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Three hundred and fifty or so years ago Holland and its major port-city, Amsterdam, had a really bad press. The Dutch, said a raft of 17th-century commentators, were nothing but "herring-picklers," "frogs," "cheese-worms," "usurpers that deprive fish of their dwelling-places" and "love to be down in the dirt and wallow therein." As for Amsterdammers, they were, all agreed, thoroughly addicted to alcohol and tobacco; and their city was a lascivious and anarchic place. Refugees might see it as a "Noah's ark of asylum-seekers," as one grateful French Protestant running from slaughter, Pierre Bayle, put it. But in the eyes of most foreigners that only made it a chaotic, heresy-filled bazaar: "the Fair of all the sects where . . . the peddlers of religion have leave to vent their toys." Why, Amsterdam didn't even have censorship: People could write and talk—and behave—in whatever way they wanted. An English consul in the middle of the 17th century complained of music houses filled with "lewd people of both sexes;" and at around the same time the first users' guide to Amsterdam's red-light district was published. The British and French monarchs actually listed its permissiveness as one of their main reasons for declaring war (in 1672) on the new upstart republic of the United Provinces: "a country," said one writer, "where the demon gold is seated on a throne of cheese and crowned with tobacco."

If all this seems oddly familiar to a modern audience, of course it is. For 20th-century and 17th-century Amsterdam have a lot in common—all the way down to Adriaen Brouwer's Smoker in the Rijksmuseum, who almost certainly has something stronger in his pipe than "the demon weed." It remains, that is to say, a tolerant, easygoing, broad-minded sort of city where people from across the world can do more or less as they wish, as long as they're discreet about it and obey the local bylaws. Amsterdammers still eat a ton of herring on the street at lunchtime—as well as uitsmijters (bread with cheese and ham topped with a fried egg) and pancakes smothered in cheese; and at night they continue to throng into hundreds of basement bars and "brown cafés" to drink gin, known patriotically as vaderlandje (fatherland); a dizzying variety of beers; and local liqueurs with lubricious old names like Venus Oil, Lift Up Your Nightshirt, and The Longer The Better. They still possess some of the finest tobacco stores in the world (particularly the Empire- and Art Deco-decorated cigar palace P.G.C. Hajenius); and they still play host to international, offshore traders, as well as a babel of New Age religions. They also remain as concerned about the environment as they have always been about the maintenance of their dams and polders and dikes. Consider: In 1989, Amsterdammers—along with the rest of the Dutch—threw a government out of office for proposing car-pollution legislation they considered much too lax.

In its attitudes, then, and much of its center-city architecture, Amsterdam remains very much a city born out of the 17th-century Golden Age of exploration and trade. It is on the one hand sobersided and rational, as befits a child of the Reformation—the "perfect prose" counterpart, Henry James once called it, of Venice's "perfect poetry." On the other hand it's mercantile and sometimes—as if in memory of its roisterous, port-centered past—given to excess. In 1613, for example, there were 518 alehouses serving a population here of 100,000; today, in a canal-girdled city no bigger than Baltimore, there are more than 2,000 restaurants, cafés, and bars as well as 65 theaters and concert halls, 141 art galleries, and 21 open-air markets. There are museums here devoted to everything from tattooing and fluorescent art to marijuana and the Pianola. Yet for all this, and for all the cheery helpfulness of Amsterdammers, not to mention their seeming ability to speak every international language, it's an oddly difficult place for the cosmopolitan 20th-century visitor to come to terms with.

"Amsterdam's a city that looks open, but it's not," says René W. Chr. Dessing, founder of Artifex, a specialty tourist organization with an office on the city's Herengracht canal. "It's full of people and places that tourists only rarely have access to. And this means that it remains hidden in many ways, elusive. It is not a declarative city," he goes on. "It doesn't have palaces and great monuments and wide-ranging collections of art. Instead it has its own special atmosphere, its own special ethos, rooted deep in its past—and this has to be explained."

