My Little Secrets in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is known for its artistic heritage
Amsterdam is known for its artistic heritage, elaborate canal system and narrow houses with gabled facades. PHOTO | JACKSON BIKO | NMG 

I try never to look at Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor before I travel.

This is because I never want to feel “herded” towards particular sites or activities. I prefer to stumble through a city, to be impressed by my “discovery.”

Normally, I’d ask the concierge of a hotel what he thinks I should do or see. And this is how I got to learn of the Cannibale Royale, a brasserie extraordinaire that serves the very best steak and burgers. I mean, the very best.

They are in four locations, Handboogstraat, Ruysdaelkade, Lange Niezel and Du Nord, Amsterdam North. I visited two of their branches. I ate their 180gr Classic burgers for five days — for every day I was in Amsterdam and once for their steak.

I’m not a meat lover but I know great steak when I eat one. They also have lamb and chicken and ribs marked under “Bones” in their menu. If you see a doll hanging from a noose by its neck in one of their restaurants, don’t be alarmed, it’s got something to do with their name, I figured; Cannibale. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t have found this place in Lonely Planet.

I skipped the Heineken experience which the concierge also recommended, because I don’t drink beer.

He also recommended the Van Gogh Museum which I had planned to visit because, come on, it’s Van Gogh. He cut off his ears. He ate paint. He never made money off his work, some that sold for Sh5 trillion (Irises). He fell in love with an alcoholic prostitute, and his cousin. He was depressed. He shot himself in the chest in a suicide attempt but didn’t die. Then died three days later. Tragedy. And tragedy is beautiful, that’s why they made us study Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in school.

The museum itself was modern, sophisticated and organised but it was lost on me because I’m not cultured enough to appreciate that level of art.

The concierge also recommended a hop on hop off bus tour. Normally, I would look at people in those buses with disdain because it’s so cliché to get on one. Very touristy. But I hopped on because getting on those buses is the best way to see the city’s highlights.

It costed me around Sh2,400 for a ticket that allows you to hop on and off for 24 hours. You can always hop off and visit say a museum (try the sex museum if you are not too prudish), a botanic garden or just get off and walk about before waiting for the next bus to hop back in. On the recommendation of the concierge, I also went to Body Worlds. It’s an exhibition conceived to educate the public on the inner workings of the human body and to show the effects of healthy and unhealthy lifestyles.

It shows you how fragile your body is, why health is important, the potential and limits of your body and most importantly, for me, it raises the question of the meaning of life.

There is a whole floor (it covers six floors) on the anatomy of happiness and shows the effects of happiness on our well-being. Happy people, apparently, are less affected by heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, cancer, depression.

In this exhibition, it says that happiness is roughly 50 per cent genetics, 40 per cent our thoughts, actions and behaviour and 10 per cent by our circumstances (rich, poor, married, single, widowed etc). I liked the Body Worlds.

The organs on display are from real donors, majority who are German. It’s not spooky at all. It’s an ingenious and strange tourist attraction. From there I went and ate a burger and drunk whisky. That made me happy.

You also have to do one of the city cruises. They are many, night and day cruises, we picked one called the Lover’s Cruise (Sh3,000 per person). It’s not romantic as the name suggests, unless you count their colour of the interior of the boat romantic; yellow. They serve burgers or pizza and beers during the tour and a guide talks about the sights. Amsterdam — called the Venice of The North — is gorgeous because of its 165 canals and 1,500 bridges.

You will pass sites like the Intercontinental Amstel Amsterdam, one of the oldest buildings located on the Amstel River. And the Tilted Houses, which were houses that were built for the wealthy.

They were built on stilts because of the swampy soil which made them wobble and sink. Now when you look at them they seem to be falling.

Most amazing for me were the 2,500 houseboats lining Amsterdam. At first I thought it’s the poor Dutch who lived there, it turns out it was the wealthy. A house boat goes for nothing under Sh30 million, the guide informed us as we bit into our uninspiring burgers. Those boats have been afloat for more than a century. There are wooden houseboats and the concrete type. Most are residential although there are houseboat hotels if you are keen. I think if I had a choice (and Sh30 million) I’d happily live on a houseboat. I’d feel at peace with the world.

Red-light district

Not recommended by the concierge, I smoked some weed in the red-light district. There are numerous stores called The Bulldog that we were told sell legit stuff. It’s easy to get the wrong stuff. I’m no fun of marijuana.

It just makes me sleepy and that’s no fun when you are on holiday. But this one didn't. I smoked quarter of it in a small noisy bar in the red-light district. That’s also something the Body Works might not have approved. The smoking, that is, not the noise.

Amsterdam was gorgeous in summer. People milled about, lots of people. The quality of life of people who live near water seems admirable. People cruised by in boats, drinking wine, listening to music and laughing. Some sat on bridges, feet dangling below, sharing a bottle of wine. They rode bikes, thousands of them; young and the old, peddling without helmets. I always said that I would never visit a European city twice but Amsterdam, I would.