/ 7 December 2008

Root canal sounds more fun

Amsterdam’s reputation as a seething, hot-boxed bordello does the city a disservice. It has a cultural side — from contemporary hip-hop bands such as Pete Philly and Perquisite to a definitive Van Gogh collection — which shouldn’t be missed.

Contemporary culture
Melkweg: A hip multidisciplinary cultural hub featuring film, theatre, photography exhibitions and live music events with a general focus on live electro and jazz.

Events in December include The Gotan Project supported by Public Enemy; screenings of Control, Anton Corbijn’s bio-pic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis; and a live performance by Jamie Lidell.

234a Lijnbaansgracht: Travel on tram one, two or five to Liedseplein. www.melkweg.nl.

The city’s three major museums are found on Museumplein, just south of the fast food-type debauchery of Leidseplien.

The Van Gogh Museum: Gerrit Rietveld designed the original building in 1973, with the newer silver clam-shell exhibition space, which opened in 1999, designed by Kisho Kuokawa.

The permanent collection is organised chronologically: life in Holland, Paris, Arles, Saint-Remy and Auvers-sur-Oise.

Several of Van Gogh’s masterpieces, including Sunflowers, Crows over the Wheatfield and Bedroom at Arles are found here. Especially fascinating is the stylistic and compositional influence of Japanese art, especially the Ukiyo-e genre, on Van Gogh’s work.

7 Paulus Potter Straat, Museum Quarter: Open daily from 10am to 6pm. Travel on tram two on five to Hobbemastraat from Centraal Station. Tel: +31 (0)20-570 52 52. www.vangoghmuseum.nl

Rijksmuseum: Permanent collections include Dutch masters such as Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt. Interesting contemporary exhibitions: conceptual bad-boy Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God is on show until December 15.

42 Stadhouderskade, Museum Quarter: Open daily from 10am to 5pm. Travel on tram two or five to Hobbemastraat from Centraal Station. Tel. +31 (0)20 6747047. www.rijksmuseum.nl.

Stedelijkmuseum: Currently under renovation, most of the museum’s collection is being housed at Centraal Station. www.stedelijk.nl.

Amsterdam Filmmuseum: Archives and screens films ranging from silent black-and-white to more contemporary art-house — anything relevant to cinematic history, apparently. Wide selection of press clippings and paraphernalia documenting the history of cinema.

3 Vondelpark (between park entrances Roemer Visscherstraat and Vondelstraat): Travel on tram one or six from Centraal Station, stop at Eerste Constantijn.

But, if you must smoke —
Tourist traps such as The Bulldog and The Grasshopper are over-run by packs of bingeing Brits. Most of these joints suffer pushy waiters looking for a high table turnover.

But there are many coffee-shops where stoner “contemplation” is allowed — usually found away from Leidseplein or the red-light district.

Katsu at 70 Eerste van der Helstraat; populated mainly by locals — blonde middle-aged women preparing for the theatre skin up next to plumbers — it stocks the 2001 Cannabis Cup-winning Crystal Clear Ice-olator. Won the 2008 High Life Cup for its Black Widow and Northern Lights Haze. Locals currently recommend the Big Buddha Cheese. You won’t be rushed, people are friendly and the music ranges from Radiohead to Peter Tosh.

Carmona Coffeeshop, near Albert Cuypstraat, draws a largely North African male clientele with its wide selection of hashish. Old men play dominoes in the mosaiced surroundings while Al Jazeera and football dominate the television screen. Mint tea and the Carmona Special hashish are recommended.

Red light for debauchery
Amsterdam’s red-light district, De Wallen, is mythologised for its licentious approach to life and marketed as the promise of bawdy debauchery.

Yet the reality of (mechanical) live sex shows, prostitutes, (homogenous) sex shops and peek-a-porno booths is the stark opposite of libertinism — suggesting rather a cynical tourist-based capitalism.

Some Amsterdam streets appear to cater for niche interests: those near Nieuw Markt, for example, appear the sole domain of much older, overweight black prostitutes.

Despite the come-and-get-me smiles and sexy dance routines, it’s all window dressing. The sex, which starts at a €50 “suck-and-fuck” lasting “about 15 minutes” is extremely perfunctory.

According to Sarah — a Belgian prostitute working in Amsterdam for four years — hygiene is her obsession: “There is no wet kissing of my body, no oral sex for me. I put the condom on, then the customer must not touch his penis because germs could be spread,” she says.

Sometimes root canal treatment sounds more fun than sex along the canals of Amsterdam.