One place to start in the unraveling of Amsterdam's "special ethos" is, paradoxically, perhaps, the new Town Hall. Completed in the late eighties and nicknamed the Stopera because it shares its premises with the national ballet and opera companies, it's a banal, modern building. But inside, in a passageway near the porter's lodge, there's an installation that evokes better than anything else in the city the sheer year-by-year doggedness that, beginning in the 13th century, built this settlement on the swampland that once stretched between the Rhine and the North Sea. Three vertical acrylic tubes, set in a wall and filled with blue liquid, show the water level in the city, the daily tidal level at nearby IJmuiden, and—most worryingly—the height of water reached during the ruinous flood of 1953. They're a bald reminder that wherever you go in Amsterdam, by rights you should be anything from knee- to neck-deep in water. In 1573 a naval battle between Dutch and Spanish galleons was actually fought outside the city at what is now Schiphol, the fastest-growing airport in Europe.

It was the long war against Spanish rule (1568-1648), of which this battle was a part, that laid down the lineaments of the city's character. For soon after Amsterdammers threw in their lot with the other Dutch provinces, they turned the Roman Catholic priests out of the city's churches, together with every last vestige of public Catholic worship. (Virtually all the medieval religious art in the city was destroyed by victorious Calvinist "iconoclasts." The churches, many now used as exhibition halls, remain bare.) At the same time the war helped create the national myth of the Dutch: placid, tolerant, slow to anger; and it encouraged the opening of the little port-city's doors to anyone and everyone on the run from the Catholic powers. Wealthy merchants from the southern Low Countries flocked to it, along with persecuted French Protestants and affluent Portuguese and German Jews—all of whom have left their mark, not only on the names in Amsterdam's telephone directories but also on the city's idiosyncratic dialect. (Much of the Amsterdam vocabulary comes from either French or Yiddish; and old Amsterdammers still call their city mokum, from makom, the Hebrew word for "sacred place.") As a result of this influx, within a century the population of the city tripled. Money became plentiful and wages high. International trade boomed; new canals were dug into the swamps with sumptuous new houses alongside them; and Amsterdam was transformed from an enterprising port-town into the cultural and commercial capital of Europe. As it took center stage, though, it somehow managed to remain determinedly parochial. For even when it became the principal city of a brand-new world power, its people continued to be citizens rather than subjects: rich, yes, but practical, traditional, given to good works, and with local rather than national loyalties. The art, too, that it began to produce and buy was equally practical and democratic. It was anchored in the here and now: in the kitchen, the tavern, the streets, the countryside. "Good pictures are very common [in Amsterdam]," wrote one 17th-century English traveler, "there being scarce an ordinary tradesman whose house is not adorned with them."

Many of these pictures—by the likes of Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Albert Cuyp, Frans Hals, and Jan Vermeer (whose The Art of Painting was purchased by a saddler after his death for an apple and an egg)—are today housed in the Renaissance-Gothic Rijksmuseum; and they're one of the main attractions for the nine million tourists who come into the city each year. The visitor should be warned, though. For the pictures in the Rijksmuseum are not the sort of eclectic international gathering of big names we associate with national collections like those of the Louvre or the Met. Instead they're almost entirely Dutch—and therefore modest, almost domestic. They hold up a mirror—sometimes celebratory, sometimes satirical, sometimes a little preachy—to the society of their times: They refer constantly to the real world of the city and the countryside you've just left. Jan Steen, after all, was an innkeeper, the proprietor of a place not unlike, say, Café 't Smalle on the Egelantiersgracht. Rembrandt used as models for his religious pictures the men and women he knew in the Jewish quarter, memorialized in the Jewish Museum not far from his house on Jodenbreestraat. And even when a painting is of grand size—the picture of a militia company or the regents' board of some charity—the faces emerging from the ruffs and hats and wimples seem like echoes of the broad, benign, or bony faces you run into every day by the canals. The most famous painting in the collection, no doubt, is Rembrandt's The Night Watch—and it, too, has an intimate continuity with the city in which it's still housed. For it's difficult not to remember, as you crane through the crowds around it, that the captain in the center of the picture had a house on the Singelgracht that still exists; that he was once described as the stupidest man in all Amsterdam; and that the militiamen whose faces are partly hidden were quite angry at having to pay up to the painter the full-face price per man.

