"It's Amsterdam, I'm up for anything" P. Bella says to all of us. My first time in Amsterdam is a short and sweet one-four hours to be exact and I'm armed with a bunch of gals that are literally up for anything and a guide that is willing to show it to us.
"You want to visit the erotic museum?" our guide Anneke asks us after we request a visit to the red light district and the canals.
"Also poffertjes and food and space cakes!" I cry out. Don't forget Dear Reader that Amsterdam has a famous red light district and the "tolerated" consumption of cannabis so just a little hint about what might be coming up.
Although I knew of Amsterdam's reputation of legal substances, what I wasn't prepared for was for exactly how pretty this small city is. Named after the Amstel River that they built a dam on, the city is a picturesque series of canals, cobblestones and bikes. Yes bikes, watch out for those and they most definitely have the right of way.
They whizz past every left or right and beware any open mouthed tourists that may be gawking at the canals or the red light district girls. Take some time to look at the houses which learn charmingly and Anneke shows us the gable tiles. In the 15th century, houses didn't have numbers so to identify a house or a place, you would use a descriptive gable tile to show people what you did for a living.
Examples of gable tiles
The 100kms of Amsterdam's UNESCO World Heritage listed canals were hand dug from the 15th to the 17th century and are 9 feet deep. "They say that they're 3 feet of sand, 3 feet of water and 3 feet of bikes" Anneke says. Indeed, dredging the canals yields thousands of discarded bikes -the locks are often more expensive than the bikes themselves.
The most prestigious canal is the Gentleman's Canal where the rents are sky high for the magnificent buildings. This building shows an entrance at the bottom which is where kitchen deliveries would take place whilst the upstairs entrance is the main one.
We walk through the cobblestoned streets and try poffertjes which are small, floury tiny bite sized pancakes blanketed thickly with icing sugar. These are served with a pat of butter that you can melt against the hot poffertjes. Our quest for the very popular herring fish proves fruitless as all stalls are closed for the Monday.
Anneke shows us how to eat a herring-grab it by the tail and eat!
Kalve Street is the main shopping street in Amsterdam and has many of the usual high street stores. On Mondays they open later at 1pm as they are open on Sunday afternoon but they normally open at 9am.
Anneke shows us some of Amsterdam's hidden secrets. One is the church hidden behind this door. The church is called "the parrot" and a parrot figurine sits suspended from the ceiling. This was formerly a home that became a secret or hidden church for a time when the Catholic religion wasn't allowed to be practiced.
The parrot figurine
Behind this door lies a courtyard with buildings that were originally built for the Beguines religious women. Nowadays people live here in the buildings and within this enclosed court lies the oldest wooden house in Amsterdam.
The oldest wooden house in Amsterdam
The city is known for their flower market, especially for their tulips and cannabis plants. Alongside the flower markets are some cheese shops, all invite tastings of their Gouda and Edam cheese, many with flavours added to them. The cheeses were nice enough but the mustards caught my eye, particularly the dill mustard and the pretty blue and white tins of stroopwaffels which have a lovely sweet caramel layer between the thin cross hatched waffles.
That brings us to the next subject, cannabis which is "tolerated" but still illegal here. Each person is allowed to grow a maximum of 10 cannabis plants. Everyone over 18 years old can buy 5 grams of marijuana each and the best way to find a certified "coffee shop" is by looking for the sign (see below). There are 200 licensed coffee shops and we visit "The Jolly Joker" where you can buy a marijuana cigarette or a "space cake muffin" for 5.
There is a choice of vanilla space cake muffin which contains 0.3 grams of Moroccan hash or a chocolate space cake muffin that contains 0.3 grams of "White Widow" hash.
The woman behind the counter explains that when you smoke cannabis, the effect goes straight to your bloodstream but when you eat it, it goes through your stomach and only starts to work once you start to digest it which can take about 30-40 minutes.
The sign to look out for
That brings us to the red light district, one of the things that Amsterdam is most well known for. No photos are permitted in the area and even carrying a camera outside of its bag may turn a seductive look into a sharp one accompanied with a rap on the glass and an angry "no photo!" All of the girls stand in the doorways of shopfronts that have maroon velvet curtains. All are spray tanned and wear bikinis or lingerie. We watch as a single man negotiates with one while a couple negotiates with another in the room alongside. Another street exclusively shows transvestites in various stages of transition.
