Dam ships. Dam dam ships! Taking me away from my favourite city, taking me away from a city that stole my heart, 31 years ago. In fact, we sailed from the canal houses, from the funky culture, from the crowds of tourists, from the works of the great Dutch Masters exactly 31 years to the day from when I arrived in Amsterdam as a law graduate, starting my first job.
Some has changed, much has not. It was reassuring to see my old house on the Herengracht – the gentlemen’s canal, looking much as it did when I lived there (peered through the window and found myself loving the new open plan kitchen). It was reassuring seeing that so many of the bars, cafes and shops are still the same. We stayed at a hotel on the fringes of the Jordaan district, on the Prinsengracht, not far from my old apartment, a district which has turned its 1980s bohemian-ness into a seemingly ‘the’ place to live. Charming boutiques and cafes line the “Nine Streets” – the narrow, short street which link the four canals in the Western Canal Belt. I look forward to hearing from anyone who can name them without looking at a map or guidebook! There are a few new boutiques – there was no Karl Lagerfeld boutique when I lived there, but its presence now attests to the complete gentrification of this charming neighbourhood.
On our first full day, we popped into the stomerij – the laundry, to get 5 days’ of travel laundry done. Turns out the outgoing, helpful chap has family in New Zealand, where I live. Always a connection, no matter where you go or what you do.
While the laundry was being done, we ducked into a café and arranged ourselves at the narrow bar along the front window, on stools, sipping hot chocolate on what, by the calendar, was supposed to have been summer. Hardly. But, as ever, it was fun watching the people, their dogs and their bikes go by.
We walked by the Anne Frank House, near to our hotel, and I found myself amazed by the huge lines of people, snaking around the adjacent area between this sacred of all sites and the Westerkerk (Western Church) next door which was built in the Renaissance style around 1620 and which is the site of Rembrandt’s grave (1669). It is the melodic time chimes of this magnificent church which kept us on good time both day and night. It was hugely gratifying to see the faces of so many nationalities, cultures and ages waiting to enter the house.
One of the highlights of our pre-cruise stay in Amsterdam was a visit to the transformed Rijksmuseum (just re-opened completely this year), the pantheon of the Dutch Masters and of the other artists and artefacts which have defined this unique and intriguing country. A modern, light, airy and welcoming atrium now welcomes visitors – ticket office, café, information counters and extremely helpful and friendly guides get you on your way for a journey into the Netherland’s past.
We got there relatively early which was a very good thing, because like all of Amsterdam this visit, it was teeming with visitors. We found our way to the great hall which houses the Night Watch, for my husband gaining his first glimpse from the doors to the hall, to this massive and expressive painting on the far wall. We also gawked at Napoleon at Waterloo … the Hals, the Vermeers…
A bit museumed-out, we did venture into the gift shop of the Stedelijk, the modern art museum with its distinctive ‘bathtub-like’ roof, and walked by the Van Gogh museum, with its long lines beginning to form.
A walk along the van Baerlestraat, one of Amsterdam’s best shopping streets anchored by the Concertgebouw – the home of the Amsterdam Philharmonic – revealed that most of the shops that we there three decades ago are still there, with their updated, modern goods.
On the Saturday, we visited friends near Rotterdam, to be treated to a visit to the Hotel New York in that sea-faring city, the building which was the original headquarters of Holland America Line, and which still bears its original signage.
The visit was made complete with the presence of the city’s namesake, the ms Rotterdam, tied up meters away from the hotel’s terrace.
Back to Amsterdam to get ourselves packed and organised to board the Prinsendam on the Monday, but not without walking across to the Dam Square, thronged with people, street theatre, human statues and of course, the fleets of pigeons which light on any outstretched hand. The square was unusually busy, with shoppers joining the tourists – during the sales, and the extended sale shopping hours of retail institutions such as De Bijenkorf, the Dam’s stalwart and much-loved department store. We tried to navigate our way down the Damrak, the shopping street, but frankly, the crowds were just a little too much. Of course, the sunny warm weather also contributed to the crowds – Amsterdammers pour out of their houses and offices whenever the sun is shining, and with it being a Sunday, everyone came out to play and experience the city.
Eating in Amsterdam? Hard to know where to start. We ate well, as one does in Amsterdam. Any café, any restaurant, any roadside stall – especially for the nieuw haring – the new herring – which is there to be savoured. I made sure that my husband had his first taste at the same stall where I had mine all those years ago, along the Westermarkt, again, close to our hotel.
We enjoyed lunch at the Café Luxembourg, peering out on the book market on the Spui, and next to one of my old haunts, Hoppe – the bar next door. We walked along the flower market and dodged the bicycles – of which there certainly must be many more than people.
We just enjoyed – soaking up sights, sounds and memories.
So … very sad to leave this city to which I have strong emotional ties, but with the promise of an extraordinary cruise ahead of us. Tot ziens, Amsterdam.