Amsterdam: Drunken Bakers and Brown Cafes
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 05:47AM
J. Preston in Amsterdam

I never thought I'd want to go to Amsterdam. It conjured up images of drunken British stag parties, the Red Light District, live window displays of prostitutes, and a contact high from billowing smoke. This did not appeal to me. Occasionally I'd stumble across a Pinterest board of adorably mismatched houses reflected in a canal that resembled a cross between San Francisco and Venice. Add in a few thousand bicycles parked along the quai and I was even more intrigued.

But...Amsterdam? Why waste a holiday visiting Amsterdam when you can go to Paris! Berlin! Rome! Venice! Paris! Barcelona! Paris!


Amsterdam blew me away with its cuteness. Fixie-riding, white-trim gabled, cheese-sampling cuteness. I was about 12 hours in when I started searching the Real Estate listings and picking out colors for my cruiser.

First of all, I prepared myself by reading Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City and I recommend it to all who travel there. Some gems that I took from the book:




1. Amsterdam is built on man-made semi-circle concentric ring of land and canals--it's natural resting place is about 6 meters under water. The Dutch have a saying, "God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland." Under the palace, an entire forest of logs have been driven into the ground. Submerged logs! The result is that all of these houses are crooked to the naked eye, leaning forwards and backwards and side to side. Add that to the adorable gingerbread likeness of their facades and the entire city looks as if it had been constructed by a drunken baker. 

2. The Dutch have a word "Gedogen" which means "illegal but officially tolerated." Obviously today, this makes us think of drugs and prostitution, but it has its roots in the 16th Century when the rest of Europe was slicing and dicing people for their preferred variation of Christianity, the Amsterdam city fathers opted not to punish the Calvinists (as was ordered under the decrees of the Holy Roman Emperor), but instead gave the Calvinists permission to hold Church services, stating "yes this is illegal, but we will allow it." I think we can all agree with that sentiment.

So has this "Gedogen" run amok? Is the city a cesspool of sin? Hardly. Yes, the sweet smell of marijuana does waft across your nose occasionally as you walk the canals. And yes, we did see live window displays of ladies of the night.  More off putting were the men walking through the red light district gawking at them. On our one pass through the district, I actually felt kind of gross for being one of those gawkers. But the "coffee shops" (where you buy the weed) were dispersed throughout the city, and hardly offensive. As clean and accommodating as the pubs.

Oh and the pubs! So quaint and welcoming. Especially for a pack of seven Americans. The purpose of this trip was to meet up with some of our LA friends from years ago...Sarah, Jos, Jonathan, Miriam and Tyler.  It was so great to slip right back into the banter and ridiculousness that usually ensues when we are around them.

So here's the quick and dirty list of recommendations:

Brown Pubs: (so named for their tobacco stained ceilings): Cafe t'Smalle was excellent, though pretty much every place that gave us a table for seven won my heart. The Dutch pubs are pleasantly smoke free (unlike in Prague) and are pretty much above ground (in contrast to Prague where many are in caves).

Cheese Tasting: Sooooo worth the 15 euro or a Windmill Pass, just for the amount of cheese you get, but also the instruction was really helpful. The cheese was divine and the wine was copious: Raypenaer Cheese Room. I mean, no, really. The cheese was beyond. My favorite was the chèvre gris.

Museums: I preferred the Van Gogh to the Rijksmuseum, if only because the latter was newly opened after ten years of renovations and the crowd was EPIC and the navigation inside was actually quite confusing. The only disappointment was that neither Starry Night, nor Starry Night over the Rhone were in the collection at Van Gogh.

Good luck getting up close and personal with a Rembrant at the Rijksmuseum. This is why I've always avoided the Louvre.

Real Living: (Well, real living for the insanely rich) at the Museum Willet-Holthuysen. You can tour this 19th Century home, which has been kept in its original state, and witness the Ladies' Salon, Ballroom, Garden Room, Collector's room, and more. My preference would have been sipping Geniver with the boys in the Club Room, plush with blue-velvet wall paper.

I'm guessing most of the pads in Amsterdam are a lot smaller. Lower ceilings, crooked floors, etc. I kind of like the idea of 'nook' living though. Fitting yourself into your surroundings, rather than the "make my house fit all my crap" mentality.  I will say that when I got home I did appreciate my Prague high ceilings. 

Retail envy: If Amsterdam has one thing on Prague, it's the deliciously designed shops that line it's canals at street level. Curiosity shops, clothing, chocolate, leather goods.  Every window bedecked in beautiful fonts, and curated displays. It made me want to go brick and mortar. the Otherist was a melange of wonders.

Chocolate "tools"! The Dutch are so witty.

But I have to say my favorite thing to do was walk around the canals, photographing the crooked gingerbread houses peering into people's homes.

You can see right into their lit windows at night, even at street level, as if watching a live work of art. We observed women arguing, old men reading, children coloring, people cooking, drawing, typing. We had the good fortune of visiting at the Christmas holiday, so most of the homes had beautiful holiday decorations. As described in the above mentioned book on Amsterdam: 

We cycle past street-level apartments, some of which follow a Dutch tradition that I like to think has to do with an ingrained commitment to openness, feature a central uncurtained windows that puts the living room on public display, as if the family who lives there thinks its life worthy of a museum.

Already picking out my ride.


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