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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

17 December 2008

Amsterdam, 12th-16th December 2008

My girlfriend and I plumped for Easyjet again, flying out from Bristol to Amsterdam on Friday 12th December. I had hoped to be able to time the trip to coincide with one some people from RGA are planning, but unfortunately the timings didn't work out. I doubt I would have gone had I known I was going to get made redundant, as financial worries aren't generally helped by expensive holidays abroad (particularly with the shockingly weak pound against the Euro), but we'd booked this about a month in advance.

All things considered, I'm glad we did: I felt much better after some time away. Amsterdam is an easy city to get around, as it is relatively small, everybody speaks English, and public transport is straightforward. From Schiphol Airport, we got a single to Centraal Station, which was about €7.60 for the both of us. The ticket machine is automated: you select your journey, class (2nd, unless you have money to throw around), full fare, number of tickets and method of payment. Click on the cost before you put your card in, and then you'll need to insert and remove your card prior to entering your PIN.

It takes about 15-20 minutes to get into Amsterdam, and from there we could probably have walked to our hotel, but took the no.17 tram to Westermarkt instead. We stayed at the Hotel Clemens, at 39 Raadhuisstraat: four nights in a double twin set us back €240, with a €10 deposit for the key. Note that you have to pay in advance in cash, so if you want to stay there too, be sure to have that with you on arrival.

The trams are relatively cheap and efficient, but its perfectly feasible to walk everywhere. Do watch out for the bikes though, which appear to follow no rules, careering down the pavement, the road, through red lights and into those unfortunate tourists who don't take care to look. Also be aware that if you're staying in a typical Amsterdam house, like the one that contains the Hotel Clemens, the steps are going to be very steep and quite high: Clemens has seventy over three flights.

On the following morning, our first destination was the Rijksmuseum, which I was really looking forward to. I've always liked Dutch art from around 1500-1700, as being a Protestant country, the subject wasn't an endless stream of 'Madonna With This or That', 'Saint Etc of Somewhere' or various biblical stories. Instead, vibrant peasant scenes and portraits of the bourgeoisie vie with landscapes and still life in a far more satisfying variety, all beautifully painted in the Dutch style. The period known as the Golden Age (1584-1702) was especially rich, and even though most of the Rijksmuseum is currently closed for renovation, the Masterpieces exhibition features numerous examples from that high point in Dutch history.

The dominant artists Rembrandt and Vermeer are well represented, joined by other major painters like Franz Hals (who has his own museum in nearby Haarlem) and one of my personal favourites, Hendrik Avercamp and his characteristic winter scenes. Despite the much reduced number of paintings on display, you'll still pay €10 to get in, with a further €4 for an audio guide. I always go for the audio guide, as I find it adds greatly to the experience: you choose from either the basic tour, or the more detailed option by Jeroen Krabbé, which is what I picked (possibly shorter, as it has around 25 entries compared to the other option's 50. However, those 25 were fairly long). There was no student discount, which appears to be a general theme in Amsterdam.

It isn't just paintings. There is a room devoted to Delftware, with not just plates, but even violins and birdcages made out of earthenware. Another features magnificent creations in silver, much by the same family, the Van Vianens. Then there are unusual displays like two incredibly posh dollhouses, intended for an aristocratic lady to show off her wealth, as opposed to children's toys.

Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch' is the gallery centrepiece, taking up an entire wall. It has been physically attacked twice, with a knife and then acid, but survived both attempts to deprive the world of great art. The group portrait of a militia company (which by that time was basically a club for the rich rather than an actual military force) makes for an interesting comparison with similar group paintings, which can be seen for free in the Schuttersgalerij on 92 Kalverstraat, near the equally costless Begijnhof (off Spuistraat). I'd recommend you check them out, seeing as they won't impinge on your wallet, but remember to keep your camera under wraps in the Begijnhof. It was disheartening to see so many tourists ignoring the signs and flashing away, in what should have been one of the most peaceful parts of Amsterdam.

As we were rather conscious of cash, cheap food was a definite priority. We tucked into some €3.50 toasties in an Irish Pub, but were stunned to discover that you have to pay for the toilets. Like the lack of student discount, this also appears to be a common trend in Amsterdam: shops charge for the loo, and even McDonalds expected €0.40 for the privilege of relieving yourself.

Supermarket food, as it had been in Hong Kong four years earlier, was the solution. At AH To Go (several branches, such as on 89-90 Damrak) has baguettes and slices of gouda cheese, which comes to around €3.30 and will do you four smallish meals. Of course, that means you'll need a fridge in your room, which thankfully the Hotel Clemens provided.

For the prudish among you, be aware that the infamous Red Light District is centrally located, so the quickest routes to various places pass straight through it. It also has enclaves at several other points in the city, meaning that you might suddenly find yourself walking past a scantily clad woman winking at you from behind her window when you least expect it.

The main seediness is concentrated on two canals, Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal, rife with sex shops, vibrators and pornographic cinema, while red lit windows feature the aforementioned prostitutes. The area tends to be bustling, particularly at weekends: the poor women not only have to stand there in bra and pants, but they also have to put up with being leered at by grotesque bands of marauding stag parties.

