This city has many delights, but its brown cafes have their own addictive appeal.
These establishments have been a central part of Amsterdam life for centuries.
The oldest one, Cafe Chris (at Bloemstraat 42), dates from 1624 and originated to supply the needs of workers building the nearby Westerkirk, one of the city's best-known churches. No doubt they used up a goodly portion of their wages in the place.
Brown cafes take their name from their traditional dark wood interiors, which have deepened in tone from age and years of tobacco smoke. They are by definition small - the Dutch describe them as "gezellig," meaning cosy and comfortable.
De Ooievaar (the Stork, at Sint Olofspoort 1, just around the corner from Central Station) is one of the smallest in Amsterdam - hardly larger than a couple of walk-in closets. On the night I visited, people were crowded around the tables and pressing cheek by jowl up to the narrow bar. The air was thick with smoke - the cigarette police have not hit Amsterdam yet - the temperature was steamy and the talk was loud.
When I casually asked what the dusty grey crocks were on the shelves, I was treated to an explanation - and a sample - of jenever, a potent schnapps-like gin. A small glass of older jenever, darker in colour and more mellow than the younger, swallowed quickly from a small tulip-shaped glass, tastes like cold water until it hits the gullet, whereupon it delivers a warm punch.
The woman who had insisted we try the jenever then suggested we visit the brown cafe just across the alley where her husband was the barkeep. She didn't patronize his cafe, she said, because "it is difficult to relax when I have to watch him working."
Some of the brown cafes specialize in particular brands of beer or jenever, having begun as places where distillers would offer free tastings for patrons to try before they bought a cask. One such establishment is the Wynand Fockink, dating from 1679, which serves products from its own distillery as well as other well-established brands. It boasts a collection of liqueur bottles on which portraits are painted of every Amsterdam mayor since 1591. It is the custom in this bar to fill the jenever glass to the brim, making it necessary to put your lips to the glass instead of vice versa.
One of the most charming brown cafes is 't Smalle (Egelantiersgracht 12) in the Jordaan district. It serves simple dishes like soup and bread, sandwiches, local cheeses and sausages, as well as several brands of beer and jenever. The interior is small and dark, but there is a dock platform on the canal where patrons can sit by the water and enjoy the sunshine.
We jokingly suggested to two young rowers passing by that they might like to row us back to our hotel. To our surprise, they not only took us on a tour of the canals that led back to the Barbizon, but they supplied a running history of the architecture of the city. They were both lawyers, both Cambridge graduates who had returned to their hometown to work, and both extremely proud of their beautiful city.
The brown cafes lead to surprises like that. They are not known as tourist attractions: rather, they are the beloved meeting houses of locals. Each cafe has a loyal circle of patrons who come regularly to talk with friends, and each has a distinctive character. These little cafes remain fiercely Dutch in character and proudly traditional.
A favourite activity of bike-riding locals is a cycling tour of brown cafes. Start at the Cafe Karpershoek (dating from 1629), Amsterdam's second-oldest cafe. Head west to the Jordaan neighbourhood near Noorderkerk for Cafe Papeneiland, opened in 1642, and nearby Cafe Hegeraad (mid-1600s), then hit Cafe 't Smalle and Cafe Chris. Southwest of the Jordaan, at Spui in the centre of town, is Cafe Hoppe (1670), a literary hangout. Swing east to Cafe de Sluyswacht (1695) and its terrace overlooking the Oude Schans canal. Wind up at Cafe de Druif (1631), near the Maritime Museum.
If you go:
Cycling maps are available from the Amsterdam Tourist Board (www.visitamsterdam.nl).
For more information on the Netherlands, visit www.goholland.com.