Amsterdam then and now

Chris Hurley revisits one of her favourite places, thirty years on

Back in the eighties Amsterdam was my favourite place to spend the weekend.  Very cheap and always very cheerful.  With so many vibrant bars, reasonably priced restaurants and budget accommodation, a good time was guaranteed.

With such fond memories, I was eager to pay another visit recently, but not so sure how it would appeal nearly three decades on.

One thing that doesn’t change is that it’s easy to get there. With just a forty-five minutes flight, you can leave at breakfast time and arrive for a late lunch.  These days I can afford a taxi but hopped on one of the regular trains from Schiphol Airport to the RAI railway station. It only takes fifteen minutes and only costs three Euros – I still love a bargain.

A little bit of luxury
When it comes to accommodation, however, I do need somewhere very comfortable to lay my head and the luxurious Okura Hotel really fits the bill.  Slightly out of town, it’s a fifteen-minute stroll from RAI station or just five minutes by taxi.

The Japanese owned Okura definitely has something of the wow factor but, despite the cool marble elegance in reception, the welcome is very warm and it’s the perfect place to unwind.

Spending the entire weekend in our junior suite would not have been a problem.  It was so spacious. The bathroom, with its twin basins and flat screen TV, was probably bigger than any Amsterdam hotel room I have stayed in before. It even had heated mirrors that didn’t steam up.

Back in the main area, a giant bed with plumped up pillows was the perfect place to watch videos on a huge TV screen and there was no need to lift more than a finger as the bedside touch screen control took care of everything  – the curtains, mood lighting, room temperature, even the alarm clock.

But I wasn’t there to languish in bed; I had to get out and explore the city of which our room afforded such an amazing view. But first we stopped for a little refreshment in the hotel bar alongside a pretty and peaceful canal. An ideal spot to watch the locals enjoying the sunny weather – particularly the mum and her family of fluffy little ducks that swam close by.

A little bit of culture
Getting into the centre of town to start our sightseeing was quite easy with a choice of two trams stopping almost at the hotel door every ten minutes or so.

We immediately headed for Rembrandt Square, which was every bit as lively as I remembered and a great place to chill out. The Square was thronging with people and there was a real holiday atmosphere in town.

A few decades back this would have been enough, enjoying a beer or four in one of the many pavement cafés either here or in Leidesplein or Dam Square perhaps followed by a stroll along the pretty canals. But I have since acquired an interest in art and history and I want to find out about the city’s culture.

This is where it could get expensive, so we got ourselves a couple of I Amsterdam Cards that provide free or discounted access to many museums, restaurants, canal boat rides and other attractions. Also included is a GVB tram ticket which gives unlimited travel on the highly efficient and extensive tram network. There’s an option for a 24 hour (€38,00), 48 hour  (€48,00) or 72 hour (€58,00 card.

Our first port of call was The Hermitage, which stages exhibitions in conjunction with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg

The current exhibition, Matisse to Malevich, which runs until 17th September, explores the origins of modern art and is a wonderful display of works, not just by European masters such as Matisse and Picasso but also Russian contemporaries like Malevich and Kandinsky.  This is a great opportunity to get to see an extensive collection of avant-garde masterpieces normally on permanent display in St Petersburg.

Out on the town
My cultural appetite satisfied, it was time to think about the physical one and there are plenty of dining options in the Okura. There’s the Ciel Bleu an elegant French restaurant with a panoramic view of Amsterdam or the Yamazato, the only European Japanese restaurant to boast a Michelin star or even the Sazanka Teppanyaki restaurant.

But we decided to turn our back on haute cuisine and went in search of one of our old haunts, Puri Mas – at 37-41 Lange Leidsedwarsstraat (near Leidseplein).  It always did a great Rijsttaf, a feast of small dishes of Indonesian food, ranging from mild to strongly spiced, that pretty much covered the whole table. And it was still as good as I remembered.

There were plenty of bustling bars downtown where, at one time, we would have hung out until the small hours, but this time the sophisticated comfort of the Okura beckoned and we settled for a night cap in the bar on the twenty third floor, looking down on the city’s sparkling lights.

Museums and Canals
As young travellers we always slept late and skipped breakfast but there was no way I would have missed the excellent morning fare at the Okura. But how boring are we now,  passing on the bottle of champagne and just settling for the freshly squeezed orange juice?

