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Rain or shine, Amsterdam is a city of substance

| Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003

Pack your galoshes and wind-resistant umbrellas. Amsterdam is a delightful destination, except for its frequently wet and blustery weather. Always historic, aesthetic and scenic, variously trendy, quirky, boisterous and serene, this European city appeals to diverse interests. It's easy to get to, frequently offered at bargain E-Saver prices, and compact - hence a good choice for an extended weekend.

Almost everyone, including tram (streetcar) drivers, speaks English, many without a trace of accent. So don't fret over strings of consonants and profuse "j"s in the language. Also, forget the stereotype of Dutch food as little more than sturdy red and yellow cheeses: Contemporary cuisine thrives in Amsterdam.

Water, water everywhere

This place should rightly be under water. Much of Amsterdam, and much of the Netherlands, is at, or below, sea level. It exists as dry land only because it's got coastal dunes and huge, man-made dikes (levees). Careful channeling of the Dam River and a series of concentric canals (grachts) drain the city, earning Amsterdam designation as "Venice of the North." But buildings emerge straight from the canals in Venice.

In Amsterdam, sidewalks, narrow streets and parking spots line the water's edges. While tourist boats ply the canals, Amsterdammers drive or cycle, zooming hazardously through pedestrian traffic, along narrow one-way pavements. If you hear a bicycle bell, leap aside. Also, watch your step as you stroll: Uneven, cobbled pavements and doggy-doo behoove frequent downward glancing.

Despite these warnings, the grachts define the city's life - both by day and by evening, when gentle illumination augments their romance. During historic periods of prosperity, wealthy citizens - especially merchants involved in colonial trade in the East and West Indies - built tall mansions along the grachts. These handsome buildings, in brick or sandstone, display unique gables in various styles - stepped, bell and neck being the most popular. Another exceptional feature: The Dutch traditionally use attics for storage; large hooks protrude from the facades, above the attic doors, to hoist goods into place. A reliable guidebook, such as the Green Michelin, provides details on the most architecturally notable houses. Just don't miss the House of Heads (Keizersgracht 123) and the Bartolotti House (Herengracht 170-172). The Museum Van Loon (Keizersgracht 672) reveals a typical interior, courtyard garden and "golden age" lifestyle.

Nor any drop to drink

Coleridge's Ancient Mariner would find a wide variety of beverages available in Amsterdam's numerous cafes and bars - said to number more than 1,000. The traditional "brown" cafes, so called because centuries of rising tobacco smoke encrust their ceilings, serve coffee and hot chocolate. But most customers prefer beer, schnapps and gin. Although Tanqueray, Bombay and other British brands dominate the international gin market, the spirit was most likely invented in the Netherlands. Usually kept refrigerated and a slightly lower proof, Dutch gin, known as "Jenever" (juniper), tastes blander than its British cousin. Sip out of a tall, narrow glass, and don't expect ice or tonic, except in hotels catering to Americans. It's not for nothing that the Netherlands produces Heineken and Amstel. Even in frosty weather, crowds of beer drinkers sit at outdoor tables around Dam Square, Leidseplein and Spui. Restaurants serve wines from other European countries and South Africa, another Dutch colonial connection.

Even the "New Side" is old

For reasons not immediately obvious, Amsterdam's old city center has two Zijdes (sides): Oude (old) and Nieuwe (new). Both have major kerks (churches) - originally Catholic and now Protestant. The Oude Kerk was built first, so when the Nieuwe Kerk was built, the area around it was dubbed Nieuwe. The area around the Oude Kerk then became Oude. Time, fires and religious upheavals dealt unkindly with both church buildings. The tower of Oude Kirk, though, offers a great panorama of the city. And the dignified architecture along the canals rivals that along the grachts west of the city center. The major tourist attraction in this part of town, however, is the "red light district."

