Weekend in Amsterdam – The American Spectator

When New York City’s crime and grime get you down, it’s a breeze to leave. So, I did.

Newark Airport, one of Gotham’s three airborne escape routes, took me to Amsterdam for the weekend.

Trains into town are a snap: They depart every 5–10 minutes from tracks immediately below Schiphol Airport’s arrival terminal. The €5.90 ($6.30) ride reaches Amsterdam Centraal Station in just 13 minutes. Few air-rail connections top this one.

An eight-minute roll, with luggage, took me from the front door of Centraal Station to Swissotel at Damrak 96, on the main draag that extends southwest of the train terminal. Its location is perfect. These modern accommodations are across from de Bijenkorf, a huge department store — the Dutch Saks Fifth Avenue. Just a 25-second walk from Swissotel’s front door sits Dam Square, Amsterdam’s largest. Its key attractions are the luxurious Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, large alfresco restaurants, and the Dutch Royal Palace.

I checked into Room 615, a spacious suite with a king bed, wide desk, cozy sofa, spacious bathroom, deep tub, shower stall, towel heater, and spectacular view of Dam Square. What a comfortable base for a scenic, relaxing stay.

Swissotel’s Royal98 restaurant’s hearty breakfast went well beyond coffee and croissants. Atop hot drinks and chilled, fresh-squeezed orange juice, it offered multiple cheeses, sliced meats, scrambled eggs, sausage, and crispy, brittle, heavenly bacon. This spread was available daily until 11 a.m., which showed mercy to owls who slept in.

A small vessel navigates Amsterdam’s Herrengracht (image credit: Jeremy Hildreth)

A small vessel navigates Amsterdam’s Herrengracht (image credit: Jeremy Hildreth)

After wandering through the streets for two hours, for which this easily walkable city is tailor made, I stopped at Majestic on Dam Square, an outdoor spot to snack, see, and be seen. A bowl of pea soup with ham, veal/potato croquettes, and a fine cup of hot cocoa filled and warmed me, with room to spare for dinner. Watching passersby beneath the mixed sun and clouds proved mighty entertaining.


Just before dusk on Friday, I rendezvoused in Swissotel’s lobby with Jeremy Hildreth, an American friend I met in 1997. Back then, he lived in Connecticut, where he was deputy to economist Larry Kudlow. We often convened in Manhattan for drinks and libertarian events. Jeremy now advances free-market reforms in London. He hitched the Eurostar across the English Channel to join me for the weekend.

We traversed nearby streets with such jaw-breaking names as Kalfsvelsteeg, Warmoesstraat, and Oudezijds Voorburgwal. The general vibe tonight, and throughout the weekend, was great fun, albeit lower key and with thinner crowds than on my five previous trips. Tragically, last call afflicts most by 4 or 5 a.m. — earlier than before.

Why the comparative quietude? The first week of March is off-season. COVID-19’s toll on tourism lingers. And several merchants complained that Green Party Mayor Femke Halsema has tried to lasso Amsterdam’s anything-goes ethic. She reportedly pushed to remove large neon signs and replace them with smaller displays. The overall effect is less garish but also less zany. I appreciate the former, but I miss the latter.

Amsterdam city center (Wikimedia Commons)

Amsterdam city center (Wikimedia Commons)

Amsterdam’s streets and canals follow a half-moon pattern that ripples out from Centraal Station. These thoroughfares house dark-brick structures that date back to the early 1600s. Some are so seasoned that they lean like the Tower of Pisa. Nonetheless, they are residences, shops, galleries, and taverns.

The straaten and grachten are interlaced with alleyways, many barely shoulder wide. Strolling aimlessly through this maze is a singular delight. Pleasant surprises arise at every turn. The forks in the road could clog a dishwasher.

Jeremy and I grew hungry and decided to stop somewhere appetizing. We rounded a corner along Wagenstraat and SHAZZAM! There it stood: Ribsfactory Amsterdam!

Located at Amstelstraat 18, Ribsfactory serves delectable slabs of spareribs in five flavors: Garlic, Hot & Spicy, Jack Daniel’s, Smoky Original, and Sweet Honey. We each tried the mixed-rib entrée: three hefty hunks of ribs in three flavors.

Our bar seats yielded instant access to Heineken and other draft beers. This venue spun easygoing rock music at a volume conducive to conversation.

