May 25, 2020
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Amsterdam Diary

Amsterdam Diary
Illustration by Saahil
Amsterdam Diary
Hic Hic Hurray

On this page a decade ago, I described a memorable pub crawl sampling 30 bra­nds of single malt whisky in and around London’s Pall Mall in one evening. The residual hangover lifted this year, only to be replaced with one spurred by beers downed in Amsterdam. Belonging to the legendary Gorkha regiment, my beer-drinking prowess is widely recognised and was once measured in the Solan brewery with streams of Lion Lager. I recall in Katanga, Congo, the salary of the local gendarmerie was paid weekly in bottles of Simba beer. On a counter-insurgency mission with the United Nations, one could easily sniff out the enemy.

Like the single malts of Scotland, there are hundreds of Dutch beers beyond Heineken and Amstel. In Amsterdam, first head to the city’s most famous beer-guzzling hole, Brouwerij Tij, located near the windmill along the Nieuevart canal. Then, head to the cheek-by-jowl Bar Langendijk and finish off at the nearby YouBetter.

Let’s start with Brouwerij Tij—if you can get in, that is, because the queue is long and quietly patient (a trait we Indians are not blessed with). We say cheers with Flink, a light (4.7 per cent alcohol), fine pale ale, deliciously hopped with mosaic and galaxy for a fruity finish. Next down the hatch is Natte (6.5 per cent), a red-brown with roasted malts. Biri (4.7 per cent) is a corn lager low-fermentation brew. The Indian Pale Ale, dark blonde, brewed and dry-hopped with cascade gives solid bitterness (7 per cent). Struis is a strong barley beer with a dark colour and malty flavour (8 per cent). And so it goes till you reach 9 per cent alcohol—beer’s upper limit in the Netherlands. We drink these slowly till the barman suggests we also try a tray of half-a-dozen other beers.

By the time we reach Langendijk Bar, our happiness levels have surpassed the dan­ger mark. We are the only surviving Indi­an pair to receive a complimentary tankard of Amsterdam Brewboys Kick-ass beer, which, at this stage of imbibement, requires no bio data. Two more beers are exceptional—Kama Citra and Bombay Basterd. The cumulative alcohol content of the beers tanked down, I calculate, is 88 per cent. Not bad! Foggy and bloated, we board bus number 47 for Hou­th­haven, the suburb where our hotel is, mumbling Sca­rlett O’Hara’s memorable witticism: Tomorrow is another day.

Treacherous Skies

The charm of Holland is the aggregate of windmills, clogs, cheese, scenic countryside, picturesque canals and museums. Cruising the waterways is a mesmerising experience. Amsterdam, founded in 1275 and dubbed as Venice of the North, has 100 km of canals fronted by around 1,600 ancient canal houses. The first canal was dug for water management and defence of the city. We are enjoying the pleasant weather on our cruise, but the bright sky suddenly yields to dark clouds and heavy rain—the weather is ruthless and unpredictable in the Netherlands. I am reminded of my legendary military teacher of six decades, Major Sandhu, who would say: “Never trust the enemy,  the weather and your wife.”

The Potato Eaters

The cruise interrupted, we rush to the nearest attraction: Netherlands’ iconic Rijksmuseum. Inside are 8,000 masterpieces, including Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Both the artists have separate museums dedicated to their works as well—Van Gogh’s is the most visited museum in the Netherlands and has the world’s largest collection of his paintings, including Sunflowers, Almond Blossom and The Potato Eaters. Museum het Rembrandthuis has all his 350 works digitally restored, including Night Watch to its pre-1715 glory. In Dam Square, under a light drizzle and sea of tricolour umbrellas, the Indian Embassy is commemorating International Yoga Day, distributing T-shirts, bananas and tea. Sadly, the event clashed with the India-Pakistan cricket world cup in London. As the sun sets—at 10.30 pm—we go fishing and birdwatching.

Paint The Town Red

Amsterdam’s red-light district, De Wallen, is a fixture on every tourist’s itinerary. The city also has the world’s first museum of prostitution. My guide book says that the oldest profession is a respected and traditional vocation here and people are urged to treat sex workers with dignity. The narrow alley leading to Amsterdam’s red-light area is flanked with huge hoardings declaring ‘American Pancakes’ and ‘Jesus Will Save You’. Within, there are glass-fronted brothels, peep shows, a ‘condomerie’, stores where you can snort cocoa powder among other substances and most helpfully, a hangover information centre (their tagline: “for a brighter tomorrow”). Go soon, for the government plans to rebrand the city’s nightlife and De Wallen.

Ashok K. Mehta Former major general and strategic affairs expert
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