Tuesday, 6 December 2022

An Amsterdam afternoon

On the afternoon of Day 3 of the cruise I took leave of Mrs PBT’s and headed off into Central Amsterdam. In contrast to the previous day’s sunshine, Sunday was wet and windy, although by the time I’d left the ship the rain had largely eased off and turn to a light drizzle. Just before the exit from the cruise terminal, I stopped by at the information desk to pick up a street plan of the city. After a quick glance I folded it back up and placed in the inside pocket of my coat. As far as I'm aware it's still there because I didn't really need to refer to it, keeping it in reserve in case I really became lost.

My route took me towards Amsterdam’s imposing central station, scene of my first arrival in the city four and half decades beforehand, and also scene of my last departure from the Dutch capital following the 2016 Beer Writers Conference. I didn't set foot in the station, on this occasion, instead I followed the route beneath the rail tracks towards the main tourist area of the city. Having done a bit of prior research I had a particular destination in mind as my first port of call. This would be the Bierkonig beer shop, just a stone’s throw from Dam Square and the Royal Palace.

I wanted to call in there first, and purchase a few bottles, before calling in at a supermarket to pick up some biscuits and crisps. This wasn't due to there being insufficient food on the ship; far from it, instead it was because these “snack” items were intended for work colleagues, and also for son Matthew. I had also promised a few treats for Mrs PBT’s. It obviously made sense to have the heavy beer bottles at the bottom of my rucksack, and then place the snack items on top of them.

I found Bierkonig without any trouble; in fact, I just followed my nose, so no street plan was needed at this stage. The shop was closer to the centre of town than I first thought and was certainly well worth visiting. I won't go into too much detail here, as I intend writing a separate article about the shop, but what I will say is that not only is it an Aladdin’s cave crammed full of all the bottled beers you've ever dreamt about, it is also run by highly knowledgeable staff willing to give their unbiased advice on any particular beer that you may have in mind. So, without giving too much away, a big thank you to owner Jelle Hultink for your help and recommendations, as well as reinforcing my preconceptions about a particular beer that I intended to buy.

After purchasing my beers, I thought that rather than going straight to a pub, it would be best to find a supermarket and buy a few of those aforementioned goodies. I was unsure of Sunday shopping hours in the Netherlands, and didn’t want to return to the boat, empty handed.  I'd noticed a branch of Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn, in the road directly behind the royal palace, so I popped inside for a look around. I managed to obtain the items I was looking for and managed to squeeze them into my rucksack without damaging them. I also added a couple of extra beers from the ‘tJI Brewery, that I picked up in the supermarket.

It was now time for a beer, and to guide me was a copy of the excellent pub - Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers. Researched and written by Tim Skelton, a UK national who has lived in the Netherlands since 1989, Tim's book is a packed full of useful information that not only directs you to 80 of Amsterdam’s best pubs, but also provides general background guidance on matters such as the city’s culinary offerings it's beer styles and how to get around, particularly by public transport. I’d acquired the guide prior to my previous visit, and whilst a new edition has probably been published by now, I worked on the assumption there would not have been too many changes.

As an aside, whilst at lunch, the previous day, before we departed from the boat, Mrs PBT’s took great delight in telling the couple sitting on the adjacent table, that I had brought a book along, describing how to get around the city, by visiting 80 different pubs. I described this as a piece of good planning, but the subject went right over the heads of the pair, one of whom seemed more interested as to where a replacement pair of designer sunglasses could be obtained. Talk about getting one’s priorities wrong, but the couple did provide proof, if it were needed, that the company on cruise ships can sometimes leave much to be desired.

Getting back to the subject in hand, I had drawn up a shortlist of pubs to visit but was hamstrung by the fact that quite a few of them were closed on a Sunday or didn’t open until early evening. I was especially disappointed that the one pub, that I really wanted to visit, was one that was closed on the sabbath. The pub in question was In De Wildeman, and it is one of Amsterdam’s most famous beer bars.

I visited De Wildeman back in 2016 and was really impressed with what I found, as its combination of cosy intimate bars, tiled floors, wide selection of beers plus friendly and knowledgeable staff, made it the ideal pub. One has to respect the fact that everyone deserves at least one day off a week, and I suppose Sunday is as good a day as any but given Amsterdam’s popularity as an all-year-round tourist destination, I’m surprised the pub hasn’t sorted out some sort of rota. On the way back from Dam Square, I came upon De Drie Fleschjes – Three Little Bottles, a famous gin bar owned by Bol’s, but like De Wildeman, unfortunately closed.

Onwards and upwards, as they say, and as part of my forward planning I had earmarked several small closely and intimate street corner pubs, but here again, I discovered that many of them didn’t open until later on. This was no use to me, as I’d promised Eileen to be back on the ship in time for our evening meal. I walked up and down a street on the edge of the red-light district, but despite recognising some of the pubs, I didn’t really want to be walking around with my head stuck in the guide, looking like a tourist

One possible option was Proeflokaal de Ooievaar – the Stork. The pub looked lovely and cosy through the window but was rather crowded. Another candidate, Café Heffer, seemed to have been converted to a burger bar, since my edition of pub guide was published, in 2015. There was no shortage of fake Irish pubs, of course, all waiting to pull in the stag do crowds, plus the occasional cannabis shop. I took a photo of one, for the benefit of a work colleague, but despite coming of age in the early 70’s, that really isn’t my sort of thing.