"It's a village, that's the point," booms Johannes van Dam, the crusty food and restaurant critic of the city's Het Parool daily and Elsevier weekly, as we sit in the Café Luxembourg on the Spuistraat. "It's a village, but it's a cosmopolitan village. It wasn't just built on piles of pine from Germany, after all; it was built on herring bones and salt. Salted herring from Holland was a vital source of protein for long voyages; and it came with an internationally guaranteed standard of quality; it was a reliable fuel for men. It was the equivalent of oil from Kuwait!"

As we sit watching the passersby, Van Dam lists the goods and achievements this "oil" brought the city: the explorations of Australia, North America, and Tierra del Fuego; the raids on the Spanish treasure-fleets; the trading voyages of the Dutch East India Company, which in 1611 paid a dividend to its shareholders of 162 percent. When I suggest going on to dinner together he leads me off along the Singelgracht and down the Leidsestraat, through the ubiquitous clank and clatter of bicycles, pointing out landmarks along the way: the 1619 Munttoren (mint tower) and the 1891 Metz & Co. store on the corner of Keizersgracht, "once the tallest building in Amsterdam," where the view from the café and a glass cupola designed in 1933 by the De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld "is well worth the climb." Finally he veers off into a little warren of streets to the east of Leidsestraat that is full of restaurants from around the world: Argentina and India, Indonesia and Italy, Uruguay and Spain. But he doesn't stop at any of these. Instead he bustles his way into an eating-house called De Blauwe Hollander, and I realize he's giving me an object lesson in things Dutch and Amsterdammish. For De Blauwe Hollander is the most retiring of all the restaurants around us: It feels old, dark, wooden, like a Rembrandt interior or a ship—and the cooking is just as plain. There is herring on the menu, of course, and the stew he suggests is very simple, though it comes (as Amsterdam does, I'm beginning to realize) with a distant palatal echo of exotic spices: of cinnamon and mace.

It is, I fancy, as we talk over our stews, the sheer modesty of the place, and by extension of the city, that Van Dam wishes to show me and make me taste. And in the days that follow—as I wander through the city center, photographing houses that were built when Manhattan was first settled and walking along canals begun when Rembrandt was three years old—I begin to see that it's this modesty, a reticence, a distaste for show, that is the defining characteristic of Amsterdam, both ancient and modern. For here there is none of the urban bombast that we normally associate with rich, imperial cities: ceremonial boulevards, long vistas, equestrian statues. The merchants' houses on the canals, with their fantastically variegated gables, aren't show-off and look-at-me, as are the palaces of Venice. They are deep rather than wide, narrow-facaded; they present a prim shoulder to the world and turn away.

The Museumplein, the cultural heart of the city, seems more like a village green than anything else. And of the buildings it links, only the Rijksmuseum is clearly designed to impress from the outside. (With its statuary and inscribed Biblical texts, it looks like a well-endowed Victorian seminary.) The Concertgebouw (concert hall), erected by public subscription after Brahms' remark that the Dutch are "lovely people but poor musicians," is more remarkable for its accidentally perfect acoustics than for any architectural brio. And as for the Stedelijk and Van Gogh Museums, even their newly added extensions (by Alvaro Siza Vieira and the Metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa, respectively) are serviceable and inward-looking rather than outward-looking and assertive. Both designs are the end result of compromises, after much public wrangling about (among other things) the fate of individual trees; and though relatively undistinguished, I find the sight of them oddly comforting. For they're a reminder that Amsterdam remains under the control of citizens rather than their masters. Sometimes these citizens get things wrong, as they did with the original Van Gogh Museum building (based on a 1963 design by Rietveld and opened in 1973). It was built to accommodate 60,000 visitors a year and is now getting more than a million. But then I find this fact—even as I confront the long lines on Paulus Potterstraat—oddly comforting too.

