Clean, chic, changed; but Amsterdam still charms
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