Troy Hightower

Houseboat Living in Amsterdam

Two cruising swans swim up to the small deck as we step down through the front door, stretching their long necks so they are almost eye-to-eye with us as they silently communicate their desire for a handout. We have no bread-crusts to throw them yet, but they will be back. Thus we are welcomed our four-day stay in a floating home on the Prinsengracht canal on a rainy Amsterdam November Monday.

Living on the water, literally, is as common in Amsterdam as in Sausalito - maybe more so. All the canals in this watery city are lined with converted barges, floating homes, and arks—and  many are available as short-term rentals. There is something inexplicably cool about looking out at the cityscape over the water that's gently rocking your vacation stay domicile. This floating home at number 69 Prinsengracht in the Jordaan area is a modern, architect-designed, purpose-built luxury one bedroom home priced well less than an average five-star hotel room - let alone suite. A gleaming European kitchen, distressed-wood dining table, and designer living room look out through two huge sliding glass doors onto a narrow deck, and the lovely brick 17th century Noordkerk across the canal. Efficient bathroom with rain-shower and hamman, or steam system, separate the queen-bedded sleeping quarters two steps down. All is beautifully designed and decorated.

This area of Amsterdam, known as Jordaan, was pretty down and out a couple of decades ago, but more recently, in the manner of Brooklyn, or the Canal St. Martin in Paris, has been renovated, tarted up, and is full of boutiques, galleries, upscale markets, restaurants, bakeries, cheese shops and gourmet delis. Marqt—the Whole Foods of Holland—is a block away and provides all we need for the portion of meals that we choose to cook in (one of the big advantages—for us—of renting an apartment, or ark, rather than living in a hotel).

Amsterdam, sometimes referred to the "Venice of the north" is one massive canal system—four parallel canals in a rough horseshoe shape facing the sea. The canals were started in the early 1600's and finished later that century, built as a massive city-planning project--to address defense, water management, transportation and housing. Ours, the Prinsengracht is the outermost on the ring and the oldest, started in 1613. The houses are 3-5 stories, very narrow, some one-room narrow, and of varying shades of brown, red and black brick. Most facades feature a typical Dutch gable, and many sport a protruding beam and pulley, which is the only way furniture can be gotten to upper floors.

Next in on the ring is Keizersgracht, the innermost is the smaller Singel, and the last-built and widest is the Herrengracht, or "Gentlemen's Canal" This was the rich merchant, influential politician and banker territory, with wide, much larger mansions lining the canal. Many of these have been converted to banks, offices and apartments, with some remaining as private homes. The current Mayor of the city, who is not elected by the populace but appointed by the King, resides at No. 502.

The whole canal area, which comprises more than 10 kilometers of canals, crossed by 1500 bridges and with 90 islands, and which envelopes city center and Dam Square, is known as Grachtengordel, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Canal tours abound, and long fiberglass panorama-windowed boats pass our ark-front frequently. There are private boat tours available, and the Pulitzer Hotel, a notable hostelry that combines about 40 houses fronting both the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht, has a small, ten-passenger century-old boat named "The Tourist" which has been refurbished and electrified. A beautiful craft of wood and glass, with red leather benches, small head and bar area is moored outside the hotel, and on a rainy Tuesday evening, we are the only passengers, thereby gaining a private tour. It's dark by the start time of 5 pm this late in the year, and the street lamps, house lights, and beginnings of Christmas lighting make for a magical atmosphere. For an hour plus, image courtesy Hotel PulitzerCaptain Imco cruises around the canal system pointing out landmarks, notable buildings and historical sites—the Royal Palace, Oude Kerk, Stopera, Munttoren tower, the neo-gothic Centraal Station, and the Renzo Piano-designed Nemo Science Center, gleaming in its oxidized copper skin.

The Amsterdam Light Festival runs every year for 50 days in November and December, and the city is transformed into something even more magical at night by local and international contemporary light artists. It's a tonic for locals and tourists alike during    the darkest winter months. The festival doesn't officially begin until the last day of our stay, but many of the works on, in, around and above the canals and the IJ, the main basin, are up or underway, so we're treated to at least a partial tour of the exhibition, and it's a must-experience if one's visit coincides with the timing of the festival.

Electing to eat in and take advantage of the efficient kitchen, we head to Marqt to pick up fresh beans, mesclun mix, and two small very fresh north-sea sole from the ice display in the fishmonger section. String beans in butter, tossed green salad vinaigrette with shaved Beemster cheese and quickly seared browned whole soles paired with a nice Vermentino make as good a dinner as we might have in any restaurant, if not perhaps as fancy. A small scoop of organic Dutch Karamel Zeezout gelato round out the offering.

The Wednesday morning sky is lowering and foreboding. Seems we are not to have much unwet weather this sojourn. Museums are on the agenda for the next two days, and we board the 170 bus from Westmarkt near the Anne Frank house to head down to the museum area: Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh, Stedelijk—featuring contemporary art, Hermitage, associated with the St Petersburg parent, and more. Little is served by detailing here museum visits, as all is available online—however we should comment on the current exhibition at the Van Gogh.

