The only sounds were the soft splashing of water on water and birds singing in the newly blossom-budding trees nearby. Gazing at an intricate globe suspended above an oval pool, it was the perfect place to relax on a spring day in the heart of one of Europe's most lively and dynamic cities.
Amsterdam is full of surprise, fun and curious gems but this haven was a real treasure. I was in the garden of the 18th century Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis, a fascinating museum, once home to the richest oligarch family in the Netherlands and a delightful place to get a feel for what luxurious canal-side living was like in Amsterdam's heyday. There's an unsual vibe to this place, with its eclectic mix of bric-a-brac amongst the lavish furnishings and works of art.
A weekend in Amsterdam is not long enough to see all the sights of this compact and fascinating city, but it's definitely long enough to get a feel for its history, culture, food or whatever floats your boat. It’s got world-famous art galleries, fascinating museums, colourful markets, warehouse exhibitions and quirky street performers. Of course, there's the famous red-light district, now cleaned up and weirdly sanitized. Do NOT try to take photos of the ladies (and gents) who sit in their windows enticing, looking bored or, yes I saw this, knitting.
Bicycles rule in Amsterdam so to really get a feel for this endearing city, I went on a bicycle tour with Viator which was great because our guide went at a pace I could keep up with, stopped at lots of interesting places and helped us avoid some of the busier roads. Cycling round The Jordaan is a delightful experience, especially on a sunny spring day as I had. It’s got an artsy feel to it, with interesting markets and shops as well as bars and restaurants. Its little canals and quaint bridges make for picture-postcard photo opportunities. We had lunch at charming little CafÃ© Tazzina where we could watch the world go by – and be entertained by an old-fashioned street organ.
Hidden behind unassuming facades are ancient alms-houses (hofjes). We visited one called the Raepenhofje on Palmgracht, a tree-lined road, once a canal. Raepen means ‘beetroot’, the symbol of which is carved over the entrance. Surrounding the courtyard are little cottages, all of which are still lived in. Quiet visitors are permitted.
Keep an eye out for the Egalantiersgracht, named after the eglantine flower and one of Amsterdam's most picturesque little canals. It's lined with 17th and 18th century houses including the Andrieshofje, built by a local cattle farmer, which has over 30 almshouses. On the edge of The Jordaan is the Westerkirk; this elegant church is said to be the city’s loveliest. Its finely-crafted exterior and spire belie the simplicity of its interior.
Next to it is possibly Amsterdam’s most visited site, Anne Frank’s House. Apparently she loved listening to Westerkirk’s bells until they were melted down for the German war effort. I didn’t visit – the queues were too long and I couldn’t face the reality of that poor girl’s fate. (When I was an English teacehr many years ago, I used to read extracts from her diary to my students and it never failed to touch them in many different ways. Her life may have been cut short far too young but her words and positive outlook will speak to generations for years to come.)
In Keizersgracht stands one of Amsterdam’s most imposing houses now open to the public. The Museum Van Loon was built in 1672 and originally lived in by one of Rembrandt’s students. It was bought by the Van Loon family, who made their fortune with the Dutch East India Company. Ornate and elaborately decorated, it really does convey the luxury of Holland’s ‘Golden Age’, with a fine collection of furniture, silverware, porcelain and paintings. The formal gardens are laid out inf front of the pretty Coach House and theree is an ever-changing exhibition of artworks in its gallery.
For lovers of art and culture the top two sights are the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. When I last visited Amsterdam only the Philips Wing was open with its key art works on show but this impressive Dutch Renaissance-style building has now been beautifully renovated and reopened. Its collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers is unparalleled and there are plenty of other ‘Old Masters’ to satisfy the most ardent art lover.
Across the grassy Museumplein is the cuboid Van Gogh Museum. Designed by architect Gerrit Rietveld, this airy temple to one of the world’s most inspired artists is a pleasure to stroll round. As well Van Gogh’s famous ‘Sunflowers’ and ‘Bedroom at Arles’ the museum charts his artistic life and work. I found it both uplifting and poignant, especially coming finally to his rather desolate yet intensely rich ‘Wheatfield under Thundercloud’ (1890), painted shortly before his suicide.
Amsterdam is inextricably linked to Holland’s richly varied maritime history. The best place to get a feel for this is at the Scheepvaartmusem (Maritime Museum). The elegant white building sits on the edge of bustling Oosterdock, watching over the ships, yachts, canal cruisers, ferries and pleasure boats that shuttle around this open waterway. Full to the gunnels with maps, models, charts, navigation instruments and pictures, it easily conveys how this small country punched well above its weight on the water. Moored in front is the splendid ‘Amsterdam‘ a replica of the 18th c Dutch East India Company cargo ship.
There are so many other cultural attractions you could spend a week in Amsterdam and still only scratch the surface. As well as cycling about, another grreat way to see the city is to take a canal cruise. With an informative commentary you can get an idea of what there is to see and then plan your time accordingly.
I travelled over to Holland on a Stena Line ferry and also had a day wandering round the floral delights of the Keukenhof Gardens. If you’re looking for a good guide book, I can highly recommend the Pocket Rough Guide to Amsterdam.