The Nieuwe includes Dam Square, a large, busy and rather unattractive open space, with the Royal Palace at one end and a 1956 obelisk war memorial at the other. The current Queen lives in The Hague and rarely visits her palace here. Admire the architecture, then explore the statues in the old Court Chambers and the Citizen's Chamber. Magna Plaza, a Gothic revival former post office just off the square, now encompasses a multi-level, elegantly arcaded shopping complex. Central Station, a grand twin-towered, red and white brick edifice on three man-made islands, took seven years to construct and unfortunately closed off the city from its seaboard.

Damrak, the super-broad main street of the Nieuwe, used to be a canal and part of the city's harbor. Today, it's lined with cafes and shops. On one side, the Beurs van Berlage dominates. Built as the Stock Exchange in 1903, the building has been restored and re-purposed to offer exhibition spaces, a concert hall and other cultural activities.

Old masters, new masters

Visitors flock to Amsterdam to view quintessential fine art - from Flemish primitives through the Italian Renaissance-influenced 16th century to the mid 20th-century CoBrA group (the "A" stands for Amsterdam). The illustrious Rijksmuseum, which remains open during a major renovation, boasts riches of Dutch masters, including stunning works by Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer. Rembrandt's luminescent "The Night Watch" radiates a whole section of the museum. No less than four Vermeers, including the magnificent "Milkmaid" and "Woman in Blue," mesmerize. Hals also is well represented, although there's a museum dedicated to him in nearby Haarlem.

One tram stop or a five-minute walk away, the Van Gogh Museum houses a must-see collection that gives an overview of the artist's short, intense life and career. While museums around the world own small numbers of Van Goghs, this museum has 200 paintings, 580 drawings, seven sketchpads and 750 letters by the master. A recent expansion greatly enlarged the original 1973 building. The new space exhibits artists who were in some way inspired by the great Vincent.

Right next door to the Van Gogh lies the Stedelijk Museum, a world-class collection of modern art, commencing with the late 19th-century Impressionists and extending to today's creative avant-garde. Significant holdings include American abstract expressionists and pop art, a remarkable collection of Kasimir Malevich's work and representative pieces from the CoBrA group, initiated by artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The museum also runs ground-breaking temporary exhibitions.

Close by, the Concertgebouw, one of the world's great classical concert halls, features an impressive colonnaded facade. Built in 1888, the building was about to celebrate its centenary when collapsing foundations were discovered. Its rescue and restoration marks an engineering triumph. The Museumplein, in the midst of these buildings, is mostly a pleasant grassy area, except for an intrusively noisy skate-boarding track.

Open city

Amsterdam is notorious for legalized prostitution and unbridled marijuana use. Prostitution can come as a surprise when members of the oldest profession appear, even in the afternoon, in a few basement windows along Singelgracht, an otherwise upper crust part of town. But in Old Town's red light district, there's no surprise. Practically a tourist attraction, this large warren of small streets and canals comes fully to life after sunset. Pink neon illuminates shop windows, revealing scantily clad ladies, mostly young and pretty, frequently refugees from impoverished nations. Prostitutes must register and report for frequent health screenings. And the criminal activities associated elsewhere with the trade are said not to be evident here. But more obnoxious sex and pornography shops are proliferating. If you go, take absolutely nothing of value with you, watch out for pickpockets and avoid the narrow side streets where overt use of hard drugs can pose a threat.

Contrary to popular rumor, drugs are not legal in Amsterdam. The police firmly pursue hard drug sellers and users. Registered Koffieshops may sell over-the-counter marijuana and hashish, in small quantities, for personal consumption on premise. That's the official, not necessarily an accurate, statement of policy. Supposedly, this practice results in less street drug use. If so, there must have been an enormous amount before. When passing the open door of a Koffieshop, don't breathe in.

What else to do?

One of the city's most popular destinations is the Anne Frank Huis, on Prinsengracht. Here, the young Jewish diarist was concealed from the occupying Nazis from 1942 until 1944. This stark reminder of man's inhumanity and a teenager's courage in adversity is not for everyone. If you decide to go, arrive early: The admission line is usually already long by the 9 a.m. opening.

