Dutch gold – Frank McNally on a weekend in idyllic Amsterdam

Cars were few and slow-moving, even on unpedestrianised streets

In Amsterdam for the weekend, I caught up with an old friend, Victor Lacken, and was relived to see that despite 25 years in Dutch exile, he still looks the very picture of an Irishman.

He still plays traditional music too, as he did back in early 1990s when we were briefly in journalism school together. These days, his regular venue is a place called Mulligan’s, founded in 1988 and said to be Amsterdam’s oldest Irish pub.

Back in 1993, his gigs were in the White Horse on Dublin’s George’s Quay, around the corner from another Mulligan’s.

The White Horse is a Starbucks now, he reminded me, and I was at first inclined to be indignant about its passing. Then I remembered the smell of the toilets there and thought that, no, it may be better off dead.


Victor used to play the banjo but found it caused tendonitis so now confines himself to the more sustainable lifestyle of guitarist, anchoring a trio that also includes a fine fiddler (English) and accomplished whistle player (Dutch).

In between the jigs and reels on Saturday night, he sang songs including the Pogues’ Broad Majestic Shannon, a ballad about the loneliness of exile.

But Victor is not homesick. He has put down roots in Amsterdam: two children and a career as a photographer/video-journalist included. And he loves life in this walkable, boat-and-bike friendly city. “It’s what Dublin should be,” he said.

Strolling back to my hotel afterwards, along the broad, majestic Amstel, I had to agree that life in central Amsterdam looked idyllic.

Cars were few and slow-moving, even on unpedestrianised streets. What must once have been parking spaces were being reclaimed everywhere by nature, or at least by potted plants.

Yes, many cyclists seemed to regard the presence of stupid pedestrians in their bike lanes as an intolerable infringement of human rights. Some give the impression that they would happily go through you as a short cut. Other than that, the back and side streets are relaxing places to walk.

Amsterdammers not being much given to curtains, you can often see into their houses and apartments. This adds to the allure of local life. They may not all be Vermeers, but modern Dutch interiors look attractive too.

The older houses of Amsterdam are just as majestic as the Amstel – if, like the canals, rarely as broad. The classic 17th-century gable-to-the-front architectural style (exported to pre-Georgian Dublin as the “Dutch Billy” look, of which little now remains) is by definition narrow.

This originated, I gather, as a pragmatic response to a canal-frontage tax, although even more basic economics – shortage of space – must also have been a factor on limiting width.

Amsterdam’s café culture is globally famous too, but perhaps not as famous as its “coffee houses”, with which it should not be confused.

Coffee houses are the places people go to buy stimulants other than coffee. Yes, despite the Dutch reputation for plain speaking, they still deploy this 1970s euphemism for shops that sell cannabis, psychotropic truffles, and other mood-altering substances.

Mind you, any reticence vanishes once inside their front doors, where helpful staff will advise on the type of, say, Moroccan hash that best suits your needs (“this one is relaxing, this one is more uplifting”, etc), or guide you through the maze of truffle varieties.

One of the more popular ranges of the latter has a code of miniature Planet Saturns to assist “psychonauts” in choosing how spaced out they want to be. A brand called “Atlantis” promises visual effects of 4.5 Saturns, for example, whereas “Dragon’s Dynamite” promises 5.5.

Speaking of euphemisms, those people who like to use the phrase #Irelandisfull should visit Amsterdam and its surrounds for a more informed perspective.

As one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, the Netherlands is an awful lot fuller than here. On Saturday afternoon in Amsterdam, even compared with Dublin, the shopping streets were mobbed.

I didn’t notice any Grand Canal-style tented encampments on my short visit, but as elsewhere immigration has become a big issue. Hence last November’s general election, in which Geert Wilders’s right-wing populists (PVV) topped the poll.

Mind you, there are more varieties of Dutch politics than there are of mind-altering substances in local coffee shops.

No fewer than 26 parties fought the election – including a Party for the Animals (not to be confused with a Party for Party Animals, although there may be one of those too) – of which 15 won seats.

So the result was yet another coalition. And as Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper explained in an election preview: “the mission of every Dutch coalition is to make boring technocratic compromises”.

I say the result “was” another coalition: in fact, six months on, a new government hasn’t been formed yet. Four parties including the PVV have agreed, among other things, that none of their leaders will be prime minister. And a deal is now imminent. But as I write this, they’re still talking.