From its art to its sleaze to its heart of dark­ness, you’ll never have enough time to ex­plore this city

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - Text and im­ages by Saub­hadra Chat­terji

I T IS meant to be a kind of im­pro­vised Dutch mu­sic and dance.

As it is, I have a lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of in­ter­na­tional mu­sic. On top of it, half an hour be­fore the show, there are just nine peo­ple at Bimhuis, the river­front con­cert hall.

It looks like my first evening in Amsterdam may be a flop. I head to the bar for a beer. By the time I fin­ish the sec­ond pint, a size­able crowd has gath­ered. I grab another pint of Grolsch blond and sit.

The back­drop is a glass wall, through which the East­ern Dock­land lights pour in, cre­at­ing a mag­i­cal ef­fect. Two women take the stage. No mi­cro­phone, no ac­com­pa­ny­ing mu­sic. Mon­ica Ak­i­hary starts play­ing with her voice and a young wo­man breaks into a slow dance. Then, two new artists emerge for a dance on drum beats.

Fif­teen min­utes into the show, I find I have for­got­ten to take a sip.

Two lessons learnt: never un­der­es­ti­mate the power of mu­sic, and that of a Dutch beer!


Amsterdam of­fe­fers a lot of choices – ex­cept shop­pi­ing – to its guests in the evening. In one of the most densely pop­u­lat­ted cities of Europe, al­most all shops pull down their shut­ters by sunnset.

But the cityy doesn’t sleep early. At 9 pm, with teem­per­a­tures fall­ing rapidly, I en­ter Ri­jsel: a FrenchFlem­ish restau­rant in a quiet neigh­bour­hood by the Am­s­tel river.

The place is as lively as a good Ro­man Trat­to­ria. All cus­tomers, ex­cept the two of us, are lo­cals. They mix food and drinks with end­less, loud chat­ter. It’s a packed house on just another Wed­nes­day evening.

We or­der mus­sels, Flem­ish chicken roast with veg­eta­bles, and a fish soup. The server asks for my choice of poi­son. “Dark beer,” I re­ply. Five min­utes later, she puts a bot­tle la­belled ‘Wild Jo’ on the ta­ble. I am wor­ried when the food ar­rives. How can two of us eat so much? The por­tions are twice of what you get in a Delhi restau­rant.

Ruchira, my wife, sug­gests that we or­der less next time. I pro­pose to in­crease my beer in­take to help di­gest the food. As usual, she has the fi­nal say: “We have to walk more.”


Amsterdam has an ex­cel­lent tram net­work, plus metro-rail and buses. But thee best way to see the heart of Hol­land is to walk.

Ar­mmed with a Rick Steves’ au­dio gguide, I turn left from Dam­raak to War­moesstraat for an Am­ster­rdam land­mark: the red-light dis­trictt.

Eveery city has its ver­sion of a sex tr­rade hub, but Amsterdam takes itt to a dif­fer­ent level. On the

one hand, it’s about in-your-face sleaze and soft drugs (cof­fee shops legally sell mar­i­juana), on the other, it’s about a cul­ture of free­dom that makes Amsterdam ar­guably the most lib­eral city in the world.

And it is pos­si­bly the only red­light area where a guy can take his wife or girl­friend!

The walk starts near a shop with a yel­low sign­board that reads:

Het Gulden Vlies. In Eng­lish it means “Golden Fleece Con­domerie”. It sells an amaz­ing va­ri­ety of con­doms, in­clud­ing some that pos­si­bly can never be put to use.

Ir­ish pubs dot the area, but visi­tors are glued to the shops sell­ing erot­ica. S&M starter kits, bondage ma­te­ri­als, whips, masks – you name the kind of sex and there’s ev­ery prod­uct re­lated to it.

The lane named Wi­jde Kerk­steeg leads to the core of the red-light zone that also houses a fa­mous church (see how re­li­gion and pros­ti­tu­tion co-ex­ist). Busty women in fancy lin­gerie stand be­hind the glass in small rooms flooded with red light. “If the light is blue, then it’s a trans­ves­tite,” a guide ex­plains to a tourist group.

The trade is or­gan­ised. The women are unionised and even have a child-care cen­tre.

We walk down to the neigh­bour­ing canal that of­fers a splen­did view of the old city. This is one of the old­est parts of Amsterdam, founded af­ter a dam was built on the Am­s­tel in the 13th cen­tury.

I find the orig­i­nal Bull­dog out­let – the first mar­i­juana shop of Amsterdam. Armed with a proper menu, the shop­keep­ers pa­tiently ex­plain the spe­cialty of ev­ery weed. They also pre­pare a joint for the cus­tomers.

I come out of Bull­dog bet­ter pre­pared to ap­pre­ci­ate the ‘laal batti’ cul­ture. More win­dows light up. The area wakes up not just as a caul­dron of sleaze, but also as a hotspot of cul­ture. Euro­pean and Latin Amer­i­can restau­rants co­ex­ist peace­fully with sex shops.


Just like it’s im­pos­si­ble to see the en­tire Lou­vre in a month, Ri­jksmu­seum needs at least a week.

“We just have an hour,” I tell my wife. So we head straight to the Gallery of Honour. The great­est paint­ings of the Dutch Golden Age are on dis­play. At the end of the gallery is The Night Watch, Rem­brandt’s most fa­mous work.

Nearby, Van Gogh has an en­tire mu­seum ded­i­cated to him. My wife gets so car­ried away by his

Sun­flow­ers and Al­mond Blos­soms that she buys a bun­dle of sou­venirs from the mu­seum gift shop. In the up­scale Jor­daan neigh­bour­hood, a hub of writ­ers and po­ets, stands a ren­o­vated house on Prin­sen­gracht, which re­minds not only the city but the world about a dark pe­riod of hu­man his­tory.

There is al­ways a queue to en­ter the build­ing. As we go in­side, it trans­ports us to 1942, when two Jewish fam­i­lies had to hide in a se­cret an­nexe of a build­ing for two years un­til one morn­ing in Au­gust 1944, when Nazi SS of­fi­cers knocked down the doors. Be­hind a book­case lies the se­cret path to the an­nex. On a wall, are pic­tures that Anne Frank pasted be­tween 1942 and 1944. In the dingy rooms where two Jewish fam­i­lies stayed, my senses go numb for a few min­utes.

From the dark­ness of Anne Frank House, I step out into the bright Oc­to­ber sun.

And then, the bells of the Westerk­erk church – the only sound from the out­side world Anne Frank could hear – chime again.

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