City Break: Amsterdam
Coffee shops and red light district, if that’s your image of Amsterdam then think again, the Dutch city has some of the finest culture and gastronomy in Europe.
I fully admit that I never really understood Amsterdam. For me it was a city where kids went to get stoned and sad men went window shopping in the city’s infamous red light district. What I didn’t realise was that it’s also one of Europe’s most interesting and culturally diverse metropolises.
One of the key attractions of Amsterdam is its size. With a population of under a million it’s one of the smallest of Europe’s major cities. This makes it easy to get around. Either join the thousands of locals riding their bikes around town, jump on one of the myriad of boats ploughing the canals, or simply walk.
As bike riding was one of the many skills I failed to pick up as a kid, I plumped for the I Amsterdam city card, which can be purchased from inside the airport or just across from the Central Station.
The card provides access to most – but not all of the city’s museums – in addition to offering free travel on the city’s metro, buses and trams. Sadly, this does not include the big three – Anne Frank House, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. There’s also a complimentary trip along the canals.
The great thing about the card is that it allows you to pluck a random museum out of a hat and just give it a go. If it’s not your cup of tea then you can swiftly depart, without worrying about whether the experience represented value for money. This explains why I ended up spending a delightful sunny Friday afternoon walking around the Amsterdam Museum discovering the history of the city and how it developed over the centuries when I could have been enjoying some beers beside the canal.
Deciding that I had delayed the inevitable long enough and opting against the Jordaan Festival, a celebration of Dutch folk music over three days, I hit the bars. Lellebel was a quaint drag show bar where the ageless performers crooned to a mixture of Latin and disco classics while intoxicated patrons drunk in the intimate atmosphere. Fun as it was I could easily have imagined myself in Bangkok as Amsterdam.
Café Krom on Utrechtsestraat was much more to my taste. Entering it was like travelling back in time to an era before the hordes of weekend partygoers had descended upon the Venice of the North. Unlike many of the other bars in the city centre that are slowly being transformed into homogenised outlets, this bar has changed little over the years. A jukebox with nothing more recent than the 70s entertained me for hours as Dylan morphed into Armstrong and the Stones and I sat at the thick wooden counter smiling vacantly at the locals.
Amsterdam on a sunny weekend in August is awash with festivals from classical music to house parties, techno and folk – it was literally impossible to take everything in, however hard I tried. The excellent iamsterdam.com website has an extensive list of all the festivals in its what’s on section, so there is no excuse for missing out. However, my host for the weekend Ben Gosman of Free Style Events had already arranged for us to visit VOLTT, a techno and house music festival a short ferry trip across the Ij from Central Station on the Saturday.
VOLTT is very much a home grown affair, with most of the audience coming either from the capital or elsewhere in the Netherlands. Now into its eighteenth year, the festival crams 20,000 punters into a former industrial shipyard. This is more a post-Apocalyptic industrial wasteland than the mud of Glastonbury. But with five stages it still manages to maintain an intimacy you are unlikely to encounter on larger sites.
Given the country’s laissez-faire attitude towards drug enforcement, the welcoming nature of our fellow revellers was no surprise. With mood more important than content, unfamiliar names such as Ben Klock, Adam Beyer and Makam performed to the apparent satisfaction of all around me.
I soon discovered that the party never stops in Amsterdam’s long summer nights. Upon returning to my hotel in the early hours the music I found DJs playing in the downstairs bar, while revellers had taken to the rooftop to watch Amsterdam’s nightlife flicker on the horizon. Showing my age, I opted for bed.
Ben had one more treat in store for me the following morning. We headed for the Museumplein, where the Uit Markt was taking place. This festival really acts as an open house for the city’s repertoire of music, art, theatre, dance and opera. “This is Culture with a capital C,” my host explained, indicating that yesterday’s rave was clearly lower case.
Spread over three days, Uit Markt marks the official launch of the cultural season with 2,000 performers taking to almost 30 Amsterdam venues, entertaining half a million visitors across the weekend. Early for our rendezvous, and with some unwelcome clouds rolling in I decided to use my museum pass for one last time while waiting for my host. The Stedelijk Museum, next to the Van Gogh Museum on Museumplein, has an interesting and varied collection of contemporary art and design, including The Beanery by American artist Edward Kienholz, a replica bar conceived and created in 1965, which could easily have been the inspiration for the bar in the original Star Wars movie.
The Museumplein was busy by the time I met my host, and the clouds managed to hold off, allowing us to pass a very pleasant few hours, interspersed with a meal across the road, before I needed to catch the bus – not included on my city card – back to the airport.
As I waited at the stop, it came to me that Amsterdam really is whatever you wish it to be, something that in this increasingly consumer-driven, sanitised world, really should be celebrated – perhaps with another festival.
For more information about accommodation, festivals and events in Amsterdam, visit: www.iamsterdam.com/en/.
Marking its 40th anniversary the Uit Markt will be held from August 25 to 27, 2017. If your Dutch is up to it, visit: http://www.uitmarkt.nl.
This year the VOLTT Loves Summer Festival is on August 26 and helpfully its website http://www.voltt.com is in English.