"That banana place is a terrible place" Anneke says. "Why is that?" I ask. "Well they do terrible things with bananas!" she exclaims horrified before adding "Do I need to explain?" Haha no thanks, I think I get it...
Another stop is the Erotica museum. Entry for 7 will get you access to the four floors of various displays. Much of it is art related from vintage erotica and the collection is relatively small I don't know if it is that worth it unless you particularly like vintage erotica although I suppose the opportunities for posing with a giant 6 foot tall penis is something you might be after.
I was more fascinated by the condom machine which dispenses a range of condoms in infeasibly odd and impractical shapes. The condom that you may want may not be the one that you get as the condom dispensed cannot be seen from the display as it sits underneath the glass front but guess which one I got? Yes a koala mother and baby one!
Or a condomerie
Dutch or barrel street organ
Other symbols that are prominent throughout the city are the three Saint Andrew's crosses-each representing the three enemies: water, fire and black plague. This former prison became a swimming pool and is now a shopping centre.
Three Saint Andrew's crosses
After a whirlwind tour in which we feel like we want to come back here and see more, we head for lunch at Amsterdam's Bridge restaurant located in the The Grand hotel which is part of the Sofitel Legends hotels. Sofitel Legends hotels are the very top of the Sofitel chain and there are only two in the world. Each one must have a story to tell and present exceptional service and details in order to qualify. This hotel's claim to fame is that Queen Beatrix married here in 1966.
The restaurant has an indoor and outdoor area and given that it is beautifully warm today, we are eating outside alongside the rhododendron flowers and their own beautiful orange tulip. The restaurant is decorated in vivid shades of orange - it is an important colour for the Dutch as orange is the colour of the royal family. And it was the Dutch that bred the colour orange for the carrots in reverence for their royal family.
The menu is seafood focused and every night, their fishermen go out to fish and call the kitchen to let them know of their catch. By 10am the next morning, the fish is delivered from the night before. We start with the bread which is crunchy on the outside and soft and dense inside and served with both salted and unsalted butter.
The canape is presented beautifully and is salmon cubes with wasabi crust which is wonderful and not too hot with just enough wasabi to give it flavour. There is also a juicy, tender smoked mussel with herb oil and addictive lotus root chips.
Ceviche of red mullet
The appetiser is a simple but effective ceviche or red mullet, less lemony and tangy than other ceviches I've tried and it is paired with eggplant puree and thin fennel slices.
Tuna tartare with spicy mayonnaise and caviar
With a pretty presentation, the tuna tartare is served in a two tier dish, the bottom half with sand and sea and clam shells. The top layer has diced tuna which is served with dollops of spicy mayonnaise and spring onion. The tuna is beautifully creamy and the spicy mayonnaise and spring onion is the perfect complement.
Cod with white asparagus, Iberico ham, broad beans and beurre blanc
Our main was the cod, a catch from early that morning. It is beautifully and simply cooked and served with crispy Iberico ham, cherry tomatoes, broad beans and a beurre blanc sauce.
As we are sadly counting down our hours, there's scarcely time for dessert but there are sweets in the form of petit fours. They were chocolate and coconut truffles on sticks, a moreish and moist red velvet cupcake with a dollop of frosting and a moist butterscotch square that I wasn't quite as taken with as it didn't taste very butterscotchy and was very sweet.
Our little pitstop in Amsterdam was heart-breakingly short and it is with reluctance that we drag ourselves to the train station to take the Thalys train trip to Paris, a three hour ride. The train station is connected to Schiphol airport and is easy to negotiate. The first class train carriage is quite full (alarmingly so as a mix up with the tickets means that our tickets are for the wrong day necessitating some seat jumping but they were very gracious with us interlopers). Drinks are served on the train and there is also internet after we leave Antwerp.
A meal is served during the final leg of the trip from Brussels to Paris and there is a choice of vegetarian or beef. I choose the rare roast beef with rice salad. The beef is actually quite nice although hard to eat on a fast moving train with the cutlery that we were given as slicing into the beef and leek with the blunt knife. The chocolate mousse cake is actually lovely and moreish and the cheese is a washed rind cheese with two almonds and a black grape. And there's plenty of time to reflect on a fast and furious but fascinating time in Amsterdam...
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever tried space cakes or would you if you visited Amsterdam (where it is legal)?
NQN traveled as a guest of Sofitel hotels, Skyteam & RailPlus
Sofitel Legend The Grand, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197, Amsterdam