Amsterdam by train

When some old friends sadly announced that they were closing their boutique B&B in the centre of Amsterdam we thought we’d better get over there as soon as possible. November can be a great time to visit as the city starts to prepare for Christmas (and Sinterklaas – 5th December) so the lights are up and there’s a festive feel while at the same time the numbers of visitors is as low as it gets.

There was no hesitation in taking the direct Eurostar service from St Pancras – the timings were good and its clearly a more responsible way to travel. Formalities were only marginally longer at St Pancras than usual with the need to show the covid certificate and get a passport stamp but we did not have to show our test results. At just over 4 hours it is touch and go as to whether its quicker than flying. However, it is far more relaxing and what a joy to step off the train on arrival and straight into Centraal Station, in the city centre, with all its Christmas lights twinkling!

We took a scenic route to the house along the Prinsengracht and it would have been rude not to stop at a couple of classic Brown Cafes along the way. The Kafe Kobalt was serving delicious beer from the IJ Brewery on tap and at the historic de Pieper (AD 1665 – the oldest bar in Amsterdam?) the wheat beer was washed down with bitterballen (a local speciality of fired meat-filled balls), meatloaf and mustard. All the while the canals, boats and streets were lined with arrays of fairly lights

The next morning dawned bright, crisp and sunny so plans were changed and we headed out to explore the canals in our friend’s boat. It was beautifully empty to begin with as we gently glided up the Herengracht – then the houseboat inhabitants starting to wake up and gradually the city came to life. It is always amazing how gorgeous the collection of bridges, waterways and immaculate townhouses look. The latter come in all colours and sizes so while uniform in pattern there is so much diversity. By the time we got to the Anne Frank House and Westerkerk the cruise boats were out too – sleek models and older style chuggers that look like they’ll never squeeze under the bridges. What a great way to see the city and start the day.

Having been lucky enough to visit the city a few times we took the opportunity to explore slightly further afield and started in the wilds of North Amsterdam. Just across the water from the city, it is amazing how close the central station is, the area is being utterly transformed in a way that the Docklands were in London during the 1990s & 2000s. There are some stunning new developments and architecture just a 5 minutes ferry crossing from the centre. After this brief ‘Urban Infrastructure’ interlude we headed out to the Ijmeer (inland sea). The first stop was Durgerdam a gentrified fishing community with charming houses set in single file along the rear of a dike with stunning views east across the open water. Meandering through the fields and polders we passed a number of small villages, often linked by wooden bridges – a truly rural scene yet the towers of modern Amsterdam were clearly visible on the horizon. Travelling further north, however, you leave the city well behind and we headed to Volendam for lunch.

Well known as a historic fishing port this is a town that seems to punch well above its weight and has a distinctly well to do feel. The main reason for going there however was to try their speciality of pickled herrings, eaten with onion and gherkins, and Kibbeling – small battered chunks of cod. Safe to say that my preference was for the latter delicacy however given the number of herrings being devoured I was in a minority. With lunch over we headed to what turned out to be the highlight of the day.

Edam rose to prominence as a prosperous trading town in the 16th century, with Volendam as its port, until they built a separate canal! Famous worldwide for its cheese, we were struck by how gorgeous the historic centre was in the later autumn sunlight. Narrow streets with many immaculate merchant houses, small canals or ponds and fine municipal buildings. It was silent and charming, perhaps very different on a busy cheese market day in the Spring, and reminder of a good reason to travel out of season. And yes, we did try and buy cheese there.

We finished off our day with dinner at Café Amsterdam, a bit of an institution set in the vast space of an old waterworks. Its eclectic menu is peppered with local specialities such as small Amsterdam shrimps and mussels and the thoroughly enjoyed the food, beer and fun atmosphere.

I’d not been to the Rijksmuseum since its major renovation and this was undoubtedly the highlight of a day exploring Amsterdam city centre. There was a superb exhibition, Remember Me, on the growth of portraiture in 15th and 16th century Western Europe and the reasons and ways that Emperors, aristocrats and well-to-do citizens chose to have themselves portrayed. This aside, with such an amazing collection it is difficult to know how to spend your time in this museum. Unless you go regularly, the Gallery of Honour, is a must-see with any number of famous works of art. Operation Night Watch gives brilliant insights into Rembrandt’s colossal masterpiece and, given the way it is shown, you are never likely to be allowed as close to the picture again. You can spend hours here, and we did, and still only scratch the surface.

Eventually heading back out into the sunshine it was a joy to amble along the canals as we set out around the southern section of the historic centre. Crossing the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) we reached the recently opened National Holocaust Memorial. This striking structure(s) list the names of the more than 102,000 Dutch holocaust victims. It is also located right next to the ‘Shadow Wall’, a quay which movingly commemorates, address by address, the 200 inhabitants that were rounded up and taken from the houses opposite – striking reminders of the terrible times the Dutch suffered in World War II.

The rest of the day was spent on collecting goodies to take home with bulbs and flowers from a street flower market, herrings and meatloaf plus, most importantly, a visit to a classic cheese shop. With an overwhelming choice on display we ended up with a smoked Gouda wheel. Old Amsterdam and cumin flavoured cheese – a traditional style dating back to the spice trade with the Indian Ocean. Finally the timing of the Eurostar meant we could enjoy the full day and board the return train early evening for a relaxed trip back to London.

 

 

 

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