Going Dutch again after more than 30 years

I ticked off Amsterdam, as a European capital city I had visited, in 1988. I was curious about the city that had legalised marijuana and prostitution, because it had novelty value and a free-wheeling reputation. My companion and I frequented the Brown Bars for ‘coffee and cake’, and tried not to look in the eyes of half-naked women selling their bodies in shop-windows as we bustled through the Red Light District. Nothing to notice here!

Since 1988, I’ve had no reason to revisit the city until I found out about the Amsterdam Festival of Light. Seeing images on social media, I just had to return to experience it. And I’m so glad that I did: both the city, so familiar in many ways, and the trip had a completely different feel compared with the last time.

The main thing that made this trip so different and memorable was our accomodation. We had booked into a delightful looking small hotel overlooking a canal. Just as we were about to step onto our flight, the proprietor rang and offered us an ‘upgrade’ to a houseboat on the canal. It was about 100 yards over a canal bridge from the hotel, and as we stepped inside from the cold, wind and rain, it was cosy and warm. And immediately visible through large picture windows was the spectacular view across the water to the glittering signage and Christmas lights of cafes, hotels and the National Opera House. Despite the ‘seen better days’ interiors, idiosyncratic lighting fixtures and having to share a tiny bathroom, we took it and agreed a refund for our inconvenience.

In daylight we could see our hotel across the river Anselm (not a canal) where we had breakfast each morning. Unlike the swans, who tapped their beaks on our windows for food, and moorhens who tried their luck when the swans weren’t around. We were in a great, central location, between Muntsplein and Rembrandtsplein, with easy access by tram, metro or on foot to where we wanted to go. We both had issues getting in and out of the beds with raised wooden sides! But it was a joy to have our own kitchen and make a drink or a snack whenever we liked, and to chat in our lounge at night in front of the spectacular view.

Before Wikipedia and Google Maps, I have no idea how we found out what to do or how to get around in 1988. In our modern digital age we can access anything we need to know on our phones. For the recent trip my friend and I had already agreed priority sightseeing. But thanks to Channel 4’s Travel Man, Richard Ayoade, who took comedian Joe Lycett up the A’DAM lookout Tower (360 degree panoramic views) and on a whacky canal trip, we were able to add the tower to our itinerary and choose Those Dam Boat Guys to take us on a canal cruise of the Festival light displays.

The November weather didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for and delight in being tourists. We were not disappointed, enjoying the unique vistas of Amsterdam as we walked around as much as the attractions themselves. Here are some highlights.

• After considerable difficulty finding our rendezvous with the Dam Boat Guys, we were on one of the very first canal trips on the very first night of the Light Festival. Our Guy in charge on the small craft made sure we that we and 7 others were cosy under blankets and dispensed mulled wine as he explained all the ingenious and inventive exhibits many of which were concerned with global warming and social fracture. A real holiday highlight.

Flood warning

• The recently revamped Van Gogh Museum seemed to me to have less exhibition space but a gigantic shop. You like Sunflowers? You can get and image on anything you care to mention, darling! We liked the café and the souvenir/gift shopping. But as a longterm Vincent fan, the highlight for me were the paintings I had never seen before, especially the vivid details of Courtesan and Flowering Plum Orchard after the famous Japanese masters he so admired. Breathtaking.

Vincent’s eyes

• Rembrandt’s House Museum was only round the corner so it seemed rude not to visit. It was charming with an excellent, free audio guide on every room and the artist’s life and times in the house, as well as demonstrations and a real expert on hand in the artist’s studio. Plus the obligatory shop.

Amsterdam is a fabulous city to visit and I would recommend a trip, even if you’ve been before. If you want to, you can easily avoid the tatty sleaziness that seems to have spread since 1988 to Dam Square, despite what our Boat Guy described as the ‘gentrification’ of the city centre. In contrast, the area where we stayed, with it’s fast food outlets, tattoo parlours, and tiny convenience stores, alongside busy transport hubs and massive entertainment centres, reminded me of Leicester Square and Soho in London, and didn’t feel sleazy at all. Towards the end of our stay, the waitress at a local restaurant told us about the street on which we were staying. Apparently, our houseboat was on the equivalent of Manchester’s Canal Street. But ironically for Amsterdam, we weren’t on a canal but the river!

Christine Ingall

4 December 2019