Visit Amsterdam, See The Netherlands

Neil Hennessy-Vass goes beyond the city limits to see the Netherlands

City Breaks, Culture & History, Europe

The swift passage Eurostar Business Premier from Kings Cross St. Pancras Station is a dream. The extra room, refreshments on tap and the service made me feel like a superstar. In just over four hours I emerged from Amsterdam Central Station into the bright sunshine of my favourite lowlands’ city.

I was curious about a region that came across my radar recently that promised a genuine medieval castle, beautiful woodland, quaint villages and plenty of culture. Yes, The Netherlands has castles! The more I investigated the area 10 miles east of Amsterdam the more I wanted to see it. I based myself in the Huizen area in a fantastic little hotel, the Fletcher Hotel Nautisch Kwartier on the water’s edge, imagine the canals of Amsterdam but in a rural setting, lots of waterways, leisure boats a plenty and quiet, so wonderfully quiet.

Huizen and Laren

After an excellent evening meal and a great night’s sleep in my plantation shuttered room I decided to explore the locale. There is plenty of walking to be done here but I wanted to travel a little further, the hotel can organise E-Bikes for around €30 a day, but due to a recent knee ailment I didn’t fancy risking that so instead for a little more I rented an E-Chopper. My, what fun! Lighter than say a Vespa but with the same power as a 50cc petrol engine scooter (it would go up to 45kph) it made light work of the trek ahead. The perfect vehicle for me, my feet didn’t touch the ground and the all the controls were on handlebars. And in sympatico with the environment it was virtually silent, with a range of 66km.

Singer Museum sculpture garden
Singer Museum sculpture garden

Passing exquisite historic houses and a beautiful park, I saw many other cyclists, people doing open air yoga, and trekkers all enjoying the outdoors. The region is peppered with bijou villages with much to offer. Heading south I sped along around 6km (there’s a handy phone holder on the chopper so I could use satnav safely) to Laren, a town with origins going back to the 1700s. I was eager to check out the Singer Museum, an extraordinary transformation over the last 15 years has resulted in a museum, villa, sculpture garden and 400-seat theatre. Incidentally Rodin’s Thinker was stolen from here in 2007. The thieves were stealing for its scrap value, started to cut it up but were ultimately caught and the statue thankfully restored.

The collection founded by the Singer family in 1956 has an impressive roster of names and eras. From modernism, such as pointillism, expressionism, cubism and geometric abstraction. Many of the artists who belong to these movements have worked in Laren and its surroundings. The collection now includes works by, Bart van der Leck, Jan Sluijters, Leo Gestel, Chris Beekman, Jan Toorop and Herman Kruyder. And it’s a joy to wander around, with plenty of space (the Netherlands has a lot of space for such a small country). The sculpture garden is designed by world renown Piet Oudolf. It pulls off the near impossible trick of looking wild and casual while maintaining an air of controlled discipline, with many fine pieces permanently placed there.

Naarden and Muiderslot Castle

I lunched in Naarden at the Vesting Hotel and then wandered about the very pretty, fortified island town. It became a strategic fort in the 16th century and part of the Dutch Waterline defence system. The original star shaped of double thick walls is still in place. The streets are largely free of cars and the boutique shops and cafes offer a pleasant distraction as I walked its ancient cobbles.

It was now time to see if Holland really could deliver a castle. Muiderslot Castle, 6km northeast of Naarden sits on an island with a moat, drawbridge and turrets. It most certainly is a castle and rather a splendid one at that. Unlike castles in the UK this one is constructed from small bricks, giving it a cosier, almost homely feel. It’s well preserved and is a great glimpse into the opulence of the Dutch Golden Age. Build 700 years ago for Count Floris V on the river Vecht, it has seen off wars and the ravages of time in style. The gardens are spectacular.

Moving nearer to the city into Amstelveen (south of Amsterdam) I discovered a superb Japanese restaurant, Izakaya Tanuki (there is a significant Japanese community in the area) where they cunningly place you on a raised bench with steps up to it and the table appears to be like a traditional low level Japanese dining table. In short is saves sitting cross-legged on the floor but feels like you are. The food was very good, sushi and grilled meat, authentic and plentiful, highly recommended.

I stayed in an interesting concept hotel called Cityden Stadshart, a small apartment with living room/kitchen and separate bedroom with en-suite. Very well appointed with everything you and your fellow travellers would need (the sofa converts to sleeping) so a few could use the same booking. The breakfasts (they can provide dinner too if you don’t fancy cooking) are superb. I enjoyed a textbook Eggs Benedict and Earl Grey tea.

COBRA Museum

COBRA Museum
COBRA Museum

Culturally I had a couple more places to call in on. I wanted to see the COBRA museum, a collective representing the works of artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam during the post war period of 1948 – 1951.

Another vast space that commands respect of the works on display. I was also very pleased to find upstairs a vast photographic exhibition of Pierre Verger’s work, focusing on his global travels. Much of it shot when the world was still large, and places and people were still new and fresh. I was minded of Cartier Bresson’s travelogue works of the 50s and 60s, nothing here is sensationalist or demeaning. Indigenous peoples captured under a clear understanding of trust – quite rare in this day and age. Beautiful work.

Also, as a foil there is Dina Blok has work on this floor too. Known for her nude bare all studies this delivered on an intimate but almost sterile way. There seems little joy in the images, which are very well executed in a getting down to essentials of the human form but not the human condition.

Amsterdam Forest

A visitor in this region would be amiss if they didn’t take a stroll through the third largest city park in the world, Amsterdam Forest is three times the size of New York’s Central Park, over a 1,000 hectares, it even has its own organic goat farm where they make cheese, ice cream, milk etc as well as the meat from the livestock is available to buy.

Anna's in the church
Anna’s in the church

Then I take a little trip over to the Amstelveen old town to catch the small but perfectly formed Museum Jan, specialising in decorative glass but it offers more. The Mid-Century focused works include much sculpture and some photography. Another delightful aspect if the founder’s living room is open (if the door is) to wander into and admire the private collection further.

My last and by no means least event from this trip really impressed me. I had lunch at Anna’s a restaurant/bar/brewery all housed in a 1927 church. It has retained much of the structure (the loos are in the confessionals). They brew 21 types of beer; the food is exquisite, and they hold open mic nights for musicians on Sunday afternoons. There is absolutely nothing not to like about this impressive, repurposed building.

My short stay (must make it longer next time) was packed with interesting art, fun activities and plenty of good food. And I didn’t see one single tulip. Visit Amsterdam and see the Netherlands. Well, I did, but I’ll be back as there’s plenty more, I’d like to see.

See the Netherlands

For further information on the castles and gardens around Amsterdam click here. For Gooi and Vecht click here, and for Amstelveen click here.

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Neil Hennessy-Vass

Neil Hennessy-Vass

An award-winning journalist and photographer who lives in London, France and on things that move, Neil moved from food broadcasting and photography, to travel writing. The last 10 years have been spent trotting around the globe writing about all he experiences. Never happier than ordering a rare Bourbon in some far-flung bar while checking to see his passport isn’t out of date, he prefers to take the path less trodden even if it takes a little longer.

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