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Biking, Amsterdam's best abbey beers and smoke



Amsterdam is a city of canals, little bridges and bikes, stuffed full of fine art from centuries past, dotted with small parks and playgrounds, and crowded with fine places to — yes — get down and dirty. The historic Centrum is facing some change, however, with its legal, though still seedy underbelly, the Red Light district and all, seeing its slow demise through new legislation, thanks (or no thanks) to a Council seeking to "clean up" Amsterdam's image.

Indeed, one could now tour the decaying coffee shops as an antiquated remainder of the '60s and '70s... the Dutch who indulge rarely, if ever, do so in the psychedelic smoke shops that most visitors find themselves in, stoned to the gills, wondering where they are and how, on earth, they got there.... Today, the mouldy furniture and cliched Buddha-wall paintings are as much part of an act for others as they are signs of a past that has become all the more remote.

But what if one is seeking to eat well, hear unusual music, enjoy fine beers — including the Netherlands' own abbey doubles and triples — followed by some fine smoke? To dip into a bohemian reverie while avoiding the loutish behaviours of the EasyJetset? Most of my evenings spent in Amsterdam take on such a mission, seeking out the fine goods of art and threads, taking in a strange noise concert or experimental dance performance in some quasi-legalized squat, eating Surinamese and basking in tides of green.

To begin, march away from the inner Centrum. One need not head to the outskirts, but simply move out and beyond the small inner ring that is defined by the southern start of the Amstel Canal. The Amstel, by the way, is not only a large and lovely aquatic thoroughfare; it also flows underneath the beautiful Magere Brug ("Skinny Bridge"), one of the last wooden drawbridges left in the city. Easily recognizable with its brilliantly lit white lights at night, it is useful as a landmark when wandering back looped through streets that loop themselves.

When booking lodgings, may I recommend exploring the region around Fredericksplein. Located at a midway point between the Centrum, the Dam Square, and other highball attractions such as the Rijksmuseum, Fredericksplein is central, yet out of the way. Kind of like contemporary West 4th Avenue in Vancouver, this ex-hippie haven is now hopelessly bourgeois. A few nice hostels and inns cater to different tastes. The Hotel de Munck, while advertising itself as a "cheap budget hotel," is nonetheless homely and modern. The Hemp Hotel is not quite what you think—family run, it of course celebrates the "New Age" tradition of Amsterdam, including its Hemple Temple bar ,which stocks over a dozen hemp beers. The Radio Inn, tucked onto Utrechtsedwarsstraat, ups the ante if you're seeking eclectic counterculture, with no curfew, cabinets of playful curiousities, and an interior that looks like it was the inspiration for Roger Corman's The Trip (1967).

Between the tourist traps of Rembrandtplein and the triangular park of Fredericksplein is the Utrechtsestraat. This is a fine street, full of tailors, shoe stores and bakeries, including an outlet of the infamous Dutch cheese shop Kaashuis Tromp (at Kerkstraat). Ask for the very oldest farmer's round, but be forewarned — this crumbling, orange cheddar is the gateway cheese for an oldworld lactose addiction that will have you airmailing vacuum-packed slices at horrendous prices (see cheesebymail.nl).

A few doors up is Concerto, a five-building beast of a record store, the best in all of Amsterdam. Staff is knowledgeable; turntables are waiting; the digs line up deep. Concerto offers a wide selection of 20th century music — think punk to opera, minimal techno to jazz. After sweating the sounds, check out the Café Marcella, which faces the Prinsengracht Canal. Wicker chairs and tables line the waterway during the warmer months, and the staff serves a respectable pannekoek. Finish off the afternoon with a concert at STEIM, the Dutch centre for improvised experimental music on Achtergracht (check the listings; it's mainly a studio venue).

Every dinner deserves a dérive. If you need some meditative herb for the meander, drop by the discreet and business-like Stix on your way out. If getting down to DJs at Paradiso or an arts show at de Balie or Melkweg is your forte, head west along Prinsengracht — the shortest route to Leidesplein (there are numerous bike rental shops; hook up some wheels, and lock it up tight). Or, wander south past Fredericksplein and head west along Welteringschans; pop south to visit the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, or take a gander through Vondel Park. Dinner can be had at Srikandi, a natively spicy restaurant on the Stadhouderskade; to truly simmer both ears and guts, follow it with an ear-splitting noise show at the legendary squat, Overtoom 301.

I like to end the penultimate night in Dutch style. Head north, toward the hedonism of the inner circle, past the Dam square, to the Spui. Off lower Spuistraat you will discover Gollem on Rammsteeg and Tweede Kammer on Heisteeg. Gollem features over 200 bottles in its tiny cellar, including an extensive list of abbey beers, all listed on blackboards that abut the ceiling, while cozy wooden benches fit a select few inside its warm walls. All beers are poured in their proper glass, at the proper temperature. Talk to the barman, and set-up a four course liquid meal (warning: the narrow stairs to the head are a treacherous test of one's nationality). Stagger out into the night (don't fall into the Singel) and wander an alley down to Tweede Kammer, which has the most elegant gifts from Morocco waiting. And a last word: don't forget that the canals loop. Bring a compass if in doubt.

Places to Stay

Hotel de Munch (hoteldemunck.com), Hemp Hote (hemp-hotel.com), Radio Inn (radioinn.nl)

Places to Eat, Drink & Smoke

Gollem (cafegollem.nl), Srikandi Indonesian (srikandi.nl), Stix (stix.nl)

Places to Be & Buy

Concerto (platomania.eu), Kaashuis Tromp (kaashuistromp.nl), Paradiso (paradiso.nl), Overtoom 301 (ot301.nl), STEIM