AMSTERDAM: BIKES, BEERS, AND BOB
-From PITCH Magazine, December 1998-
If your idea of heaven just might be a quaint, old city of unspeakable beauty consisting of 300-year-old houses on stately canals and known for its relaxed attitude to all forms of hedonism, a bicycle culture that's home to great chow and truly lovely bars where drinking beer is a dignified, noble pastime; where you can peruse art that folks back home would pony up a scalper's ransom to catch a glimpse of . . . and where, if you're so inclined, you can legally sample some of the finest weed around, then strap on your wings and halo and catch a flight to the Dutch capital of AMSTERDAM. This past October I spent a frenzied and enjoyable nine days careening around Amsterdam on rented bicycles, visiting as many bars and other attractions as possible . . . and I can't wait to go back.
The old city of Amsterdam is more than anything a city of canals, hundreds of years old, many lined with houseboats, which divide the place up into something like a thousand islands; they say there's more canals than Venice, but you won't need a boat to get around. It's along these canals that the city's charm is at its greatest. If you've ever heard Amsterdam described as crowded, garish, filled with burnt-out old ex-hippies and tacky tourists bars, then you've been misled by someone who never got far from the train station. Just grab a map and a guidebook and head out into some of Amsterdam's neighborhoods: favorites are the Grachtengordel, the ring of three canals that loop around the western and southern sides of the old city center, and beyond that, the Jordaan, an old working-class neighborhood of quiet canals and narrow streets full of interesting bars, shops, and restaurants. Even the renowned red light district -where women sit in windows that are actually illuminated by red lights- is a beautiful place, by virtue of its location along two canals. And unlike similar parts of other cities, Amsterdam's red light district is a safe place for tourists to stroll (even the live sex show theaters are sedate and proper places, according to the white-haired, 68-year-old lady and veteran globetrotter I talked to at the airport).
But whether you're in the city center or out along the canals, there'll be no shortage of fine establishments devoted to the leisurely drinking of beer. Amsterdam has to be one of the greatest drinking cities in the world; it's said that the Dutch are an industrious and thoughtful people, and a brief pub crawl will leave you no doubt that they've turned those qualities toward making the consumption of beer a pleasant experience with tinges of ceremony. Amsterdam is home to perhaps the prettiest neighborhood bars in the world, bars that you'll find yourself wishing you had in your neighborhood back home. Some of the most pleasant are the "brown cafes" (ALL the bars are called cafes), small, inviting places populated by locals chattering in Dutch that get their name from warm reddish interiors rendered even darker from years of tobacco smoke, invariably illuminated by intricate light fixtures and candles of all description. Many a cafe also has a cat residing on premises, usually found curled up asleep in a corner, or walking down the bar visiting the customers. The bartender at one cafe boasted that the house cat, 13-year-old Jacob, was one of the most photographed cats in Amsterdam and had been featured in an article about cats that live in bars. At the opposite end of imbibing spectrum are fancier "grand cafes." Whatever they're called, the cafes of Amsterdam are almost always visually pleasing places conducive to feelings of ease, repose, and intense consumption.
Each bar typically serves the products of one of Holland's major breweries, as well as a Belgian ale or two on tap and many more in the bottle. Pilsner is the style of beer that the Dutch drink on a daily basis, and Heineken is the pils you're most like to come across as you stumble (or bicycle) from bar to bar. The Dutch rendition of Heineken (don't call it "heinies") is crisper and fresher than what we're used to back in the states. Take some time out, though, to find those cafes that feature De Leeuw and Brand beers, which were a cut above the others (some may remember Brand beer from when it was imported to the US years ago in distinctive white bottles). The more familiar Amstel pils paled in comparison. Each brewery also makes a bock or double bock beer; these are dark and chewy, and quite a bit more potent than the pils. Heineken Tawrebock was a particular favorite. Amsterdam also has a brewpub, Brouwerij 't IJ, housed in a windmill near the Eastern docks, serving up some excellent and very strong beers, some of which are available in other cafes and are recognized by a unique ostrich logo.
Those used to swilling their suds from the oversized bar pints -or worse, plastic cups- that are a staple of DC bars and keggers will find themselves in classier alcoholic waters: Beer drinking in Amsterdam is a study in fine glassware, with each beer served in a small, gold-rimmed glass bearing the name of the brewery, and each style of beer meriting a different style of glass. Pils is served in straight, narrow glasses or sometimes in little curvy numbers that look like the old milk glasses in the school cafeteria. The darker beers come in stemmed, round goblets that resemble miniature brandy snifters, bowl-shaped and narrower at the top. And forget about drinking out of the bottle when you opt for one of the several brands of Belgian ale that each bar typically keeps on hand: those, too, come with their own glass, snifter-like goblets that are familiar to connoisseurs of Belgian beers. Sometimes it's fun to try as many types of beers as possible just for the different glasses.
Order a beer and you're in for a bit of a ceremony: the beer shoots from the tap with considerable force, creating a big creamy head that roars up over the rim of the glass like a mushroom cloud rising from an atomic bomb test. The bartender slices the head of at glass level with a flat plastic knife, dunks the glass in the briefly in the sink to rinse away the overflow, and sets if before you . . . on a coaster, of course. Order a refill (something you might find yourself doing many, many times) and your glass is taken and washed by hand in a series of stainless steel sinks before being refilled.
