Canal House: Where Else but Amsterdam
Stay in the right neighborhood to enjoy a city where location makes all
By Will Snyder
Amsterdam is the original landfill city. It was built
in the 13th Century by merchants to benefit from the choice location on the
Amstel River, on what had been swamplands and marshy islands before the
dumping and pumping began. To facilitate trade, and as a handy but rustic
sewage system, over 40 canals were built like a web around the central dam.
The canals were lined with stone, and the livable area filled in with mud,
turf and rubbish. Then piles were driven deep into the marsh, and homes and
So, our tour guide continued- an amiable Dutchman named
Adrien- you are standing on ground built by man which is exactly 4 meters
above the water level, which is the level you see in the many canals, but at
or just below sea level. Like much of the Netherlands, a series of dikes is
all that keeps the city dry. Well, sort of dry, given the regular rainfall
which afflicts the region. But if there is one thing this sort of
construction brings, it is good drainage. The rainwater just disappears, as
the cobbled streets pour the precipitation into the canals, leaving nary a
Stay on the right side of the tracks, er, canal
Amsterdam has its contentious aspects, the foreign
prostitutes showing their wares in the infamous red light district, the
multitude of advertised escort agencies, and the various coffee shops where
cannabis is openly available. But there is a large section of town called
the Jordaan that radiates good taste, great shops and restaurants, and
peaceful decent living. The Jordaan is THE region in which you should base
your next stay.
There are other scenic neighborhoods, one called the
Nieuwe Zijde, though how anything here can be called new is beyond me.
Another is the museum district. These areas seem to be quite mixed, with
some streets renovated in the last century (read destroyed), with car rather
than bicycle traffic and more 21st Century hippies than you probably care to
run into. Still, with the many museums and the quaint Begijnhof (a Catholic
cloister for rich ladies that has kept much of its 17th Century charm) you
will no doubt want to cover them by foot, or by bike.
The Canal House Hotel
And where to stay in the Jordaan? It would be hard to
do better than the aptly named Canal House Hotel. This hotel was bought by
Brian and Mary Bennett some five years ago from Americans who had restored
and run the place for 30 years, and it is absolutely delightful. With a
family atmosphere, a comfortable bar, and a beautiful antique breakfast
salon overlooking the garden, it is very much a home away from home. With
many of the 26 rooms overlooking the gorgeous Keizergracht canal (ask for a
canal view if available), you can literally watch the boats floating by.
The Bennetts are Irish, and have just bought a new home
in the village in France where Peter Mayle lived while writing his famous
book A Year in Provence. Their Amsterdam hotel has a very calming effect
after the busy streetlife of the city. Its 17th Century structure has been
charmingly complimented by antique furnishings.
The staff is helpful and discrete, the clientele an
international well-to-do set of couples and business visitors. I met a
fascinating couple from Cape Town who run a hotel as one of their activities
The location is perfect, central and in an upscale
district. It is very close to the Westerkerke, and the carillons send out
their authoritative call to harmony and tolerance throughout the day.
Bicycles and Safety
Sitting at a canal-side café, the world cycles by. This
is the way to see who’s who. Reportedly, there are over 500,000 bikes for
the same number of over-5 year old city residents. Everyone travels by bike
if they are going more than a few blocks, and I spotted office workers,
nightclub dancers with bright makeup and costumes, shoppers and the amateur
tourists. Back in the 1980’s, the government made bikes available on an
as-needed basis. For free. You just took one and left it for someone else at
your destination. Needless to say, this was a stupid idea, or at least the
users proved it stupid. Seems so many of these bikes ended up in the canals
that they were still fishing them out years after the plan had been
tourist who goes riding alone (as opposed to the organized bike tours) is
either brave or foolish. No one to explain the rules. In fact, I think there
is only one rule: first one to the intersection has priority. This leads to
many a game of chicken, where the weak-willed end up letting the speedier
rider through. Traffic to the right has no greater claim to priority than
traffic from the left, and a cycle turning left can do so with impunity if
there is no contact. And in 3 days I never saw contact between bicycles,
though with all this cycling activity, you would be right to worry about the
poor pedestrian, who must always be looking right and left, even on one way
streets, for the barreling bicycle. After a heavy downpour, cyclists return
from cover to quickly wipe the seats with a forearm, and head on their way.
There are many Delftware shops around town, some of the
cheap souvenir variety. One of the most interesting is the Galleria d’Arte
Rinascimento, selling both choice new pieces and antique collector items.
When I was in there, women from New York and California were placing large
orders for direct shipment (with tax refunds of course).
The Canal House Garden Tour
Recommended by my hotel receptionist, the description
of this 3 hour tour sounded enticing, “guided by professional Dutch art
historians or garden designers, you visit on 5 locations 17th- 19th Century
houses, unique interiors and gardens.” So along I went on one of the three
tours offered per week. Thinking we would be a dozen or so, I was surprised
to find over 30 had signed up for the tour, which at €25 per person amounted
to a nice morning’s work for Adrien the guide, an art historian with a
wicked sense of humor. He filled the visit with constant anecdotes, such as
the seven types of gables on canal houses and the excellent state of the
Dutch elm trees (the disease he told us was not named after the tree but
after the Dutch who discovered it). The tour was excellent, visiting a
museum, a hotel, a bank, and several private homes. Walking briskly across a
nice section of town, the tour ends in an art gallery with a sandwich and
drink for the participants.
If you have the good fortune to be in Amsterdam when
the sun comes out, you are in for a treat. The local make a beeline for the
nearest café and smile and become the happiest people on earth. Their voices
increase in decibels and no one leaves the sunny spot for as long as the
clouds are gone. Should the sun reappear after a prolonged absence, empty
seats in the sun are quickly snatched, and other tables and chairs
repositioned to soak up the precious rays.
Amsterdam is noted for its fine Indonesian restaurants,
and there are many choices. A short walk from the Canal House Hotel is the
Long Pura (recommended by one guide as the best in Europe). There is a
complete menu, but their specialty is the sate: a choice of (or a sample
platter with all of) chicken, pork, goat, lamb, tofu and shrimp, each with
its own spicy sauce. Wonderful.
However, there are restaurants to please every palate,
such as traditional Dutch, Italian, French and Belgian, but most convincing
are the exotic offerings of Indian, Chinese, Surinam or Thai. If you are not
hungry for a full meal, the Dutch have their own lunch and snack foods.
Tosties are grilled sandwiches. Borrelhapjes are deep fried grease balls
filled with cheese goo or diced meat. Ovenverse pistoletjes are small oven
baked dough covered cheese or meat snacks. Cholesterol bombs, these snacks
have never earned much of an export market.
There are so many bars and cafes in the city, it is
almost an injustice to name any. However, two places are not to be missed.
One is +Werck, a post-modernist restaurant/ café located in the former coach
house of the Westerkirk, with sloping angles and a huge outdoor terrace with
a long row of sofas in white and grey. Beyond trendy.
other is David & Goliath, the café/ restaurant of the Amsterdam Historical
Museum, located in the medieval courtyard of this monument to the glory days
of the Dutch empire. A fantastic atmosphere, accessible without entering the
museum, it closes at 6pm.
However, dinners with a private tour of the museum can
be arranged for up to 30 persons at very reasonable rates.
In general, Amsterdam is reasonably priced compared to
other major European cities. Good value for price is the rule. You get what
you pay for.
Delftware, Galleria d’Arte Rinascimento, Old and new
Delftware, Prinsengracht 170, tel: 31 20 622 75 09,
+Werck Restaurant and Café,
Canal Houses: Architecture, Interior & Garden Tour, Mon
+ Fri at 10:15am, Sat at 11:15am, Herengracht 605, tel: 31 20 688 1243,
Canal House Hotel, Keizersgracht 148, 1015CX Amsterdam,
tel: 31 20 622 5148, fax: 31 20 624 1317,
www.canalhouse.nl, rates from €140- 190 ($170- 230)
Long Pura Indonesian Restaurant, Rozengracht 48, tel:
31 20 623 8950
David & Goliath, Kalverstraat 92, tel: 31 20 623 6736.
Will Snyder is a free lance writer living in southwest
Phone: 33 675 025 149
Images by Will Snyder