(Mirror) After passing through Airport Schiphol a couple of times on my way to other destinations over the years, I finally kept a promise to myself and landed there on my birthday for a stay in the LGBT capital of Europe and the birthplace of gay rights — Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Within hours of my arrival, I began to wonder why I had waited so long to visit the storied city. Amsterdam’s charm radiates from splendid historic buildings, canals lined with dandy houseboats, colorful sidewalk cafes, exotic restaurants, fascinating shops, narrow pedestrian lanes and throngs of intriguing, often beautiful, people walking, running and biking the endless pathways.
A million people live in the urban area of Amsterdam, and every neighborhood seems as interesting as the other. The best way to navigate the city is by walking, renting a bike or taking the trams, buses and canal boats.
I began my exploration of the city with a canal boat ride accessed at a dock across the street from my hotel, the Apollo Museumhotel Amsterdam, in the museum district. It is also situated a couple of blocks from Leidseplein, the largest entertainment district featuring the government-run Holland Casino, the Hotel Americain and various other high-end restaurants and nightclubs.
As a thrifty traveler, high-end entertainment intrigued me not, so after a day of sightseeing on the canals and wandering in the museum district, I sought the help of an LGBT travel guide on the Internet to find the perfect gay watering hole. I settled on Café ‘t Mandje on Zeedijk, a narrow pedestrian-only lane in the heart of the city on the outskirts of De Wallen, Amsterdam’s famous red light district where prostitutes sit in windows.
Café ‘t Mandje appealed to me because of its history. The small bar dates back to 1927, making it one of the oldest LGBT bars in Amsterdam and perhaps the oldest gay bar in all of Europe.
It is a museum in its own right, with walls laden with memorabilia dating back decades, and the regulars give it lots of local color.
Owner Diana van Laar bought the bar from her Aunt Greet, who had inherited it from her older sister, Bet van Beeren, who was a lesbian. Although the bar was closed from 1982 until 2008 when Laar re-opened it, the entire interior remained untouched.
When Bet van Beeren opened the bar in 1927, it attracted the patronage of prostitutes, pimps, sailors and lesbians, according to lore. There is no record of gay men hanging out there in the early days, but you know how it goes: Where there are horny sailors, it’s a pretty good bet you will also find some bad boys.
At Café ‘t Mandje bartender Alexander Dikkes, a big bear of a guy, quickly pegged me for a tourist and welcomed me. As it turned out, he spent time in Texas a few years ago working on a ranch with horses and welcomed me vigorously. He even treated me to a shot when I told him I was celebrating my birthday. He joked that his name could be pronounced in two different ways so if he ever opened a bar and named it after himself it could be for boys or girls.
I loved my time at Café ‘t Mandje, where I also met an older man wearing a sundress and open-toe pumps but no makeup or any other mark of femininity. The bartender advised me that the motto of the bar is “to show respect to everyone and to celebrate diversity.”
Van Laar said she felt called to resurrect the bar after its long shuttering. Her first visit to her aunt’s bar came as a newborn when she was carried in directly from the hospital.
“I realized I was the person to bring the bar back to life again,” she said. “I am of the same indignation concerning injustice, gay rights and human rights — not because of the bar, but because of who I am.”
After I reached my quota of celebratory beers, I went looking for a restaurant. I found De Portugees, also on Zeedijk, featuring Portuguese food. I so enjoyed my meal of grilled swordfish and the charm of the family running the cafe that I made a mental note to visit Portugal in the future.
Later, I ventured down the street to The Queen’s Head, a larger bar that also caters to a regular crowd and features dancing, drag shows and weekly bingo.
While at The Queen’s Head, I met a guy who was utilizing a long layover at Airport Schiphol to visit a few gay bars in Amsterdam. He asked the bartender for suggestions and headed out after finishing his beer.
There are plenty of bars for the gay traveler to see in Amsterdam. In addition to the Zeedijk, there are several gay areas with gay bars, gay-owned hotels, restaurants and retail stores. The Reguliersdwarsstraat is more mainstream and commercial for weekenders. The street Amstel features traditional Dutch-themed gay bars, and Warmoesstraat is known for cruise and fetish clubs.
Unsurprisingly, Amsterdam celebrates gay Pride just as big, if not better, than U.S. cities. The bartender at Café ‘t Mandje told me I should have been there in April to celebrate Queen’s Day, the annual carnival-like commemoration of the queen’s birthday, currently Queen Máxima, wife of King Willem-Alexander. Queen’s Day formerly was celebrated on April 30, the current king’s mother, but it now takes place on April 27, the king’s birthday.
Gay men in Amsterdam take particular pride in celebrating Queen’s Day, and the bartender said queens stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the streets of the gay areas. I narrowly missed the August celebration of Amsterdam Gay Pride, which included a canal parade. There was also a celebration of Leather Pride in October.
After the gay parties end, the masses of visitors to Amsterdam find plenty to do in the city known for its art and dedication to the preservation of history. Of particular interest to LGBT visitors is the Homomonument, a memorial to people who have experienced persecution due their sexual orientation, specifically those killed by the Nazis.
Unveiled in 1987, the monument comprises three giant pink triangles of granite set into the ground forming a larger triangle visible from the Keizersgracht Canal. Every May 4 on Remembrance Day wreaths are placed on the memorial, and on May 5 on Liberation Day there is a street party there.
When Amsterdam showcased the Homomonument, it led to other nations and cities following suit, a trend began long ago. Amsterdam decriminalized homosexuality in 1811, a good century and a half before the U.S.
The first gay rights organization in Amsterdam, the Center for Culture and Leisure, was founded in 1946. An equal rights law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was enacted in 1993, and in 2001 The Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
Clearly, Amsterdam is so much more than the freewheeling city of tolerance in regard to drink, drugs and sex that we have all come to think of it as. It should be on every LGBT person’s bucket list.
I considered my visit to Amsterdam one of the most enlightening experiences of my life, and I regretted leaving when I did to catch a train to Germany for a prearranged reunion. Once again, I left Amsterdam promising myself I would be back.
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