TRAVEL: Amsterdam in three parts: crazy, cultured and classicIt’s crazy, cultured and classic, a triptych, a puzzle. Some of it is sketchy. Most of it is culturally rich. Which is the “real” Amsterdam? Take your pick. On one hand, with its wafting pot smoke and bored prostitutes under glass, the city’s infamous Red Light District is still a prude’s nightmare and a rebel’s dream. On the other hand, any city that can claim Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Anne Frank is a must-see for even the most staid travelers.
By: Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press
AMSTERDAM — It’s crazy, cultured and classic, a triptych, a puzzle. Some of it is sketchy. Most of it is culturally rich.
Which is the “real” Amsterdam? Take your pick.
On one hand, with its wafting pot smoke and bored prostitutes under glass, the city’s infamous Red Light District is still a prude’s nightmare and a rebel’s dream.
On the other hand, any city that can claim Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Anne Frank is a must-see for even the most staid travelers.
Then again, Amsterdammers seem like the coolest people on the planet, not staid at all. Citizens ride their bicycles with a tidy grace around the town, some toting briefcases, some in green high heels, some on bikes they fold and carry right onto the trains.
Except ... tidy, the town is not. Too much enthusiastic renovation has stripped the “pretty” from the city. Scaffolding mars the Royal Palace on the shabby Dam Square. Construction blights the Rijksmuseum (the city’s premier museum), the historic train station, the harbor and other landmarks. One can only hope the eventual result will be worth the long wait.
Bottom line? Come to Amsterdam expecting tradition, and you’ll find it. Come expecting sex and drugs, and the city will oblige — but know the scene is changing. Come expecting history, architecture and the chance to see paintings that make you glad to be alive, and you’ll find that, too. Whatever you want, Amsterdam will be.
Go ahead, go crazy. Just use common sense.
“If you are alone and stoned and it’s 2 in the morning, don’t go in the parks at night. Don’t walk around alone in the Red Light,” said Aaron James Cole, sitting at the Basjoe Coffeehouse on a sunny morning, smoking hash.
In Amsterdam, it is legal to buy and smoke small amounts of pot and hash at coffeehouses. Prostitution in the city’s Red Light District is also legal. About 25 percent of foreign tourists visit specifically to partake in these pastimes, according to Amsterdam’s Mayor Job Cohen.
And that’s the audience for Cole’s new book, the 11th Edition of “Get Lost! — The Cool Guide to Amsterdam” (Get Lost Publishing, $14.50, www.getlostguide.com). It reads like advice from a friend — a literate friend who knows a lot about drugs.
“In the book, we tell them what the locals know,” said Cole, 37, breaking off bits of hash and rolling them into a joint while pedestrians outside stroll past the coffee shop window.
For instance, the book explains the difference between a coffeehouse (pot and hash and coffee), a cafe (coffee and food) and a smart shop (plants and herbs that give a high).
The book also gives tips on everything from underground nightclubs to cheap lodging and food to prostitute protocol.
The biggest mistake tourists make, Cole says, is stopping to smoke the strongest joints they can buy before figuring out where their hotel is.
Second biggest mistake? Wandering alone at night in the Red Light, where pickpockets and drug dealers prey on the doped up and the dopes.
Oddly, it’s the Red Light District’s beauty and central location that confuses visitors into taking less care than they should.
“It’s the center of the trash and the tackiness and sleaziness, but it’s also the oldest neighborhood in Amsterdam and the most beautiful,” says Cole, a Californian who has lived in Amsterdam 15 years.
The number of coffeehouses and prostitutes are being cut to combat organized crime.
In September, the Dutch government proposed barring foreign tourists from coffeehouses entirely and reducing the amount of pot one can legally buy. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s possible in 2010.
Under one proposal, patrons would need a Dutch bank debit card to buy pot.
And get this — a new health law bans tobacco smoking inside businesses. Patrons now have to hide cigarettes in coffeehouses but not their joints, which are not considered health risks.
Cole can feel Amsterdam becoming more conservative.
“It’s very much retro thinking. They’re tightening the grips here,” said Cole, who also is a drummer, professional stilt walker and father of a toddler. On the other hand, compared with other world cities, Amsterdam remains incredibly liberal.
The book’s editor, John Sinclair, wishes he’d had a coffeehouse guidebook when he first went to Amsterdam.
He is best known for his 1960s years as a pot-promoting Ann Arbor, Mich., political activist. He’s now a poet, editor and grandfather.
