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July/August 2005 | Proud Amsterdam

July/August 2005 | Proud Amsterdam

Though the Netherlands has received more than its fair share of bad press about violence attributed to Islamic fundamentalist immigrants, Amsterdam still shines as the gay capital of Europe.

If you overheard only half a conversation about a place that is known for its rich history, its proud heritage as a haven for master artists, its willingness to welcome not only gay people but all cultures and religions, you’d know it right away: Amsterdam. A visit to today’s Amsterdam still presents a warm welcome and reveals a boom of development that in no way disregards respect for 17th-century aesthetics. But art and design aren’t the only ideals to which Amsterdam is dedicated. Yes, tolerance of people with varying backgrounds remains a hallmark of this exuberant Dutch metropolis. And as a lesbian or gay man, you’ll feel like you’ve returned to the homeland.

I’ve explored the gay sides of New York, London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but there was something quite different about being gay in these cities. At times it felt almost like an affectation for the residents. That might have been only because these places are magnets for younger generations of gays who are in the process of finding themselves, and I was a foreign observer. Still, this sense was prominently absent in Amsterdam. The people were just people, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. I was wowed. I was sold. I was at home away from home.

Leaving the airport for the city, I suspected that my taxi driver had been sent by the tourism bureau when he began to speak so proudly about his hometown. His straightforward--and I’d later learn vital--warning that bicyclists in the city had the right of way, so I should take caution not to step out in front of one that was speeding along. His shared historical trivia, for example, that many of the oldest buildings weren’t actually leaning toward the street because they’d sunk; they were built that way (because Amsterdammers’ homes were taxed by the square foot, the stairwells were all built quite narrow; thus large furnishings were hoisted by rope to upper windows, and the buildings’ angled nature made this easier to maneuver). His friendliness was not artificial, I’d realize as I met more residents. It was simply their way of life.

But, of course, Utopia does not truly exist anywhere. The Netherlands has probably received more than its fair share of bad press about violence attributed to Islamic fundamentalist immigrants, so I arrived with a bit of trepidation knowing certain facts: the murder in 2002 of a gay Dutch politician who was running on a platform of curtailing immigration rights and the murder in late 2004 of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who had made a film that was critical of Muslim men’s treatment of women. And my trip actually predated the April 2005 gay bashing of an American journalist and his boyfriend who were tourists. These incidents have captured the horrified attention of the world’s media because of Amsterdam’s reputation as a haven of tolerance. In light of the rising tensions and the government’s warning issued to gay travelers--come and visit but exercise caution--the overall atmosphere on the city streets and alleyways during day and night gave me a sense of confidence and safety. Just as in any city in the United States, if you behave responsibly and stay aware of your surroundings, there’s no reason you should not have a great trip.

The caveat is that you may have to be a bit more reserved, as you would in many U.S. cities, and forgo the public kisses and hugs with partners who are traveling with you--at least for the sake of trying to stay as safe as possible. But Amsterdammers are doing their best to uphold their city’s reputation for tolerance. On May 17, as part of the first International Day Against Homophobia, several hundred gay people and their allies gathered in a public square, just blocks from where the journalist and his partner were beaten, to publicly hold hands and kiss, making the point that gays will not be intimidated by violence. The Dutch are quite proud of their centuries-old reputation for tolerance and acceptance, and with that unbeatable spirit, the good will definitely outlive the bad.


Rembrant House, Nomads

If 17th-century art (think Girl With a Pearl Earring) really floats your canal boat, 2006 is definitely the time to go. The entire year will be a nationwide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the birth of Rembrandt, one of the most renowned Dutch etchers and painters, and several museums will hold events and exhibitions to highlight his work. And through 2008 a newly built wing at the Rijksmuseum will house the absolute crème de la crème of the national museum’s treasures--all together for the easiest viewing ever. If you want to see masterpieces but do not want to spend hours finding them amid acres of museum space, this exhibit will fit right into your timetable.

On the whole, though, Amsterdam will always be a treasure to behold, with its famed canals (where you can board a canal boat and tour and dine all night); its nearby flower fields; and, of course, its thriving and ever-resilient gay culture. After all, theNetherlands was the first country, in 2001, to grant full same-sex marriage rights--not just civil unions--to its citizens. So, go Dutch and show support for the many tolerant Dutch who do support gay rights and gay life and their very proud gay and lesbian compatriots.

ESSENTIALS

Accommodations

Amsterdam is so compact and easy to navigate on foot that there is simply no bad location to stay; however, if you’re lucky enough to find something near the historical Dam Square, in the centrally located Centrum district, all of your excursions can easily radiate out from there. (Before all numbers dial 011-31-20) Expensive: For the prime location in the city, pick the upscale NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky (Dam 9; 554-9111; $225-$600). Located right on Dam Square, its central location gives you the best walking access to…everything! And after a transatlantic flight, you’ll love the oversize tub and the great water pressure. Also fairly centrally located are the Grand Sofitel (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197; 555-3111; $525-$1,900) and the NH Barbizon (Prins Hendrikkade 59-72; 556-4564; $225-$550). Moderate: Aero Hotel (Kerkstraat 45-49; 662-7728; $90-$125) is very gay-friendly with wi-fi Internet, a bar, and a café on site. The Internet lounge at the very gay-friendly Hotel Amistad Amsterdam (Kerkstraat 42; 624-8074; $75-$170) is open until midnight and has some rooms with shared baths. The gay-owned ITC Hotel (Prinsengracht 1051; 623-0230; $70-$165) is an 18th century canal house with private or shared baths and a bar and lounge. Inexpensive: If you don’t mind shared baths in a small but clean establishment, Hotel Groenendael (Nieuwendijk 15; 624-4822; $65-$95) is only five minutes’ travel from Centraal Station, the main rail depot, which connects to the international airport.

