Jack Serle

Amsterdam, Cafe Americain, views on coffee, the Rijksmuseum, homeward

In BeNeLux on August 23, 2011 at 7:27 PM

The train wound its way past The Omniblocks of Ubiquity that make up the business district around Schipol Airport. It pulled into the grand Amsterdam Central station. They have the builders in.

After the tame Bruges – rather like the British spa town of Bath (beautiful and dull) – and the slightly louder but still quite modest Ghent, getting of the train at Amsterdam is a shock. You are jettisoned from your hyperbaric cigar tube into a maw of rushing, cussing, stressed out foreigners. It is like the London Underground for non-Londoners, but not nearly as bad.

The hotel was located with not much trouble. We stole into a travel shop and cocked a snook at management’s policy of not being a lending library; we orientated ourselves with their maps before replacing them on the shelves. Needs must when funds are low.

The quiet canals of Amsterdam

With baggage stowed we began our arduous task of exploring the canals and bridges, stopping occasionally for a beer. This Dutch city is not quite cut from the same cloth as London, Paris, Berlin or Frankfurt. In the waterways and cobbled streets of the centre it lacks the raw, rough commerce and rushing bustle of its neighbouring monsters. This is definitely a positive, significantly in its favour.

“It doesn’t feel like a capital does it?” Asked T., as we explored this point over a couple of glasses of Christian succor.

“Because it isn’t a capital,” I respond.

“It may as well be, it’s the main metropolis. De Haag is barely a city. It has a population of 1,800 – sorry, 1,799 – made up each of the parliamentarians of the Netherlands, their housekeepers and their mistresses. The MP for Delft’s housekeeper fulfills both roles.”


Two nights was to be the stint in Amsterdam, giving one whole day to wander the tree lined waterways, and empty the foamy beer mugs. First stop is breakfast at the Cafe Americain. A brief walk in this small city. Our hotel is on Prinsengracht, south of the centre. It is a quiet stroll in the cool morning.

American Hotel

The cafe is on the ground floor of the American Hotel. It is famous for its absurd design and architecture. It is a thuddingly opulent space but not without class. It assaults the brain with ornate tiles, arches, stained glass and burnished brass. It is hideous, outside and in, but awesome none the less.

Alas the coffee was, as always on this tour, disgusting. It is an affliction ubiquitous to the Low Countries, Austria, Germany and Switzerland; the coffee is simply vile. It is a problem that affects the UK, France (chicory, why?) and, in my limited exposure admittedly, parts of North America.

Coffee is more widely available across the world than bread almost yet it seems only the Turks and Australians know how to make a decent cup. The dull, acrid, gritty, brown water that is passed off in too many shops is many moons away from the light aromatics over a rich, deep and dark body which coffee should be.

“That’s pretty good,” I said, pointing at a counter of multicoloured jugs. “There is champagne with the juices for Buck’s Fizz.”

The Cafe Americain

“I never like that as a drink,” replied T. “Although I wholeheartedly approve of champagne at breakfast. Two glasses I think really sets you up for a day.”

“I’d prefer a Bloody Mary I think.”

“No, champagne. Maybe that’s just because I really like champagne,” he mused, adding: “Or Cava, which is frankly more realistic.”

“Or Prosecco,” I offer.

“Too sweet. Which would be better earlier,” he paused, continuing: “Yes, I would definitely consider Prosecco to be a breakfast wine.”


Post breakfast the Rijksmuseum took our fancy. It too has the builders in and so the vast collection has been abbreviated down to just 14 or so rooms. These trace the Dutch creative endeavour that matched their expanding wealth and territory through the Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries.

This included some astounding marquetry, Delft ceramics, silverwork so ornate it makes you dull to almost anything else and the big marquee names – the Dutch Masters. Everyone it seemed was there to see the Vermeers and Rembrandts – The Milkmaid and The Night Watch particularly. But for me it was all about a room of Degas and Rembrandt self-portraits, etchings and drawings. Small, simple and wonderful; the pieces were captivating. These two men were matched in exhibition to demonstrate their talents for catching the nuance of features and looks of the face, and to show the influence the Dutchman had on the Frenchman.


The rest of the day was spent meandering, gazing and watching – feeding our lusts for windowsills and gables.

The next day the boat slowly pulled us back to Blighty but for that night we ate and drank merrily. Not for the last time did we remark on the beauty, charm and friendly disposition of the natives. As we left the last but one bar on our way bedward a horde of motorcyclists roared, whined and blatted past – some on two wheels, some on one – causing all to stop and glare.

“Oh good,” said T. “There are some dickheads in this country.”

All images are author’s own, all rights reserved.


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