Dutch Courage - Luxury Travel Magazine
|By: Andrew Conway, Issue 17 – Summer 2004|
|(Amsterdam, Holland, The Hotel de l’Europe)|
|THE BEST WAY TO EXPLORE AMSTERDAM, EUROPE’S VENICE OF THE NORTH, IS ON FOOT BUT BEWARE THE BARRAGE OF BICYCLES TRAVERSING BRIDGE AND CANAL.|
|It’s Friday morning rush-hour at the Munt Tower, the historic landmark in the heart of Amsterdam, and all 400,000 of the city’s famous bicycles appear to have descended on this busy crossroads at once. The crisp autumn air positively quivers to the trill of bells as hordes of university students, office workers, mothers and children (strapped firmly in bicycle baskets), sprightly seniors, and city suits pedal furiously in an extraordinary swell of human traffic. Any attempt to cross the road, from the doorstep of the grand Hotel de l’Europe to the Singel Flower Markets, is futile as this daily migration – akin to wilderbeest stampeding across the plains of Africa – hurtles headlong across bridge and canal, road and alleyway, pavement and parkland on their way to somewhere else. Welcome to the capital of Holland, where a set of sharp eyes, good ears, nimble feet, and stout heart – call it Dutch courage, if you will – is de rigeur for any walking tour of this marvellous city. Bicycles may look benign from behind but a pair of handlebars in a hurry can pack a punch if you don’t have your wits about you.|
Europe hums with history but few capitals can match the breadth and depth of culture, architecture, sights and attractions that Amsterdam enjoys in such a small and concentrated area. Between the River IJ to the north and iconic Rijkmuseum and Van Gogh Museum to the south, the city centre is an achingly beautiful crescent of canals, arched bridges, tree-lined squares, and row-upon-row of elegant canal houses, which have given Amsterdam the sobriquet of the ‘Venice of the North’. Pack your most comfortable shoes because this city was made for walking, each historic monument, church and museum rolling from one canal to the next. With almost 7,000 exquisite canal houses and buildings dating from the 16th Century, 1,281 bridges, 165 canals, and a veritable maze of lanes and alleyways, there’s a picture-book scene on almost every corner – low-slung canal boats rippling the waterways; the soaring church spires of Westerkerk, Oudekerk, and Zuiderkerk; the imposing Royal Palace at Dam Square; the world’s smallest house (Singel, No 7, barely a metre wide); and, of course, the famous canal house where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis during World War Two. Amsterdam is also a living art gallery of Dutch, European and modern masterpieces, with two of the world’s finest institutions – the Rijksmuseum, home to Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, and the neighbouring Van Gogh Museum – stuffed to the rafters with notable artworks and both demanding at least a morning or afternoon’s devotion.
When it comes to luxury on a grand scale, there’s only one place to stay. The Hotel de l’Europe, part of the Leading Hotels of the World collection, enjoys a prime dress-circle position in the heart of the city’s financial district. Perched like a wedding cake on the Amstel River, with views of Munt Tower, Singel Flower Market (tulips by the bucketload), Rokin Canal and Opera House, it’s been one of Europe’s finest hotels since 1896. With 100 guest rooms and suites, many with river views, a well-equipped fitness centre and indoor swimming pool, grand public lounge, business facilities, and a range of dining venues, this is a fine choice for either the leisure or corporate traveller. The clubby Freddy’s Bar (named after the late Freddy Heineken, the Dutch brewing magnate, whose family owns the hotel) buzzes in the early evening, with diners moving into either the cosy Brasserie Le Relais or more formal Restaurant Excelsior, regarded as one of Europe’s great dining rooms with an outstanding wine cellar boasting 30,000 bottles. The pretty La Terrasse, perched on a boardwalk over the river, serves meals in the warmer months, and is the perfect ‘look-at-me’ entrance for guests arriving at the hotel by water taxi, canal boat or private vessel. The l’Europe has all the five-star services you’d expect of a Leading Hotel of the World, delivered in a warm, friendly and efficient manner by the multi-lingual staff.
For first-time visitors, an ideal introduction to the city is a tour by canal boat (the hotel can arrange tickets and the pier is just around the corner on Rokin Canal), a delightful way to spend a morning or afternoon. The glass-ceiling boats glide leisurely along the Amstel, then turn into the main Herengracht Canal, lined with some of the most stately canal houses and prettiest bridges, up to Brouwersgracht (Brewers Canal) with its old warehouse stores – many converted to trendy apartments – and out into the flat waters of the IJ. The tour then winds past the vast Central Station and its open-air bicycle parking stations (think wall-to-wall handlebars), and back to the Amstel via a colourful replica of the Amsterdam tall-ship and the ultra-contemporary Renzo Piano-designed NEMO science centre. Each canal boat trip comes with a useful English commentary on the various sights, and is a scenic way to get your bearings on the layout of the city before you set off on your own walking tour. Ultimately, the crescent of five principal canals – Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht, Leidsegracht and Singel and their smaller offshoots – are the drawcard, and the best way to explore them is on foot. Three very pleasant residential areas are Begijnhof (behind the Amsterdam Historical Museum), Jordaan (to the west beyond Pinsengracht), and bustling Brouwersgracht. We dined one night at Lof, located at 62 Haarlemmerstraat, one of several funky and innovative restaurants in Brouwersgracht. For quality antiques, head for Nieuwe Spiegel Straat; there’s some fine contemporary jewellery on Langebrugstraat (just behind the Hotel de l’Europe), while the designer stores and cafes on Pieter Cornelisz Hooftstraat, near the Rijksmuseum, will give your credit cards a workout – followed by a well-deserved afternoon tea back at the hotel. Given Amsterdam’s decidedly liberal attitude towards sex and drugs, the city has an inherently seedy underside – the infamous Red Light District in the heart of the city is a hotbed of clubs, cinemas and cafes which are not for the faint-hearted. Like Sydney’s Kings Cross, it’s relatively benign by day but comes with a government health warning at night. My lasting memory of Amsterdam, however, is of a different kind of ‘dancing ladies’, a trio of gorgeous old canal houses fronting the Amstel River whose timber foundations are being slowly but surely eroded by the ever-present water, causing the houses to lean in a decidedly drunken manner. It’s as if they’ve had one too many puffs of marijuana, the faint air of which can be caught on various street corners, and one of those deliciously quirky sights which make Amsterdam such a fun city to visit.