Over-caffeinated and over there

When the going gets cold, the cold seek coffee. Sasha Abramsky warms to the cosy cafes of a chilly Amsterdam
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ICE DOES strange things to a city. It quietens it down and highlights its shapes. Wind seems to bounce off the ice, and the air gets crisper. Amsterdam becomes a glittering frozen world - of houseboats trapped on immobilised waterways. The narrow buildings lining the canals and the churches with spires piercing the sky all become lesser sidekicks to the cold. The ice-skaters take over when the mercury drops.

In early January with the coldest weather in decades gripping Europe, the Netherlands - flat, coastal, criss-crossed with canals - seemed to abandon itself to the winter. When my friend Cory and I left England, the populace were wringing their hands in misery over the freeze; when we arrived in Amsterdam, people were almost gleeful. With a wind-chill factor of minus 20, the country had been converted into a giant ice-rink, and tens of thousands of people had headed north to either skate in - or watch - a 200-kilometre race over the ice. The man who checked us into our hotel informed us that people had camped out on the streets the previous night for prime viewing positions. In Amsterdam itself, smiling red-nosed residents were skating through the centre, along those canals where the now rock-solid ice had not been churned up into broken shards by boats defying the temperature before the canals had become totally impassable. Some were pulling children on sleds, some dragging bewildered dogs beside them, the sides of the canals coated with the red paper remnants of the millions of firecrackers set off on New Year's Eve.

Cory and I, lacking ice-skates, spent our time walking the streets next to the canals. Crowned by the vast train station on the edge of the docks, ringed by a series of wide canals - the Prinsen-gracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Singel - the centre is not a massive place. It is possible to walk, slowly, from any one point inside the old city to any other within an hour. In the bitterly cold wind, however, walking for more than a few minutes became an exercise in pain. And when the going got cold, the cold sought coffee - and warm beer, and Holland's greatest contribution to winter cuisine, thick pea soup.

On the way to the Van Gogh Mus-eum, we stopped off at a cafe called Pygmalion which had yellow-painted plaster walls, with bricks superimposed in random places and fake cracks to give it an aura of age. Forties-era big- band jazz was playing softly, and lush orange satin draperies hung over the entrance. It looked charming, and, as it turned out, the coffee was tasty too.

Pygmalion is co-owned by a British man called Iain, who worked as a banker before taking a three-month leave of absence. During this time, he came to Amsterdam, decided he liked it, and stayed. That was six years ago. Last March, he and a friend bought a cafe from a hairdresser who had found he didn't have the time to both cut hair and serve coffees, and renamed it Pygmalion. "Pygmalion is a character in Greek mythology," Iain explains. "He was a sculptor and he didn't really have respect for women or anything ... and then one day he made a sculpture of Venus and fell in love with the statue he'd made. It brought out the softer side of his character, and the Gods were so impressed they brought the statue to life ... So the motto of the story is 'love changes everything' ... I just thought it was a nice motto." We talk some more - about Holland's tax system; its comprehensive welfare system; the difficulties of running a business; the cost of living and the city. Amsterdam is a very liveable place we agree.

Cory and I have two cups of coffee in Pygmalion, and are soon as over- caffeinated as possible, and as ready to subject ourselves to the cold again as we ever will be. We walk off towards the museum and its spectacular collection of Van Gogh paintings.

Although Amsterdam is renowned to travellers the world over for its free- wheeling, laid-back style - evolved out of a history that has embraced the ideals of tolerance and pluralism for hundreds of years - for its marijuana coffee shops and its bizarrely sordid, overt and brutally honest red-light district, it is also an elegant, gentle, almost dainty European city. Amsterdam's Koncert-gebouw Orchestra is famed as being one of the finest in the world, its museums contain works by such masters as Rembrandt, Bruegel and Van Gogh. Like its Belgian neighbour, Bruges, it is a well- preserved city whose history and architecture merge almost seamlessly into its present. Two world wars and vast technological changes have not obliterated its character. And in addition to its several hundred coffee shops, Amsterdam also has large numbers of ultra-chic cafes - lovely places where one can buy various types of coffee drinks, as well as the standard alcoholic fare of British pubs. It also has eetcafes which offer the added luxury of food. Unlike in Britain, cafes and pubs are not divided into separate entities. Beer drinkers do not look down on those sipping coffees on the bar stools next to them and coffee connoisseurs do not shun the pubs.

In fact, if a tension exists between the imbibers and inhalers of this culture's various stimulants and depressants, it seems to be between the pub-owners and the "drug-dealers" - the coffee shops, and more particularly, the freelancers who roam the streets, offering everything from hash to Ecstasy to cocaine and opium. Many pubs display signs informing patrons that no drugs are allowed on the premises. A large number of the coffee shops, technically illegal, but tolerated, don't serve anything harder than a Coca-Cola. It is, says Monique, who works at her sister's tiny Cafe de Dam, a combination of drug-cultures that proprietors avoid.

The Cafe de Dam is alternatively titled "the smallest pub in town" and exists in what used to be the living room of a house. It has five small tables and a handful of barstools, an enormous brass espresso machine and an ornate, 90-year-old English silver cash register. Like many of Amsterdam's cafe-pubs, Cafe de Dam has British football scarves hanging from the ceiling. "It started with one and then other groups came and they bring their scarves," Monique says. "Seventy per cent of our customers are English. The best customers you can have. They drink a lot and are always having fun."

Not that the Dutch themselves don't also frequent cafes. Dotted around the Rembrandtsplein (a large square surrounded by nightspots and restaurants) are a number of grand cafes with names such as l'Opera and de Kroon. Inside these glass-fronted, subtle-but-well-lit spaces, Amsterdam's bourgeoisie convene. They sit at tables carefully placed both to allow for private conversation and also to give the impression of a well-satisfied and humming whole, looking out on to the world beyond. The coffees are good but overpriced - as are the pastries and wine. Old Parisian Moulin Rouge posters hang on the walls, and the waiters glide about delicately.

We went into one of the grand cafes, and after a very few minutes came out again. We decided that their smaller counterparts were more our cup of tea. But, it is possible that our sense of judgement was somewhat the worse for wear by that stage. Being in Amsterdam for three days, Cory and I were compelled to at least explore some of the more talked-about parts of the city. We had wandered through the red-light district one night, amazed at how women could sit in shop windows, virtually naked in weather this cold; and we passed by several shops which had assorted contraptions on display the uses of which we could only hypothesise.

In a sweet-smelling place called the Bluebird, Cory shed one of her car- digans and was stunned a couple of minutes later to find out that it was on fire: she had deposited over a candle.

The night before we left, we stopped at yet another cafe for yet another coffee, paid the bill, stepped back into the freezing cold. As I shut the door, the handle came off in my hand, perhaps temporarily trapping the people inside. We didn't stop to find out. !


CAFES: Pygmalion (00 31 20 420 7022), Nieuwe Spiegelstraat; Cafe de Dam (00 31 20 624 5331) Damstraat; l'Opera (00 31 20 627 5232), Rembrandtsplein; de Kroon (00 31 20 625 2011), Rembrandtsplein.

GETTING THERE: British Airways (0345 222111), return flights from pounds 81. Eurostar (0345 881881), return fare from pounds 77. Hoverspeed (01304 240241) return ticket from pounds 44. Stena Sealink (01233 647047) runs car ferries from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, tickets from pounds 66 per car.