The next day dawned and a quick look out the window of the hotel room onto the fairly uninspiring aspect of a carpark and some office blocks indicated that the day was bright, although I knew it was going to be chilly enough. The hotel certainly was not chosen for it’s amazing vistas!
A leisurely wash and brush up and it was time to go out and explore the delights of Leiden. I had the whole day to myself as my friend would not be back from work until about 1900 and I had absolutely no clue about what there might be to see or do in the city. Frankly that did not worry me as it is the way I love to travel. I derive great delight in just ambling about fairly aimlessly until I stumble upon something vaguely interesting and by doing so I have no doubt that I miss so many of the “sights” in any given place but by way of a trade-off I end up discovering some amazing places that regular travellers probably would never find. It is a compromise I am quite willing to make and it has served me well thus far.
Armed with no map, guidebook or technological back-up which I cannot use anyway I took off in the direction of what I thought might be the centre of town and I think I found it. It was so stereotypically Dutch as to be almost a caricature of itself with canals, an absolutely huge and still working windmill and the imminent possibility of being knocked into oblivion by a lunatic on a bicycle about every 10 paces. I found a very tidy little square with a charming water feature down by what seems to be the main canal, you can see it on one of the images here.
It was still pretty early and I had walked past a number of cafe / bars that were evidently not open yet, always a source of huge sadness to me but just off the main square I glanced down a side street and saw what looked like a fairly ancient old gate there which looked like it bore investigation.
Walking down what I subsequently discovered to be Morstraat towards the gate I saw a little place called Cafe Rembrandt and thankfully it appeared to be open. The gate could wait!
Friends jokingly say to me that I can smell alcohol at 600 yards through concrete and I do not believe that for one minute but I will concede that I have an innate ability to sniff out a good bar or perhaps more correctly a bar that suits me. Generally, it tends to be the roughest place in town and my friends from VT will attest that this is what I do as I spoke of it there many times. I have had some wonderful experiences in places that people warned me not to even venture into and, touch wood, never come to grief yet. It must just be me.
I suspect that had all the other bars been open I would probably have walked past them anyway as they all looked a bit upmarket and as soon as I walked through the door of the Rembrandt I knew that this was “my” place and so it transpired over the next few days. I was greeted by the owner (actually the owner’s son but the de facto owner), a lovely guy called Tony, ordered a beer and sat down to watch the previous night’s German football on TV. Tony is a thoroughly nice man who speaks flawless English. I also used the in-house wifi to construct some pieces for TravBuddy, the website I was writing in at the time.
Rembrandt is by no means a “rough house” and after a scant couple of days there I was being greeted by the locals as a long-lost brother with handshakes or pats on the back as they entered and passed me. There was certainly no threat of violence or even unpleasantness and I do have a fairly well-defined sense of “situational awareness” as it was called in the Forces but means nothing more than keeping your eyes and ears open and knowing when to get out.
That kind of thing (handshakes etc.) pleases me immensely and is one of the major reasons I travel. Certainly, it is great to see wonderful, jaw-dropping sights / sites but I travel to meet people. I literally have friends all over the world through travelling and writing about it thereafter and that pleases me greatly. For a relatively uneducated man, I consider it to be a bit of an achievement.
The first thing I noticed was that it is still divided into a smoking room and a non-smoking room which is becoming such a rarity all over Europe by virtue of Federal States of E (aka EU) diktat as imported from the USA and as a smoker this was a great joy to me. I know smoking is a really stupid thing to do and I exhort anyone who may read this (especially younger people) who may be toying with the idea to forget it now. It is ruinous to your health not to mention your wallet and there is no merit in it whatsoever. I have been smoking for over 45 years now and will never quit, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks as they say.
There were large TV screens in both areas and I got the impression that Rembrandt was very much a “sports bar”. I subsequently found out that they field at least one darts team. It was pretty quiet just before lunch on a weekday in early April but there were one or two guys in there. In the several days I was there I only saw two women in the place and one of them was there meeting me! The other female I saw was there on the Friday afternoon when there is a card session going on which becomes raucous to say the least but never violent. My friend did not feel in the least threatened or intimidated so that is not a concern for the solo female traveller.
There is an excellent selection of bottled beers but I prefer draught and ordered a Heineken from the tap. I know that the Heineken brewery is literally a couple of miles up the road so I reckoned it should be in good order, and so it proved. I am generally not a fan of big international beer brands but it was the local brew so I reckoned I should.
