Many traces of Rembrandt remain in Amsterdam. His favorite café, which is older than the USA, still exists today.
I visit the house in Amsterdam where Rembrandt lived between 1639 and 1658, from where the view of a tumbledown house and a canal remains almost unspoiled. A two-minute bike ride from his house in the city center is Cafe de Druif, his favorite watering hole. It is the city’s oldest café – and Ron, the bar manager, explains why so many of these old “brown” cafés are still around.
Café de Druif is a tiny, canalside “bruine kroeg” whose brown-stained wooden walls and tiled floors seem unchanged since it opened in 1631. Ron comes to the table to take my order, writing them down in a ledger and crossing them out when it is time to pay, a quaint ritual that many local pubs still use. A group of older men stand around the bar, enjoying each other’s company in the warm light of dusk – a merry scene any artist might love to capture.
The Dutch have a word for this scene: “gezellig”. It is impossible to translate but the closest English word is “cozy”. It can mean enjoying the company of friends but it is also applied to people-friendly spaces such as this pub, or even a city. Amsterdam is gezellig, industrial Rotterdam is not. “Brown Cafe’s like de Druif have survived the centuries unchanged and in large numbers, because they are the closest manifestation in the material world of the word gezellig”, says Ron.
Casks line the wall behind Rembrandt's favorite bar, testifying to its origins as a distillery (Likeurstokerij). “It started by making medicines from herbs dissolved in alcohol,” says Ron, pointing out the casks still bear ornate names such as “Frambozen” (raspberry) and “Gember” (ginger). This was the source of the jenever trade, which still thrives in various other local bars, such as Wynand Fockink, which has been sitting off Dam Square since 1679. The spirits here, with lovely names such as “Boswandeling” (a walk in the woods) are served in ice-cold shot glasses, full to the brim, that you bend down to sip from rather than trying to hold.
The connection with medicine continues in the city’s smallest pub, Café De Dokter, just off Kalverstraat, a busy pedestrianized shopping street. Jazz plays quietly in the background as Henny Elout, son-in-law of Jannie and Jan Beems whose family have run it for seven generations, serves me a drink. “A surgeon from a nearby hospital (now closed) set it up in 1798 as a meeting place for fellow doctors and students,” he says. “Then it served only white brandy but, in the 1800s, beer was introduced. There was no running water then, so people drank jenever and, later, beer.”