door of debauchery is closing, a new city is opening up in Europe – an Amsterdam without wine, women and vast quantities of recreational drugs. Can you still enjoy the high life in Amsterdam without getting high?

Diving head first into Amsterdam’s cultural life means a visit to the Van Gogh Museum, quite simply the world’s largest collection of the one-eared wonder’s work. There are more than 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 700 letters. Van Gogh’s life may have been tragic – unhappy romances, loneliness, depression, mental illness and lack of recognition led to suicide in July 1890 by shooting himself in the chest – but his work was undeniably magnificent. Largely self-taught, his expressive brushstrokes and vivid colours have since inspired generations of artists. And his letters to his brother Theo suggest he was almost as passionate about writing as painting. The spacious museum also houses many works by other 19th-century painters and sculptors from Monet to Gauguin, as well as Van Gogh’s personal collection of Japanese prints.

A short walk from the Van Gogh Museum is the even larger Rijksmuseum. The Dutch ‘Golden Age’ 17th-century paintings and, most notably, Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch are generally considered to be the highlights, but the collection is vast and eclectic. The palatial building also includes silver, Delftware ceramic vases, fully-furnished doll’s houses, drawings, prints and Asian art.
If neither Van Gogh nor Rembrandt appeal, Amsterdam houses nearly 100 other art galleries, including the Stedelijk Museum, where the works of controversial modern artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons find a home.
Armed with our Euros and the simple phrase ‘Wat kost…?’, we can begin our second day in Amsterdam shopping. (Don’t worry, the Dutch speak English better than what we do. You probably need to learn a foreign language when your own consists entirely of vowels and silent ‘j’s.) There are well over 10,000 stores on offer, including more than 160 antique shops, many of which are gathered near the Rijksmuseum in the Spiegelkwartier. The luxury stores, with everything from hi-tech electronic gadgets to gourmet foods, are clustered near the expensive canalside homes of Amsterdam’s affluent residents. Art dealers and wealthy enthusiasts head for the auction houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

The large department stores are mainly in the city centre, such as the Bijenkorf (Beehive) on the Damrak, near the central train station, as are the shops full of tourist novelties, the wooden tulips and windmill-shaped clogs that suggest Amsterdam’s retailers are happy to profit from national stereotypes. The only floating flower market in the world can be found along the Singel canal. And for late-night shopping, Schiphol Plaza at the airport is open until 10 o’clock in the evening.

Dutch cuisine is hardly renowned but, as with most major cities, you can ‘eat in any language’ in Amsterdam. Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and African restaurants abound. But we don’t have time to waste in some fancy, overpriced restaurant anyway. We’ll either stop for a quick Dutch pancake with hot ginger sauce (pannenkoeken), a bit like a French crêpe, or pick up some young herring (maatjesharing) at one of the stalls traditionally found on Amsterdam’s charming bridges.
If lunch proves a little over-indulgent, we can burn off the calories in a pedalo. Be warned though – the high number of blind corners in Amsterdam’s canal system, combined with the limited braking capabilities of a pedalo, mean that crashing into other people’s boats is easily done (and, between you and me, a good laugh). A safer option is to sit back and enjoy a guided tour of these early-17th century waterways. Notice the tall canalside homes, with thick beams extending out from the roofs. These beams were put in place to support winch systems for raising furniture up into the top rooms, avoiding the impossible task of using the narrow staircases.
(For an eating place with style visit Morlang - Keizergracht 451 - Ed)

A visit to the Netherlands Maritime Museum, or Scheepvaartmuseum, is well worthwhile. The building was a naval depot in the seventeenth century and now houses an historical record of the seafaring Dutch from nautical charts and navigation equipment through to antique model ships and paintings. Outside, open to the public, a replica of the East Indiaman Amsterdam is moored. The original was wrecked on its maiden voyage to Asia in 1749.

For our next stop we’ll make our way to Artis, the oldest zoo in the Netherlands. Apart from providing a relaxing walk through sculpture-lined gardens, Artis offers up thousands of animals from all over the world. Special attractions include the nocturnal house where you can experience – and possibly even enjoy – the feeling of being in a South American jungle by night, with all the appropriate monkeys, crocodiles and spiders.

While we’re in the mood for walking, the Vondelpark is the largest park in Amsterdam, covering 48 hectares and opened in 1865 for ‘horseback riding and strolling’. Today, an open air theatre and the Dutch Film Museum are among the attractions.

Now for a trip to Madame Tussaud’s. Apparently six months, nearly 200 measurements and countless strands of human hair go into every model. As well as Dutch icons like Rembrandt, the usual Hollywood suspects are all present and correct – Eddie Murphy, Nicolas Cage, Marilyn Monroe et al, the faces you’ll find in any waxworks museum anywhere in the world. You get the distinct impression they ran out of famous Dutch people before they ran out of wax.

So our weekend is over and we didn’t set foot anywhere near the Red Light District. Amsterdam has much more to offer than just being a reluctant Mecca for stag weekends.
© Barry Dunstall Jan 2004
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