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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
Latest stories from i100
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

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?