Rejuvenated Rijksmuseum back at the heart of Amsterdam

After a decade under wraps, the city's Rijksmuseum is finally reopening this weekend. It's a dazzling return, says Simon Calder

Winter has stolen the colour from Amsterdam. The most poignant evidence of the long, bitter months lies buried beneath the tulip beds at Hortus Botanicus. This is the historic garden that contains botanical treasures plundered from Java, South Africa and the Caribbean during the Golden Age in the 17th and 18th centuries. By early April, your field of vision in this garden in the city should be saturated with primary colours. Instead, even the green shoots are tinged with grey. Most of the bulbs are still in hiding.

Happily, elsewhere the city is ablaze with colour this weekend – because Amsterdam's new Golden Age is dawning. The orange carpet has been rolled out for the final major duty of Queen Beatrix before she abdicates in favour of her son, Willem-Alexander, at the end of April. This weekend, she will reopen the Rijksmuseum.

If the Crown Prince is thinking, "About time, too", in respect of the House of Orange, we tourists are thinking the same about the home of art. For the past decade, visitors to Amsterdam's Museum Quarter have been confronted by hoardings and scaffolding during a refurbishment that proved thoroughly bungled but ultimately brilliant.

Since the late 19th century, either end of the heart of Amsterdam has been defined by a handsome redbrick building: to the north, Centraal Station; to the south, the Rijksmuseum. Both are the work of Pierre Cuypers, the visionary architect who saw mass transportation and the finest art as equally deserving of grand design.

The 20th century proved unkind to his civic bookends. Part of the elegant first-class waiting room in the station was surrendered to a Burger King, and severe operational difficulties in the tunnelling area means that the forecourt is still blighted by building work on the much-delayed north-south Metro line.

The Rijksmuseum suffered even more. Cuypers intended to make a single assertion: that the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th and 18th centuries created the finest art the world has ever seen. Essentially, it was intended to be a cultural cathedral revering the greatest hits of the Old Masters. The nave was the Gallery of Honour, with the focus on a single painting by Rembrandt van Rijn: The Shooting Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, the cheerful confusion of characters, hats, guns and drums better known as The Night Watch. But then museum mission creep took hold. Cuypers' flourishes were overpainted; interior walls were erected to squeeze in more paintings, and makeshift facilities expanded to cater for far more visitors than original envisioned. By the end of the 20th century, it was clear that the original concept had to be rescued.

In 1999, the Netherlands government gave the Dutch people a millennium present: 100m guilders (around £60m at the time) to restore the Rijksmuseum. The venue would close in 2003, with the key paintings transferred to the adjacent Philips Wing. But what were they smoking when the management of the foremost Dutch museum and the Government Building Agency predicted the task would take just three years?

The job of transforming the exterior into a building capable of providing millions of visitors with a magical experience was given to the Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz. But only after the closure was the interior refurbishment awarded to the French designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte.

Next, only one construction firm tendered for the job, but its bid was considered too high. So the work was split into many smaller "lots". Co‑ordinating the fragmented scheme proved a near-impossible task. Heavy-clogged politicians hardly helped. Cuypers' building was astride a right of way, and includes a tunnel to allow pedestrians and cyclists to funnel from the city centre to the "Old South" area. The thoroughfare has been safeguarded, but progress was slowed while interest groups and politicians bickered about the technicalities.

All of which explains why the time frame expanded threefold and the budget ballooned to a staggering one-third of a billion pounds.

If the Dutch East India Company had been run as ineptly as the Rijksmuseum refurbishment, the Golden Age would never have happened. That first truly global enterprise demonstrated that a nation with meagre resources could prosper simply by buying, selling and moving.

In 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed for the far north of Canada, plans to expand the city were laid. Work began four years later – giving those of us lucky enough to be in Amsterdam in 2013 even more reason to celebrate. The result was the Canal Ring: three concentric, semi-circular waterways that radiate from the medieval core and mark their 400th anniversary this year.

To appreciate the Golden Age with ease, wander from the wintry shadows of Hortus Botanicus clockwise along the Herengracht – the "Gentlemen's Canal". Cross the Blue Bridge over the Amstel river, at about the point where it was first dammed. After some latter-day intrusions (such as the headquarters of Dutch bank ABN AMRO), let your gaze skip along the gables of the townhouses that lean against one another with a certain architectural tenderness.

Once you pass beneath the tram tracks of Vijzel- straat, the past really opens up in the shape of the "Golden Bend" – so called because only the richest merchants could afford properties here. Hold the image, because later at the Rijksmuseum you can compare it with Gerrit Berckheyde's painting, The Bend on Herengracht. When you have wound around the Herengracht in its glorious entirety, unwind with a beer at the Café Papeneiland, a Golden Age original that may well have refreshed Rembrandt, the man who bestowed oil painting with such power and emotion.

The greatest collection of his work is back at the replenished Rijksmuseum. You can now appreciate how it has swerved back from its latter-day utilitarian role as a venue for some interesting paintings to become a celebration of Dutch identity as forged by the Golden Age.

Amsterdam deserves to prosper. With the rejuvenated Van Gogh Museum reopening next month ready for its 40th birthday, the city is back in business as Europe's cultural stellar turn. This is best symbolised by Richard Wright's murals of 47,000 hand-painted black stars that dance across the ceiling beneath the Rijksmuseum's grand towers, and welcome visitors to the Gallery of Honour. The Turner Prize-winner's commission came about because of the "percentage rule". A proportion of the cost of any government building must be spent on visual art, a stipulation that reflects how jolly civilised are the Dutch. These enlightened folk even cater for those in Amsterdam solely to change planes, with an outpost of the Rijksmuseum in Schiphol airport.

In the spirit of one of the sponsors, Heineken, the Rijksmuseum will reach places that other art collections do not. Such as your heart.

The long winter of discontented tourists is over. The Night Watch is back in its rightful place at the head of the Gallery of Honour. The rejuvenated Rijksmuseum is back at the heart of Amsterdam, and it is time that you came back to this most creative of cities, which decorates the map of Europe so elegantly.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Simon Calder paid £126 return to fly London City-Amsterdam with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Other airlines include KLM (0870 507 4074; klm.com), and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com). The train (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) runs from London St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal via Brussels.

Staying there

Simon Calder paid €163, including breakfast, to stay at the Andaz Hotel (00 31 20 523 1234; andaz.hyatt.com). The Quentin England Hotel (00 31 20 616 6032; quentinengland.com) has double rooms without breakfast from €39.

Seeing there

The Rijksmuseum opens 9am-5pm daily, admission €15 (free to under 18s). Book in advance at rijksmuseum.nl/en/tickets.

More information

Amsterdam Tourism (00 31 20 201 8800; iamsterdam.com).

Simon Calder's film about Amsterdam will be online on Monday; see standard.co.uk/ba

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