Amsterdam is chock-a-block full of great bars and you'll have no trouble locating plenty with or without a guidebook, but two were particular favorites that I visited again and again: De Twee Prinsen, a tiny canal side bar serving the full line of Leeuw beers, with a burnished wood interior and gorgeous tile floor, to the west of the train station along the Prinsengracht canal (any street name that ends in "gracht" is along a canal). Just a few blocks south, by the intersection of the Prinsengracht and Egelantiersgracht canals, is Cafe 't Smalle, which features outdoor seating on a small canal dock and might be just about the prettiest bar around. For beer connoisseurs, The Gollem, with its huge selection of Belgian beers, on tiny Raamsteeg between Spuistraat and the Singel canal, is highly recommended. And beer lovers out during the day are advised to pay a visit to beer specialty store De Bierkoning ("The Beer King") on Paleistraat just off Dam Square at the heart of the city, justly famed for its huge selection of Belgian beers you have and haven't heard of, and hundreds of different glasses and other beer paraphernalia.
Amsterdam is also a slice of paradise for anyone who enjoys seeing a city by bicycle but just might be weary of the near-death experiences common to the District's streets. With its flat terrain, Amsterdam (and all of Holland, for that matter) is the perfect place to go anywhere by bike without breaking a sweat; the only hills in the city are the canal bridges, and the Amsterdammers huff and puff as the pedal their way over these. Amsterdammers of all ages can be seen pedaling about, carrying packages, umbrellas, and passengers; I observed one bike rattle by with a cool-looking, leather-clad blonde woman sidesaddle on the rear rack, holding a cello. So many Amsterdammers cycle for basic transportation that bicycles are accorded proper respect and their rightful place on the road, with their own lane and sometimes a special curbed-off section of the street. Still, on some particularly crowded streets and at intersections you'll be obliged to mix it up with traffic, but don't despair. What may seem to the visitor like a confusing jumble of bicycles, scooters, tiny cars and pedestrians vying for space is actually a seamless patchwork of clockwork-like cooperation. Say you're pedaling down an especially narrow street and you find yourself directly in the path of an oncoming car: you're headed for the car and the car's headed for you. Back in the states this would be a cause for sudden stops and shouted curses, but in Amsterdam it's taken for granted that at the last second you'll each squeeze over a bit and slip around each other, no fuss no muss, and that's exactly what happens. Pedestrians, too, take it as a given that you'll plot your course around them as they seem to walk across your path at intersections. It all works quite well and once you get used to it, it's very exhilarating. Anyone used to slicing and dicing traffic on America's urban boulevards will find Amsterdam a piece of cake. If it could only be like this back home!.
The bicycles are utilitarian, well-worn, one- and three-speeds equipped with front and rear racks and generator lights; you'll see few of the high-end, hi-tech racers and hybrids favored by US enthusiasts ... and none of the fluorescent, spandex biking togs you see back home. There's plenty of rental shops that can outfit you properly . . . I had good luck with Bike City, on the Bloemgracht in The Jordaan, not far from one of Amsterdam's principal tourist attractions, the Anne Frank House (by the way, it's no wonder the Germans caught them, what with the way they've got her name plastered on the outside). I recommend spending a little more and renting a three-speed, if only for the fact that three-speeds have hand brakes: you'll spare yourself the alarming experience of grabbing for brake levers that don't exist on the one-speed bikes with kids' coaster brakes, an especially disconcerting feeling when you've got a snootful.
Of course, no discussion of Amsterdam would be complete without mention of Amsterdam's famous coffee shops, legal retailers of what's said to be some of the finest cannabis products available anywhere. Yes, it's true, you can effortlessly purchase and smoke weed in Amsterdam without any problems whatsoever; the amazing thing is that you can do it in a quaint, 300-year-old row house overlooking a tranquil, glittering canal. It's the perfect opportunity for a little experimentation, or for aging baby boomers to recapture old college memories. Don't listen to naysayers like the Berlitz pocket guide to Amsterdam, which for at least the last ten years has been spouting gloom-and-doom warnings of imminent crackdowns, or the American Drug Lord -oops, I mean Drug CZAR- Barry McCaffrey, who earlier this year pronounced Holland's drug policy an "unmitigated disaster," refused to visit a coffee shop, and was later forced to partially eat his words when faced with a comparison of Dutch and US crime statistics. It's totally cool. The coffee shops, which are plentiful, are easily spotted by the sign that says "coffee shop." Go to the bar area in the back and ask to see the menu; you'll be handed a board to which are stapled tiny zip-lock bags containing one-gram samples of at least six or seven varieties of hashish, light and dark, and as many different fuzzy buds of "Nederweed", said to be grown in Holland under artificial lights. The stuff is said to be so strong that after buying at a few places you'll end up with much more than you could reasonably smoke during your stay, but don't worry, you needn't buy at each coffee shop; you can smoke what you've got, so long as you buy food or drink. If you get tired of coffee, try the fresh-squeezed orange juice: it seems that every coffee shop and bar in Amsterdam, no matter how small, has an electric citrus squeezer and a supply of oranges. But before you leave Amsterdam, take care to empty your pockets of any stray little baggies you might have forgotten you had, lest you get a nasty surprise when going through U.S. Customs.
If you go to Amsterdam, get yourself a good guidebook . . ."The Rough Guide to Amsterdam" is one, with plenty of listing for hotels, restaurants, bars and other attractions. And, oh, if it's reopened, be sure to check out the Van Gogh museum. See what all the fuss is about without waiting in line for hours.
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