An artistic weekend in Amsterdam designed to give you a taste for continental living. And how! Prepare to lose a few clothes and inhibitions along the way...
It took me a year of living in Amsterdam to realise it is actually quite a small place. The reason it does not feel like that could well be to do with its cosmopolitan, open, tolerant attitudes. Shopkeepers may well speak four languages and a whole procession of nationalities pass by its 17th century townhouses and canals as they pay homage to this 'Venice of the North'.
Your weekend in Amsterdam will challenge a few of your prejudices - and inhibitions. So let's start as we intend to continue by pitching up at the Sauna Deco (115 Herengracht; 31 20 623 8215) where, among the Art Deco surroundings of a 1920s Parisian store, you can relax, unwind and strip off for the mixed sauna. Women may initially blanch at the thought, but here in the Netherlands it is considered quite normal, in fact obligatory. The ladies will love the added prospect of signing up for a full day of beauty treatment here for just 115 euros (Salon Deco; 31 20 330 3565).
Concertgebouw and Paradiso
Amsterdam is an amazing place for music of all descriptions, from the classical at the Concertgebouw (Concertgebouw Plein 6; +31 20 573 0753) to the experimental and international at the Paradiso (Weteringschans 6; +31 20 626 8790). This former church has marvellous acoustics, performers from the international circuit and an ambience which hints at the glories of pre-revolutionary France in its sumptuous decorations. The Rolling Stones live album Stripped was recorded here in 1995.
Not far from the Paradiso is the legendary Melkweg (Milky Way), which has been through a few incarnations in its time from milk dairy to hippie hangout to its present day rebirth as a progressive music and theatre centre offering dancing, films, a restaurant and an art gallery besides. The Melkweg is a complete artistic immersion in itself with its own unique atmosphere (Lijnbaansgracht 234a).
Strange things happen here. I once got the café to play a tape of some poems set to music which I had just put together. As it played over the speakers a German guy came rushing up to our table very agitatedly and asked 'Who made this music?' It turned out he was the friend of an old friend and must have picked up on something in the songs which was familiar. It could only happen in the Melkweg, weird and wonderful connections are in its DNA.
Art at the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum
Music is not the only artistic expression you should sample in Amsterdam. A visit to the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7; +31 20 570 5200) will reveal many works you probably do not know by this most magical of artists. His depiction of spring blossoms will blow you away with their colours and passions if you have never seen them before.
And you are not finished yet. The Rijksmuseum (Stadhouserskade 42; +31 20 674 7000) has some priceless Vermeer paintings, another Dutch genius whose work continues to grow in critical estimation as we enter the second decade of a new millennium and encounter his astonishing ability to bring out a transcendental quality in everyday life and scenes.
Where should you stay in Amsterdam to sample all these artistic wares? I would suggest two possible places. If you want to be central the reasonably priced Cordial Hotel Amsterdam near Dam Square offers you a great situation right in the heart of the old city amongst the glorious canals. The nightclubs and coffeeshops, bars and restaurants are right on the doorstep.
The second alternative is the Eden Amsterdam American Hotel. This is a monument to Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Since its opening in 1900 it has been a constant magnet for the artists, writers, dancers and actors who love to hang out in its beautiful Art Nouveau Cafe. Particularly recommended for your weekend visit is the Sunday Jazz Brunch, from 12.30pm to 3.30pm, for which you will definitely need to book a table (+31 20 556 30 10).
During spring and summer in particular the American Hotel is an ideal location right beside the Leidseplein where a great variety of bars and restaurants all provide outdoor seating to create a buzzing yet very relaxed ambience that is entirely continental in feel. It feels good to just take in the sun and the passing show here for a few hours.
Anne Frank House
But at least part of your weekend visit to Amsterdam should take in the darker side of this city's history. The Anne Frank House (www.annefrank.org) at 267 Prinsengracht has been preserved just as it was when the Frank family hid away here for over two years from 1942-1944 when they were betrayed by an unknown informer.
The fear and loathing on the streets at that time comes home to you vividly as you read the words of Anne Frank in her diary 'Our chestnut tree is in full blossom..and is even more beautiful than last year' 13 May 1944 - then realise that she would be dead at Belsen from typhus by spring 1945, two short weeks before the camp was liberated by British forces.
The closing days of the war took a heavy toll on the city. I remember the Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog, poet laureate in 2004 who died in 2009, telling me how his mother sent him off into the fields to search out bulbs to eat when the Germans were fighting a desperate rearguard action against the surrounding British forces. It helps to explain the still lingering dislike of the German tourists who come over the border at the weekends and occasionally find their shining new cars have been scratched.
In contrast, the British are always very welcome as you will discover on your surprising Amsterdam weekend.