Going native is one of the best ways to rediscover a favourite city. David Leck broke his Airbnb virginity and headed back to the Dutch capital.
“It’s really just a big village. An increasingly busy one but still a village,” says Laurens as he shows me around the ground floor, canal-side Amsterdam apartment he shares with girlfriend Sophie.
I’m an Airbnb novice so this is all new. Rolling-up at a stranger’s home and taking it over feels a tad unsettling. What if I send the shower shield crashing? How do the rubbish bins work? I’m sure the Dutch embrace recycling in the same delightfully laid-back and effortlessly efficient way they do most things.
The apartment is beautiful but homely, blending chic contemporary style within that distinctly Dutch architecture of stone and red brick facades and sunken windows through which passers-by can peer without making any effort – although Amsterdammers are far too polite for such voyeuristic pursuits.
“It’s a work in progress; we’ve only been here four months,” explains Laurens as he hops on his bike (naturally) back to his job at the city council. He and Sophie are heading to the small island of Terschelling for the weekend to attend a music festival leaving me in charge of their delightful abode. I’m going to like it here.
I’ve visited this charming, effortless city on many occasions and I’m back because a friend is working here for a few weeks – and I require no excuse to return to one of my top five capitals.
I’ve wandered the museums and galleries, visited the breweries, peaked at the red light district and done the day trips out of town so, this time, I decided the trip will largely consist of reading books, spending time hiding in little cafes (not coffee shops, there’s a difference!) – and hoping a smidgen of that “laid-back” Dutch gene might rub off on me.
With my friend working, I settle into a daily routine, helped no end by the beautiful June daylight and shorts and t-shirt warmth. Next to my new home, is one of the many charming cafes this city does so well, and which are delightful for a leisurely breakfast – no lists of coffee longer like an itemised phone bill, no pots of cardboard porridge awaiting a boiling kettle, no stale pastries piled high beneath a cellophane tarpaulin!
That evening, on Elandsgracht – sufficiently off the trail to see the tourist throng taken down a level – the bars are busy, spewing drinkers onto pavements along which an assortment of cyclists, pug- and schnauzer-walking locals and lovers sauntering by in the pleasantly mild evening.
In need of refreshment from a day pounding the pavements – my FitBit displaying an impressive 21,000 steps – we happen across Bar Olendhof. We nearly didn’t; the few chairs scattered across the street outside in an uninviting mish-mash do little to say “come on in”.
Like an Aladdin’s cave of tempting sundowner treats, however, the interior is an exquisite surprise and it takes a while for the eyes to adjust from the midsummer light to the warm, inviting autumnal hues within.
Dark mahogany panelled walls frame leather tub chairs and velvet sofas, the soft green lighting casts shadows on a looming stag’s head and tasteful chandelier, while lilting jazz plays at a level more than conducive to a conversation between friends.
“In winter, the curtains are drawn, the door’s closed and you have to ring the bell”, the young English waitress tells us adding, after my enquiry, “Oh no, I couldn’t live in London again.”
We eat at Rakang (rakang.nl), a superb Thai restaurant that’s become a favourite of mine over the years. The setting is apt – my friend is a professional Muay Thai (Thai boxing) fighter and is in town training ahead of an attempt to take the UK number one spot. Charlie lived in Thailand for 18 months so an Englishman in the Dutch capital speaking the lingo in a Thai restaurant goes down a storm with the smiling, inquisitive staff.
Amsterdam has seen an explosion in visitor numbers in recent years with the tourist board marketing folk pausing promotion of the city centre and, instead, trying to entice people further afield. (For a taste of ‘Old Holland’, head 20 km north and spend some time on the shores of picturesque Volendam).
“There are now all sorts of places, some 30 km or more from here that are suddenly known as Amsterdam,” one local tells me. If you’ve ever flown Ryanair you’ll get her drift.
I’m a bit of a gym nut so, knowing my UK membership is valid, I decide to head for a quick workout and, in truth, to try and counter a few days that seem to be increasingly centred on wonderful food, marshmallow-like waffles dripping in Nutella, the best French fries I’ve ever tasted (vleminckxdesausmeester.nl) and one too many pints of Amstel.
Something that always impresses me about The Netherlands is the wonderful manners. It’s a Saturday morning and the gym is packed and, yet, every piece of equipment is returned to its rightful place and every sweaty bench is wiped down. I know, a sad thing to notice on a city break, but it kind of typifies the Dutch way.
Before leaving, Charlie suggests breakfast at Monks Coffee Roasters. It’s Sunday morning and the atmosphere is, at turns, exceedingly cool and wonderfully homely. A sign declares “Weekends are screen free – no laptops, mobiles, iPads. Read a book, talk to someone, get your life back”.
The advice clearly works. At one table two bearded 20-somethings contemplate manoeuvres in a game of chess, at another a mother and son (maybe seven or eight) play cards and, all around what is now a packed cafe, no-one has an intravenous digital fix. It’s bliss.
“It’s just like Costa!” says Charlie, the soon-to-be-crowned UK Muay Thai number one.
Airbnb (airbnb.co.uk) has revolutionised travel. It provides flexibility, space and a home-from-home experience. And in cities, such as Amsterdam, where the supply of accommodation can outstrip demand and hotel prices soar, it offers an affordable alternative. It’s ideal for families as well as groups of friends keen to create a house party vibe. Properties also, by their nature, tend to be in residential areas, often providing a more authentic taste of a city.
Airbnb is a well-run operation but there are things worth keeping in mind. You may not always get what you see online, so do research, ask the owner questions and, of course, look to reviews. When searching, note Airbnb imposes a number of additional fees (service charges can be as high as 20 per cent). Some cities (New York, Paris) are significantly restricting or considering banning rentals all-together in central areas. Finally, any independent travel denies you the support – should something go wrong – you get when booking through a travel agent or tour operator.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of The Index Magazine.