The winter traveller can remain good humoured about inclement weather but there’s no denying that little surge of joy when waking to a blue sky and glimpse of sun. It remained little more than a glimpse that came and went throughout the day, but it added a smile and an extra beauty, painting a perfect backdrop to Amsterdam’s pretty canals. My last 24 hours began the evening before after I’d written about cafes and my visit to Rembrandt’s house. In the evening, I went to the café where I’d enjoyed the fabulous apple pie last March. It was quiet inside but it was quiet everywhere. (A café owner earlier in the day had said how few people are around in January.) I had a nice enough meal and the service was friendly but it wasn’t special enough to record. Again, I headed to Café Chris for a digestif before going back to the hotel. The barman was the guy who’d been there the first night last March, when Nicola and I discovered the place. He swore he remembered us but whether he did or not, he asked me what kind of genever I wanted – new or old. This hadn’t been a question the night before. I had assumed ‘old’ to be honest but then he showed me a bottle of one of the best local distilleries, ‘De Ooievaar’. I recognised the label from seeking out the distillery last year. And that, he concluded, was what I must have. It was gorgeous; more of a hit than the night before and oh so very delicious.
I’d taken – again – the last empty seat at the bar. The barman introduced me to a couple of guys sitting next to me. Everyone seemed to know each other. It was all very convivial and a lovely way to end the day. The next morning I headed back to the wonderful bakery I’d found the previous morning: Vlaamsch Broodhuys. It had only just opened and was empty at first.
With apple pie in mind for later, I ordered just a plain croissant to go with my fresh orange juice and coffee. I like to anyway try a plain croissant in a bakery … it’s a good test to see if it stands well without chocolate and flavourings. This one did. Really good. Buttery, flaky and delicious.
On the way out, I bought a little present for my lovely neighbour Sally who, with her children, look after my cat Bella while I’m away. Next stop was a fantastic cheese shop – Tromp – I’d seen just down the road the day before.
Doesn’t that look wonderful! I wanted to buy some Gouda to take home. Gouda bought in Holland is just so much better than anything I can find in London. As I said the other day, Dutch cheese is basically Gouda … young moving through various stages of ripeness to old; the old dark, nutty and dry, more like Parmesan in texture. I had a great chat with the woman inside for a while, who helped me choose my cheese. I went for a medium one – somewhere between the creaminess of the young Gouda but with some of the salty, nutty deep taste of the old kind. Back outside, the sun was coming out and ‘my’ road – Elandsgracht – was looking so pretty.
I took my purchases back to the hotel, packed my bag and checked out, leaving my bag to collect in the afternoon before heading to the airport. I didn’t have much planned. To be honest, I was quite tired. I realised I’d been walking miles and miles over the previous two days, so today would be a more gentle kind of wandering and no museums. Just an appreciation of my landscape. A kind of flâneur – that French word for an urban explorer, the saunterer, who has no particular destination in mind but is attuned to the place. This is where being a single traveller comes into its own. I had no one else’s wishes to consider. I could just wander where I wanted, stop where and when I wanted. My wandering, however, began by crossing Prinsengracht (the photo at the top and looking towards Westerkerk), Herengracht and Keizersgracht – three of Amsterdam’s most famous and beautiful canals – and walking up Singel canal to the railway station to buy a ticket to the airport and check train times.
I don’t think I could ever tire of Amsterdam’s beauty. I looked up at the tall, tall houses, each with its own unique roof line – once a means, with often a tile with recognisable sign of, perhaps, the sun or a sheaf of wheat, of knowing who lived where rather than using numbers. They are mostly narrow – only the most wealthy could afford wide ones. And some are very tiny indeed!
From the station, I walked back down Zeedijk where I hoped to have coffee in a café housed in a 16th century building and one of the two remaining wooden buildings in the city – Café In ‘t Aepjen. But it was closed; not open until noon. This was a pattern. I walked down a long stretch, through a kind of Amsterdam Chinatown, finding nowhere (or nowhere I liked the look of) open. Passing through Nieuwmarkt and along Kloveniersburgwal, I decided to just keep going and have coffee in one of my very favourite cafés in Amsterdam – Café de Jaren.
This is an old family haunt and Nicola and I went there last year too. Located in the university area it’s often full of students. Its big open space inside makes it an airy, bright place to sit; racks are full of magazines and papers. On warmer days than yesterday, it’s lovely to sit on the terrace outside that perches over the Amstel. It was fairly quiet (I’ve been there when you have to queue for a table) and I sat by a window overlooking the terrace and river.
OK, I wasn’t waiting until the afternoon for apple pie. I ordered theirs.
When it arrived, I felt slightly disappointed. It didn’t look as fabulous as I’d come to expect. To be fair, they had described it as a ‘tart’ and not a ‘pie’. But, just as ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’ as the saying goes (though as a book editor who once sat in weekly ‘cover meetings’, I can tell you that you probably should!), the apple tart turned out to be excellent. There was a good cinnamon spiciness to it and the apple still had a nice slight bite; just how I like it. I sat there for quite a while. I’d discovered that taking my copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in real book form was a mistake; it was far too heavy to carry around in my bag, I’d resorted to reading my ’emergency’ books on my iPhone’s Kindle app. My copy of some Patrick Gale (no relation) short stories, Gentleman’s Relish, was ideal and during the day, at different stops, I read one or two stories. From Café de Jaren, I made my way through to Spui.
Here, the day before, I’d been delighted to see this miniature house in a shop window.
Since it was my reading of Jesse Burton’s The Miniaturist that had inspired this spur-of-the-moment trip to Amsterdam, it seemed a fitting discovery. After quite a lot more wandering, down canals big and small, over many bridges and cutting through the occasional alleyway, I finally headed back to Café ‘t Smalle for lunch – the same café as the day before but definitely a favourite. Situated just off Prinsengracht, it’s such a pretty place.
Inside the 18th century building, it’s just as delightful.
I wanted soup again – that pea & ham soup the day before had been excellent; just a simple, light meal; nothing fancy.
The tomato soup was just as good; not vegetarian – the woman came from the kitchen to check that was OK with me – but contained little meatballs. It was wonderful; thick and rich. The guy serving talked to me a bit and both he and the ‘cook’ were really friendly; it’s so nice when people are like that and makes a big difference. I told the guy that my daughter is sometimes in Amsterdam for work at the university and it was her favourite café, and later he came back with a nice postcard of the café to give her. I couldn’t go without a further food indulgence: poffertjes.
Well, it was my last meal before going home. I discovered these gorgeous little pancakes, cooked in a special pan, at a market stall in Gouda many years ago. They’re truly wonderful – as you can see!
Eventually it was time to make my way home – all the way home! I picked up my bag from the hotel and walked the half hour to Central station for the 20-minute ride to Schiphol. At Schiphol I ordered coffee and got my copy of The Goldfinch out. The long wait for a plane was an ideal time to read more of it. It’s a brilliant book – well it did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year – which I’m enjoying a lot, but a short 48-hour trip to Amsterdam is not nearly long enough to read it; I’m barely quarter of the way through.
Writing this last post of my trip, it’s been interesting for me to see that while I began it thinking I hadn’t ‘done’ much yesterday, I actually did quite a lot in my ‘flâneur‘ way. I really did soak up the atmosphere of Amsterdam; I delighted in its beauty – even in the dull weather – and its friendly people who often took time to talk to me. I found some wonderful – if mainly simple – food. And really, I just had a brilliant time and that 48 hours feels like so much longer. Back home last night, I thought, Was I really here at home only three nights ago? I felt as if I’d been away for at least a week!