Thursday, 31 January 2013 1:34 PM
Away from the seething centre of red lights and shops, the sprawling canal-side buildings of Hotel Ambassade help the visitor to Amsterdam breathe a sigh of relief.
Hotel Ambassade has been pursuing something of an expansionist policy since it opened, with just one house featuring eight rooms, in 1953. Its owner was an English teacher: now the language is de rigeur throughout the Netherlands, but 60 years ago it was different and speaking the lingo gave him a real market advantage over other hoteliers.
The current owner, who started as a receptionist at the hotel in 1973, slowly grew the Ambassade until it covered ten buildings. It is a labyrinth, the sort of place I used to love getting lost in as a small child (and still do, to be honest). An 11th building has been purchased, which is being used to extend the public spaces rather than adding even more rooms.
You might end up with a room with a rich, deep purple on the walls, or even one in the attic with Amsterdam's extremely distinctive high, narrow roof above you. Whichever you get, the experience will be enhanced by the impressive collection of art which adorns the Ambassade's walls.
These swirly black chaotic paintings are all by artists from the Cobra movement (it stands for Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam), who hint at human figures in the strangely troubled atmospheres they create. They seem to make the place feel more awake. They are edgy, but don't make you feel on edge.
When combined with the decor – an eclectic mix of classical Louis XVI elegance and more florid contemporary furnishings – the overall effect comes across as an odd mixture of traditional and new, challenging and comforting. A bit like Amsterdam, really.
It's what lies inside that makes the Ambassade, of all the hotels lining the city's canals, stand out the most: a small library underlining the hotel's links with the literary world.
Since the 1980s this has been the hotel for authors visiting Amsterdam to stay in. So its managers have persuaded each visiting writer to sign a first edition. They're behind lock and key – and they're in Dutch, of course – but they'll happily be made available to curious visitors.
An extension is planned in the near future, as there are now many more books in the hotel's collection than those on the shelves. This is a great place to relax with a book, though, especially in winter. There's half a chance you'll bump into the musicians, philosophers and signers who frequent the hotel, too.
You may prefer to give your eyes a rest and shut them inside the Koan Float salt water bath. In addition to the usual spa facilities, this floating technique involves getting into a big bath with a lid on it, lying in about ten inches of pleasantly warm water. It's so salty you'll float, so when the lid shuts and you're left alone in the dark you end up in a strange sort of limbo world. About as far away from whatever complications might be bothering you as you can get.
On a summer's day, though, you might find yourself relaxed enough from simply opening up the windows of your room and listening to the sounds of the canal outside.
What makes this city so memorable are its canals and the relaxed atmosphere created by these rings of waters. The sights and sounds filtering up from rooms with a view of the canal frontage aren't those you'd expect in a hotel minutes away from the centre of a European capital. Green leaves, brown water, those very distinctive Dutch gable ends; and ringing tram bells, tourists talking and laughing, canal tourist barges buzzing past every so often. And in the gaps, the sound of lapping water on the small boats tied up by the canal side.
No wonder there are so many books in the library. It's a place to write in, as well as write about. With the quiet pace of life on the canal rolling by outside, many visiting authors must have been tempted to pen a chapter or two of their next book while staying to publicise their last.
By Alex Stevenson
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