“It usually takes about three to four times there to really know what you’re doing,” said Sinclair. “We remember going to Amsterdam and not knowing anything.”
It’s not easy for an upstart museum to compete with Amsterdam’s famous halls of masterpieces.
But the czars are the stars at Amsterdam’s newest museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam, which opened in June.
“At the Russian Court: Palace and Protocol in the Nineteenth Century” is its rapturous first exhibit.
One wing shows the royal Romanov family’s daily life — I mean, if your daily life included shimmering robes and solid silver hairbrushes. (One cool item: Czarina Alexandra’s pregnancy dress in striped pink.)
Another wing shows the public face of the royals, including phenomenal gowns, shoes, bags, thrones and jewels.
The main floor showcases opulent ball gowns and men’s formal dress displayed in cases that revolve as grand dance music plays. A gimmick? Yes, but it sparks excitement.
To an American, it may seem odd that an ode to the Russian royal family should be showcased in Amsterdam, a city that gained power through the efforts of merchants, not kings. But the Netherlands had a Russian queen in the 1840s — Anna Pavlovna. And recent arts contacts between the countries sparked interest to open a Hermitage in the Dutch city.
Housed in a 17th-century building that served as a senior citizens home until 2007, the museum is on the Amstel canal near the Magere bridge. Already drawing 3,000 visitors a day, the museum was extremely busy when I visited, but it didn’t diminish the pleasure of seeing so enjoyable a show.
This particular exhibit (www.hermitage.nl, admission $21) runs through Jan. 31. After that, two major exhibits per year will be mounted.
Most of the 1,800 items in this Dutch show had been packed away in the vaults of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. That museum has 3 million items and can display only 65,000 at a time.
Heaven only knows what other goodies they’ve got in storage just waiting to make an appearance in Amsterdam.
I’m sorry to be such a conventional tourist, but my visit to Amsterdam required windmills, Rembrandt and Anne Frank — in other words, the classics.
Windmills: I’m not talking about those boring white wind turbines. I’m talking the real thing. From Amsterdam’s Centraal Station it was a quick 15-minute train ride to Zaanse Schans (www.zaanseschans.nl) in Zaandam. The historic district has eight of the last working windmills in Holland. One makes paint. One cuts lumber. One mills grain with a thunk, thunk, thunk.
Zaanse Schans also has a tourist-friendly cheese farm, farm animals, shops, little museums and restaurants; I especially liked the Antiek & Curiosa antiques shop for one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
Zaanse Schans is not modern. It’s not hip. Tough. I wanted to see it.
Super famous paintings: My highlights? The original of “The Bedroom” by Vincent Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum, which contains the world’s most amazing and bittersweet collection of the painter’s work (www.vangoghmuseum.com, $18 ).
At the Rijksmuseum next door, the stars are “The Nightwatch” by Rembrandt and “The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer — which I saw two days before they lent it to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will hang through Nov. 29.
The Rijksmuseum is undergoing a snail’s pace 10-year renovation. The good news is it’s crammed the best stuff into a single exhibit so hurried tourists can see highlights quickly (www.rijksmuseum.nl, $15.50).
Anne Frank: From 1942 to 1944, Jewish businessman Otto Frank hid his family in the secret annex of his Amsterdam office building — until the Gestapo came. His daughter’s diary was found after the war and turned into an international best seller.
You’ll walk through the Anne Frank House (www.annefrank.org, $12.25) with a lump in your throat. Most moving to me was Anne’s bedroom, with its faded magazine movie star photos and little postcards pasted up on the walls, a sign of the young teen she was.
The other thing that got to me? Seeing her original diary with its little red plaid cover.
If you go
• Getting there: From Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, take one of the frequent trains to Centraal Station, which deposits you in downtown Amsterdam within 20 minutes.
• Lodging: Try the Grand Hotel Amrath. It’s in a historic building with a pool, free mini-bar and free wireless and is within walking distance of most attractions. (About $260 per night at www.amrathamsterdam.com; Expedia sometimes has deals on this hotel.)
• Money: The Netherlands uses the euro ($1.45 equals 1 euro). Get the best exchange rate by using a bank card or credit card to withdraw euros at an ATM at Schiphol Airport when you arrive.
• Getting around: Most locals walk or ride a bicycle. Wear good walking shoes for the cobblestone streets or rent a bike from one of the many rental spots.
To get to the big museums or parks in the south of town, use the tram (about $4 per ride; pay on the tram).
The train to Zaanse Schans mentioned in the story, left, is about $19 round-trip.