Amsterdam is a perfect destination for me for a winter break. Given that I’m not about to spend a lot of money and fly for hours to a hot, beach destination, heading to a city quite close (only 45 minutes actually in the air flying from London) that I know well and love is a fantastic choice. I have no weather expectation – though hope that it won’t rain all the time – and can take in a few favourite haunts while hunting out some new places. Now if the Universe was imagining that I might get lazy and only go to places I know and like a lot during the 3-night stay, then my initial plan was knocked sideways a bit. Last year, my hotel in my favourite Jordaan district was OK but not great so this year (booking everything through British Airways again) I chose a NH hotel on Singel, one of the major Jordaan canals. I’d seen it last year and knew where it was. Perfect, I thought. But then a few weeks ago I got an email telling me that branch would be closed for all January for refurbishment and I’d been moved to the Museum Quarter branch – a 4* rather than the original 3* for the same price. Situated close to the Rijksmuseum it’s still pretty central but a good half hour walk back to my favourite haunts. Clearly I needed to find some new ones!
I told the story to the friendly guy on reception when I arrived who assured me they were nice too … and upgraded my room so I’m on the top floor with a great view (top photo). So now I’m happily settled in a nice big room with a huge window looking out over Amsterdam.
I arrived at midday and after settling into my room did – I have to confess – head straight to my favourite lunchtime cafe, Cafe ‘t Smalle at the far end of Prinsengracht near the Anne Frank House and nearly half an hour’s walk away.
It’s a popular place and you’ll find it in all the guide books, but that doesn’t take anything away from it being just the most brilliant, friendly and authentically Dutch cafe you’ll find.
I wanted a simple lunch and chose a bowl of soup – tomato and meatballs – with a small glass of local Heineken to go with it.
It was very delicious: warm and comforting on a cold winter’s day. The waitress was equally warm in her welcome and I was happy to sit there for a while, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and taking the opportunity to read more of some glorious Colm Toibin short stories – THE EMPTY FAMILY – I have on the Kindle app on my iPhone.
Come evening, rain had arrived. I decided to find somewhere fairly close to the hotel and consulted my Lonely Planet Encounter guide.
Having located Piet de Leeuw steakhouse in the nearby Southern Canal Belt area, but found it empty at an early hour, I sought out refuge from the weather in a bar close by. It was a nice bar, crowded out but I found a stool at the counter and ordered some draught Leffe – probably my favourite beer.
I was happy sitting there with my beer and Kindle for about three quarters of an hour. I reflected I’d never do that back at home but there’s a wonderful freedom in the anonymity of being a solo traveller in a foreign city. Back at the restaurant at the still early hour of about 6.45, I discovered they were fully booked but could let me have a table for an hour. I took it. It wasn’t an evening to go in search of an alternative!
The restaurant was established in 1949 and I don’t think has changed much since then. It’s more like a pub than a restaurant and very typically Dutch. So is its menu. And so … when in Holland, eat eel!
I like eel. When I was a small child, my maternal grandmother made eel stew a lot. We’d buy live eels from the market and take them home and she’d chop off their heads! The stuff of fairly tales. Old-fashioned fairly tales are invariably terrifying! In Holland smoked eel – as I had tonight, on toast – is hugely popular. Eel is great but I couldn’t made a Dutch leap to choosing horse steak for my main and stuck with beef. The steaks all come with frites and salad and a choice of toppings.
Being in Holland, I didn’t have to ask for mayonnaise for my frites. A large bowl just came! The salad was typically Dutch too with lots of ingredients and a creamy dressing (no subtle French green salad here). The steak was excellent: tasty and tender. I finished with an espresso; the Dutch make very good coffee. The waitress was friendly and despite being told I could only have the table for an hour, she assured me I didn’t have to rush. By now the restaurant was full and lively with a great atmosphere.
The rain had eased off when I left. It was a fairly short walk back to the hotel, crossing the final canal with a view of the Rijksmuseum to my right.
It’s been a great first day but after a very early start, also a day for an early night! Tomorrow I’m booked on a 4-hour walking tour in the Jordaan district – all about food!