Vincent and Edvard—Van Gogh and Munch compared and contrasted.  Two artists, who never met, but admired each other, and painted colorful and intense works in the same period. There are stunning parallels in their work and similar influence of other contemporary painters: Gaugain, Caillbaut, Pissaro, and Manet.                                           The exhibition matches paintings of the two that exhibit similar characteristics and themes, and adds works of the above-named artists to show their influence on both of them. Van Gogh and Munch had similarly troubled personal lives, which the exhibition also brings forth. Vincent and Edvard is one of the most stunning curatorial tour-de-forces I have ever seen. Perhaps it will travel, to be admired by many in other venues. One can only hope.

Our second unusual museum experience of the day is literally right across the street: the Bols Experience. The Dutch Genever—gin—maker that originated in 1575 has        created an interactive museum that involves taste, smell, touch and sound in a series of rooms that lay out the history of the company and of Gin itself. The final experience is the "Mirrored Bar" where tasting of the company's many Genever varieties and cordials take place. There are a dozen forms of Genever itself, ranging from Original to 21 (century) to various levels of oak-aged spirit. Another interactive experience allows the selection of one of many possible cocktails using a taste-based quadrant selection system with its four corners as simple, complex, fruity and aromatic. The entry ticket includes the tasting and one cocktail, which is expertly shaken or stirred by hand by bartenders behind the mirrored bar. We semi-stagger out under the leaden sky in search of some form of Dutch 3 pm 'high tea' to put some food inside to soak up the spirits.

The restaurant Envy is three long blocks south on the Prinsengracht from Ark 69, and highly recommended by the Ark's owner. A long, narrow, theatrically-lit space, Envy is about small plates—all small plates: our kind of dining. The choices are: let the chef choose a 4-5 course meal, or order as you wish from a very long list of dishes: imported cured meats, Dutch sausages, cheeses, and hot and cold--well, tapas. We choose to compose our own menu, and start with a bulgar salad with dabs of yoghurt, a swoosh of intense red pepper puree, and dots of avocado mousse, scattered with micro-greens. Lovely to look at, and surprisingly delicious (surprising because such compositions often aren't tasty).

Next, 5 Jotas Iberico ham and lardo, shaved perfectly thin, with two artisanal breads and fruity green olive oil. Cured pork and fat—who can complain? Two more cold course follow—lacquered pork belly with cilantro/mint granita; and lobster two ways—tail covered with a cold saffron mayonnaise, surrounded by claw meat with Israeli cous-cous, pickled cucumber and sea fennel.

A warm course follows—risotto with zucchini, a mix of curry spices and a Dutch cheese that contains clove & anise. For dessert, we select the chocolate/licorice extravaganza, which is a scattered forest-floor scene of crumbled chocolate cookie as "earth", small meringue "mushrooms", mounds of chocolate gelato and ganache, and small gold-covered balls of  licorice-flavored gel. The waiter highly recommends a 15 year old vin doux—Maury—from the Roussillon, a rich, sweet red wine known to pair chocolate well, and—it works!

Thursday—Thanksgiving at home—dawns clear and sunny for the first time this trip—welcome weather for our last day. We make our way to the Rijksmuseum to spend the morning among its many treasures. Taking it all in in one go is simply not possible, but the high tech interactive multi-media guide offers a variety of tours, including a two-hour highlights tour. With a combination of maps and photos the app elegantly leads one an a winding tour through all floors  of the enormous structure. Many of the highlights are unfamiliar to us, but among the top gems are Rembrandt's Night Watch, one of Van Gogh's self portraits, an incredible water and sky scene called Windmill on a Polder by Gabriel, Vermeer's Milkmaid, and an great group of small bronze figures called Ten Weepers from the Tomb of Isabella of Bourbon.

We take the 2 tram instead of the 170 bus to Dam square to view the Rathause, Nieukerk and Dam Square, then backtrack to Hoxton Hotel on the Gentlemen's canal for lunch at Lotti's Bistro. Pink lamb chops with mushy peas (it is, after all an outpost of a London hotel) and a very interesting ricotta gnudi with cherry tomatoes and nicoise olives. We meander up the Herengracht taking in the fascinating architecture, canal life, and parade of humanity on bicycles. And the go like bats out of hell, listening, talking or texting on their phones as they whiz by, barely missing pedestrians.  There are some 800,000 residents of Amsterdam, and some 1.4 million bikes--of all stripes, sizes and configurations: sleek racers, high-handled uprights, junkers, tandems, cargo bikes, a four-seater and a fascinating contraption called a Bakfiets, that has a wheelbarrow-like wooden bucket on the front, with two baby seats at the rear of the bucket and the bike's front wheel ahead of the bucket—so mom or dad, the twins, their stuff, and the evenings groceries all get pedaled from market to home.

The light is beginnings to fade, and the street lamps lighting as we rerun to No. 69 for an ersatz turkey-day dinner of chicken, green beans, and substituting for the ham, some creamy riserva bellota Jabugo ham, found at a jamon temple called Ibericus on Haarlem Street....which was by the way redolent of cannabis smoke it's several block length. As we dine by candlelight, a final swan cruises up, looking in for a handout and seems to say "come back soon to Venice of the North--my brethren will be waiting for your handouts".