The last time I departed England's shores it was in a different, more heroic age of travel, before Google Maps, before Kindle, before Spotify. Before, if you young herberts can envisage such a time, Android and the iPhone. I'm talking of 2005.
As well as quite a few trips abroad for work that year, including Las Vegas and Doha, I went on holiday twice. I took my beloved Fiat Coupé 20V Turbo over to Spain and spent two weeks driving down to Andalusia from the Basque region and back again, ending with a few days in Bilbao eating my weight in pintxos.
The second jaunt was to New York, staying at the Hudson. These are just the places I can recall eating at: Nobu, Gramercy Tavern, Brasserie les Halles, Bar Masa, Balthazar, Babbo and Lupa. There were more.
The travel was all part of my increasingly frantic attempts to convince myself that I was ALL RIGHT REALLY and not hopelessly and dangerously fractured. Because in late 2004, with my drinking well out of control, I'd had a breakdown, bodged a suicide attempt (diazepam/vodka/stanley knife/warm bath), and had to resign from the all the projects I was working on. Then I started pretending. Apart from the travel, here's what else I did: went into therapy; started going to AA; spent money I didn't have; went on a diet; bought a whole new wardrobe of clothes; started having regular sessions of reflexology and acupuncture; spent more money I didn't have.
It was all to no avail, of course, and the wheels finally came off the bus after a year or so.
But now, after bankruptcy, homelessness, metal illness and years on the sausage, here I am in 2014 with a paying job, a brand new passport and public sector annual leave coming out of my trapdoor. So when I was invited to come and speak at a recovery conference here in Amsterdam, flights paid, it seemed too good an opportunity not to tack on a holiday to the trip.
One of the things that I used to find fascinating about travelling is, despite all that global village bollocks, the differences you find, how some countries do some things much better than others and some things inexplicably worse. Here in Amsterdam instances of the former far outweigh those of the latter.
For one thing, if you're going to create a city, making one out of canals is just shitting brilliant. Large swathes of Amsterdam are remarkably quiet and peaceful. Things seem to move at a relaxed pace and I'd say that's, in part, down to having ancient waterways everywhere.
Then there's public transport. On board the buses here they have LED displays showing the times of arrival at the upcoming stops. And a typical main street is laid out like this: a central lane for trams and buses to whizz up and down freely; either side of this, lanes for cars; outside of them, cycle lanes; and, finally, footpaths.
Then there's the not inconsiderable matter of the frites. Whereas in the UK chips and curry sauce are the sole preserve of the shamefully drunk and schoolchildren, or shamefully drunk schoolchildren, here you can find elegantly dressed women sipping their negronis at a bar while tucking into a cone of deliciously crunchy frites and curry mayo (see Frites uit Zuyd below).
But then, heavily in the minus column, there's the bloody cyclists. They're everywhere. In London they are regarded as vermin to be mown down without compunction by all right-thinking motorists. But here they are the dominant species and are a serious danger to the innocent tourist. Vast, seemingly CGI-generated swathes of the fuckers come at you from all sides. They do, admittedly, sometimes ring their bells, but as these have all the warning capacity of an angel's tear landing on a mound of goose feathers, the danger remains. But if you can view them from a place of safety they're fun to watch. Again in contrast to their British masked, lycra-clad counterparts, they all just wear ordinary clothes. They also make the most of their rides by doing something useful like smoking, chatting on the phone, or eating a sandwich. I didn't see any one reading a book while cycling, but I wouldn't have been at all surprised. And I didn't see a single one of them wearing a helmet - and why should they, they have no natural predator after all.
Oh, and Dutch bicycle design seems to have stopped sometime in the 1950s:
the cultural bit
Anyway, here's where I stayed and where I went. Apologies, as ever, for the appalling quality of the photos.
where i stayed
The concept of the hotel is to cut out all hidden costs and remove all unnecessary items, in order to provide its guests a luxury feel for an affordable price. The rooms are prefabricated produced in citizenM’s own factory and easy to transport. The rooms are stacked on a ground floor with a dynamic lobby / living-room space. - from the Concept website
The rooms themselves are what the crew cabins on the Starship Enterprise would look like if Nathan Barley signed on as Interior Design Officer.
Despite including the largest fucking bed in the entire world (it could comfortably sleep four) which takes up at least a third of the room, design quirks mean that the room is really only suitable for one person. For one thing there's little storage space, just a drawer under the bed, a small chrome rack on the wall by the door with three hangers supplied and a couple of shelves by the sink for toiletries. And nowhere to put your luggage.
More importantly, as you can see from the photos, you'd be showering and shitting in full view of your partner.
But for the solitary traveller with only one suitcase it's just fine. Because you're not really meant to spend that much time in there apart from sleeping. The whole focus of the hotel is on that 'dynamic lobby / living-room space'. Front and centre is the 24/7 bar/eating area with communal tables, with the rest of the ground floor given over to lounging/working spaces. Once I'd got over the shame of bringing out a battered Sony laptop rather than a MacBook Air LIKE EVERY OTHER SINGLE PERSON THERE, I rather liked it.
The staff are, every one of them, warm and friendly. It's not their fault that the CitizenM brand takes the right-on trendiness to laughable and annoying extremes. To take just one example, the trash receptacles have this stencilled on their sides: 'citizenM says: put your trash here, sorry seagulls'. There's far too much of the 'citizenM says...' branding around the place. None at all would be my suggestion.
