The first two days of my trip were lit by brilliant sunshine. Amsterdam is always beautiful but the clear blue sky made a perfect backdrop to the pretty canals and tall, elegant canal houses, the sunlight warming the colours of the buildings and glistening on the water. The downside was the cold. I was even forced to buy a warm hat! Going out on my first morning, I glimpsed large sheets of ice on the surface of the canals as I crossed Singel, then Herengracht, Keizergracht and eventually found myself at my favourite canal – Prinsengracht.
It was Sunday and incredibly quiet and peaceful. Frost rested on the cobbled roads and many bridges that cross the canals, allowing a sometimes twisting path across the old town.
I was in search of flowers. My Dutch friend Rita, who has just come back to live in Amsterdam after 14 years in Spain, had invited me to lunch. Flowers are a part of Dutch life and an obvious choice of gift to take with me. The day before, at Rita’s suggestion, I’d walked to Dam, the square where Amsterdam was founded in 1270. Often noisy and bustling with crowds, it’s a place I usually avoid, but yesterday was National Tulip Day, heralding the beginning of the tulip season. An enclosure in the square was full of tulips. You could enter for free and pick your own tulips for free.
People were coming away with large bundles of tulips but as I was staying for such a short time in a hotel, it didn’t seem worth joining the long queue. But then a woman turned round with a smile and handed me a small bunch across the barrier. They still have the bulbs attached and I put them in a glass in my room and have enjoyed having them. Later, Rita gave me some she’d picked, the flowers cut off, leaving just the bulbs for me to take home to plant. What a lovely memory of Amsterdam that will be.
On Sunday morning, I’d almost given up trying to find somewhere open to buy flowers. Then, near Central Station, I came across a stall with huge bunches of gorgeous tulips and beautiful bouquets – one of which I chose for Rita.
As I walked on to where I was meeting Rita, near her apartment, just north of the Jordaan and old town, I entered unfamiliar territory. I walked along the interesting street of Haarlemmerdijk with great food shops and cafes, then along the southern edge of Westerpark.
Rita and I talked over glasses of wine as she prepared lunch. After some delicious appetizers, we had a Kapiteinsmaal – captain’s dinner. Rita explained this was a traditional Dutch meal dating back to the days of Dutch colonisation when large merchant ships sailed East for spices. The journeys lasted many weeks and so the ships had to take foods that kept well: dried meats, like bacon, potatoes, onions, pickles and canned beans.
It was a fun and delicious lunch. I love dishes like this with an interesting history. The beans were actually chick peas – kapucijners – and browner than I was familiar with because they are dried on the plant rather than after picking.
Then we left Amsterdam and Dutch captains for Spain. Rita had a very special bottle of wine from the Alicante region (where she’d lived) to go with our dessert. She explained that during the Spanish Civil War a vineyard had been destroyed but the owners managed to rescue one small vine and take it with them. After the war, back in the vineyard, they replanted this special vine. It only has enough grapes every 10 years to make wine and this is added to the wine we were to drink – a wine available only every 10 years. It was very much like port. Very delicious and very special and a great accompaniment to the gorgeous chocolate cake and coffee put before me.
After more than 4 hours of lovely food and wine and conversation, and Rita’s wonderful company, she walked me to a bus stop where I could take a bus to Central station and from there walk to my hotel. What a lovely day it had been.