The weather in the Netherlands has been wet and windy for what seems like most of the year so far. We eventually had a couple of days when it was almost possible to pretend that Spring was finally arriving, so we headed to Amsterdam to do a bit more exploration of the Dutch capital.
The more I’ve discovered Amsterdam, the more it has grown on me; it improves the further you venture from the highly touristed area close to the Centraal Station. There is something wonderful about Amsterdam’s streets, it doesn’t seem to matter where you go, this is a city that rarely disappoints…although keep an eye out for cyclists, particularly those emotionally stunted individuals who deliberately target pedestrians.
Wandering around is a leisurely way to acquaint yourself both with Amsterdam’s layout (all those canals are a bit disorienting at first), and to take in the atmosphere of its streets. If the Red Light District is a bit tawdry and depressing, and the Damrak to Dam square packed with tourists and tacky souvenir shops, there are plenty of other areas where you can find a very different Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is an attractive city, so it doesn’t really matter where you go, so long as you find yourself on leafy canals and strolling quiet back streets away from the throng. We tend to meander aimlessly and see what fate delivers us, this time though we had a plan. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was enough to take us into a different part of town in East Amsterdam.
We were headed to the micro brewery, Brouwerij ‘t IJ to sample some exotic Dutch beers. I’ve tried several of their products in the last two years, so a visit to the brewery was a bit of a pilgrimage. Sadly, it was closed and wouldn’t open for a couple of hours – always check the opening times before getting off the train. Luckily there’s a well-stocked bar next door.
We whiled away some time doing a passable impression of beer connoisseurs and then set off exploring again. On a chilly day, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves inside one of Amsterdam’s ‘brown cafe’ bars. The brown cafe gets its name from the nicotine and smoke-stained walls that are a feature of these traditional watering holes, most of which remain ‘slice of life’ places.
At one end of the bar was a group of hardened drinkers, a young family was eating a lunch of snert (pea soup with sausage), and two men seemed to be aimlessly hitting a ball around a pool table without pockets. This, it transpired, was the game of carambole, the rules of which appear to be to hit a ball around a table for hours without anything really happening.
Watching this timeless scene underscored for me the resilience of traditional Dutch culture to modern trends. A little like the British pub, which is struggling to survive the onslaught of trendy bars and overpriced coffee shops, the brown cafe is a remnant of simpler times. Part cafe, part bar and full-time community drop-in centre, these are places where anyone is welcome to waste their time in the company of strangers.
We whiled away a little more time and then decided get back out onto the streets …