Marshall Colman recommends a traditional (but good) Amsterdam restaurant and recounts how the bike hire schemes of London and cities all over the world were inspired by a bunch of Dutch anarchists.
When I was at a conference in the Netherlands a few years back, our hosts promised us the most exquisite and typical Dutch dinner at the end of the day. After the build-up I was disappointed to be given stamppot, a plate of mashed swede and potato with a large sausage stuck in it. On a weekend break in Amsterdam at the beginning of December I overcame my prejudice against northern European food.
It was a good time to go. The weather was clear and mild and as we walked along the Prinzengracht looking for breakfast, with only a few early walkers and cyclists, the light on the canal houses was magical. If you go in the summer you’ll have to get up very early indeed to see that. The Rijkmuseum didn’t have a Christmas tree, they had a hologram (illustrated).
Most of the canal district is peaceful because bikes are the main means of transport – though phalanxes of cyclists can suddenly come at you from unexpected directions, and many of them don’t have lights. Cycling is a much more casual affair than in Britain because no-one wears a helmet either and they don’t dress up in lycra, high-vis jackets and special shoes. We make a big song and dance of cycling, but Dutch bikes are like armchairs on wheels and everyone rides them in their normal clothes. Even outside the kindergarten near our hotel there were about a hundred tiny bikes.
It was Haesje Claes, the old restaurant in Spuitstraat, that helped me overcome my prejudices. They serve traditional hearty food but do it well – things like beef stew with red cabbage and mashed potatoes, marrow peas with a confit of pork and bacon, chicken livers with onions, bacon and mashed potatoes, duck leg candied in goose fat with sauerkraut and port sauce. There’s a good selection of beer and wine – a bottle of Op & Top went well with the beef stew.
open daily 12-10pm (last orders)
The Spui square at the top of the street is a traditional place for meetings and demos. In the 1960s the Provos assembled there. The Provos were anarchists and social entrepreneurs, who had the name before the IRA. They arose from the happenings of Robert Jasper Grootvelt and the politics of Roel van Duijn, which owed a lot to Herbert Marcuse, and they mobilised youthful rebellion against the Dutch elite, consumerism and police repression.
They proposed white bikes – public bikes that people would pick up and leave as they wanted. The council said no, so the Provos provided them. The police said they were illegal because of a law that all bikes had to be locked, so they put locks and them and painted the combination numbers on the bikes. (See the priceless photos at http://www.corjaring.nl/moreinfo.php?id=3298&template=provo.html&Menu=44&MenuName=Provo)
Van Duijn proposed that all cars had to have plants growing on their roofs and that roads should be sunk five feet below the pavement so that all pedestrians would see would be moving gardens.
Unlike traditional political groups, Provo was mocking and funny. At the wedding of Princes Beatrix to the German Claus von Amsberg (which was unpopular with many) they not only let off smoke bombs but also released chickens, in reference to the Dutch word for cop. The cops used increasing violence against their demos but the Provos treated them as partners in their happenings and made them look stupid. The greater the violence, the bigger the demos and the more liberal support for Provo. Riots in 1966 (which van Duijn disowned) alienated many and the police chief and the mayor were dismissed for incompetence. Van Duijn was elected to Amsterdam council with wacky ideas, but essentially a moderate programme couched in extreme language, and with his involvement in practical politics and the loss of their “partners”, Grootvelt and Rob Stolk wound up Provo. But the movement influenced the counterculture of the sixties, changed Amsterdam and helped to make Holland a more liberal place. It’s due to them that, whether you like it or not, Amsterdam smells of dope.
Grootvelt and Stolk are dead. Van Duijn, is now a Green politician. Luud Schimmelpennink, the originator of the white bikes, is a consultant to many city councils on alternative transport schemes, and the Boris Bikes in London were essentially invented in 1965 by this group of anarchist-Dadaists in Amsterdam