There are also lots of 'coffee shops' which are rather more interested in smoking pot than indulging in caffeine, though in Amsterdam, that's perfectly legal. Keep in mind that it isn't necessarily legal outside of those coffee shops, but you'll most likely become used to the waft of cannabis, an ever-present aroma around the city. They aren't supposed to directly advertise, but we walked past one place, Baba, proudly stating in the window that it will serve you a spliff for €3.50. Normally you're supposed to ask for a menu at the counter, according to our Rough Guide to Amsterdam.

Near the Red Light District is a quite large Chinese quarter, where you have lots of options for affordable Chinese cuisine. We dined at one place which was offering a selection of staple dishes (e.g., sweet and sour chicken with rice) plus a fruit juice for €6.95. That's a good, filling meal at a low price, so well worth checking out if you're on a tight budget.

On the 14th December, the main event for us was the Heineken Experience. I very much enjoyed the sherry bodegas in Jerez earlier this year, which offered lots of drinks along with an informative tour of the sherry-making process. The Heineken brewery (purely a tourist destination now, as production has moved to a new location) isn't quite so generous, offering two small drinks along your journey, but the facility in general is impressive. Historical displays, explanations of the brewing process, a virtual reality ride, advert archives and a plethora of interactive videos (email yourself singing 'Tulips From Amsterdam' in Dutch, or more randomly still, as James Bond) are all included in the hefty €15 entrance fee. I think you can get it slightly cheaper from tour outlets, but all in all I'd say its worth it: Heineken has put a lot of effort into their display, which is more than enough entertainment to fill a morning or afternoon.

At the second and last bar, one of the staff recommended we check out the city library for excellent views of the city. Proved to be great advice: not only is the view as good as he said, but the library's top floor has a reasonably priced and extensively stocked self-service restaurant, La Place. Lots of funky looking fruit smoothies, ice cream and desserts, along with pizza and the like for the main meal. It is on the docks, up near Centraal Station, past the Sea Palace restaurant (an oriental pagoda floating in the harbour).

The 15th December was reserved for our canal tour, though that only took an hour and €7. They go every 30 minutes, and you can buy your ticket in the Lindburgh shop (which also incorporates a cheese gift shop, for some reason). More exciting, from my perspective, was a chance for further artiness on our final day, at the Van Gogh Museum. This is absolutely stuffed with the great man's work, as much of his output was owned by his art dealer brother, Theo Van Gogh. Poor Theo passed away a few months after his sibling, but his son, Vincent Willem Van Gogh, set up this gallery about forty years ago.

The first floor is entirely devoted to Van Gogh, moving through his comparatively brief career in extensive detail. The gallery is wonderfully spacious, which is just as well. To appreciate Van Gogh, you really need to step back from the paintings: what can look sloppy and primitive up close merges into a far more appealing whole when you look again from a distance. I found that my favourites were the early work, from around 1885, such as the creatively titled 'Head Of A Woman With Her Hair Loose', produced when Van Gogh was in Antwerp.

As is often the case with galleries, some of the most famous paintings were on loan to other institutions around the world, but there was still more than enough here to keep me happy. It is more expensive than the Rijksmuseum at €12.50, but I was pleased to discover that many of the pictures which were absent from the Rijksmuseum appeared in the exhibition space. Away from the main gallery in the Van Gogh museum, there was a display called '125 Favourites', which among other works featured Vermeer's 'Love Letter', several pieces by Rembrandt and from further afield, Goya. A beautiful Van Vianen silverware jug is also included: if you're doing the Rijksmuseum audio tour and can't find some of the mentioned exhibits, they may well be in this temporary exhibition at the nearby Van Gogh museum.

Both museums have a cloakroom (no extra cost, fortunately), but the Rijksmuseum currently doesn't have a café. The Van Gogh museum does, so if you happen to be checking out the art with somebody less keen, there is somewhere for them to sit. The Van Gogh also features a study area, as well as two more floors worth of art. There was another Rijksmuseum exhibit on the second, with work from India, then in the permanent collection a floor up, Van Gogh's contemporaries like Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec held court.

Finally, I'd like to recommend a bar, called De Kleine Karseboom, on 51 Nieuwendijk. Cocktails are €4, with a glass of Heineken at €2.50 (though that is less than half a pint, so unless you have plenty of cash, you won't be drinking English measures). Lovely décor complemented by glorious soulful classics, topped off by friendly service from the staff. The atmosphere was probably helped by the fact we went in on a Monday, so it wasn't too busy. Either way, if you're looking to relax without chemical assistance, this is a good choice.

I'm keen to revisit the city in a few years, though this time I think I'd want to go earlier in the year. That way, we could go see the Keukenhof Gardens in bloom, and also range around Amsterdam rather than restrict ourselves to the capital itself. I'm particularly keen to head over to Haarlem and check out the Franz Hals Museum, and visiting the Rijksmuseum in its full renovated glory should be cool too. However, all travel plans are on hold for me at the moment, until I've got a new job and sorted out my finances, which hopefully shouldn't take long.


  1. Nice write up. I'd love to get out there myself in the future for the very reasons you made your trip.

    Went to Belgium a couple of weeks after actually (between Christmas and New Year) and can totally sympathise on the £-Euro exchange front! £7 for a hot choclate, £7! I felt like eating the mug to make it more worth my while!

    All the best,
    Adam Adshead

  2. Cheers! Yeah, I think our next holiday will either be out of the Eurozone or here at home, once I've got my finances settled.

    There were some great looking tours around South America that would be brilliant (finishing up in Rio, so could get some training in), but will have to be a whole lot more settled before I splash out on something like that.