“Proost!” says Roelien, my Dutch friend, raising her glass. We’re sitting in Café 't Smalle, in the Jordaan district, once a squalid working-class ghetto in the 1600s, but today one of Amsterdam’s most appealing neighbourhoods. Wax drips from candles on to dark wood tables and fading daylight filters in through art nouveau stained-glass windows, and all is gezellig – meaning cozy with a lovely atmosphere, conducive to good times. It’s my favourite Dutch word.
For seven blissful years I lived as an Amsterdammer, never happier than in the run up to Christmas when the city is at its most gezellig. I go back every year to snuggle up in my favourite places, always choosing small hotels. This year it’s The Dylan, a boutique hotel secreted away through a 17th century arch off the Keizersgracht, that was once an alms house. Like most aging beauties, it’s vague about its exact age but 245 years is the guess. Full of character, from its wood-panelled walls to the brickwork floors, it is immensely inviting with copper lights that cast a warm glow, leather armchairs deep enough to sink in to, and open fires to toast yourself by in the lounge bar.
The Dylan is just a short stroll from my favourite shopping area. The charming Negen Straatjes neighbourhood is named for its nine little streets that run between the Prinsengracht and Singel canals. It’s chock-full of one-off shops including Hester van Eeghen, which carries a rainbow of colourful shoes, bags and accessories created by the Dutch designer of the same name; De Kaaskamer, which shows off floor to ceiling shelves of tasty cheese; and Da Weeldad, a store packed with curiosities such as bugs in paperweights, fossils and shells. Forget laborious hours spent wrapping Christmas presents because Dutch shopkeepers package every purchase, however small, in tissue paper and ribbons.
A little rougher around the edges, the Noordermarkt flea market, held on Mondays and Saturdays, is also a lovely browse. There, find everything from Davy Crockett-style fur hats and vintage trilbies, to recycled clothes beautifully sewn into new creations with a stylish quirk. And I always make a beeline for the classy De Bijenkorf store, where the confectionery department brims with time-honoured Dutch goodies such as speculaas (spiced biscuits), bags of coloured licorice and hopjes (coffee and caramel sweets).
Throughout the year, the 15th-century canal bridges are prettily lit up by night, but in the run up to Christmas the whole of central Amsterdam twinkles. The magnificent 20-metre high tree, shimmering with 40,000 LED lights, that stands in Dam Square in front of the Royal Palace, is a heart-stopper. Amsterdam’s annual Festival of Light runs from Nov. 28 until Jan. 19, when more than 25 brilliantly illuminated art installations line the canals and are best viewed from the water. I’m still gushing over the neon houses that appeared to hover above the water in 2018, and with a theme of “disruption” for 2019, you can be sure there’ll be plenty more to trick the mind. In typical Dutch style, the event is artistic and cool, rather than gimmicky.
When the temperature drops to icy, I head to Haesje Claes on Spuistraat, a Dutch restaurant that dishes up hearty helpings of pea soup thick enough to stand your spoon in, and stamppot made from mashed potatoes, kale, spinach, turnip, carrot and onion and served with smoked sausage. These are the kind of meals that Van Gogh would have tucked in to. Moeders, on Rozengracht is another lovely place for Dutch classics and the mismatched crockery and silverware is the result of the resourceful owner asking guests to his opening party to bring a plate, fork and knife. Try their profitjes – small fluffy pancakes with whipped cream.
In winter months, several outdoor ice-skating rinks open in central Amsterdam, but my preferred is on Museumplein, in front of the magnificent red-bricked Rijksmuseum built in 1800. It’s here where locals like to show off their moves, weaving in and out of tourists at alarming speeds as though they came out of the womb with skates on. Stalls sell seasonal treats, such as oliebollen – moreish deep-fried yeast balls powdered in sugar – and the air is thick with the aroma of spiced wine. Draaiorgels (Dutch barrel organs) play manic mechanical festive tunes and crowd-pleasers such as Tulips from Amsterdam, all adding nicely to the holiday atmosphere. It’s only when the canals freeze that you’d find a more iconic Dutch scene.
Still not feeling gezellig? Then head for a matinee at the art deco cinema The Movies, built in 1912, with its sumptuous red velvet cinema seats that feel like a warm hug on a cold day. As night draws in, De Pieper on Prinsengracht, established in 1665 and one of Amsterdam’s oldest bruin cafés (Holland’s answer to pubs), is the perfect spot to sip a glass of jenever (juniper-flavoured Dutch gin), listen to the mellow whir of passing bicycles and let time stand still.
The writer stayed at the hotel as a guest. It did not review or approve this story.
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