But, to quote Nathan, 'You should come, dollsnatch. It's gonna be totally fucking Mexico'.
Having said that, there's obviously talent here and I would definitely go back. I'd just make sure to order from the à la carte menu. And avoid any dessert featuring beetroot.
the golden bend
staring at jacob
I went intending to order the fried chicken with waffles, poached egg and maple syrup, but changed my mind at the last minute and ordered bacon, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, pancakes and maple syrup. It was well Jackson.
The cooking was faultless. It turns out that it was voted the second best restaurant in the Netherlands this year by Trip Advisor (make of that what you will). Whatever, it was the best meal I ate in Amsterdam until my final night's experience at Fraîche (see below).
frites uit zuyd / café par hasard
But you can also sit at the restaurant's cocktail bar while eating your snacks from the takeaway. Which is what I did. Seeing I was uncertain what to order, the guy behind the bar set me up with an enormous tray loaded with lots of deep-fried, crunchy snacks (see below).
- granola, poached seasonal fruit, labneh.
- coconut-crumbed french toast with lemon curd and caramelised apple.
- slow-roasted porkbelly with crackling, fried egg, asian slaw and a crisp fried crepe.
- smoked mackerel kedgeree with spicy saffron rice, poached egg, coriander, lemon and yoghurt.
- potato hash with walnut pesto, roasted peppers, poached egg and goats cheese.
- eggs oven baked with tomato shashuka and hummus, served with coriander and toasted sourdough bread.
- homemade sausage with bacon, poached, fried or scrambled eggs, baked beans and tomato chutney on sourdough toast
But just a short walk away was the back up of Albina, where I had a very tasty Moksi meti - roasted chicken, pork, and green beans in a dark, soy-sticky sauce .
the 9 streets and the jordaan
The De 9 Straatjes are actually three streets intersected by two canals, Herengracht and Keizersgracht. They're bordered by Prinsengracht canal on the west and Singel canal on the east. It's kind of Amsterdam's version of Carnaby street, but more laid-back and bohemian. And much, much prettier. And with added water.
The Jordaan is a once working-class, now gentrified, neighbourhood strewn with art galleries, courtyards, cafés, restaurants, bars and markets.
headfirst coffee roasters
On Friday late morning when I arrived at the lovely Staring at Jacob there were a couple of builders in there packing away after a little refurb work. Later on, I'm chatting with one of the staff, picking her brains about where to eat on my last night in Amsterdam. De Kas? Daalder? She suggested a Japanese restaurant I've forgotten the name of and then pointed to one of the builders and said 'or you could always try his restaurant'. And that was my introduction to Noah who turned out to be not only the owner of Jacob's but also chef/owner along with his mate Anthony (the other builder) of what became, later in the evening, my favourite place to eat in all of Amsterdam - Restaurant Fraîche.
Joyously, the bavette was meltingly tender and each of the five cheeses laid before me were in perfect condition. And the selection of four desserts I finished with was divine.
But here's what else I could have had:
- duck breast, white sausage, oyster mushroom, white cabbage, pearl onions, truffle vinaigrette
- herb gnocchi, scallops, edamame, miso & lemon grass dressing
- cod, artichokes, shallots, carrot, coriander, saffron & citrus dressing
- cod, langoustine, charred eggplant, pine nuts, tomato, shallots, courgette
- bbq pork cheeks, squid, jerusulem aritchoke , smoked barley, leeks, cauliflower, miso broth
- skate wing, brussel sprouts, liquorice, pickled beets, smoked pistachio, green apple
- fried chicken, truffle mac & cheese
And here's the Sunday brunch menu:
- short stack of pancakes, cheese eggs, home fries, bacon, sausage
- blood sausage, fried eggs, home fries, seasonal vegetables
- fried fish, cheese grits, fried eggs
- bbq baby back ribs, cheese eggs, home fries, cheddar biscuit
- fried chicken & waffles, home fries, poached egg, maple syrup
- guacamole & bacon benedict, poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, home fries
Reads pretty damn good, doesn't it?
So there you go. One week in Amsterdam and the wellbeing meter reading 'full'. I am restored.
And no, I didn't try out a FEBO automat. That'd be like a Dutch bloke coming to London to eat in a Greggs.
9292 is a very useful, simple to use English language journey planner to sort out your tram, metro and bus journeys.
I only discovered this site on my last day. Bugger. Amsterdam restaurant reviews and food news at eat Amsterdam.
A Google map of all the places I visited can be found here.
Prinses Irenestraat 30
1077 WX Amsterdam
Javaplein 23 hs
1095 CJ Amsterdam
Staring at Jacob
Jacob van Lennepkade 215
1054 ZP Amsterdam
Hannie Dankbaar Passage 33
1053 RT Amsterdam
N.B. The entrance is off Ten Katestraat
Daniël Stalpertstraat 103
1072 XD Amsterdam
Frites uit Zuyd
1072 EZ Amsterdam
1e Sweelinckstraat 19-F
1073 CL Amsterdam
Ferdinand Bolstraat 21
1072 LB Amsterdam
Albert Cuypstraat 69
1072 CN Amsterdam
1012 KL Amsterdam
1016 CB Amsterdam
N.B. This is the coffee bar outlet of Screaming Beans, not to be confused with their wine/food gaff on Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat
1015 NA Amsterdam
Headfirst Coffee Roasters
1015 MP Amsterdam
1015 MT Amsterdam