The Dutch devour ribs like Americans gobble chicken wings. Ribsfactory is a first-rate site for indulging this juicy culinary distinction.

Česko-Slovenský Bar/Het Wapen van Londen (Amstel 14) invited us for a nightcap. Its draft beers and decent music were exactly right for this late evening.

Too bad, the bartender ruined everything with Karaoke Night. Even worse, his microphone-wielding, Eastern European, female assistant wasted three straight minutes fruitlessly hounding us to sing.

Nee betekent nee!

No means no!


Saturday evening followed an afternoon devoured by jet lag. Twilight found us on the National Mall–like Museumsplein. At its base sits the Concertgebouw, one of the premier cathedrals in what I call the First Church of Song — the secular faith shared by those of us who board planes and cross oceans to enjoy performances with fellow aficionadi who take our music very, very joyously.

Opened in April 1888, this landmark is understatedly elegant outside and breathtakingly adorned within. Glass-lined Café Viotta offers small meals (soup, sausage, cheese, and bread) and quick service on premises — precisely what one craves before a concert.

Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest prepares to play the Concertgebouw’s Main Hall, as seen from podium seats (image credit: Jeremy Hildreth)

Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest prepares to play the Concertgebouw’s Main Hall, as seen from podium seats (image credit: Jeremy Hildreth)

Beneath the Main Hall’s intricately carved ceiling, the equally ornate walls and balcony bear the names of history’s most celebrated symphonic composers. Among them: Cherubini, Dvořák, Mozart, Scarlatti, Schuman, and Strawinsky — spelled in Dutch.

We settled into the front row of the podium seats, immediately behind the orchestra. We were just above the timpanist, close enough to read the composers’ names atop the sheet music. Seated on the aisle, the only way to get closer to the musicians would have been to join the orchestra.

From that location, we savored the music’s full excitement with the added advantage of watching conductor Carlo Rizzi’s expressions — awe, levity, intensity — as he signaled, moment to moment, which tonal colors he sought from his ensemble.

This magnificent experience began with Jörg Widmann’s Con Brio, a 2008 composition written in a “mad hurry” and prescribed as an overture to selections by Ludwig van Beethoven. What Wikipedia calls “an exercise in fury and rhythmic insistence” is an intriguingly cacophonous piece that proudly lacks melody. However, it compensates for this thematic wanderlust with whispers from one section of the orchestra punctuated by outbursts from another.

The violinists aggressively plucked pizzicato style. The bassists responded with sharp, loud bow strokes. After the woodwind artists merely exhaled into their instruments, the brass barked briskly in reply. This piece, unlikely to soothe, was kept fascinating in its ability to startle.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 (1872), a far more traditional work, showcased Germany’s Maximilian Hornung. The incredibly handsome soloist’s tone, energy, and verve propelled this enchanting piece with his Gypsy-esque sound, all answered by the orchestra with waves of aural lushness. French Romantic Saint-Saëns remains among the most satisfying composers. Tonight was no exception.

As this work climaxed, the audience erupted into applause and beckoned Hornung for three curtain calls, after which he encored with the popular Prelude to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 (circa 1720). During Hornung’s solo, we in the podium seats watched these world-class musicians listen raptly rather than play.

Herr Hornung wrapped it up, hiked past my seat, climbed the aisle, and then returned for an astonishing fourth curtain call.

Intermission included a free drink with each ticket. American concert halls should learn this Dutch lesson.

The program concluded with Beethoven’s Third Symphony (1804). The “Eroica” is, indeed, heroic. Aside from its drift-inducing second movement, its sweeping, majestic sounds graced the ears. Songs within songs wove in and out, most notably a naval march stitched into the fourth movement. Maestro Rizzi led the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest across what musicologists consider a key bridge from the Classical to Romantic styles. How fortunate to join this most enriching journey.

Jeremy Hildreth and Deroy Murdock (image credit: Jeremy Hildreth)

Jeremy Hildreth and Deroy Murdock (image credit: Jeremy Hildreth)

As Los Angeles natives, Jeremy and I both noticed a yellow neon sign en route home. It read Cafe de Klos. It reminded us of KLOS 95.5 FM, Southern California’s Rock Station since 1969. Naturally, we walked through its doors at Kerkstraat 41.

Cafe de Klos has nothing…

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