Wednesday, 26 September 2012
Let’s go Dutch: Bloody Good Chap’s pick of Amsterdam’s drinking dens and coffee shops...
To most people, Amsterdam conjures up images of illicit sex and relaxed drug laws, a city full of pervy tourists and reefer drenched teenagers with goatee beards and natty dreads. Whilst there is certainly a bit of this sort of thing - testified the clientele of the city’s many coffee shops and prostitutes pressing themselves up against the windows of the infamous red-light district - it is a huge generalisation of a city which I found on the most part to be very civilised and tasteful. of course, I cannot go into full details of the trip as I would end up writing countless pages, but I will give you a number of the many highlights from my trip over the course of the week.
In the first post of this series I want to give you an insight into the diverse drinking culture of the city and some great places to smoke some very passable Dutch cigars.
Wynand Fockink is a fantastic little bar and distillery founded in the late 17th Century and I imagine little has change in this establishment over the last 300 or so years. The walls are lined with all sorts of bottles containing a plethora of different fruit and herbal liqueurs as well as flagons of the famous Dutch gin, better known as Genever. I quickly found out this latter drink is pronounced like ‘Geneva’ and not ‘Jennifer’, much to the amusement of the friendly bar tender who was quite the showman! Incidentally, I will be covering this potent drink in more details over the course of the week as it really deserves an article of its own. But the bar had a great buzz and the staff were very helpful and friendly. It might be a bit touristy but then again, that’s Amsterdam for you. Besides, it’s a great place to get a feel of an old Dutch drinking establishment.
The other great watering hole (and my personal favourite of the trip) was the De Drie Fleschjes another old fashioned tasting room, the room lined with bottles and flagons. The back wall was devoted to a collection of padlocked barrels, which were the reserve of longtime customers who would fill them with their own creations and come to sample them in the rarified atmosphere of this intimate, low-lit bar. There was a general air of conviviality around the place and it was obviously a real local haunt, judging from the lack of tourists. There was one group of suited and be-tied fellows really going hell for leather and there must have been about 7 rounds purchased by them in the time we were there. In addition to the hard liquor there was also a fantastic if modest range of beers, including a dark, syrupy brew called Jopen from Haarlem which was reminiscent of the dark beers I had tried in Belgium. Again the staff were lively, friendly and extremely helpful, especially when it came to choosing different liqueurs to try.
If this doesn't really sound like your sort of thing (in which case you must be barking!), there are no shortages of bars in Amsterdam in which you can enjoy a chilled glass of the local brews, Heineken or Amstel (which tastes far better in the city of its origin rather than the tasteless golden water they serve in British pubs!) for a very reasonable price. As you can probably imagine, on this trip, there were to be regular stops at a number of such establishments which each had their own attraction, whether it be a playlist exclusively devoted to 70s and 80s music, an emphasis on pool or a karaoke machine. At night the city become a veritable buzz of people of all ages stumbling in and out of an odyssey of booze dens. A couple which spring to mind off the top of my head (and which I can remember) were Cafe Bar The Pint and Cafe the Tribe.
Let’s turn our attention now to the coffee shops which litter the street and the pungent smells of illicit drugs which emanate from their interiors. If we overlook the general bill of fare in these establishments they make a cracking and suitable environment for enjoying the small pleasures of a Dutch cigar, which I must add are dirt cheap! Brands like de Oliphant, Balmoral and Adipati make some very pleasant smokes for very affordable prices and are as much in place in a Dutch coffee shop as anywhere else. As much as a cigar is complimented by a digestif my greatest pleasure is accompanying it with a cup of coffee and the Dutch certainly know how to make one, putting most of the efforts in this country to shame! I was also pleased by the individual character that each shop had, and you could see that the proprietors had been as keen to leave their own stamp on their property as the customers were keen to enjoy the wares they purvey.
The air was hazy and the walls were plastered with graffiti, added by various punters over the years at Hill Street Blues, one of the city’s most famous coffee shops. Low lighting and pounding dub music give this place an edgy if slightly seedy feel and one would not be wrong in labeling it as slightly oppressive - akin to some dingy basement from an Ed McBain thriller. However no trip to Amsterdam would be complete without stopping in for a cup of that ‘naughty bean we call coffee’ or any other one of their well made hot drinks.
The other place worth a mention is the equally famous Abraxas, a seemingly large but deceptively small shop on the edge of the red light district. short, kilim-clad stools, wall-to-wall sofas and low coffee tables offer punters an intimate if cramped experience. In contrast to Hill Street the extractor fan is pretty effective at keeping the air relatively less muggy than other establishments we entered, the only thing I was rather put out by was the lack of Santana on the sound system! After all the place shares the same name as their seminal 1970 album.
Anyway, despite any prejudices or pre-conceptions that you have about the Amsterdam coffee shop you should at least make a stop into one to see what all the fuss is about, and then form an opinion.
In my next installment I will give you some info about some of the great cultural attractions that are on offer and some information about two very good hostels where we stayed. So, in the meantime, stay tuned and stay lucky.