I was in Amsterdam when SRK [Shah Rukh Khan] was there shooting for his latest film, The Ring. Saravana Bhavan had recently opened a branch in town and the Indian carrier Jet Airways had just made Amsterdam its European gateway. The Indian connection seemed to wink at me from every corner. After all, the Netherlands has the second largest population of people of Indian origin in Europe. It is home to about more than 2 lakh Indian and Surinami diaspora embedded into the Dutch society. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was the first public company to issue negotiable shares and it developed into one of the biggest and most powerful trading and shipping concerns. Its spectacular trade with Asia was what made the Dutch Republic the world’s key commercial hub.
I wanted to look at this city of sleaze and cannabis shops, canals, cycles and tulips beyond the clichés and tourist traps—search for fresh narratives that are often hidden under the surface. I started at the new area called Amsterdam Noord where old warehouses and a former shipyard have been converted into a cool waterfront district. I headed to the former Royal Dutch Shell office building, which has been converted into the A’DAM Toren, an entertainment hub with music clubs, cafes, a revolving restaurant and a luxury boutique hotel. The Lookout comprises of the 20th floor panorama deck, accessed by a fast lift with accompanying sound and lighting effects, and an outdoor sky deck on the 21st floor roof. The roof deck had sun cushions, AstroTurf and free-to-use telescopes. I challenged my fears as I got on the canary red 'Over-The-Edge’ hydraulic swing ride on the eastern side of the roof, claiming to be Europe's highest swing. After we were harnessed and buckled in, the swing started to move away from the building, giving me fascinating glimpses of this city, which started life as a fishing village around a dam on the river Amstel.
Taking a canal cruise, my eyes were drawn to the historic canal homes, long and narrow, with gables and pulleys to hoist goods up. Many of the beautiful canal houses had been converted into museums. I visited the unusual and quirky Museum of Bags and Purses housed in a beautiful canal house on the Herengracht Canal that had over 5,000 purses, bags, pouches, clutches from different eras and gave me a visual narrative of history, fashions and culture. The oldest bag in the collection was a goat skin bag from the 16th century with hidden pockets—a gentleman’s bag in an era when clothes had no pockets and different European currencies had to be carried! Bags made of exotic animal skins and furs, materials like wicker, papier mache, even cactus fibre and purses with tiny beads and intricate designs lined the display shelves.
I followed it up with a visit to feline heaven—the eccentric KattenKabinet or Cat Museum housed in a patrician merchant’s home furnished with period furniture, which was dedicated to the role of cats in art and culture. Created in memory of the founder’s cat named John Pierpont Morgan, the museum had several rooms with an intimate, personal feel, filled with paintings, sculptures, photos, posters, playbills, drawings and adorable images of cats. Some of the artists in the collection were Dali and Picasso. The owner still lived in the floors above the museum with five resident cats!
In this frenetic city, I chanced upon Begijnhof, a small secluded inner courtyard surrounded by exquisite 17th and 18th century buildings and lawns that were used in the past for bleaching clothes. This used to be a sanctuary for a pious Catholic sisterhood called the Beguines who lived like nuns, though they took no monastic vows. They could renounce their vows and leave the Beguinage to get married, and were not expected to make a vow of poverty. I saw Amsterdam’s oldest surviving wooden house Het Houten Huis here, dating back to 1420 and biblical wall plaques covering a wall. The courtyard had an English Reformed Church and a clandestine Catholic chapel with wooden pews, and marble columns. I loved the tranquility of this small oasis which still had single women living in its apartments.
My greatest find was a hidden church in the attic of a canal home, Our Lord in the Attic, a clandestine Catholic church in the attic, which dated back to 1663, a time when Protestants, who had taken over the city, forbid Catholics from openly practising their faith. The building is now a museum where you can admire the grand chambers and remarkable exhibitions like religious artefacts, church silver, in addition to an old style kitchen with blue and white Delft tiles and the hidden church. I clambered up the narrow and steep steps of this canal house to reach the salmon pink-painted altar of the church with the painting ‘Baptism of Christ' by the famous painter Jacob de Wit and stucco sculptures.
Even when I left Amsterdam, at the 100-year-old Schiphol Airport, my quest for the unusual brought me to a banner printing machine which you could use to make personalised banners for welcoming loved ones. There was also the House of Tulips—a glass structure that looked like a cross between a greenhouse and a Dutch town house selling tulip bulbs, a library with Dutch literature translated into more than 20 languages, where the guests could kick back and relax; even a Casino offering roulette and slot machines. Under my feet was a transparent glass panel that showed the underground movement of the luggage along the conveyor belt. And as I looked above, there was a gargantuan clock that looked like there was a man behind it who was manually updating it—just a clever video. The Dutch always make sure that there is something beyond the obvious… you just have to look deep enough.