Amsterdam has had for far too long a naughty reputation, often attracting the ‘wrong kind of tourist’. But this former port town has so much more to offer. I wanted to see beyond the seedy, smoky, party facade, take a little peek behind the right kind of curtains and find out what else Amsterdam has to offer.
Vondelpark is a fabulously huge indulgence of greenery and open space that completely expresses Amsterdam’s real beating heart. I was urged to go check it out by my friend, who described it as the ultimate hippy hotspot of the 1970’s. At that time, when Woodstock finished, Vondelpark became the place to hang, with flower power kids turning on, tuning in and dropping out in the Dutch capital’s largest park. Today, it’s still a hive of activity but less hippy and more hipster. There are all varieties of humans mainly hanging out but also playing sports, making music, riding horses, catching up with friends and, of course, thousands of cyclists.
The park is a haven for the inhabitants of the A’dam, with nine out of ten residents visiting at least once per year. I can imagine that in such an incredibly tourist heavy city in a densely populated country these areas are a welcome respite from the crowds. In the summer months there’s even a free open air theatre, putting on musical concerts, poetry slams and plays over the weekends. It’s the perfect spot for a bit of cultural observation, wandering by lush lawns, tranquil fountains, and pleasant ponds. I loved seeing and hearing the diverse community enjoying the gardens, still sending out positive ‘vibes’.
All that people watching sure worked up a healthy appetite, so I jumped on a tram and headed up towards Centraal station for a bowl of pure goodness. Suriname is South America’s smallest colony and came under the Dutch rule when they made an agreement with the British, giving New Amsterdam to the United Kingdom, which was renamed New York. It has an incredibly diverse culture and a huge portion of the population moved to the Netherlands after it was granted independence from the Dutch in 1975.
The Kam Yin restaurant has been serving up a fabulous array of Suriname and Chinese dishes since 1980. Wow! A favourite food heaven for locals and tourists alike it has a legendary reputation, as well as a good selection of affordable meals. I opted for the lamb roti special. A generous portion of soft lamb in a mild, thick curry sauce with green beans, potatoes, and a boiled egg, all topped off with a flat ‘roti’ bread, appeared almost instantly. There was a jar of sambal on the table, which for a ‘pyrogourmaniac’ like me was brilliant, adding as much heat as you want. I love poker hot spicy food!!!
The dish was comforting and very filling, I struggled to eat it all which is saying something! It reminded me of a twist on East African food, with green beans instead of kidney beans. All washed down with a fresh Heineken, it was a lovely way to round off the day before collapsing into bed!
One of the best ways to get a lowdown on where you are, an orientation of where you are and some local insider knowledge is a really good walking tour. Luckily the one I took with Sandemans New Europe was amazing. Sam, an actor, made a three hour amble around the streets of Amsterdam super interesting. Full of fascinating facts, Sam gave us on a historical, political, religious and cultural adventure through the sights, landmarks and legendary areas of the city. His enthusiastic, entertaining and sometimes poignant tales educated us on topics such as the unification of the Dutch against their biggest enemy, (the sea) and the idea of tolerance, (as long as it is discreet, grows the economy and doesn’t hurt other people, it’s accepted). He even managed to get us some cheese samples! Hurrah.
I learned so much and loved the personal recommendations he shared with us, including one for lunch. The Sonneveld cafe is just off the main tourist route but feels a million miles away. It’s an oasis of calm, nicely tucked away on a quiet canal street. I decided to have a light lunch and try the shrimp croquettes with homemade bread and aioli. The portion size was perfect, the croquettes were punchy prawn soft centres enclosed with a really crispy crunch. The garlicky aioli was terrific and if I had one suggestion it would be more generous with the salad! I paired my dish with a delightful pink rose beer, the fragrant sweetness perfectly sliced through the fishy flavour of the croquettes. Yum!
After such a nice break it was time to seek out more hidden gems. I jumped off the tram and found the ‘Kattenkabinet’ a ‘museum’ dedicated to artworks featuring one subject, cats! It’s a double delight as you get to see the interior of an opulent canal house, and also admire the quirky collection of cat pictures, posters, and sculptures. The house was built in 1667 and the list of former inhabitants include the mayor of Amsterdam, as well as hosting the American President John Adams on a visit. The rooms themselves are incredibly impressive, with beautifully painted ceilings, ostentatious chandeliers, mini grand pianos, and deluxe walls, as well oodles of feline portraits. There’s also a few real-life furry friends filling the place with purrs.
I liked the stories about the owner’s cat that the museum is dedicated to, who by all accounts was quite a character and received some pretty nice birthday presents. It was a pleasant way to have a good snoop around one of the houses of the super rich and imagine what kind of life that would entail.
There’s another really cute museum a short tram ride away that demonstrates the concept of Dutch tolerance perfectly. It’s set in the midst of a time when the Netherlands rebelled and threw off their Spanish rulers, Protestant religion became the worship of choice, which also brought significant benefits. Other religions became illegal, so the Catholics decided to go ‘underground’ or in this case, into the loft. The second oldest museum in Amsterdam houses a full-on clandestine church ‘hidden’ in the upstairs floors of a linen merchant’s house. Known as ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ (or Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder) it is a calm, tranquil and somewhat ironic respite from the bustling streets of the red light district outside.
It is a nice place to get ‘lost in time’ to become fully immersed into how a grand house of 17th century Amsterdam would look and feel like. I saw how the Golden Age enriched the lives of the local merchants, with the opulent decor in the reception room, day rooms with their tiny beds behind curtains, renting out the room below as an upmarket public house and the basic kitchens out back. Of course, the star of the show is the church section itself, a rebellious and even showy defiance of the rules. With the second largest organ in Amsterdam, it would be difficult to turn a blind ear to. The chapel itself is beautiful and there is a well produced audio tour explaining each room. Also, there is a small section dedicated to the story of the ‘Miracle of Amsterdam’, a shop and a cafe.
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