The Joordan neighborhood lies just across the Prinsengracht. Here, recent gentrification and a tranquil, picturesque atmosphere replace what used to be a noisome industrial area. Stroll along Egelantiersgracht and Bloemgracht and also streets that once were canals, like Lindengracht. Here's Amsterdam at its most peaceful.

Even more serene are the "hofjes," inner courtyards of former hospices, now residences. Begijnhof, right in the midst of the old city, offers the ultimate hofje experience. Formerly a convent for the semi-religious, semi-lay Beguine community, this tranquil setting boasts immaculately tended gardens and houses, Amsterdam's only surviving all-timber house, a curiously shaped "secret" chapel and the city's Presbyterian church, which used to be the Beguine place of worship.

Amsterdam has a fine zoo, Artis, in the Plantage district east of the city. The restored Rembrandt Haus, the home and studio built by this artist at the peak of his fame, shows where the master actually worked. De Poezenboot (The Cat Boat), moored on the Singlegracht, gives refuge to hundreds of stray cats. There's even a casino.

And, of course, shopping.

If you go: Amsterdam


Getting there

U.S. citizens do not require a visa, except for stays longer than a few months. Currency is the Euro (E), about $1.15 at current exchange rates. All prices for goods and services include the national sales tax, VAT. www.amsterdam.nl is an excellent Web site, packed with information/links on most topics of interest, including special rates at numerous hotels. US Airways flies daily from Philadelphia, and Northwest Airlines flies twice daily from Detroit (avoid the earlier departure, which makes a stop in Boston). There's an ATM in the baggage claim area at the Schipol airport, a nice feature missing from most European airports: Get cash while waiting for your checked baggage. For both speed and economy, take the train to Central Station. The E3.20 fare compares favorably with the E40 taxi cost, but note the many steps to climb on exiting the station. Train ticket machines accept only coins, so if you don't have these, go to the ticket counter. There's no cost advantage in buying a round trip. Do not rent a car, unless your plans demand it. City driving is nerve-shattering, and hotels charge above E30 per day for parking.

Where to stay

The Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and the Holiday Inn chains have numerous hotels in Amsterdam. Pick your location. The Sheraton Pulitzer actually brings together a row of canal houses. The European Nh chain has two luxury properties-the Barbizon Plaza and Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, in the old city, plus two others (one in the old city). Many of these can be booked through a link on www.amsterdam.nl , which lists the special deals in effect. Lower price hotels can also be investigated and booked through the same site. For Hilton and Marriott, use their respective Web sites, www.hilton.com and www.marriott.com .

Getting around

Weather permitting, walking works - unless you're adventurous enough to rent a bicycle. Use trams to get quickly from one part of the city to another: The No. 2 and No. 5, for example, run through the otherwise pedestrian-only streets of the Nieuwe Zijde, from Central Station to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh. You can buy a strip ticket for multiple rides, or pay the one-way fare of E1.60 to the driver on board. Drivers expertly advise about what stop you need. There are buses, too, but their routes seem harder to follow, and they do not traverse the old city like the trams. There is a metro system, but its routes are designed for commuters. Taxis cannot be hailed in the street, but there are taxi stands in front of all the major hotels and in popular locations like Dam Square. Unless you're into unusual experiences, avoid the bicycle-powered taxis because they are slow and expensive. For day trips outside the city, frequent trains run from Central Station.

Although they are slower point to point than trams, canal boats offer romance and perspectives different from the quayside views. Be aware, though, that a single one-way ride is about E8 and an all-day ticket E14 to E19, depending on the line. Tickets and boarding for all boats is just south of Central Station. Brochures and signs canal-side identify certain stops. A combined ticket with Canalbus for all-day canal riding plus Rijksmuseum admission saves E3. Canalbus, affiliated with Gray Line, operates three lines - green, red and blue. Lovers' Museumboat ticket, $14.25, also entitles you to discounts at various attractions including the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh.

In addition to the regular routes, special guided tours, even evening dinner cruises, are available. The foolhardy can rent pedal boats.

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