Tuesday 27 June 2017

On your bike in Amsterdam: A city break with a difference

Short breaks in Europe

Amsterdam is built on an intricate system of canals, and a canal cruise - or a bike ride - is a great way to get an overview of the city's layout
Amsterdam is built on an intricate system of canals, and a canal cruise - or a bike ride - is a great way to get an overview of the city's layout
Amsterdam, an enticing and extraordinary little city
Tulips abound at this time of year
Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

Who ever wrote there are nine million bicycles in Beijing should take a look at Amsterdam; the Dutch city is awash with them.

A great side effect is that it seems cleaner and less frenetic than most cities and in permanent holiday mood. Whether it's anything to do with the lack of traffic, or not, the people seem very jolly. Amsterdam is also extremely pretty. And that's not just because its multitudes of colourful tulips are in bloom at this time of year. Unlike most of its neighbours in Europe, Amsterdam wasn't damaged in World War II and so it still retains the beautiful old buildings, which were built during Holland's heyday in the 17th century, when it was enriched through its tea and coffee plantations and diamond mines in the colonies.

This compact city is built on an intricate system of canals and bridges, and a great way to get a good overview of the layout of the city is to do as we did and take a canal cruise.

As our barge drifted through the calm waters we took in the different areas, some more posh than others, passed the different bridges - 1,500 bridges in total - and enjoyed the different house types lining the canals. The houses are all tall and narrow - apparently the narrower the house the less tax you paid back in the 17th century, something town planners here should think about - and the many different-sized windows, the ornate doorways and the variety of decorative gables and roof shapes, some flat topped, some stepped, some triangular add up to a higgledy piggledy charm.

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

Tall, narrow houses are a bit of an emblem for the Dutch and their national airline KLM - who by the way now have four flights daily from Dublin to Amsterdam - give out ceramic houses typical of the country to their business passengers, and villages in Holland vie for their houses to be part of the collection.

Probably the most famous house in Amsterdam is that of Anne Frank; we later visited this poignant landmark where the talented Jewish teenager hid with her family for two years during the Nazi occupation of Holland, from 1942 until they were betrayed and sent to Auschwitz, mere months before the war ended. Only Anne's father Otto survived and when her diary was found he had it published. Their cramped quarters have been sympathetically restored and it's stark in its simplicity.

What little is there is affecting - a tin containing marbles that Anne had given a neighbour the day she went into hiding, her sister Margot's Latin notes and her mother Edith's Jewish prayer book. All the detritus of ordinary lives going on as if nothing earth-shattering was happening outside. Yet they were all too painfully aware - a diary entry mentions the simple fact that they couldn't flush the toilet during the day as it might be heard. One particularly plaintive entry printed on the walls resonates to this day.

''One day this terrible war will be over, the time will come when we will be people again and not just Jews. We can never be just Dutch or Englishmen, we will always be Jews, but by then we will want to be.''

To stroll through the streets is, of course, a must. We ambled through the Negen Straatjes - a little network of nine narrow streets - and enjoyed the many unusual shops, selling designer clothes, jewellery and artefacts. Tulip stalls abound at this time of year, of course. And not only are there tons of cheese shops - the Dutch love their Gouda - we even came across a cheese museum.

Of course no visit to Amsterdam is complete without a trip to the Rijks museum. You could spend days here - it boasts 8,000 artistic and historical objects telling the story of Holland from 1200 to the present, but we only had hours so we concentrated on the Gallery of Honour which houses the museum's three Vermeers (Vermeer of the Girl with the Pearl Earring fame) and the museum's pride and joy, Night Watch, by Rembrandt.

Tulips abound at this time of year
Tulips abound at this time of year

The detail in Nightwatch, considered the artist's masterpiece, is extraordinary, and, available freely in the gallery, are laminated sized-down copies of the painting with interesting explanatory notes, drawing attention to the different features of the painting.

By a happy coincidence we were staying at the luxurious Doelen Hotel in Amsterdam where Rembrandt actually painted Night Watch. A plaque there states that, until 1882, an old watchtower had stood in the spot and was a meeting place for the city soldiers. They asked Rembrandt to paint them and Night Watch was the result. Needless to mention, the hotel is not backward in declaring the connection and has a Rembrandt suite. Hotel Doelen is the oldest in Amsterdam but it's been recently refurbished and the rooms are gorgeous.

It also does a mean breakfast. Freshly squeezed juices, smoothies, pastries, cereals, cold meats, cheeses and eggs every possible way. Pancakes are a thing - there are pancake houses everywhere - so I sampled Dutch pancakes, delicious balls of sweet-tasting lightness.

The locals laughed when we asked about typical Dutch dishes. A bit like the Irish, there's little national cuisine - they mentioned croquettes and Stomp Pot, a potato dish - but our meals, of every type of cuisine were excellent, and at similar prices to here and the restaurants and cafes were all fun, buzzy places. And I'm not even talking about the places where you can get the hash brownies.

Normally, when going for a city break, the last place I want to spend time at is the airport, but Amsterdam's Schiphol is actually a traveller's delight, particularly if you're travelling long haul - KLM have 159 connections from Schiphol to the rest of the world; the chairs in the transfer area are full-length loungers, there's a quiet area with cots for kids and it's a shoppers' heaven.

And, of course, there are hotels. Next year, there will even be a Rijks Museum at the airport. It may seem laughable to suggest but dare I say it - Amsterdam and Schiphol could nearly make a two centre weekend!

Getting there

KLM now offers four daily flights to Amsterdam and the world from Dublin Airport. Economy fares start from €100 return and are inclusive of taxes. To book or for additional information, check klm.com or call the reservation line on (+353) 15251804

The newly decorated NH Collection Amsterdam Doelen Hotel (nh-hotels.com) is one of the Dutch city’s oldest and finest five-star hotels and is within walking distance of the main museums, shops and iconic sights. Guests enjoy complimentary gym access and free wifi.

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