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Ambassade Hotel, Amsterdam Netherlands

In what is one of the world’s great cities on water, the Ambassade Hotel is canal-side, a priority in choosing a place to stay in Amsterdam. Situated in the historical center of Amsterdam on the Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal) the hotel has a peaceful setting slightly off the major tourist track. Yet it is close to good cafes, restaurants and bookshops, to the many museums, the floating flower market and shopping streets. Nearby is the tree-lined Jordaan area, an old neighborhood undergoing a renovation renaissance, and on almost every street there seems to be an Indonesian restaurant, reflecting the legacy of Dutch explorers and spice traders who journeyed back and forth to what was once called New Holland.

The Ambassade is a row of gabled centuries-old canal houses. On a charmingly small scale, the 10 buildings are cobbled together as a hotel. Each is four or five storeys high, with steep staircases, twisting corridors, and low¬≠beamed ceilings. No designer drew this hotel up: it has evolved in its own eccentric way. The Ambassade has a literary tradition, reflected in names signed in the visitor’s book. The hotel is apparently favored by writers such as Oliver Sacks, Salman Rushdie and John Le Carre. No doubt many were on book-promoting gigs in the city. There is soon to be a hotel library, to house the many books signed by the author guests and Amsterdam hookups.

T he hotel is discreetly signed, and blends well into the essentially residential area. Despite being made up of 10 houses, it is comparatively small, with none of its 52 rooms alike. This is an elegant individual and friendly hotel. The ornate breakfast room overlooking the canal serves a generous traditional Dutch repast. Because it is such a pleasant and spacious room, with white lacquered walls and two-storey-high windows, it is better to forgo room service and eat here. The antique-filled sitting room next door is a good location to enjoy a leisurely mid­morning coffee or an afternoon drink, admiring the old and ornate walnut clock with its moving fleet of ships.

Our room looked out over the canal. The large windows opened wide on the early autumn afternoon, letting in the still warm sun. Just above the street and heads of passersby, the room had a gracious and welcoming feel, the atmosphere of a comfortable home. The bed was placed in an alcove, with table and chairs placed beside the window, adding to the impression of being in a living room. With a glass of wine and food bought from a nearby cafe, we sat and watched Amsterdam go by. The boat traffic along the canal is a reminder that this is a maritime city and major port. There was also a constant stream of cars and bicycles, and the sound of murmuring Amsterdammers headed for cafes, to visit friends, or going home.

At night, the city’s bridges, illuminated by tiny lights placed around their arches, seem suspended over a void until a boat comes by with its lights on. The huge variety of boats range from the trim to the wallowing-noisy tourist craft, a wooden dinghy being rowed to a nearby restaurant, barges motoring by on business, homes afloat and vessels tied up by their owners who are refueling at a convenient cafe … The Ambassade’s added water attraction is a massage center with flotation tanks. It provides a pleasant remedy for stress and jetlag, and perhaps writer’s block.

Think of an archery target and you have a bead on Amsterdam, laid out within concentric circles formed by its five main canals. The web of smaller waterways within brings the total number to 160 canals, the city claiming to have more canals than Venice. Traversing these watery barriers are 1,281 bridges, negotiated by 550,000 bicycles and even more cars.

Renting a bike is an option if you prefer your own wheels, but Amsterdam is a city to enjoy on foot. At night, uncunained interiors offer glimpses of how the citizens live, contemporary versions of Verrneer’s light-infused canvasses, which captured everyday Dutch scenes in the 17th century

Cruising the grand canals in a rented motorboat is a rather more elegant altemative to a two-seater water bike. Tourist boats provide a seafarer’s perspective on houses built along the canal banks by wealthy mariners during the prosperous age of merchant sail. Famed for museums focused on an – Van Gogh, the Rijksmuseum with its Rembrandts and Vermeers and the modem art of the Stedelijk – Amsterdam also caters to more down-to-earth tastes with museums specializing in subjects as diverse as trams, beer, sex and football. Something for everyone.

The modem and the medieval coexist comfortably in this very cosmopolitan city. Fans of architecture should see the quirky apartment complex of Eigen Haard (Our Hearth), on Michel de Klerk’s drawing board from 1913 to 1920. The striking Science Centre New Metropolis by Renzo Piano rises like an ocean liner from the harbor and there is cutting-edge design from the appropriately named radical Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Check out Architectura & Natura, a specialized bookstore at Leliegracht 44, for guidebooks on modem Dutch buildings.

Amsterdam has a 400-year association with diamonds. It is also linked with tulips, which have their own fascinating history. As the Ambassade Hotel has a connection with writers, it seems fitting to mention two excellent books featuring tulips, one a novel, the other a history.

The Amsterdam of the early 17th century was immortalized in seemingly serene domestic interiors painted by Vermeer and Rembrandt. Deborah Moggach’s book Tulip Fever adds another dimension to the artists’ canvases. Set in 1630s Amsterdam, a typical renaissance love triangle draws a wealthy elderly merchant, his beautiful but frustrated young wife, and the painter commissioned to paint the couple’s portrait. The artist becomes entangled in a series of emotional and financial speculations, including tulip-bulb trading, and the lives of the three central characters are utterly changed. The text is interspersed with 16 beautiful! y reproduced Dutch paintings, a novel addition to this work of fiction.

A gardening writer, Anna Pavord has recorded the bizarre history of the tulip in The Tulip, a massive book that is both scholarly and entertaining. Originating in Central Asia, tulips were transported to Europe by the Turks. In the 1730s the Dutch were overtaken by “tulipomania,” with single bulbs changing hands for the price of a house. Other countries including France caught the tulip fever. While the Europeans eventually regained their composure, the tulip’s popularity now reaches out to embrace the New World. Pavord’s book is illustrated with hundreds of full page prints of the stylish flower.

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