To say Amsterdam is modest is not to say that it doesn't have grand and luxurious places in which to stay. There's the superbly comfortable Amstel Inter-Continental, for instance, which was recently used as a virtual extension of Queen Beatrix's palace to house visiting royals on the occasion of her 60th birthday. Nor does it mean that it doesn't have restaurants that can hold their own against the very best in Europe. There's the Michelin-two-star La Rive in the Amstel, for example (where Robert Kranenborg hosts exclusive chef's dinners three times a week in his kitchen); Christophe' (one star) and Bordewijk in the old working-class district of Jordaan; and (my favorite to garner a second star) Vermeer in the Hotel Barbizon Palace.

But it does mean that the old part of Amsterdam, apart from its squares, has no conspicuous architectural focus. The only monumental buildings in the city, in fact, are the Hendrik Berlage Exchange and the Koninklijk Paleis, or Royal Palace (dating from 1648), on Dam Square. When it was constructed it was the largest known secular building on Earth. (Only the Escorial in Madrid and the Doges' Palace in Venice could rival it.) It's only by walking round and then entering it (as you can for exhibitions) that you really begin to appreciate the extraordinary wealth and power that was once gathered in Amsterdam. In the floor of the high and ornate reception hall (Burgerzaal) is carved a map of the world, with Holland, like some mercantile version of the Holy Land, at its center; and on one of the exterior pediments the patroness of Amsterdam receives tribute from four continents, as she has for three and a half centuries. Above the pediment soars the Maid of Peace, one of the largest statues in Amsterdam, which once looked down on rich merchants quietly going about their business, and on a roisterous port filled with coffee, gems, spices, Nuremberg porcelain and Italian majolica, Lyons silk, Spanish taffeta, and—in the words of historian Simon Schama—"Haarlem linen bleached to the most dazzling whiteness."

This world of august, Sunday-best merchants and riotous taverns may well have gone forever, but in a sense it still exists. For you can find echoes of it in "brown cafés" such as Café Hoppe on Spui Square and Café Papeneiland on the Prinsengracht. You can also see the surviving spirit of the trade that once sustained the city virtually everywhere you look: in the koffiemelk you have at breakfast and in the nutmeg and cinnamon used in the traditional Dutch stews. It's in the wheels of Edam and Gouda cheese on sale in the Albert Cuyp market; and in the presence of some of the finest and most elaborate tobacco shops in the world. The rope- and barrel-makers, chandlers, tanners, and brewers, may have gone forever (the last big brewer, Heineken, left the city in 1988), but they still survive in the names of some of the streets. The diamond and chocolate industries are still here; and as for the red-light district, well, it could be described as one of the last of the city's industries to flourish in its original 17th-century locale.

In this century (as in the 17th) Amsterdam has comfortably absorbed fresh waves of immigrants: Indonesians and Surinamese, not to mention international bankers, directors of offshore companies, and that proportion of the city's tourists who've liked what they've seen enough to want to stay. It also remains, as W.J.M. Plegt, the general manager of the Amstel hotel, says, "as international and entrepreneurial as ever—though now in a post-industrial way. Holland was the first country in Europe to close its coal mines," Plegt goes on, "the first to really make the switch; and Amsterdam has since been in the forefront. Many of the old industries have now gone from the city; and their place in the center has been taken over by architects, lawyers, designers, computer programmers. Some of them live in houseboats—which are not cheap; they can cost from $75,000 to $200,000. But many have taken over what were until recently offices, and they've spent a lot of time and money restoring them to their original state." He laughs and spreads his hands as we sit looking out over the river Amstel. "The building companies and antiques shops on Spiegelstraat," he notes, "have done extremely well out of it."

It's precisely this new use to which the historic center has been turned that's the major obstacle for today's tourist trying to come to grips with the city. For if Amsterdam is a living museum of the 17th century, then it's a museum that's got live-in curators. And though Amsterdammers are helpful, they're also detached, aloof, as if they themselves were from some different, parallel city. This odd disjunction between public city and private citizens is something that every authority on Amsterdam seems to have noticed. One guidebook refers to "the genial inscrutability" of Amsterdammers; another talks of their live-and-let-live attitude being mirrored by an intense "desire to be left alone." I myself think it is part of the 17th-century legacy: of a piece with the modest charm of De Blauwe Hollander and the way the houses withhold themselves behind a narrow front.

