Amsterdam: If you only go for the high culture, or the getting-high cul ture, then you miss the best of one of Europe's most eclectic cities. Claudia Daventry got on her bike
It is easy not to like Amsterdam. If your first encounter was a low-budget, student foray into the sleazy backstreets of what looked like a city built on nothing but sludgy canals, tulip-and-clog shops and dope (because you put a radius of no more than about one hundred yards between yourself and Central Station for the duration of your stay), you might be excused for concluding, as I once did, that the city's charms were limited. At the other end of the scale, had you come over for Vermeer in the Hague, paced the stately halls of the Rijksmuseum, caught a Baroque Ensemble at the Concertgebouw, dined in one of the splendid restaurants nearby and retired to a plush hotel before returning home, you'd have missed the point.

One of Amsterdam's many charms lies in having streets to lose yourself in and happen upon tiny galleries, antiques, curious shops, dark, snug bars, unusual restaurants, impromptu live music or street theatre. Tourist guide vernacular frequently calls on that arcane "diversity" word: code for "plenty of nasty places, too". It is true that here, meandering can be more dangerous than in the average foreign city - but only because the labyrinth of canals and interweaving alleyways renders it all too easy to take one wrong turning and suddenly find yourself inextricably ensnared in the tourist web - the inexorable, well-trodden route to overpriced tulip bulbs and hemp lingerie, diamond-polishing and clog-honing workshops. Shopping malls, fast food joints, rip-off pancake houses. Branches of the gruesome coffeeshop chain, The Bulldog, which throbs out "Riders on the Storm" in a touring fug of greenish smoke to cataleptic tourists sliding off bar stools.

Unless all this is what you came here for, such a deviation is an almost sacrilegious waste of time in this bite-size city with the schizoid personality. This enlightened and multinational Dingly Dell is a patchwork of beauty to rival Venice, Parisian chic, Barcelona energy, Berlin anarchy, London eccentricity, Sydney camp. Promiscuity, prudishness and progressiveness squat as congenial neighbours; a lunatic juxtaposition of the old and the new, quality and trash, the staid and the outrageous.

The city centre, while physically small, is highly concentrated. For getting around (whether you are planning to immerse yourself in the museums, art and antiques, the jazz, the echt cafts and quirky shops of the Jordaan, the food, beer and jenever (gin), the clubbing - or to mellow out and play backgammon and morbidly repetitive games of Connect 4 in an assortment of the pleasanter smoky dens) it makes sense to hire a bicycle as soon as you arrive. In Amsterdam, the "fietser" is king. There are other means of transport - trams work, and walking is never a bad alternative - but none accords you the freedom of the city and the Vondelpark the way a bike does. And for a glimpse of toytown Holland, you can cycle up the Amstel towpath to Oudekerk village, past a couple of windmills, beyond fields of cows, towards the new Ajax stadium.

There are innumerable places to hire, and quality varies - shop around and you'll find anything from a high-slung black Dutch bike with backpedal brakes (by far the most effective in the all-too-predictable rain) to gleaming newer models. If you have children, a clever, if dangerously optimistic, baby-seating system allows you to carry up to three squealing kinderen at a time on a single bike - which (given the hairy, quasi-Italianate traffic) is a sight to guarantee horripilation in the average non-Dutch parent. Alternatively, one hire shop provides a most stylish three-wheeler with a roomy bin for your children/double bass.

Walking, on the other hand, gives you more time to admire the buildings that have become the Dutch cliche - an eccentric jumble of architectural styles that etches out the passage of the last five hundred years: early stepped gables, narrow warehouses with gigantic shutters akimbo, the dignified classical pilasters of the wealthy Golden Age burghers' houses and the outlandish animals, scrolls and rocailles of eighteenth-century facades. It is true you see these at an advantage from the glass-roofed Rondvaart boats, which chug incessantly round a circuit mostly comprising the Amstel river and Herengracht, but this must only be attempted if you are equal to a running commentary which, though it is informative and only partly fictional, is repeated a homily at a time in four or five languages.

The canal experience without the polyglot Euro-torture can be had by using a guide book of your choice and, weather permitting, hiring a canal- bike, which allows you (at the peril of any cool of which you might previously have been in possession) to pedalo precisely whither you wish on the canals at your own speed, stopping off at any enticing small shops or cafes. Look out for Van Puffelen and Het Molenpad on the Prinsengracht, 't Smalle on the Eglantiersgracht, the chess cafe Gambit on the Sloemengracht and the Tabac on the Brouwersgracht.

At this time of year, the permanent collections at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh are not overcrowded. At any time, large tours do not visit Rembrandt's house and the Van Loon (a 17th-century house open to the public). Anne Frank House is busy but retains its chilling atmosphere in spite of dangerous swarms of French schoolchildren. Madame Tussaud's, unsurprisingly, does not. There are other, lesser-known places of interest which give you a better insight into the history of the city than the motley assortment of Erotic/Heineken/Torture exhibitions. (The Hash museum, in particular, has great yawning gaps amongst its exhibits due to halfhearted but frequent police raids.) The Amsterdam Historic Museum has a good collection - and has the added advantage of being close to one or two good watering-holes (avoid the crowds at the Cafes Dante and Luxembourg and try instead the Hoppe, on Spui and Heisteeg, one of the oldest "brown bars" in Amsterdam). Round the corner, you can escape the hurdy-gurdy playing "Macarena" and the shoppers on the busy Kalverstraat by diving in to sample the extensive jenever collection in another authentic brown bar captivatingly called "De Engeise Reet" (literally "English Arse"). Raising the tone a little, stumble out into the enchanting refuge of the Beginhof, a hushed nuns' courtyard of miniature gabled houses dating from the early fifteenth century and set around the English Reformed Church and a once hidden Catholic chapel.

