The perfect short break – Amsterdam

Amsterdam is the ideal city for a short break. And now there is a quick and environmentally friendly way of getting there.

Abandoning the hassles of travelling by air, I decided to let the train take the strain by using the new fast rail link between London and Amsterdam, via Brussels.

On a bright winter’s morning I left London’s restored St Pancras station at 8.27 and, even with the one hour time difference, Eurostar deposited me in Brussels on time at 11.33. From there the new Thalys high speed train whisked me to Amsterdam, pulling into the city’s Central Station at precisely 1.43.

The total journey – an impressive four hours and 16 minutes – underscored the advantage of travelling in comfort rather than spending more than five hours slogging through Heathrow and Schiphol airports in order to spend 55 minutes in the air.

With check-in times at airports regularly two hours before departure – and bearing in mind the additional time needed to travel to and from the airport – there can now be only one winner.

Aside from the obvious environmental benefits of travelling by train, there is plenty of room to stretch your legs – a marked improvement on enduring the cheek-by-jowl experience offered on modern aircraft.

In addition, you can actually enjoy the delights of the changing countryside you’re passing through, rather than getting a fleeting glimpse of it from 30,000ft.

Amsterdam remains one of Europe’s most alluring places to visit. It’s neither large enough to be overwhelming nor small enough for you to lose a sense of surprise – essential for any short city break.

I’ve been travelling there for more than 30 years now and in that time, on the surface at least, the city seems little changed.

The hippies may have deserted Dam Square, but the iconic location is still very much at the heart of the city. In fact, it gave the city its name. When, in the 13th century the river Amstel was dammed here, the fishing village which grew up around it was ‘Amstelredam.’

At the southern end of the city centre, within a stone’s throw of the great Concertgebouw concert hall, where many of the world’s big league performers appear, the Rijksmuseum is another iconic landmark.

Amsterdam’s finest and most famous museum is currently undergoing a massive facelift, but while the work is going on you can still see Rembrandt’s great masterpiece, The Night Watch.

Close by, too, is the Van Gogh Museum, which contains more than 200 paintings and sketches by the artist, together with his notebooks and letters.

But most of all Amsterdam is about atmosphere. The city’s concentric canals, graceful high-gabled 17th century houses, delightful street markets, a thousand bridges and many more thousand bicycles have survived the world’s relentless march towards modernity.

In an attic inside one of those gabled houses, on Prinsengracht, is where the schoolgirl Anne Frank wrote her diary during 26 months of Nazi terror.

The house is now the Anne Frank Museum, detailing how a young Jewish girl and her family hid for two years from the Nazis until they were betrayed and she subsequently died in a concentration camp.

It’s a moving place to visit, no more so than when you arrive at the attic room which contains Anne’s photo collection. There, still pasted on to the faded wallpaper, are pictures of Ginger Rogers, Deanna Durbin, pretty ladies from fashion magazines and an image of the Chimpanzees’ Tea Party.

More than 60 years may have passed since those terrifying times, but the museum ensures that we never forget.

There is no better way of getting acquainted with the city than to take a rondvaart, a one-hour trip along the tree-lined canals and the harbour in a glass-topped boat – cosy even on the coldest and wettest days.

Equally cosy are Amsterdam’s ‘brown’ cafes, so-called because of their colour that came, in less health-conscious times, as much from nicotine as old age (some date back to the 17th century.)

Here you’ll find what the locals call gezelligheid, a word that is woven inextricably into Dutch psyche. It means conviviality – a priceless commodity that comes free when you buy a glass of beer or shot of jenever gin.

And no trip to Amsterdam is complete without sampling the local delicacies like herring, which the Dutch treat as seriously as the British do fish and chips, and smoked eel, available from street corner fish stalls.

If you want to spoil yourself head for Envy, a stylishly modern restaurant on the Prinsengracht. Stylish but not cheap – expect to pay around £40 for an exquisite taster menu comprising oysters, pasta, salami, scallops, sea bass and a heavenly chocolate dessert.

When it comes to finding a place to stay, Amsterdam has hotels and guest houses to suit all pockets. I like the Amrath Hotel, which has a splendid position overlooking the harbour, within walking distance of the Central Station and the heart of the city.

The front of the hotel is shaped like the prow of a ship and, unsurprisingly, there is a nautical connection – it was once the headquarters of a shipping company. The rooms are spacious with high ceilings and come with all the comforts you’d expect to find in a five-star hotel… and, unusually, a complimentary mini bar.

The bar is stocked with soft drinks, beers and wine, but this shouldn’t deter you from seeking out one of those ‘brown’ cafes for an authentic slice of gezelligheid.

Factfile: Travel available from London to Amsterdam. To book call Rail Europe on 0844 848 4070, visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call into the Rail Europe Travel Centre at 1 Regent Street, London SW1.
For further information about Holland and Amsterdam:www.holland.com.

Tim Ware