The sublime genius of Amsterdam

A weekend in Europe? Frank Dobson would always choose this home of great art

There it is -
The Night Watch. Seeing it for the first time was a revelation - dramatic, exhilarating. The painting seems to illuminate the gallery. The product of Rembrandt's genius - his combination of imagination and skill contrasts so vividly with the other rather wooden group portraits. No chocolate boxes, jigsaw puzzles or even expensive art books can do it justice. It's like the Grand Canyon - photographs and films are too puny to convey its grandeur or the effect of light and shade. You have to see the real thing.

There it is - The Night Watch. Seeing it for the first time was a revelation - dramatic, exhilarating. The painting seems to illuminate the gallery. The product of Rembrandt's genius - his combination of imagination and skill contrasts so vividly with the other rather wooden group portraits. No chocolate boxes, jigsaw puzzles or even expensive art books can do it justice. It's like the Grand Canyon - photographs and films are too puny to convey its grandeur or the effect of light and shade. You have to see the real thing.

For me, the fascination of The Night Watch has never palled, nor have the other attractions of Amsterdam. My wife and I have been many times and, given the chance of a weekend off in Europe, our thoughts turn there first.

The city feels civilised. A humane place that produced Spinoza and, over the centuries, became a refuge from religious and political persecution. A focus of world trade. A centre of arts and culture. A place of fun, food, drink and relaxation.

The historic centre is on a human scale. Mainly 17th and 18th-century houses and warehouses on the banks of canals ring the Dam like the ripples round a stone. Some guide books say "use public transport". Forget it, use the most private transport of all - your feet. Most things are within walking distance and the buildings and canals are among the main attractions anyway.

Like most ports, Amsterdam has a seedy, sordid side and the red light district is right in the middle of town. Some of the other attractions, including the Old Church, are located there, so you are likely to walk through it - along with thousands of others, most of them viewers rather than doers. But most people will feel comfortable and safe in Amsterdam. In recent times, Amsterdam's lenient approach to drugs has appealed to some tourists. However, older people should beware. I know of one middle-aged couple (not us) who suffered the humiliation of being refused a spliff in a "smoking cafi" because they were "too old".

For us, the wonderful paintings are the main attraction. Much as I admire The Night Watch (a misnomer - the men depicted belonged to one of the Dutch militias which, in peacetime, became social clubs for well-heeled citizens), it is far from being my favourite painting in Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum contains an enormous collection - Rembrandt's paintings, which encapsulate his and our humanity; and Jan Steen's, which show the seamier side of things. But Vermeer's Kitchen Maid is the one I like most.

The museum, currently celebrating its 200th year with a major exhibition - "The Glory of the Golden Age" (until 17 September) - gives us with a visual history of the Netherlands. Take a long look at the portraits of governors of the Dutch East India Company - the Dutch aristocracy - not chinless wonders but men with what Salieri refers to in Amadeus as "dealers' eyes".

Also in the Rijksmuseum is a painting from the 1590s. This shows a cow with a king on her back, another milking her and another twisting her tail. A queen is giving the cow some hay. Doggerel in English across the top provides the key:

Not long time since I saw a coweDid Flanders representUpon whose back King Phillip rodeAs being malcontentThe Queen of England giving hayWhereon the cowe did feedAnd one that was her greatest helpIn her distress and needThe Prince of Orange milked the cowAnd made his purse the pailThe cow did shit on Monsieur's handWhile he did twist her tail

Truly, an early sighting of the genus Euroscepticus vulgaris. Another favourite place is the Van Gogh Museum, starting with The Potato Eaters and ending with the louring Wheatfield with Crows. One wall has small paintings which would each be a principal attraction in a gallery elsewhere. Crammed with his early work, drawings, notebooks and letters, the museum has now expanded into an ultra-modern new wing - built with money donated by the same Japanese firm that paid more than £24m for one of the Sunflowers paintings back in 1987.

The Amsterdam City Museum, in a former orphanage, is worth a visit while the maritime history that financed Amsterdam and its culture is even better displayed in the Ship Museum. On the water is a full-scale replica of the East Indiaman The Amsterdam, which sank in 1749. The crew's quarters had so little headroom they were literally "cribbed, cabinned and confined". The hold carrying the valuable goods feels like an aircraft hanger in comparison. A practical illustration of the priorities of the Dutch East India Company.

We've always found a huge choice of performances in Amsterdam, from grand opera to rock. One New Year, we went to the best Messiah we have ever heard. It was a Eurosceptic's nightmare: words in English, music by a German, musicians from Hungary, performed in the Netherlands. There is a lot of experimental and light-hearted stuff as well. One summer, we saw a dance version of Romeo and Juliet set in a rubbish dump. The "two houses both alike in dignity" were located in opposing heaps of rubber tyres.

The 13th-century Old Church, set among the sex parlours, is one of the city's finest venues for classical performances. And it isn't the only venue in the red-light district. We once found ourselves being stared at by would-be porno voyeurs as we hammered on a door to be let into a brass recital in the Bethany cloister. We gave up lest anyone took a picture to sell to a British newspaper. Imagine trying to explain that you were only there to see a woman perform a horn solo.

Nearby is Our Good Lord in the Attic, not a priest's hole but a secret Catholic church running across the top storey of three houses. Holland hasn't always been tolerant, and the terror wasn't always religious. The de Witt brothers were lynched in The Hague by supporters of William of Orange - their gutted bodies displayed like carcasses in a butcher's shop. A painting in the Rijksmuseum records the horror.

Jews were prominent in Amsterdam's development. The Portuguese Sephardic Synagogue, dating from 1675, is a huge, light and beautiful building. Four Ashkenazi synagogues nearby have been converted into the Jewish Historical Museum. Its portrayal of man's inhumanity to man is depressing but its illustration of the resilience of the human spirit is inspiring. It is the same with the Anne Frank Museum and the Resistance Museum, which commemorates the Dutch men and women who resisted the Nazis and the dockers who went on strike against the deportation of the Jews.

The striving for humanity is everywhere in Amsterdam and nowhere more so then in the Rembrandt's House Museum, where he did much of his work.

Across the city there are other museums and galleries, including the Stedelijk museum of modern art. Some of the grander dwellings housing collections of paintings and furniture are not always as impressive as the guide books might suggest. Sadly, the taste of some families didn't match their money.

These are just a few of the pleasures of Amsterdam. Like Ajax, Amsterdam's premier football team, the city has strength in depth. And don't be embarrassed to do the obvious things - go on a canal boat. You get a different perspective on the city.

Over the years, eating out in Amsterdam, as in Britain, has improved - better quality and more variety. If you can afford it, the famous D'Vijff Vliegen (Five Flies) is worth a visit - with a mixture of good traditional Dutch and modern European food in an olde worlde setting. A bit touristy but what the hell - you are a tourist. Another place we visit is Luden, almost next door to D'Vijff Vliegen, where the atmosphere and food are more modern. An Italian restaurant called Vasso serves simple Italian food and is good value for money.

For a coffee and a tasty tart, there is a good little café on the corner of Herengraght and Wijde Heisteeg. Goodsalad, sausage, pâté and fruit to take away can be bought in a shop in Staelstraat between the University of Amsterdam and the new concert hall on the Amstel River.

Amsterdam is a great place to wander as the fancy takes you. If you don't know the way, no need to ask a policeman: in Amsterdam you can ask almost anybody. The city is just about perfect for a Brit abroad - it's very foreign but everybody speaks English.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor