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May 2019
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2005-01-25 Streedagh air is only thing missing from city of sex shops, windmills, canals, and bikes

Leaving aside Dublin airport, where else can you find a top-class Americano and a tasty chocolate muffin, after which you contentedly fly away? The answer is - Amsterdam's "Magic Mushroom Cafe", or indeed any of Amsterdam's brown cafes or other drinking establishments.


Luckily, I had been warned about spacecakes, and I knew to check the label first. On my first morning in this most liberal and historic of cities, I was asked where I was from, and what I liked to sniff. When I answered Sligo, and the sea air at Streedagh, my potential supplier lost interest and skulked away.

Amsterdam is a city with legalised prostitution, dope-smoking coffee-shops, and the highest level of tolerance of any city I have ever visited.

The Celtic Tenors were booked on their first Dutch tour, immediately before Christmas, and were housed in typical canal-house apartments with practically vertical staircases  I was in an attic bedroom accessible by shaky ladder  right at the heart of Amsterdams buzzing city centre. The house overlooked antique streets and the elegant web of canals radiating towards the suburbs.

On my first morning, I rose early and made my way past frozen canals to Number 263 Prinsengracht, to visit the intimate house where the young Jewish diarist Anne Frank had hidden with family and friends in a secret annex during World War Two.

The "Anne Frankhuis" is, not surprisingly, Amsterdams most visited site, and like Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, is somewhere I believe everyone ought to visit, or at least to be aware of. Anne dreamed of being a person again, and not just a Jew, but tragically died in Belsen concentration camp, one month before liberation.
As Primo Levi said, one single Anne Frank (and her diaries, translated into 60 languages) moves us more than countless nameless faces in the shadows, and acts as a towering symbol in the constant fight for freedom and human rights, and struggle against facism, racism and extremism. We could never take on board the suffering of the other 103,000 Dutch Jews who perished, let alone the millions of others elsewhere.

The vast Rijksmuseum houses an enormous selection of artworks from the great Dutch masters of the 15th to the 17th centuries, and everywhere, traces of the Dutch sea-faring past are evident. Sadly, extensive refurbishment means that only the collections highlights  including the major Rembrandts and Vermeers - are on display on two floors. The Van Gogh museum houses the largest collection of this troubled mans masterpieces, and is definitely worth a look.

Dutch churches, as a rule, tend to be modest in appearance, due in part to their Calvinist background, but the Oude Kerk, with its impressive stained-glass is most interesting. There are of course sex museums and hash and dope museums, but if you want to witness Amsterdams buzzing night-life first-hand, a night-time stroll through the Red-Light District is the best means of achieving this, as you wander through this vast open-air Peep-Show.

Its good that prostitution has been legalised, and thus made safer. Sex, in Amsterdam, is a legal business, but I could still find nothing attractive about the on-street haggling for sex, and the scantily-clad ladies in window brothels, in this sleezy seedy sex-zoo. Yet strangely, Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities in the world  somewhere I could happily reside. Amsterdams Schipol airport is Europes largest airport (needing a little reorganisation), and the temperate climate makes Amsterdam a popular year-round destination.

The Dutch people are, in my experience, and pretty much without exception, affable and welcoming. Most have fluent to good English, and almost seem bemused if you attempt to speak Dutch, which is no harm considering Dutch is one of the most difficult languages to get your throat around. Should it be called "Phlegmish"(sic)? Dublin has its Georgian façades, Amsterdam has its gables, and I think its that varied elegance of the tall, often ornate, gabled canal houses
which is most immediately appealing.

Dutch cuisine impressed greatly, from the hearty soup-bars, to top-class gastronmy. Trams, buses, and millions of bikes criss-cross city streets, making walking a little perilous. Amsterdam is not the best shopping city, although the Condomerie stocks every shape, size and flavour!

A Dutch smoking ban would be most welcome, and yet, this committed non-smoker is already longing for a return visit to the city of windmills, canals, tulips, history and gable-ends.