In search of Dutch treats and mem­o­rable eats

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - DOU­GLAS MUR­RAY THE SPEC­TA­TOR

ONEDutch friend re­cently asked me, ‘‘What are peo­ple in your coun­try say­ing about Hol­land th­ese days?’’ I hadn’t the heart to re­ply that no one was talk­ing that much about his coun­try.

But the ques­tion seemed typ­i­cally Dutch. End­lessly out­ward-look­ing and in­ter­ested, yet charm­ingly in­su­lar and with a slightly off-kil­ter view of it­self, the Dutch char­ac­ter, like the coun­try, is fas­ci­nat­ing for that cock­tail of con­ser­vatism and lib­er­tin­ism, strict rule­mak­ing and an­ar­chism that runs through it.

For­eign tourism there has un­doubt­edly suf­fered in re­cent years from an ex­ag­ger­a­tion of just one side of that com­plex char­ac­ter. And al­though this seems mer­ci­fully to have de­clined in re­cent years, Am­s­ter­dam re­mains a vic­tim of its cul­ture of li­cence.

Take a bud­get flight dur­ing cer­tain times and you could for­get you are go­ing to one of Europe’s cul­tural cen­tres. Many of your plane com­pan­ions will be look­ing for­ward to smok­ing cannabis in a cafe, con­sum­ing some­thing stronger and then ex­pe­ri­enc­ing panic at­tacks as they imag­ine them­selves attacked by pud­dles.

At night gag­gles of for­eign men stroll the red-light ar­eas try­ing to look con­fi­dent but gen­er­ally ex­ud­ing that em­bar­rass­ment any­body must feel at see­ing women in glass cages. For­tu­nately the city above all this is a place which is worth any num­ber of trips. The Ri­jksmu­seum con­tains a great chunk of the best of Dutch cul­ture, from the Mid­dle Ages to the present, by way of (among oth­ers) Ver­meer and Rem­brandt.

The Con­cert­ge­bouw re­mains per­haps the great­est con­cert hall in Europe and cer­tainly houses the great­est orches­tra. And al­though the city has a bounty of such ma­jor cul­ture, it is just as good to go in search of smaller hap­pen­ings. The Dutch have an ex­cit­ing literary and in­tel­lec­tual scene, as re­liant on small read­ings and dis­cus­sions as it is on big set pieces.

Of course there is no short­age of places to stay in Am­s­ter­dam and there are al­ways plenty of deals to be found. In Am­s­ter­dam I pre­fer those con­tem­po­rary ho­tels that seem to me to best suit the city’s char­ac­ter and show off its edge. On a re­cent trip I stayed at the An­daz on Prin­sen­gracht. My room was dec­o­rated across one wall with a huge fish in the shape of a gi­ant spoon. Yet I slept well. The ser­vice is su­perb and the canal-front lo­ca­tion could not be bet­ter. Great places to eat are no harder to find in Am­s­ter­dam than are canals. I re­cently went to Le Garage at Ruys­dael­straat, run by the pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion chef Joop Braakhekke.

Won­der­ful food, a good wine list and a chatty bistro­like at­mos­phere, it did what ev­ery Dutch evening should: pro­vided a sense of gezel­ligheid. Which is one of those odd, al­most un­trans­lat­able Dutch words. Some­thing like good feel­ing, it is the quest-point for most Dutch evenings and on most evenings in Am­s­ter­dam it can eas­ily be achieved with no greater stimulation than the city it­self.

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