Saturday 1 October 2016

Art of Travel: Lost in Amsterdam's art district

Where bicycles are king

Conor Power

Published 14/12/2015 | 02:30

On your bike: Using the bike-hire service is a great way to get around a wonderful city that has so much to offer.
On your bike: Using the bike-hire service is a great way to get around a wonderful city that has so much to offer.
Amsterdam, an enticing and extraordinary little city
Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam The Netherlands

When one mentions a weekend in Amsterdam, it's hard to avoid thinking of sex and drugs, but my wife and I went there not with titillation or intoxication in mind, but in the pursuit of art.

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Amsterdam is a great place for it, with its "golden triangle" of the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum.

After checking into our hotel, we availed of their on-site bike-hire facility. All bikes in Holland seem to be built to a standard High-Nelly-esque design. I can see why the Dutch bike design is so enduring: you're sitting upright and holding the handlebars at the perfect position, so you're never hunching over or hanging on trying to look cool on a racer. You just sit comfortably like you're in a kitchen chair and start pedalling.

We pedalled our way towards Amsterdam's premier temple of art - the Rijksmuseum. I was using the sat-nav on my phone but rather than cycle around like a nerd holding my phone in front of me (not to mention being a brilliant target for mobile phone thieves), I decided to memorise roughly what direction we were going in, pop the phone in the old pocket and follow my instinct. We both like the feeling of being a bit "lost" in a foreign city; just winding our way through the charming canal belt, following our noses and soaking up the atmosphere - all the time knowing that at any point I can just take the phone out of my pocket again and put us back on the right track.

The Rijksmuseum is a superb venue for art - a magnificent building housing a huge collection of classics from the great Dutch masters. It is, however, too huge and magnificent for me so I walked out after half an hour, leaving my wife to have an additional hour or two in her personal paradise while I went in search of brown pubs.

The traditional pub in Amsterdam is brown on the inside from centuries of smoke-assisted ageing. Not to be confused with coffee shops, these are the watering holes of your working-class Amsterdammer and if you find one that hasn't been too yuppified, then you're in for a treat, with lots of good-humoured banter in a language that sounds like it was made for verbal argument.

My wanderings took me first to a canal-side coffee shop, however, so I went in to see what the atmosphere was like. I figured that it might be full of amusing, laid-back people eager to chat and talk about the colours of things. Instead, the ambiance was decidedly non-convivial. I asked the man behind the counter if I could have a drink.

"No," he said. He looked about 23 and as if he had about 50 joints for breakfast.

Amsterdam, an enticing and extraordinary little city
Amsterdam, an enticing and extraordinary little city

"Do you only sell marijuana, then?"

"Yes," he replied, without altering his gaze.

I had a look through the menu. None of it made any sense to a sober man and I was surprised to see that the cheapest option was a whole €16.

I looked around at the place. A group of people were talking animatedly in one corner about something seemingly vital to world order. There were two girls who sounded like they were Irish at another table. On the counter were ashtrays and little paper-dispensers so that people could roll up their Dutch funny-fags there and then if they so wished. I figured that there'd be better craic in the brown pub so I left, unfastened the enormous chain that came with the bike (bike thieving is apparently rife in Amsterdam) and wandered on.

I popped into the De Drie Fleschjes (The Three Bottles) on Gravenstraat - a brown pub that's been serving sailors and sinners since 1650. The walls were full of memorabilia from times past and the dark ancient décor had a touch of the old Irish pub/shop about it. I ordered the most local unpronounceable beer I could find from the friendly owner.

I took to wandering on my bike again. It's only when you're in the middle of Amsterdam traffic that you appreciate just what a huge percentage of it is composed of people on push-bikes.

The bicycle is king here. There are designated lanes of the kind of quality that we in Ireland reserve for cars and they criss-cross the entire city. Here among the Dutch, you're far more likely to get hit by a bike than by a motorised vehicle and it's the cars that make way for the bikes, not the other way around.

I joined my wife again for coffee in the Rijksmuseum's pricey restaurant and we headed down the road to the Stedelijk Museum. It's really close to both the Rijksmuseum and the superb Van Gogh Museum. It's the modern art gallery of Amsterdam, with a really creative buzz going on inside all the time.

Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam The Netherlands
Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam The Netherlands

While we were there, they had a great exhibition of Matisse's work, complete with fabulously colourful giant tableaux and the priests' vestments set he designed for his bespoke chapel in Vence in the South of France.

What was an even more intriguing piece of art, however, was an installation entitled 'Dancing in the Dark'. There was no clue as to what it entailed. You walked past a seated museum official who told you that you needed to remain in the room until your eyes adjusted to the darkness.

We went in and stood. It was pitch black. Gradually, you could make out some very faint light overhead and you could barely discern shadows of other confused punters stepping carefully around the room. One American couple had had enough and made their way out, muttering, "I don't know what the hell I'm supposed to be lookin' at."

Good things come to all who wait and it must have been a full ten minutes before you could finally make out some bright shapes moving in the middle of the floor. The level of the darkness was such that although you could see it, it was never in clear focus - rather like an impressionist painting in 3-D. It was a naked couple. They were moving slowly, simulating loving embraces and poses from classic art scenes.

It was all very clever and unexpected… only in Amsterdam can sex and modern art blend so effortlessly!

Getting there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) have regular daily flights from Cork and Dublin while Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly from Dublin.

We stayed at the modern Room Mate Aitana on IJ Island (aitana.room-matehotels.com) - a 15-minute walk from Centraal Station/city centre, but very peaceful. Go for the 12th-floor bedroom with inspiring views over Amsterdam from their picture windows.

At Restaurant Daalder Lindengraacht 90 Amsterdam (daalderamsterdam.nl), you eat what you're given according to the menu of the day, but you can't possible go wrong in this smart traditional-style restaurant that has somehow been overlooked for a Michelin Star.

For cheap good quality eats, try Kam Yin, Nieuwebrugsteeg 10-12, Amsterdam (kamyin.nl). Close to Centraal Station and the Red Light District, serving Chinese and Surinamese food in large quantities.

See iamsterdam.com for more information about visiting Amsterdam.

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