Amsterdam: Art, bikes, canals and cheeses


By Bill Hill

The name derives from “Amstelredamme”, in reference to the fact that it began its life around a dam in the river Amstel, a name we all know now as being that of a well-known Dutch beer.  It’s the Netherlands’ capital and also its most populous conurbation, although the country’s seat of government is The Hague. 

The city is situated in the province of North Holland (as an aside there is indeed another province called South Holland, home to The Hague in fact), so “Holland” is actually only a part of the country. Many from outside use the term for the whole country and this, while erroneous, seems generally accepted. The name Holland comes either from the Old Dutch “Holtlant” meaning “wood-land”, or another term meaning “hollow land” in reference to its low-lying, below sea level, terrain. I give the first source much more credence. As for the English word ‘Dutch’, it comes from an old word meaning ‘people’ or ‘nation’ which interestingly also gives rise to the German words “deutsch” and “Deutschland” (German and Germany respectively).

I’ve just spent a few days in the city with my mother, who fancied going there after a 40 year absence, and very pleasant it was. Inclement weather and even a rained-off Christmas market in the Museum Quarter failed to dampen our spirits.

We stayed in a friendly mid-range hotel minutes walk from the Leidseplein (Leiden Square), one of the city’s busiest squares at the southern end of its canal ring, and so named on account of its position at the end of Leidenstraat (Leiden Sreet) which for a long time had been the main road to the town of Leiden.

We got our fill of Rembrandt and Vermeers’ artworks in the world-famous Rijksmuseum, and learned how Vincent Van Gogh’s talents went beyond painting sunflowers or chairs and ‘self’ ear-mutilation, in the museum named after him. 

Sadly he died at the early age of thirty-seven by his own hand, while his once friend and fellow artist Paul Gaugin made it to fifty four, taken by an accidental drug overdose. Vincent’s other influence, Charles Laval, could only manage thirty two, victim of an illness complicated by tuberculosis. Being an artist in the late nineteenth century was clearly a hazardous business.

I mention these two French artists since they were friends of the Dutchman and influenced him; and, at the time of our visit, there was a temporary exhibition of the artwork they produced from their brief visit to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean.

Another major draw for visitors to Amsterdam, if not the biggest, is the house of the young war-time diarist Anne Frank, now a museum. Tickets are only available on line from two months prior, with 20% kept back for sale on the day. Alas, our attempts to bag an ‘on-the-day’ ticket failed miserably. “Laat maar” ..never mind.

The sheer number of bicycles going every which way was incredible! I’d heard the place was well geared up for cyclists, but there are so many that, to the uninitiated, it’s a job to avoid them. Cycle lanes abound, and boy are they busy. Bicycle shops seem to be on every corner and there are plenty of places to hire them. Unexpectedly though, scooters (mopeds) and the like can use the cycle lanes, and even really small cars. I hear there are plans to ban scooters on these paths, however, as they are understandably causing more than the odd accident; which I imagine means the diminutive cars will lose their license too. 

So, yes, bikes are everywhere, and plenty of them line the railings of canals and the bridges that straddle them, much to the delight of those wanting typical photos. Incidentally, most bikes are quite heavy sturdy-looking things, as opposed to racers or mountain bikes.

Talking of canals, there are various companies offering cruises and these are a great way to see the sights and learn a lot about the history of the city and its architecture. We did two! The only accidents reported involving canals appear to be revellers relieving themselves too close to the edge …. splash!! So be warned, lads! (Yes, it tends to be men, for some reason. And it is illegal, by the way).

Cheese, of course, makes more than a cameo in Amsterdam, and it’s not limited to your bog standard Edam and Gouda. There are specialist shops plugging all sorts of cheeses, made from all sorts of milk, with all sorts of flavours, such as fenugreek and coconut. 

Haven’t mentioned the infamous coffee shops, where limited quantities of cannabis can be smoked, have I? Nor the prostitutes of the Wallen area of the Red Light district? Funnily enough, we didn’t seek these out.

Oh, and there are plenty of decent places to eat.

Enjoy your trip!