Planning the day ahead, we decided to explore some of the lesser known attractions rather than revisiting familiar tourist spots, such as The Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum.

The Dutch Resistance Museum, that was free to enter with our I Amsterdam cards, proved to be a real find.  Although small and lacking the polish of its bigger brothers, this was an exhibition stuffed with memories of everyday life in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation during World War II. It gave a real insight into the suffering of the Dutch people and I would recommend a visit.

The nearby Jewish Museum also looked interesting but, unfortunately, it was closed. So our next stop was Rembrandt’s House where the painter lived between 1639 and 1660.  With the addition of a modern annexe it’s a museum of the painter’s life and work where you can see exactly how the living quarters of the house and workshop would have looked and the furniture, sculptures, paintings and tools give a fascinating reconstruction of his everyday life and the Dutch golden age.

With its labyrinth of canals, Amsterdam is sometimes called the Venice of the North and, as the day warmed up, we couldn’t miss out on one of the many canal cruises. There are lots to choose from – romantic, to the culinary or educational.  We took an hour-long tour, from near Centraal Station, which passed through part of the harbour into the waterways with their ancient bridges. Once key to transportation and trade, the canals are now more likely to be home to pretty houseboats and smaller crafts with families just enjoying a day out.and the former warehouses have been converted into luxury apartments. With a multi-lingual guide it was a relaxing way to view the city from a different perspective and to learn more about the history and architecture.

Passing Anne Frank’s House on the Prinsengracht canal, we groaned at the sight of the queue snaking around the block.  This was on my ‘must visit’ list, so we idled away our time at a canal-side cafe, deciding to check it out when the sun went down.  The timing proved perfect as we waited in line for no longer than fifteen minutes.

When I was first here back in the eighties, I found the secret annexe where the young Anne Frank wrote her famous diary an incredibly moving experience.  The house then contained a fairly primitive exhibition, displayed mainly on pin boards, but you could almost feel the pain and fear of this family as they hid from their persecutors.

But now, thanks to the exposure through a TV series and an extensive refurbishment and expansion, it is much more slick and, of course, crowded.  However, although not quite the personal experience it once was, it still tells an incredibly shocking story and is well worth a visit.

Bright Lights
For our final dinner we thought we would try Haesje Claes at 273-275 Spuistraat as it looked so lively and busy.  It was easy to see why – the Dutch cuisine with a slight French influence was excellent and the ambience was cosy and jolly. If you want to eat here you will probably find – as we did  – that you will need to book and return later.  But it’s no problem whiling away the waiting time as Cafe Luxembourg and Cafe Hoppe, a pub that dates back to 1670 are just up the street.

Before the night was over there was just one more place I had to visit – the infamous Red Light district in the oldest part of the city down on Canal Street. It can be traced back to the 14th Century when sailors arrived in need of some female company, Since I last visited this place hasn’t changed a bit, with hordes of people crammed in the streets eager for a glance (or possibly more) of the two hundred or so girls in the windows advertising their wares.  But now I find the girls look far more beautiful than I noted before and their youth brings out my maternal concern.

And Finally…
We had packed so much into our weekend but there was still more to come. On our final day, we joined one of the hotel’s culinary courses – a Taste of Okura where, under the watchful and very patient eye of Mr. Oshima, the hotel’s Michelin starred executive chef, we got to learn how to make Sushi.

My incompetence was enough to challenge even the smartest chef but it was all very good fun – particularly when we got to eat the fruits of our labours with a glass or two of saki at the end of the morning.  This was a great way to round off what had been a fabulous trip.

So had much changed in the time since I was last in this lovely city?  A little, but mainly for the better and I now appreciate that there is a lot more to Amsterdam than just chilling out.  But, sadly,  the one thing that definitely hasn’t improved is my culinary skill.

To read about our experience on the Taste of Okura course click here…

A one-night stay at Hotel Okura Amsterdam costs from 175 Euros per room per night based on two sharing a standard room on a B & B basis.

For more information on how to join one of the ‘Taste of Okura’ workshops visit www.tasteofokura.nl or email tasteofokura@okura.nl

For further information on Hotel Okura Amsterdam call 0031 20 6788 300 or visit www.okura.nl.

For more information about Holland go to www.holland.com

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