CITYSLICKER: AMSTERDAM

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The Independent Culture
This week, Amsterdam city council introduces new quality controls for its brothels. Is this one more reason to visit Europe's most progressive capital?

Most ubiquitous item of clothing: The waterproof cycle cape. Underneath it, anything goes. Grunge, authentic hippy, leatherboy, Wall Street, Wild West, house party, shell-suits - no one bats an eyelid. There is one marginally noticeable character who rollerblades around town wearing only fake tan, a silver G-string and knee boots. He does have very nice legs.

Hottest restaurant: Forming an orderly queue is not an Amsterdam thing, but they do line up prettily to get into Le Garage, run by exceedingly camp TV-chef Joop Braakhekker, who abandoned the Michelin-starred Kersentuin to do up a garage in silver and red. He describes his cooking as "Bistro-elegant" - cod and sauerkraut is an example. Don't go seeking romance: you may end up at a banqueting table observing the antics of the "World-famous in Holland".

Meeting place: Grand Cafe Luxembourg is a cross between the dinge of an Amsterdam brown bar and a yuppie imitation of a British gentleman's club. Frequented by an unlikely alliance of share traders and literary lions, it is a comfortable place to sit outa rainy afternoon. Beautiful white-aproned waitresses serve hearty portions of bitterballen - hot meatballs which are tastier than they sound.

Book of the moment: De Tweeting, by Tessa de Loo, which shows why it is not a good idea to speak German when visiting Amsterdam. Meaning "the twins", it tells of a pair who were separated as children: one grew up in Germany, the other in Holland. The book is an attempt at reconciling the Dutch with their powerful eastern neighbour after the Nazis pillaged Holland at the end of the war. Fat chance. When the Dutch play Germany at football these days, Dutch banners say, "My Grandad Says Can He Have His Bik e Back?"

Catchphrase: At one stage it was "Amsterdam has it". Then the tourist board dreamt up "Gay Capital of Europe" to attract the confirmed double-income-no-kids visitor from America. But in the wake of Aids, both have been quietly dropped. Jealous Rotterdammers started making tasteless jokes such as "Amsterdam has it; Rotterdam gets it."

Meeting place (not): The newly opened Prostitution Information Centre in the heart of the Red Light District is a fount of honest information, but probably not the place to bump into old friends. Another forum of note is Amsterdam's digital city - use a PC and modem, dial (31-20) 622 5222 and enter virtual Amsterdam, complete with its own drugs dealers, sex shops, bars, restaurants and electronic town hall. lt helps if you can speak a bit of Dutch, though.

Shopping: Ignore imported Edam and try the real stuff. Buy it by age: belegen is mature, oud is old and overjarig ancient. The older, the tastier, and you need a cheese scraper (kaasschaaf) to eat it properly, slicing off the finest slivers. Then there'sdope. The 2,000 coffee-shops that sell marijuana from a menu are recognisable by their fluorescent decor and pungent aroma. Don't buy it on the street and don't inhale home-grown Nederwiet (also known as Skunk) unless you want to forget everything aboutyour stay.

Drink of the moment: Bokbier, a slightly sweet, dark-brown brew, is a winter warmer with no aftertaste. It is the cold-weather complement to the city's summer draught, Witbier, made of wheat and served with a slice of lemon. A mind-numbing range of Belgian beers with names such as Mort Subite slosh in and out of vogue. The truly adventurous should try a kopstoot - a kick in the head - an ordinary lager with a chaser of genever, or Dutch gin. (Note: beer is always served with a tall head of froth. The barman won't understand if you complain.)

Latest fad: Stealing billboard posters showing attractive women in provocative dress. One fashion chain's underwear ads became so popular that they switched to men in dinner suits. A more enduring pastime is silly bike design: bikes you can propel while prone, bikes you can chain together like train carriages, bikes with attached dog leads and pet running frantically to catch up are fairly common. But most Amsterdammers just bung their dogs (and babies) into the wicker basket.

Publication of note: for its name alone, the Daily Invisible. Published in Dutch to air the opinions of an eccentric pianist, it is distributed on an irregular basis within a select circle. Those seeking deeper cultural insight may benefit from The UnDutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke, widely regarded as one of the most amusingly insulting assessments of the Dutch national character.

Ashley Shute.

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