Before I left for Amsterdam, I threw a “favourite things to do in Amsterdam?” out into the Facebook void. I didn’t intend it to be a loaded question, but man did I get some LOLs in response. Because, let’s face it, getting high and having sexi times are what this iconic “good time city” is most famous for, right?
Right. But thanks to having met the delightful Susanne Knol – Amsterdam-based yoga teacher, boho queen, social justice worker and all-round divine human – in India two years ago, I experienced the city in a completely different way. A completely better way.
It all began when I arrived at Suus’ Hoofddorpplein apartment, a gorgeous doll’s house of a place decorated with white-washed floors and lace curtains, lush indoor plants and fresh flowers overflowing from pastel-hued pottery, with a cupboard full of coconut water, almond milk, raw cacao and macca. Add to that a fistful of candles and incense and a soundtrack of Indian chanting, and the vibe for my Amsterdam experience was set.
Suus and I spent our first afternoon together zooming around town on bikes (ok not zooming, I was petrified of riding in the traffic and Suus, who like most Dutch people was practically born on a bike, was appalled at the snail’s pace with which we had to inch through the streets).
The sun was uncharacteristically shining down on the city that day so we cycled through the famous Vondelpark where locals were drumming, drinking and dancing in the sunshine, along the 200-year-old canals lined with picturesque townhouses with window boxes overflowing with vibrant flowers, ending up in the Amsterdam art district around Nieuwe Spiegelstraat. We picked up a kefir from hipster healthy food joint Stach and some spicy Moroccan lentil soup from Soup en Zo, then rode home to enjoy it with some girly chats and rivers of tea.
The next morning I headed out to the delightful Nine Streets boutique shopping area in the heart of the canal district. This little conglomerate of alleyways is where Suus told me I needed to head for vintage and designer boutiques, art galleries and chic cafes. I unearthed some fantastic vintage – I’d recommend Zipper on Huidenstraat, Laura Dols on Wolvenstraat (don’t miss their collection of pastel-coloured vintage underwear and slips) and Episode, a multi-level vintage den on the corner of Berenstraat with a fantastic denim collection. There was also a beautiful Spanish handmade shoe boutique called Terra on Wolvenstraat, BsaB organic soy wax candle store in Hartenstraat… I could go on, but the best thing about the Nine Streets is that there are surprises around every corner, so I’ll leave you to discover the rest.
While we had lunch at De Bolhoed, a bohemian-vibed vegan joint that Suus says started the whole vegetarian movement in Amsterdam ten years ago, Suus told me how much it annoyed her and most other locals to have tourists traipsing through her city drunk and high all the time. “This is our home, you know? It would be nice if people had some respect”, she said, adding that the vast majority of her Dutch friends don’t go to the red light district or “coffee shops” (as Dutch majijuana bars are called).
As if to punctuate the point, ten minutes later we saw a Beer Bike (20-seater bikes that are like bars on wheels) being pedalled down the street by a group of tipsy tourists. Can you imagine having those trundle down the streets of your home town every single day? #cringe. Personally I don’t smoke weed, and I absolutely don’t care if anyone does, but using a beautiful historic city that happens to have a tolerant approach to drug use because they believe that each human being should be able to decide the matters of its own health, as your party ground just doesn’t seem that lekker* to me.
That night we had dinner with Suus’ gorgeous friends at Hummus Bistro d&a in the trendy Jordaan area. Over overflowing bowls of spicy hummus, pillowy couscous laden with vegges and nuts and Israeli salads dotted with punchy pomegranate, the girls echoed Suus’ sentiments, adding that because drugs are so freely available in Amsterdam the locals really aren’t all that interested in doing them.
But if I was going to make up my own mind about the issue, I decided I’d have to check out the red light district myself. I headed there late the next morning, winding my way through narrow laneways lined with glass booths. Inside prostitutes stood in their knickers, twisting this way and that with an attempt at a come hither smile, trying to entice the guys leering at them from outside. It was a depressing sight, not least because the women all looked desperately unhappy, as were the handful of seedy “coffee shops”, tourist shops selling weed and magic mushrooms, dozens of sex shops, and the hordes of bleary-eyed tourists wandering around aimlessly.
I got out of there as quickly as I could. Instead I met Suus at the ferry terminal behind Amsterdam Centraal where we took a boat across to De Ceuvel, a former industrial site which has been transformed into one of the most sustainable urban developments in Europe.
There we stopped for lunch at the sustainable Cafe De Ceuvel. They proudly state on their menu that they use products that are not only organic, but that “actually have a positive impact on ecosystems around the world.” Which means they’re growing some of their own food on small floating gardens that bob about in front of the restaurant, diverting waste heat from their kitchen appliances into heat for the building in winter, and are soon going to transform all their organic waste into methane gas for cooking.
In any case, their food was delectable, the vibe was perfectly grungy and relaxed, the canal-side setting was typical Amsterdam, and when we were done feasting we were able to wander along the raised bamboo platform that wound past all the retrofitted houseboats that have been turned into offices, ateliers or workshops for creative and social enterprises. Very cool indeed.
Monday morning Suus informed me that I was to get my butt over to the Noordemarkt, a fantastic farmers market on Saturdays that on Mondays transforms into a vintage and sustainable clothing market. I picked up a rockin’ pair of tie-dyed leather flares from a German woman who was selling second-hand leiderhousen (kind of bummed I didn’t pick some of those up too), almost bought a beautiful antique indigo-dyed wrap from Mali, and ran away from an all-too-tempting stall heaving with cheap second-hand kimonos.
After a long ramble along the canals, where I marvelled at the ability of the houseboat owners to create compact and colourful vegge gardens on the back of their boats and thought for the thousandth time how terrific it is that almost every single person in this city rides a bike instead of a car (there are 400kms of bike paths in Amsterdam) I stopped off at one of Suus’ favourite cafe’s Lavinia Good Food. This cosy boho cafe works with local producers and organic ingredients, avoids unnecessary sugars, makes the tastiest spelt pizzas, house-made almond milk chai tea and fresh juices in the city, and was the perfect place to while away a couple of rainy afternoon hours by candlelight.
Pretty soon it was time to pack my bags and head back to Burgundy. Of course there were teary farewells to Suus, but I left Amsterdam on a complete high. A natural high, that came from falling completely in love with this sustainable city that’s so much more than just a place to get high and have sexi times.
I miss you Suus. I miss you Amsterdam.
* this means good in Dutch, and it’s a word the locals use for absolutely everything.
SUUS' SPIRO FAVES
1 SAI MITHRA YOGA
Suus did a three-year teacher training here. Take a class with Ilona, she says, you won’t be sorry.
2 SVAHA YOGA
Suus’ friend Mariah Mansvelt Beck teaches yin and vinyasa here. Mariah started a kick-ass toxic-free organic cotton tampon brand called Yoni a few years back that’s kind of taking the world by storm. Suus reckons she knows her stuff.
3 DE ROOS SPIRITUAL CENTRE
This silent space slash tearoom slash yoga studio slash vego cafe slash tarot consultancy is the ultimate zen spot, right on the edge of the Vondelpark. Come here for some serious time out.