’Dam daze

Am­s­ter­dam has a lot go­ing for it – mu­se­ums, pic­turesque canals, ex­otic win­dow-shop­ping – but chief among its at­trac­tions is see­ing your wor­ries go up in smoke

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“Pas op voor de fokken fi­ets!”

Am­s­ter­dam is a friendly city. With 30% of its pop­u­la­tion com­prised of for­eign­ers and es­pous­ing the Dutch con­cept of samen­lev­ing (com­mu­nity liv­ing) and re­spect for in­di­vid­ual free­doms, the Venice of the North is a wel­com­ing des­ti­na­tion and es­pe­cially re­ward­ing for those want­ing to go about their busi­ness with­out any­one look­ing over their shoul­der.

It’s an even more ami­able city if you ex­clude the ubiq­ui­tous cy­clists (there are 847 000 two-wheeled char­i­ots for the city’s 850 000 res­i­dents) who de­scend on you like the le­gions of the un­der­world, tin­kling their evil lit­tle bells, with their rid­ers of­fer­ing you choice words when you’ve stopped for a selfie in front of the Mu­seum of Pros­ti­tu­tion or to munch a raw her­ring (a re­gional del­i­cacy). Or, in my case, when you’ve emerged from one of the more than 200 cer­ti­fied cof­feeshops in the city which are legally per­mit­ted to sell cannabis.

Yes, that’s one word – not “cof­fee shops” or “cafés”, which fo­cus on caf­feine-based ad­dic­tive sub­stances. In 1972, the Dutch gov­ern­ment de­crim­i­nalised dagga to ease prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with “harder” nar­cotics, which had be­come all the rage in the flower-pow­ered Six­ties. The cof­feeshops – the first of which, Mel­low Yel­low, ac­tu­ally sold tea – soon mush­roomed and earned global fame (or in­famy, de­pend­ing on where you stand).

Al­though they’re per­mit­ted low-vol­ume sales to con­sumers, these shops have to source their mar­i­juana sup­ply through the back door in a case of the cu­ri­ous pol­icy of gedo­gen, or tol­er­at­ing be­hav­iour that’s tech­ni­cally il­le­gal, but ubiq­ui­tous at all lev­els of Dutch so­ci­ety. It isn’t un­com­mon to see peo­ple hav­ing a toke in the streets or on one of the “smoke boats” that al­low you to while away the day on canals of green.

Even with weed freely avail­able, how­ever, only 8% of the Am­s­ter­dam pop­u­la­tion is es­ti­mated to en­joy par­tak­ing of it, which my tour guide Anja – who’s also a so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gist – puts down to the ab­sence of the thrill one gets from do­ing some­thing il­le­gal.

“My par­ents nipped my need to ex­per­i­ment with weed in the bud when I was a teenager by join­ing me in a smok­ing ses­sion. Dutch par­ents of­ten join in to make any ac­tiv­ity un­cool!” she laughs, as we take a leisurely walk through Am­s­ter­dam’s fa­bled red-light district.

She also re­futes the idea that the Dutch pen­chant for tol­er­ance comes from a tra­di­tion­ally lib­eral at­ti­tude, ar­gu­ing in­stead that there’s a purely eco­nomic ba­sis for it. She has a point: the com­bined rev­enue of cof­feeshops in the Nether­lands was es­ti­mated at €1 bil­lion in 2017.

The na­tional Ri­jksmu­seum, which cov­ers Dutch his­tory and art dat­ing back to the Mid­dle Ages, and the Van Gogh Mu­seum, which houses 200 works by the Dutch mas­ter, are both well worth a visit, as is the ex­cel­lent Anne Frank House. And if you re­ally must, brave the crows to take the oblig­a­tory selfie at the “I am Am­s­ter­dam” sign.

Af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing cul­tural over­load in Paris, where you’d rea­son­ably ex­pect to stum­ble on a master­piece in the pub­lic re­strooms, my part­ner and I de­cided to go easy on the mu­seum trail in Am­s­ter­dam and fo­cus on the am­bi­ence of a city that’s been a refuge for dis­si­dent minds from all over the con­ti­nent since the 16th cen­tury.

From our base at the bright and cheery Stu­dent Ho­tel in Transvaal­bu­urt, west of Am­s­ter­dam’s cen­tral district, where one can find Pre­to­rius, Biko, Luthuli and Tugela among the street names, we ven­tured out

to dis­cover the city on a cof­feeshop crawl.

Bar the fan­tas­tic caramel-filled stroop­wafels (syrup waf­fles), Dutch cui­sine is as in­sipid as a worn pair of clogs, so we chose to fill up on more fiery In­done­sian fare at the ex­cel­lent Kan­tjil & De Ti­jger. We also stopped at a few of the trendy craft burger bars.

Even with its clean and re­li­able sub­way and tram sys­tem, Am­s­ter­dam’s best ex­plored on foot. Ev­ery­one speaks English, al­beit with an ac­cent rem­i­nis­cent of manic gar­gling, and there’s lit­tle chance of get­ting lost as you ex­plore the canal scenes that might have been painted by Van Gogh him­self and steal a glance at the hook­ers show­cas­ing their wares in brothel win­dows.

We be­gan our crawl by pay­ing a visit to two of the pi­o­neer­ing es­tab­lish­ments – The Bull­dog, the con­verted sex shop that’s served as the “liv­ing room of Am­s­ter­dam” for the past 40 years, and Bar­ney’s, mul­ti­ple win­ner of the High Times Cup for the best cof­feeshop and an in­sti­tu­tion in the city. Both of­fer a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of weed, hash, space­cakes and other products, bear­ing won­der­ful names like Go­rilla Glue and Big Bud­dha Cheese, and are up­mar­ket, bois­ter­ous venues.

Look­ing for a spot to re­lax and watch the Arse­nal vs Atlético Madrid Europa League semi-fi­nal, we found the sub­ur­ban Ibiza cof­feeshop not too far from our ho­tel. De­spite its party is­land moniker, the Ibiza’s quite a sub­dued place with a small menu and is fre­quented mostly by lo­cals, rather than throngs of tourists.

The ami­able, blood­shot-eyed owner di­rected us to the quiet base­ment, where we sat down in front of

“It isn’t un­com­mon to see peo­ple hav­ing a toke in the streets or on one of the ‘smoke boats’, where you can while away the day on canals of green.”

the TV with a large in­dica ( for a more se­date high, as opposed to the en­er­gis­ing sativa strain) joint. It’s a room that fea­tures minia­ture ta­bles fac­ing the walls, pre­sum­ably for those seek­ing a place to en­joy a heated philo­soph­i­cal de­bate with the ghost of Jan van Riebeeck.

Even though the Gun­ners lost in a dis­ap­point­ing en­counter, I was quite un­able to muster my usual fan’s fe­roc­ity and in­stead watched them meekly, with a slack-jawed grin. De­spite the re­sult, it was mo­ment of bliss for the two of us, co­cooned in a for­eign land, as we dis­cussed how the world was chang­ing and dreamt of a pro­gres­sive planet marked by tol­er­ance and an ab­sence of ha­tred.

In­deed, the only thing able to shake me out of my reverie af­ter­wards was the sight of a 2,1m fe­male cy­clist bear­ing down on me and bellowing at me to get out of the way.

01 Mu­seum of Mar­i­juana. 02 A joint of cannabis and a cuppa at an Am­s­ter­dam cof­feeshop

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