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A literary tour of Amsterdam

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online on June 16, 2005

Sarah Anderson continues her literary travels, with books for company, by visiting Amsterdam

I decided to take Eurostar to Amsterdam – unfortunately it arrived late in Brussels so we missed our connection, but if all had gone smoothly it would have only taken just over five hours, door to door: perhaps not a journey to be included in the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys, nonetheless a relief from sitting in an airport.

Arriving at the Central Station in Amsterdam means being able to walk to any hotel near the centre. We were staying at the Hotel Rho – conveniently located off Dam Square; the rooms are fairly basic but it had once been a theatre so you walk into a large airy atrium.

“Before crossing the Dam Square, he stopped under the portico of the Royal Palace and shook out his hat. A couple was lost in a deep embrace within the shadows formed by one of the pillars. De Kok sighed. How can they do that, he thought, in this weather” (A.C. Baantjer DeKok and the Sunday Strangler, 2003). Having walked through Dam Square at various times – day and night I imagine anything and everything goes on there at all times.

Amsterdam is full of Indonesian restaurants – Sahid Jaya (Reguliersdwarsstraat 26, 1017 BM Amsterdam) was recommended as somewhere where locals go – a good choice. An excellent way to get a feel for the layout of the city is to take a boat along the waterways – it only lasts an hour but being able to see the houses with their curious gables from the water, adds a new dimension to one’s sense of place: ” The fog has cleared. The moon slides out from behind a cloud and shines on the rows of houses that line the Herengracht. They are rich people’s houses, built to last; their brick gables rear into the sky. Sightlessly, their windows shine in the moonlight. Between them lies the canal” (Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, 2000).

Amsterdam has many intriguing independent shops including Capiscum (Oude Hoogstraat 1) selling stylish Indian textiles – some made into clothes and their paper bags are made from Indian newspapers from a project they support in New Delhi. The Book Exchange (Kloveniersburgwal 58 020 6266266) has a fantastic amount of second-hand English books in several rooms – arranged in strict alphabetical order.

Rembrandt’s House (Jodenbreestraat 6) where he lived for 20 years before having to leave as a bankrupt, has been recreated according to an inventory he made. I had had no idea he was such a collector of paintings, sculpture and ephemera – reminiscent of Victorian chests stuffed with objects.

The closed cupboard-like beds are short: “My new bed is hidden in the wall like in Bradevoort, but it’s longer. My feet fan out, I stretch myself to my full length, for the first time in my life I’m not going to sleep sitting up’ (Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton, 2001). There are several of Rembrandt’s etchings and a current exhibition of etchings by Jacob Demus, a Viennese, who etches shells, bees, butterflies and plants with a diamond tool.

The Café Restaurant Dantzig (Aan de Amstel, Zwanenburgwal 15 020 6209039) has a large terrace with comfortable chairs overlooking a canal with an inside room full of books and a large table with newspapers. We began eating marinated salmon salad outside but had to retreat to the booky interior for coffee when it started to rain.

The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum has all the paraphernalia associated with smoking plus a section where plants are being grown hydroponically. I was brought down to earth again by the Anne Frank House Museum where the Frank family hid from the Germans during the Second World War. There is something unbelievably poignant about her desire to lead a normal life: ‘The Sun is shining, the sky is deep blue, there’s a magnificent breeze, and I’m longing – really longing – for everything: conversation, freedom, friends, being alone. I long … to cry! I feel as if I were about to explode” ( The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank, 1997).

Polyphony at Galerie Cox & Co (Haringvlietstraat 9-II, was an original alliance between the Trinidad paintings of Sarah Beckett, her musical collaborators pianist John Vanneste and American soprano Armour Ratcliffe and the British actress Hilary Drake.

A Canal House Tour from Urban Home & Garden Tours allows you into four houses and five gardens not normally open to the public. “The Amsterdam canal house facades – the epitome of Dutch patrician style – look the way they do largely through the genius of another Catholic, Philips Vingboons (The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama, 1987). What does go on behind those facades? Probably much the same as in the 17th century: “The houses of the Herengracht loom up in the moonlight. The bells toll eight; Willem smells cooking. Behind their shutters the families will be eating their dinners” (Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, 2000).

A great city in which to wander and full of bars in which to linger as expressed by Nicolas Freeling in Love in Amsterdam (2001): “Are you staying long in Amsterdam? A beautiful city, isn’t it? Fascinating? There’s an adjective I haven’t heard in some time … Here is our gin at last”.