Disguising Catholic places of worship was a common practice dating from the late 16th-century, during the prohibition of all non-Calvinistic public worship. With the same Dutch tolerance that allows the drug culture to thrive in modern Amsterdam (as long as it gets in nobody's way), the town council allowed any non-conformists to build their churches in private dwellings - provided they couldn't be seen from the outside. The only remaining example is the well-preserved and under-frequented clandestine Catholic church, Our Lord in the Attic, concealed in the rafters of a 17th-century merchant's house in what is now the red light district. Ironically, while the church is still well-hidden behind its innocuous gabled facade (the organ-pipes must have been purgatory for the neighbours), it is now surrounded by the infamous rows of bored girls blatantly displaying their wares in the glare of red neon. Perhaps they are simply embracing Calvinist openness - a large and uncurtained window inviting inspection being, according to 17th-century ideals, a sign of pure living.

To move across the concentric canals of Amsterdam from the outer bands of middle-class respectability into the seedy centre was, in the eyes of Camus' character Clamence, an experience akin to travelling through Dante's circles of hell. Though they are much maligned by the locals (mostly because parking is, indeed, infernal), the canals' power of seduction remains irresistible to the visitor. Amsterdam has the full gamut of accommodation, in various permutations of expensive/midrange/inexpensive and good/underwhelming/ egregious (though not necessarily humourless - one budget hotel's current advertising runs: "Now a bed in every room! - More dog shit than ever outside!") - but whatever the quality of hostelry you choose, prime locations are on the main canals and away from the station. It means you have to book ahead no matter what the season, but to stay anywhere else, even if it is costing you more, is like being in the cheap seats. Canal hotels range from the grander conversions of rows of old warehouses - at the top of the range, the Pulitzer, then the Ambassade - to the mid-range, privately run establishments like the Canal House and the Seven Bridges hotels (book very early). If you are not bothered about trouser-presses, mini-bars or peach guest soaps, the best deals can be found in small canal- house B&Bs, often not registered with the tourist board owing to their size. Sunhead of 1617 (which takes its name from its 17th-century headstone) is a recently-converted canal house, well placed on the edge of the Jordaan and opposite the magnificent and educational Deco Sauna. You can self- cater but its breakfast in bed is most popular with those in the know. And if you need any advice on restaurants, clubs or other nightlife, the owner, Carlos knows Amsterdam inside out and has more ideas than most. Especially for the broadminded.

(but there is more to the Netherlands than the capital)

The country is diverse, with its guild cities, coastal resorts, artisan towns and bulb fields. An excellent railway means it takes no longer than a day to get to the remotest part of the country. Beyond Amsterdam, cities range from the tranquillity of The Hague and the awesome port life of Rotterdam, to the university avenues of Leiden and the charming prettiness of Delft. The countryside offers washes of colour from the spring bulb fields, and even the odd hill.

The Hague.

Since the early 16th-century The Hague has been the political capital of the Netherlands and the focal point of national institutions in a country built on civic independence and munificence. Architecturally more sober than Amsterdam, most of the city's canal houses have an air of sedate prosperity. In the oldest part of the city is the Binnenhof, "inner court", home of the country's bicameral parliament. Count William II built a castle in the 13th century here and the ensuing development became known as the Count's Domain. The Ridderzaal, a slender-turreted structure used for state occasions, is also worth investigating. Beyond the state buildings, The Hague has several impressive galleries. The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, located in a magnificent 17th-century mansion, is famous for its extensive range of paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and Vermeer, based on a collection accumulated by William V of Orange. The Gemeentemuseum, near the Peace Palace, is the modern art house. Designed by H P Berlage in the 1930s, it includes a worthy record of the evolution of the De Stijl movement, and the early works of Mondrian in particular. For reasonably priced Dutch food, check out Herenstraat, off Plein, and for bars, head for the streets streets around Smidswater and Hooikade. The Hague is noted for its markets, around Lange Voorhort and Plein, and its jazz music. In mid-July the North Sea Jazz festival attracts a strong international crowd of musicians and sightseers.

Maastricht

Perhaps the most infamous of European cities, Maastricht's reputation rests more on its association with quarrelsome cross-national unity than on a knowledge of its heritage. It is situated in Limburg, in an area that only became part of the Netherlands in 1830. Far from being the bland, concrete Eurocity reports suggest, Maastricht buzzes with life and is about as far removed as you could get from the grinning kitsch hamlets of the north.

The centre is crowded with streets and squares and the remains of the old Roman city walls. The busiest square is the Markt, especially on a Wednesday and Friday morning. Standing in the centre of the square and dating from 1664, is the Stadhuis. Designed by Pieter Post it is a typical moment in the baroque classicism of Dutch civic grandeur. But it is also worth exploring Vrijthof, another square which is grander than the Markt. It is flanked by Gothic churches on one side and a line of cafes on the other. Maastricht also has its fair share of museums, the Bonnefanten Museum and the Museumkelder Derlon, as well as galleries and boutiques.

Perhaps most surprising, and just outside the city, is an area worthy of note because of its unique scenery. Dotted with castles (many are now hotels) and river valleys, south Limburg boasts the only slice of Dutch countryside which isn't flat.

NICK TAYLOR

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