Restaurants

You’ll find great cafés and quaint restaurants all over the city. While many Americans might consider Dutch food to be bland--the basics are minimally seasoned roasted or braised meets and vegetables--trying several courses of small portions of the cuisine is a fun and casual way to while away an early evening. Besides, if you get hungry for something a bit more exotic, many ethnic groups have carried their native dishes and styles of cooking with them when they immigrated, so you’ll find great Indonesian, Thai, and Indian restaurants, among others. No trip to Amsterdam would be perfect, though, without a trip to Restaurant d’ Vijff Vlieghen, which translates to the Five Flies (Spuistraat 294-302, entrance on Vlieghendesteeg I; 530-4060). Named for one of the original owners and inhabitants of one of five adjoining 17th-century houses, this restaurant has nothing to do with flies. The houses, broken into nine dining rooms, will give you all the ambience and rich atmosphere of the Golden Age with their dark, rustic wood furnishings and beams--but you’ll be feasting on New Dutch cuisine, the adaptation of old standbys into modern gastronomic delights. Try to get to the Rembrandt Room, which is home to four of the master’s original etchings. My light course of thinly sliced filet of suckling pig with mousse of tomato and basil drizzled with syrup of matured wine vinegar was followed by a course of filet of guinea fowl with poultry and tarragon stuffing accompanied by veal gravy with mild mushrooms. For dessert: bavarois of grilled pears on a layer of macaroons served with an almond tuile! I still can’t forget it all! For an exotic, extremely fun atmosphere try Nomads (Rozengracht 133-I; 344-6401), which specializes in Western-influenced Arabian foods such as hummus, roasted eggplant, or soft cheese dips; skewers of meat and vegetables; and vegetable and couscous side dishes. Lounge with your friends on the U-shaped banquettes and sip wine or a fancier cocktail until your meal--served in large variety in about a dozen medium-size dishes--is carried out to you on a gigantic tray. Feast can barely describe it. And don’t be shy when the resident tattooist stops by to decorate any part of your body you wish in an elaborate flourish. Even though he uses washable ink for the tattoos, you won’t want yours to wash away.

Attractions

Known for a tradition of tolerance dating back to the 15th century, the Netherlands has been home to masters of art and thought who fled persecution from their fellow countrymen and the Roman Catholic Church in their native lands. Amsterdam has no shortage of tours, attractions, and museums filled with the masterpieces of art by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and others; craftsmanship such as diamond cutting and polishing, a skill carried to the country by Jews who fled Spain and Portugal in the 16th century and that is carried on to this day; and monuments to history, such as the Homomonument (in Westermarkt Square, in the Jordaan district, between Prinsengracht and Raaadhuisstraat), built to honor the gay men who lost their lives in World War II and since, and the Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht 263; 556-7100; 9 a.m.-7 p.m.). Some other highlights of the city: Classic Canal Charters (Czaar Peterstraat 147; 421-0825); Dutch Resistance Museum (Plantage Kerklaan 61; 620-2535; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.); Jewish Historical Museum (JD Meijerplein 2-4; 626-9945; 11 a.m.-5 p.m.); Museum Het Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt House Museum) (Jodenbreestraat 4; 520-0400; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.); the National Monument (Dam Square), which celebrates all Dutch World War II casualties; Rijksmuseum (Stadhouderskade 42; 674-7047; 9 a.m.-6 p.m.); and the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7; 570-5200; 10 a.m.-6 p.m.).

Nightlife

You can find information on gay nightlife from almost any corner in Amsterdam. As you walk around the city visit the Pink Point welcome center (Westermarkt, Jordaan district; noon to 6 p.m.), located near the Homomonument, or COC Club, a queer info coffee and tea shop where some gay groups meet (Rozenstraat 14, Jordaan district, 626-3087); or stop into any of the gay bookstores, which are usually flying rainbow flags, and pick up a copy of Gaymap. Two of the larger bookstores are Boehkandel Vrolijk (Paleisstraat 135, near Dam Square; 623-5142), open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, till 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and till 1 p.m. on Sundays, and Intermale (Spuistraat 251-253; 625-0009), open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The city does not have one gay neighborhood but several clusterings of gay businesses and clubs that cater to the different scenes, such as on Reguliersdwarsstraat, located in the Kerkstraat district between the first and second of the the four canals that horseshoe around the city center. This mainstream gay street, referred to in gay circles simply as the Straat, is lined with gay-owned and gay-friendly cafés, restaurants, and bars. But be sure to visit one of the aforementioned bookstores to get advice on locating the ever-changing venues in the dance/club scene, the leather bars, and the gay coffeehouses and cafés. And since it will be rare to find an Amsterdam resident who doesn’t speak English, just chat up the clerk for the lowdown on the current hot spot. Whatever you do, though, don’t miss some of the famed nightlife--no matter what your age, gender, or general party mood. For the guys, check out the famed Cockring (Warmoesstraat 96, 623-9604; 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., till 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays) or the weekend cruisy Exit (Reguliersdwarsstraat 42 at Rembrandtplein, 625-8788; midnight to 4 a.m. on Thursdays, till 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). For the women, get over to You II (Amstel 178 at Wagenstraat; 421-0900; 10 p.m.-4 a.m. on Thursdays, till 5 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays). You might end up needing a vacation to follow up your vacation, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to say you didn’t strike up a new friendship or two while indulging in the full experiences of the gay capital of Europe.


The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.
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