Travel: Go Dutch for Christmas

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The Independent Culture
It's party time in the old mirror quarter of Amsterdam. Lynn ten Kate browses, as the ancient shops lay on their own Christmas festival

December is a good month to visit Amsterdam. St Nicolaas is in town with his helper Swarte Piet for the festive season, and can be seen on the streets. Dutch children are lucky - they get two celebrations. At the beginning of December, they put out their clogs with a carrot for the horses and a drink for the old man who, in return, fills the shoes with presents and snoepjes (sweets).

Festivities, though, are not just for children. On the weekend of 12- 14 December adults have a special celebration: open house at the Spiegelkwartier, (literally the Mirror Quarter), the old area leading to the Rijksmuseum. The Spiegelkwartier is a village within the city of Amsterdam.

The long-established shops, still family owned, have passed down through six or seven generations, and nowhere else in the world has so many antique shops within such a small area. More than 70 shops, galleries and ateliers line the streets and canals. Many hold world-class collections of antique glass, Delftware and paintings;others house the sharpest designers of modern interiors and jewellery.

It is fun to visit the Spiegelkwartier at any time of the year, but during open house the whole quarter is in party mood. The streets are lit with fairy lights, and there are choirs and brass bands.

In an area of such delights, it is difficult to select, but try to call in on three particular outlets. Start with Galerie Lieve Hemel. Sculpture is not often an art form that makes you laugh aloud, but I defy anyone to keep a straight face when confronted by life-size overcoats, jackets, shirts and shorts, socks and brassieres carved from pine and hanging realistically from pegs. Then frighten yourself to bits by examining the antique medical and surgical instruments at Thorn and Lenny Nelis. During open house, Lenny says, you can try some of them out. Finally, don't miss Couzijn Simon. The front room on the street is full of antique toys; the back room has modern paintings. Look out of the rear window across the little courtyard and garden to the neat 17th-century house behind, and you see a perfect scene for a painting by Pieter de Hooch.

The night life of the Spiegelstraat centres around the Pasta e Basta restaurant. As you arrive you are handed an old music score, the first page of which turns out to be the menu. An eager young pianist plays Mozart. The lid of his grand piano is wide open, and set inside the belly of the piano are the antipasti, to which you help yourself. The waitresses are extraordinarily handsome, chosen, I thought, for their looks. I was wrong. In turn each girl pauses to sing an operatic aria before continuing to dish out the pasta. They are all students at the local conservatoire. The atmosphere is classless, ageless and typically Dutch. A good night out - meal, drinks and entertainment - costs about pounds 20 a head.

To maximise your enjoyment of the festival, you could sign up for a package of special events put together by the Spiegelkwartier Association. It includes a major exhibition, lectures, a sail along the canals, a collectors' dinner and two nights' bed and breakfast at Amsterdam's five-star Hilton Hotel for 395 guilders (pounds 123).

The association chairman is Joop Polack, an antique dealer and an authority on Indonesian art, though his shop houses an eclectic selection of Gothic wooden sculpture, Flemish tapestries, American Indian feather work and silver.

This year the open house weekend starts at 7pm on Friday, 12 December with a private view and reception held at the Black Pharaohs' exhibition, which has just arrived from Paris. This major exhibition brings together Egyptian artefacts from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, from Boston, Berlin, Leipzig and Khartoum.

On Saturday morning, the association has arranged three half-hour lectures in the Rijksmuseum. The third is a light-hearted history of hats given in English by the Royal Hatter, Robert Kuijpers. Visitors who do not speak Dutch could use the previous hour to look at a few Rembrandts and get in the mood by visiting the Chapeau, Chapeaux exhibition, for which the museum has brought out of hiding its collection of hats dating back to the 15th century.

Anyone short of ideas for Christmas presents could use the afternoon's exploration of the Spiegelkwartier to solve the problem. There is surely something for everyone, and if you want to treat yourself, Anneke Schat, another of the lecturers, makes jewellery in the studio above her shop. She will deftly design a ring or brooch for you, luxurious in gold or surprisingly cheap in silver, and certainly stylish in either.

All this, and I haven't yet mentioned Casanova, a main theme of the celebrations. The great lover lived for a time in the Spiegelkwartier. How he would have relished the operatic restaurant.

Aiming for Amsterdam

Amsterdam has the best flight connections from the UK of any foreign destination. Flights serve the city's Schiphol airport from Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Heathrow, Humberside, Inverness, Leeds, Liverpool, London City, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Sheffield, Southampton, Stansted and Teesside. Most of these flights are on Air UK (0345 666777), though EasyJet (0990 292929) has keen fares from Luton and Liverpool.

Trains run four times an hour from Schiphol airport to Amsterdam's Central Station, taking 20 minutes and costing about pounds 2 each way.

More information

Netherlands Board of Tourism, PO Box 523, London SW1T 6NE (0171-734 0860). The main tourist office in Amsterdam is opposite the main entrance to the Central Station, and is open 9am-11pm daily. A second office is at Schiphol airport, close to the rail station.

To book the Spiegelkwartier Cultural Weekend, call the Hilton on 00 31 20 571 1230. Pasta e Basta: booking is essential, on 00 31 20 422 2226 or fax 00 31 20 422 2231.

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