Clean, chic, changed; but Am­s­ter­dam still charms

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

It’s been years since I was last in Am­s­ter­dam. I used to go of­ten when I was at uni­ver­sity; I stud­ied Rem­brandt and Dutch art as part of my de­gree. But walk­ing down the Dam­rak from Cen­traal sta­tion on a bright Septem­ber af­ter­noon, I was shocked how lit­tle of it I re­mem­bered and how dif­fer­ent it all seemed.

It wasn’t just the new build­ings (the casi­nos and the Hud­son’s Bay depart­ment store and the ex­trav­a­gant opera house, which opened in 1986). The streets and squares seemed larger and more spa­cious, though some­how more crowded. The trams ap­peared brand new as they swished around the cor­ners with rat­tling wheels and chim­ing bells. There was no metro ser­vice un­til 1977. Now it serves the en­tire city.

I’m sure Am­s­ter­dam used to be shab­bier. Cannabis be­came legally avail­able in cof­fee shops in 1976 and I have mem­o­ries of bug-eyed back­pack­ers sprawl­ing in cor­ners, on park benches and around the na­tional mon­u­ment in Dam Square. Re­turn­ing, I still got the un­mis­tak­able whiff of mar­i­juana every 20 paces or so but, gen­er­ally, ev­ery­one seemed very clean and healthy. The square out­side the sta­tion was as noisy and as chaotic as I re­mem­bered, but oth­er­wise Am­s­ter­dam seemed to have cleaned up its image to the point where it was al­most sani­tised.

Cu­ri­ously, it was my old uni­ver­sity – York – that had in­vited me back to give a talk to a group of aca­demics on James Bond. They put me up at the five-star Ho­tel de l’Europe, over­look­ing the River Am­s­tel, cer­tainly not some­where I could have af­forded as a stu­dent. There are more mod­ern and chic ho­tels in the city but this was com­fort­able, old­fash­ioned and cen­trally lo­cated.

I must have walked miles: ev­ery­thing here can be reached on foot, pro­vided you’re care­ful not to be mown down by a tram or, more likely, a cy­clist. This is the main glory of Am­s­ter­dam. With the au­tumn sun shin­ing through the trees on to the bridges and cob­bled path­ways, ev­ery­thing is as it was and as it should be. I wan­dered into the at­trac­tive shop­ping dis­trict of Nine Streets, and from there, an­other five min­utes into the Jor­daan for lunch.

Later, quite by ac­ci­dent (of course), I found my­self in the red-light dis­trict, which is as I re­mem­ber it, with gar­ish neon signs, un­happy young women be­hind the win­dows and throngs of young men with pre­sum­ably more testos­terone than brains. Why is it still there? As a stu­dent, I thought it was funny. Forty years later, I couldn’t wait to get out.

I was much hap­pier vis­it­ing the won­der­ful mu­seum dis­trict. The square be­hind the Ri­jksmu­seum is such a lively, happy place, with cafés and shops, foun­tains and sculp­tures which have cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion. The IAMSTERDAM in­stal­la­tion is now one of the most pho­tographed sights in the city and peo­ple clam­ber on the gi­ant let­ters, unim­peded by health and safety.

The Ri­jksmu­seum re­opened in 2013 af­ter a ren­o­va­tion, which cost £330mil­lion, and the re­sult is gor­geous. I hap­pily reac­quainted my­self with mas­ter­pieces by Rem­brandt, Ver­meer and – an old

The Night Watch in the Ri­jksmu­seum

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