The only way to overcome it is to become, for the duration of one's stay, as far as possible, an Amsterdammer. I do this, by taking the city's measure via a long ride through the canals and the old port in a 1920s salon boat, Paradis, owned by Tommy van Riet. I also move away from the grand style of the Amstel to the Seven One Seven, a seven-room canal-side hotel at 717 Prinsengracht filled with antiques and a modern version of the sort of luxurious domesticity that Amsterdam's merchants once enjoyed. I still visit museums each day: the Maritime Museum and the heart-rending Jewish History Museum, among others; but I come to see these visits more and more as my day job, for which I clock on at nine and leave at five. I eat lunch standing up, and fried potatoes with mayonnaise on the run; and in the evening I taste some of the beers at the Brouwhuis Maximiliaan in the old Bethanienklooster (monastery) and even have my first glass of Venus Oil. As I do so I respond to the relaxed rhythm of the city. I wander through the streets of Jordaan, stopping wherever I like. One night, after eating gloriously well at Vermeer, I spend a couple of hours with Bas de Haan, the chef of 't Jagershuis, whom I find emerging from Seven One Seven's kitchen after cooking a private dinner.

I also call René Dessing once more. For though by now I have visited most of the 17th-century canal houses that are open to the public—the enchanting little Museum Amstelkring, Museum Van Loon, and Bartolotti house (with its cascade of decoration)—they're too reconstructed for me to make connection with how Amsterdammers live in such places today. First, then, Dessing points me to a house over a tobacco shop in Prinsengracht, which Dom Ducco and Benedict Goes are now restoring to house one of the world's most remarkable collections of pipes. Then, within an hour or so one afternoon, Dessing leads me through a number of Herengracht houses that he sometimes uses for cocktail parties and banquets. There's Pat van de Wall Bake's house, where she runs a cooking school—La Cuisine Française—from her kitchen and a huge room overlooking a back garden; the Van Brienen house, the headquarters of the Hendrick de Keyser Association, with a vast and magnificent hall; and the Geelvinck Hinloopen house, with a lily pond and carriage house, where every antique on show is for sale through a dealer, Ida van Rossum, who operates from the basement. Equally impressive, though—and what I'm really looking for—is a two-floor apartment Dessing has never seen before but which is for sale by a friend he runs into as we're walking down Herengracht. Dessing's friend soon unlocks the door and ushers us into an airy living room that has a fine ceiling painting, perhaps by the famous Jacob de Wit, and an 18th-century Amsterdam cityscape good enough to belong in the Amsterdam Historical Museum. As the two of them talk provenance and ascription, I look out the window into the hidden garden and wonder, well, whether I shouldn't make an offer for this camouflaged piece of the 17th-century city.

Before Dessing and I part company we walk in the direction of the new Blakes hotel on the Keizersgracht, built into the offices and dispensing rooms of a Catholic charity—which was erected in turn on the site of an old theater burned down in 1772. And Dessing tells me that before I leave the city I should visit Broek in Waterland, where he and his partner have just bought a house. The next morning, then—my last—I take a taxi and drive out into the flat countryside Rembrandt visited on sketching trips after the death of his first wife. "Cows," grunts the driver, waving a hand. "Very Dutch."

Broek in Waterland, when we arrive there, is a charming little place of lanes and clapboard houses gathered around a church and a small lake. For a while the driver and I wander around in a thin rain, looking for Dessing's new house. After about 20 minutes, though, we give up and climb back into the taxi for the long, wide-horizoned drive back to the city.

Then, as we see it in the distance, I recall a passage from one of the books I've been carrying: Although Amsterdammers were celebrated for their cleanliness in the 18th century, the people of Broek in Waterland were so obsessive about cleanliness that they could sometimes be found scrubbing the trees! As I pack my bags later in the hotel I remember the words with which Simon Schama opens the introduction to his study The Embarrassment of Riches: "It is the peculiar genius of the Dutch to seem at the same time familiar and incomprehensible." And I laugh, merrily, modestly, so as not to disturb the neighbors: a very Amsterdam kind of laugh.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about London's Almeida Theatre, Japan's bamboo weavers, and Allegri outerwear in the last issue of Departures.


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