Two Lips from Amsterdam – Christmas 2004

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Taking a Valentine’s break in The Dutch capital

Once the excesses of Christmas are over, and that New Year’s resolution has foundered, thoughts might turn to holidays and with more of us taking several breaks a year, maybe a short trip for Valentine’s Day is a consideration. lt’s always possible to do the obvious, and Paris has long been considered the romance capital of Europe. But Amsterdam, a compact and friendly city, has a great deal to offer you, whether you are young or old, in the early flush of romance or seasoned hands. A carefully planned itinerary, with enough time built in for just wandering, can be both rewarding and relaxing. You can get around in many ways, bus, tram, taxi, train, or, for the brave and energetic, bikes are all available.

l found that walking and canal buses gave by far the most intimate view of the city and the combination of the two enables you to maximise visiting the major sites of interest, absorbing the mellow local life or just enjoying a beer or coffee in a street side coffee shop, whilst being  entertained by street musicians.

Amsterdam radiates out from the massive Central Station and the Canal Buses start from just in front of this landmark building. These canals are the arteries that feed the city’s beating heart and gliding along them gives you a real feel for what Amsterdam must have been like in its heyday as a bustling trading centre.

Many people choose to actually live on the canals, in a diverse and heady range of floating houses, from barge boats to clipper ships to Heath Robinson style contraptions. And many of these thousands of water homes have unique floating gardens attached, built on rickety rafts. One houseboat is famous as a cattery, and it is decorated with a full range of naive feline illustrations.

Houseboats are such a central part of Amsterdam life that there is even a museum dedicated to them, in the Jordaan district.

Hortus Botanicus is an amazing botanical garden, originally established to provide medicinal herbs for the city’s doctors in 1638. It moved to its current site, in the Plantage district, in 1682. Whilst the serious scientist will find much of interest here, it still is a magical place just to visit and stroll  around, marvelling at the plants from around the globe, including a 300-year-old-plus cycad, reputed to be the oldest pot-plant in the world! There is a series of glasshouses, including one dedicated to butterflies, very popular with children and anyone who is thrilled by the colours and diversity of the natural world.

The very modern three-climate greenhouse takes you through subtropical, tropical and desert environments and you have to pinch yourself to remember that you are in the middle of a busy capital city in Europe.

Take in the local street markets, selling a jumble of local, ethnic and global goods and, occasionally, that little gem you have been seeking for years. Buy each other trinkets to demonstrate your affection, an antique brooch for her, a Hell’s Angel belt for him.

Then find a cafe in a quiet square somewhere, share a giant pancake or maybe have one each as they are so good, drink coffee that probably arrived from somewhere exotic at the harbour, and talk to a waiter about the Dubliners or Christy Moore (they love Irish music).

If you want to find some real passion then visit the Van Gogh Museum, not the famous, or infamous, Red-Light District. On display is a fine collection of works by this great lost soul, whose life was absorbed by his desire to create paintings, using remarkable, stunning colour. Works by many of his peers, including his close friend and confidante Paul Gauguin, are also exhibited. And yes, the canal bus takes you there.

There are many other major places of interest to visit in Amsterdam. Everyone should visit the Anne Frank House, where the author of the famous diary and her family hid from the Nazis for two years,

only to be betrayed and shipped out to concentration camps. Anne Frank, her sister and her mother all died in these camps, shortly before the end of the Second World War. Only her father survived, and he was able to bring his daughter’s story to the world. This building and its remarkable history is a sharp reminder, and a lesson we cannot allow ourselves to forget, of just what mankind is capable of doing to his own.

In these few words l have just given a taste of what you can experience in Amsterdam. There is fantastic nightlife, great food, the chance to take excursions to places such as Haarlem, Aalkmar, with its famous cheese market on a Friday and the bulb fields and many buildings and places of historical importance. You would expect to find great shopping, but Amsterdam has yet to fall foul of the globalisation of retailing that bedevils London, Paris and many other major cities. So, its shops are still very Dutch, with more than a passing reference to its trading history, with a particular emphasis on African and Far Eastern specialities.

Most of all, Amsterdam is about taking your time, enjoying being in each other‘s company, and losing the stresses and pressures of everyday life, just for a while.

Sean Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who has written walking guides and edited and contributed to magazines, books and the internet. Currently resides in the South West of Ireland.

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About this record

Written by Sean Murphy

Published here 31 Dec 2023 and originally published Christmas 2004

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