I just felt instantly at home here and was engaged in conversation at various stages by different men who spoke English to varying degrees but even those with lesser facility in my mother tongue managed to have a reasonable interaction by dint of the international language of miming and six words which is something I have now got down to a bit of an artform.
Not that I ate there but Rembrandt offers a limited selection of bar snacks i.e. sandwiches, toasties and the like.
I was enquiring about the name as I had seen various references to Rembrandt on tourist information boards around the city and Tony informed me that the great painter, perhaps one of the most famous ever to have lived, had been born literally just round the corner on a street bordering the adjacent canal. As I say often and probably to the great annoyance of people who read my meagre offerings on travel related websites, “Every day is a schoolday” and I firmly believe that.
There is little more I can tell you about the Cafe Rembrandt. It is certainly not a tourist hangout, it is very much a locals pub frequented by working men in working clothes who are there to drink. It is friendly with well-kept beer and what else could you possibly want? It was just exactly my kind of place and I basically spent three days in there.
I was happy. I was back on the road, in my kind of bar and was literally finding it hard to keep a physical smile spreading across my face lest they think I was even madder than I actually am.
Cafe Rembrandt may certainly not be to everyone’s taste but if you like the same sort of places I do then it is well worth seeking out.
My friend had been in contact and I asked what she fancied eating that evening to which she replied that she would rather like a rijstaffel (literally rice table) which is an Indonesian concept of a big bowl of rice served with various small dishes and accompaniments. I do love them but they are generally not served for one person (I generally travel solo) so this was a great opportunity. There is a large Indonesian community in the Netherlands which harks back to the colonial days when it was the Dutch East Indies and very good authentic Indonesian food is available just about anywhere.
I asked Tony where the best place to go for rijstaffel was and he immediately recommended a place literally two minutes walk from the bar called the Asian Palace. It turned out to be an excellent recommendation as I knew it would be, being a great believer in the value of local knowledge. When my friend joined me and I told her I had sourced the best place around from a local she merely smiled and made some comment along the lines of, “I knew you would”. It’s what I do.
After a few beers it was time to eat so we made the short journey to the recommended location.
We arrived shortly after nine and the place was totally empty. My friend told me later that the Dutch seem to like to dine early in the evening unlike Mediterranean countries where nobody considers going to a restaurant before about 2200. We actually went in the side door in Morstraat to what appears to be a small dining room and where the staff were all sitting about and were greeted in a most friendly fashion and quickly walked through to the main dining room by the obviously Asian waitress in semi-traditional dress.
Once seated and a bottle of wine ordered by my friend, who knows far more than me about it (frankly, there are amoeba on the floor of the Pacific Ocean who know more about wine than I do) we set about the fairly extensive menu.
Obviously, rijstaffel was what we were there for so that was called up and my friend decided on another main of crispy duck, which is a great favourite of mine as well. As for starters, we both opted for soup. I had the hot and sour and she had the chicken noodle, I believe it was called. I understand fully that hot and sour soup is very much a Chinese thing but the menu here offered dishes I would normally have associated with China, Indonesia and even Thailand and so hence the name ASIAN Palace, I suppose.
My soup was excellent and a very good example of the style with the sourness just balancing the heat perfectly. Then it was time for the mains and the crispy duck was an utter delight, cooked to perfection. It was not served with the Chinese or even thinner Vietnamese pancakes I am used to at home but it was beautiful just eaten “as is”.
As for the rijstaffel, well I do not know where to begin. I apologise in advance for the poor quality of the images accompanying this review but I really do not like firing off flash on my camera, even in a totally quiet place (we were literally the only customers). Even had it been David Bailey photography on my part it would scarcely do justice to the quality of the food depicted. Every one of the dishes served on what I always think of as a “thali” tray from my time in India was superb and with nothing overly hot to offend the Western palate. I actually like screechingly hot although my friend is not so keen but the dishes were all brilliantly and subtly spiced rather than merely overloaded with chilli.
We were offered coffee and / or dessert and, whilst the selection looked very good, neither of us had room so we paid the bill before attempting to walk a few of the calories.
I cannot remember the exact prices of everything but I do remember that the rijstaffel for two was €31:50 and my friend remarked that the wine was not overly expensive. It was just a tremendous end to what had been a great day.
After our meal we wandered off back to the hotel on a chilly but dry and pleasant night and so ended another day of my trip.
We still have a long way to go so stay tuned and spread the word.