The one pub I missed, was the one recommended by Bierkonig owner, Jelle Hultink. “Give Elfde Gebod, a try,” he said, “it’s on the way back to the station.” He even wrote the name down for me, on a slip of paper, but the name wasn’t very clear from his handwriting, and for some reason I couldn’t find it in the guide – probably because I didn’t want to look like a tourist, walking around with my head stuck in a guide book! It was only when we arrived home, that its name jumped out at me, off the page.  

This was obviously far too late, and a real shame too, as this charming looking pub looked a good one. It offered a range of mainly Belgian beers, but also Zundert – the only beer brewed by the Netherlands second Trappist brewery, Trappistenbrouwereij De Kievit. The only saving grace is Zundert was one of the bottles I bought at Bierk0onig. I still would like to have visited the pub though, especially following the recommendation I was given, and its write up in Tim Skelton’s guide. Next time, perhaps?

Time was getting on, so I ended up at a bar I’d visited before. De Prael Proeflokaal had been closed when I walked by earlier, but on my way to Haven van Texel – pub I had chosen from the guide, I noticed it had since opened. Seeing as this was the bar where, in 2016, I’d enjoyed a few farewell beers, before saying farewell to Amsterdam, it seemed rude not to stop off at, and do the same. I stepped inside, approached the tiled bar counter to the right of the entrance, where the friendly young barman told me to find a seat anywhere, I liked, and he would be over to take my order.

I did as instructed, finding a seat in what I thought would be a quiet part of the pub, in a raised area, towards the rear of the building, but hadn’t been sitting there long, when a large mixed party arrived, and one of the waitresses came over to take their order. I wanted to shout, “I was here first,” plus my order would be a lot easier than the rather involved and complicated one being placed, but I didn’t, of course. After all, there’s no point in making a fool of oneself in a foreign country, even if I was in the right!

I had two beers whilst there, both De Prael offerings brewed on the premises. Untappd tells me they were Herman IPA 6.5% and Johnny Green Label – a 5.7% American IPA. I much preferred the second beer. To accompany the beer, I ordered some Bitterballen, the archetypal Dutch pub snack. Made from finely ground beef, that is rolled into a ball. Coated with breadcrumbs, deep-fried, and then served with a dollop of yellow mustard, Bitterballen are the perfect accompaniment to a glass or two of beer, but don’t make the mistake of being too eager, and biting straight into them, as soon as they arrive at the table, as their interior temperature can resemble a volcano, as the soft interior can sear the roof of one’s mouth.

It was time for me to go, and on my way back to the cruise terminal, I again missed out on that other Dutch street food delicacy, a portion of chips, smothered in mayonnaise, and served up in a paper cone. I had meant to buy a cone earlier, and had several opportunities to do so, but as the afternoon wore on, my quest to find the perfect pub began to dominate all other designs. My route back to the ship took me away from the shops and the fast-food outlets, and instead took me past the ornate and imposing Basilica of Saint Nicholas, a large Catholic church, close to Central Station.

 The service had just ended, and the congregation was starting to file out, I too took my leave of Amsterdam and headed back to the Queen Victoria, to be reunited with Mrs PBT’s and share a nice buffet dinner.


retiredmartin said...

Love those bitterballen; are they the quivalent of our Scotch eggs ?

Amsterdam moving up my To Do list, though I recall one February we went 25 years ago it was the coldest I'd ever known.

T'other Paul said...

"one of whom seemed more interested as to where a replacement pair of designer sunglasses could be obtained" but some beer drinkers are insistent about getting particular glasses. "Live and let live" is what I say.
I've not been to Amsterdam since 1975.

Paul Bailey said...

Your comment about glasses is very true, Stafford Paul, but the sunglasses being sought by the lady in question, were from Boot's - you know that well-known, "high-end" designer outlet. Her husband had located a Boot's store, just over 6 Km from the cruse terminal, and according to Google, just 19 minute's journey by cab, but he didn't want to pay the return taxi fare.

The absurdity of splashing out on a cruise, but then refusing to pay for a taxi, to keep his wife happy, just tickled Eileen and I. As you say, "live and let live," especially as apart from the time spent whilst having a meal together, we know absolutely nothing about the couple in question.

Btw, 1975 was the date of my first visit, and the three most obvious changes since that time are, no-one approached us in the street, trying to sell us cannabis (hashish was the preferred term), the red light district seemed smaller, and much more toned down. Last, but not least, the Heineken Visitor Experience was still a working brewery, rather than a tourist attraction.

T'other Paul said...

Splashing out on a cruise might be why he couldn't then pay for a taxi.
I remember Amsterdam having three beers in 1975, Amstel, Heineken and Skol. I didn't experience the red light district.

Paul Bailey said...

Late reply to, Retired Martin. I wouldn't describe Bitterballen as a Scotch egg equivalent, as they are quite mushy in the middle, and there is no egg either. Best enjoyed in a Dutch pub, so get that trip booked.

Reply to Stafford Paul, Amstel was available back in quite a few Amsterdam pubs, back in 1975, but was pretty indistinguishable from Heineken.