Travel for mind, body and spirit: Feet Walking in Holland

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Feet Walking in Holland

When it comes to walking for pleasure, I have a couple of simple requirements. Firstly, the terrain has to be flat. And secondly, I need the comfort of knowing that there are plenty of cheerful little bars along the route. Not for me the grim-but-worthy trudge across the Himalayas accompanied only by a yak.

For like-minded potterers, where better to holiday with one's feet than Amsterdam? Holland is, after all, famously short on mountains. And the city's neatly gridded canal system keeps your feet firmly on the straight and narrow. Even the most incompetent of map-readers can't get lost for long. (If you do, just stagger into the nearest bar and ask someone where you are. Unless it happens to be one of those with a neon-lit leaf outside, they ought to be able to tell you.)

There's no contest at all, in my book, for the best walk in Amsterdam: a gentle amble through the magical, leafy district known as the Jordaan. Bounded by the canals Prinsengracht to the east, Brouwersgracht to the north, Lijnbaansgracht to the west and (depending on whom you believe, since even the Amsterdam authorities can't agree on it) either Elandsgracht or Leidesgracht to the south, the area is a lovely patchwork of narrow, shady streets, tree-lined strips of blue canal and secret garden courtyards (known as hofjes), hidden behind wooden doorways.

Originally the Jordaan was solidly working-class. The population is now more eclectic. An influx of designers and artists have brought with them a scattering of craft boutiques and small art galleries, which rub shoulders with the myriad traditional "brown bars" of the area (the best have flagged floors, wooden panelling and chess-boards befogged by clouds of tobacco smoke). And with 800 of its 8,000 homes and warehouses bearing the blue- and-white tiles that designate them protected monuments, rents in the Jordaan have inevitably shot up.

To date the charmingly offbeat character of the area has survived gentrification with panache. The mobile phones are still muzzled. But if you haven't visited already, now's probably a good time to go. A Dutch dictionary is a useful accompaniment for a stroll as the Jordaan street names change at almost every block, with the shortest streets (perversely) almost invariably having the longest names - all of which can make map- reading a bit of a struggle. But keeping an eye on the meanings of place- names can be unexpectedly rewarding.

The Jordaan's own name is believed to derive from the French jardin. (The district was established in the 17th century by French Huguenot settlers.) And as you walk through you'll find a chain of street names that reinforce the garden theme. There's Bloemstraat (Flower Street), Tuinstraat (Garden Street) and Laurierstraat (Laurel Street). Then there's the Rozengracht (Rose Canal), the Lindengracht (Linden Canal) and the Egelantiersgracht (named after sweet briar, or eglantine).

Street names are also a handy guide to the trade history of the area. A major industry of the 17th century was tanning, for example. So look out for Looiersgracht (Tanner's Canal) and a criss-cross of surrounding streets named after pelts. There's Hazenstraat (Hare Street), Elandsgracht (Elk Canal), Wolvenstraat (Wolf Street) and Reestraat (Deer Street).

For another set of clues to the Jordaan's history, keep an eye out for gable stones - painted signs or carved plaques set halfway up houses or above doorways as a guide to the identity of the occupant (Amsterdam didn't institute street numbers until 1796). You'll see elks over the door at Elandsgracht 125, former home of a tanner. At Brouwersgracht 52, the chairs signal the home of a furniture maker; at Tuinstraat 57, a sheet-maker's home is indicated by a set of woven threads.

A natural starting point for a walking tour of the Jordaan is the Westerkerk on Prinsengracht - and, if you're there in the summer, you can climb to the top of the Westertoren and enjoy a fabulous aerial view of the whole district before setting off. From the church, turn right up Prinsengracht, passing the Anne Frank house, and then cross the canal straight into the Jordaan.

A left and a right will bring you directly on to Bloemgracht with its elegant gabled houses. Look out for three beautiful mid-17th-century examples from numbers 87-91, also known as the Drie Hendricken (the three Henrys). If you're taking your stone-spotting very seriously, you'll recognise them as the former homes of a farmer, a townsman and a seaman.

Cross the second bridge on Bloemgracht, and a short walk and then a right turn will bring you onto Egelantiersgracht. On 1e Egelantiersgracht 105- 114 you'll come across Andrieshof, one of the oldest hofjes in Amsterdam. Hofjes were originally almshouses, built around courtyards by charitable merchants. Now the homes are privately occupied (in some cases, let out to students) but the attractive communal gardens - often planted with roses or wild flowers - can usually be visited by tourists, as long as quiet is observed.

A stroll by the waterside down Egelantiersgracht then takes you back to Prinsengracht, where two quick left turns bring you onto Egelantierstraat and 1e Egelantiersdwarsstraat. At number 60, you'll see a gable stone showing a group of singers. The building used to be a "musical newspaper", where people composed songs about current events to sing around the neighbourhood streets for money. Also on 1e Egelantiersdwarsstraat you'll find Claes Claeszhofje, a group of hofjes.

The most distinctive house in the complex is the Huis met de Schrijvende Hand (House with the Writing Hand) which comes out on Elegantiersstraat 52. At numbers 24-26, for future reference, you can take note of the friendly Claes Claesz restaurant, open in the evenings.

By now you may have developed a thirst. If you didn't call in at cafe 't Smalle at Egelantiersgracht 12 (a veritable Jordaan institution), do take a right turn and find De Tuin at 2e Tuinswarstraat 13 (my personal favourite of Jordaan bars, and well worth the five minutes of getting seriously lost that it will probably take you to find it). It's everything a brown bar should be.

Suitably revived, you can then weave your way through a maze of small shops and cafes until you cross the main Westerstraat, and head right towards the Noorderkerk. The square there has been a market site since 1627 and is a hub of activity, with the general market being replaced by a flea market on Monday mornings and by a bird market very early on Saturdays.

Once you've finished your haggling, continue over to Lindengracht, turning right past the Sujkerhofje at 149-163 (another lovely garden hidden within) and left onto Brouwersgracht. Brouwersgracht (Brewer's Canal, see picture previous page) is almost everyone's favourite strip of canal in the Jordaan - tranquil, leafy and harbouring a sleepy line of brightly painted house- boats.

And the end of this route brings a welcome reward for weary walkers. The last remaining distillery in the area - the Ooievaar - is just off the western end of the Brouwersgracht on Driehoekstraat (Triangle Street). It has been making jenever since 1782, and its proeflokaal (tasting house) is open to public.

What more appropriate way to say Tot ziens! (see you soon) to the Jordaan?

Linda Cookson

For guided walking tours contact Mee in Mokum ("Come Along in Amsterdam") Hartenstraat 18 (0031 20 625 1390).