My KLM flight from Toronto to Amsterdam has an early arrival…7AM -that’s 1AM EST. But with a few hours sleep on the flight and with only having 24 hours in this historic city of contrasts, I’m not about to waste time catching up on my zzzz when I land. However, that turns out to be a moot point since check in/out at Hotel Ambassade is at noon. This leaves a few hours before the room is ready so the front desk staff offers a Dutch breakfast (no thanks. KLM’s was deliciously sufficient) and coffee (definitely yes). It’s an opportunity to sip java in the classic dining room overlooking one of the city’s major canals, the Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal). Although an overcast morning, the large windows let enormous amount of light into the soft golden coloured room. Adjacent, is a lounge, once part of another house since this hotel is made up of a series of 10 traditional, very narrow houses. Palatial would describe the décor – antique furniture, a grandfather clock from the mid 1700s, several crystal chandeliers.
Taking advantage of the hole in my schedule, I walk to the nearby “Nine Streets”. The rarity of Amsterdam is that the city has managed to incorporate the splendor of times past with the trendiness of today.
These narrow streets connect the three canals – Prinsengracht, Herengracht and Keizergracht (cleaned every night) in a city with just over 700,000 inhabitants. Constructed in the 17th century in order to handle the city’s new prosperity, today these man-made canals in this area, are lined with unique and diverse shops which are the mother lode for local designers, jewellers, specialty shops from cheese to chocolate, glitzy evening gowns to smart t-shirts. No chain stores exist on these side streets. I stop to purchase a few packages of Stroopwafels- recommended local cookies. Happily the dog poop of days passed is now moderate. Hopscotching over these ‘gifts’ once was a major problem. But on the other hand treachery is in the shape of bikes which zoom by, the riders casting indignant glances if you happen to step onto their space.
I return to the Ambassade Hotel to unpack and wash-up. Walking up the typical narrow steep stairs to my room, #45, which overlooks the canal, I think that a sherpa would come in handy if I had to carry my luggage. But it’s these narrow, tall houses that give distinctive charm to Amsterdam.
The clip-clopping of horses hoofs, cyclists passing under my window chatting to each other, only heightened my desire to rush out and be part of the buzz.
For orientation purposes, a 10 minute walk from my hotel to the main shopping street Leiderstraat which leads to Stadhouderskade is where Rederij Noord-Zuid City Canal Cruises are located. For 75 minute the boat passes houses from the 16th to 19th centuries. I marvel at the typical 17th century gables, see dozens of the 2800 houseboats, go under a few of the 1300 bridges especially the ornate Singel Canal bridge, pass merchant’s mansions and the imaginative new architecture like NEMO, a science centre designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano which looks like a ship rising from the waves.
My churning stomach signals lunch time so I stop at Jonk’s Herring Stand off Leidsestraat where for about Euro 5, I munch on herring and onion sandwich, (broodje haring met rauwe uitjes), the staple street food. I savor every bite.
With a 24 hour Amsterdam Pass (48 and 72 hours are available at Euro 31,41,51, respectively) the public transport proves invaluable.
Waterlooplein, once the Jewish quarter, still has a maze of small lanes. Since the 1600s, Jews have been very prominent in Amsterdam. A small narrow street, Nieuvwe Amstelstraat, opens onto a large cobblestone plaza where the Jewish Historical Museum is located. During the war, the four synagogues which were damaged, have been renovated and are within the complex. Exhibits include 300 year old permanent ritual objects and memorabilia.
Across the wide boulevard at Mr. Visserplein 3, is the Portuguese Synagogue (Snoge) completed in 1675, among the largest in the world and in continuous use since then. One of the great mysteries is why it remained almost totally undamaged during the Nazi occupation. Over the entrance in Hebrew text is “For I shall enter Your house through Your abundant kindness.”
This elegant Ionic-style building’s magnificent interior still has sand floors, used originally to muffle prayers. A Brazilian rosewood ark and ‘bimah”, twelve stone columns representing the tribes of Israel and seats for over 1000, was inspired by the ancient Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Still without any heating or electricity, the lighting comes from the over 1000 candles inserted in the dozens of brass chandeliers. During winter, a warmer, smaller prayer hall is used. In 2000, an unique Sephardi Judaism collection was returned from safe keeping at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Also part of the complex is Ets Chaim Library, where there are scholarly and priceless manuscripts. Over 30,000 titles and 20,000 volumes are catalogued.
Originally, Jews were barred from owning shops or being accepted into the traditional guilds so they became merchants, traders and to this day, diamond polishers and cutters. Nearby, Gassan Diamonds, located in a building from the 1800s, offer free organized tours. It’s a fine opportunity to see the stages of the gems being crafted. For serious buyers, small rooms are available to see the collection and the stunning designs of Argentinean born Rodrigo Otazu who uses pink, blue, yellow diamonds to create ‘waterfalls’ from earrings to pendants. He has even tantalized personalities like Britney Spears, Aretha Franklin and Kylie Minogue to name a few happy clients.
Thanks to public transport efficiency, I make a preplanned Koan Float appointment. Claustrophopics beware! In a private room, a 30 cm deep fiberglass capsule-like container is filled with a very large amount of Epson salts for optimal buoyancy. Easing myself into this compartment, the lid is closed. The idea is to allow the water to suspend you which is supposed to relieve stress, tension, muscle aches etc. I bop like a cork in the 35 C water. But instead of the prescribed 45 minutes, I am out of there in 15. Like caviar, this is an acquired taste. I wash the sticking salt out of my hair and scrub it off my body then gleefully rush into the street, back to my hotel. That salt continues to flake all over my black outfit and requires another shower. Anyway, it’s time to change and head to the Muziektheater. I have never heard of Louis Andriessen/Peter Greenaway’s miniature opera, Writing to Vermeer, but when in Amsterdam, visit a musical venue. The staging is incredibly creative. Although my seatmate leaves mid way through this very atonal, contemporary opera score, it is worth sitting to the end just for the staging of the production.
Now, nearly 10 PM, and hungry for some Indonesian food, I take the advice of a young woman who suggested Tantjil and De Tijger, conveniently located two streets from Hotel Ambassade. Fully booked with clients of all ages, for about CDN$30, I eat a great riztaffel.
It’s been a perfect day. I pull the feather duvet around me, my head sinking into the soft pillow. I hear the faint wheels of bikes and wish I could spend more time in the Venice of the North.