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.

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