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On Your Bike…

On Your Bike…

And Loving Every Bit Of The Amsterdam Cigar Scene

Our intrepid Englishman abroad, NICK HAMMOND, takes a stroll around the markets, waterways – and cigar parlors – of old Amsterdam…

I LOVE Amsterdam.

There’s a great vibe to the place; a positive and can-do atmosphere that seems to reward what the Brits would call a bit of gumption, application and bloody hard work.

There are millions of bikes – it’s hard to get used to how many there are, to be honest, and on this glorious late Summer morning, I nearly get mowed down several times. Remember, the little paths lined off at the side of the road are for cyclists and not preoccupied British cigar lovers!

This Sunday morning, I’ve awoken to take a stroll through the centre of town. Here, behind the Van Gogh museum on Van Baerlestraat, an excellent market is coming alive. Every other stall is some sort of street food (Wurzt, Belgian waffles, fresh frites, oysters on the shell, ‘the best pulled pork you’ve ever eaten’) and rich, nostril-twitching scents swirl on the blustery breeze that also disturbs the leaves which have fallen from the plane trees surrounding the adjacent park.

I take my time to pick through the selection of handcrafts, jewelry and wooden curios, for I can afford to be blasé – just over the street are two cracking cigar shops awaiting my attention.

The first is run by my friend Sasja van Horssen. He has that delightful mix of temperament so many ambitious young Dutch seem to possess – stubborn, straight talking, ever so slightly barmy and great fun to be around. Sasja also makes things happen.

An outspoken advocate of New World cigars – in particular, those made in Nicaragua – van Horssen has done something remarkable here in the Netherlands. He has opened the world’s first Nicaraguan-only cigar store – called Cigaragua. And it’s fantastic.

After a couple of fresh oysters sprinkled with nothing other than a little lemon juice and a paper wedge of hot, salty frites, I’m ready for action. I stride purposefully across the road – narrowly avoiding being flattened by a flotilla of charging bicyclists – and into the store.

The ground floor welcomes you with a counter, cool signage, and scores of the excellent Cigaragua photobook that van Horssen commissioned for the store’s opening. The sampling lounge – down a few suicidally steep steps – is below you. And Valhalla lies waiting above.

You won’t ever have seen so many dark, oily Nicaraguan cigars anywhere under the same roof before. There are thousands here in this glassfronted crypt, where tendrils of cooling condensed air escape periodically from the snaking coil of ventilation tubes which line the ceiling.

Joya de Nicaragua, Drew Estate, Nick Perdomo, Tatuaje, Padron, Alec Bradley, Oliva – these and many, many more. It’s hard to make a choice, to be honest.

But I do, eventually – it’s a Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970 Gran Reserva in Belicoso – and I make my way down to meet Sasja and store manager Rod for a much-needed coffee. The sampling room is large and comfortable, with excellent coffee. There’s great Wi-Fi and if you want to work, chat or simply chill out, the atmosphere here is relaxed and welcoming. You’re just as likely to find a shorts-wearing hippy as you are to find a sharp-suited businessman. That’s Amsterdam for you.

The Joya de Nic Antaño Gran Reserva is a new take on an old cigar – the company’s best-selling US cigar, incidentally. The Gran Reserva includes fillers aged up to five years and is an incredibly smooth, bold smoke. Maybe a punchy start to the day, but after food and with good strong coffee, it works for me.

Business concluded at Cigaragua, I take the matter of about 50 steps up the road and enter the Davidoff store. It’s compact, beautifully designed, and includes an upstairs seating area in front of a huge glass window which allows for extreme comfort while indulging in great people watching. I choose a Davidoff Nicaragua Short Corona – one of my favourite small cigars – and I chat to Jasmina Ramic who works here and also helps run the Smoqueens – the Amsterdam ladies’ cigar club. There’s a small, but passionate membership who meet for good times, cocktails, canapes and the chance to smoke something delicious.

You can’t come to Amsterdam without noticing the canals and to clear my head, I take a walk along and around this beguiling maze of them. There are more than 100km of canals here, and around 1,500 bridges. I only visit a handful on my wanderings, but all are bustling with canal boat trips, tourists and of course bikes.

The café culture is alive and well here – couples and friends meet to share a coffee or glass of wine and soak up the atmosphere. In one of the art shops I stop to admire a striking painting of an African tribal girl – soon the young assistant and I are chatting about England and her visits there. They’re a friendly bunch on the whole, the Dutch.

I hop into a cab for the short ride to PGC Hajenius. This glorious building has been selling fine cigars since 1826 and much of the original ambiance remains – including some of the interior Italian marble, the chandeliers and leatherwork.

There’s also a fabulous little sampling room at the back of the store, which is galleried like a public library and with glorious high ceilings. I make myself comfortable in a corner with an espresso and a boxpressed Padron 1926.

There’s a clubbable atmosphere here, new entrants quick to raise a hand and say hi to those already indulging. I am intrigued by a couple of blind chaps who are led in by a friend, and welcome them to my table.

Despite some language difficulties – mine, not theirs, for they speak better English than I do Dutch – we spend the next hour or so chatting and comparing notes. It’s interesting to get the point of view of a blind cigar smoker, incidentally; their opinions and experiences are shuttered to purely the taste and smell of a cigar and they had some interesting insights for me. They smoked a pair of Cuban Ramon Allones Specially Selected – another favourite of mine – aided by their friend and myself with the occasional relight.

A couple of swigs of water and a powernap in the back of another taxi took me to my final destination of this wonderful day in Amsterdam. The Le Casa del Habano in Almere – 30 minutes or so outside the city – is a must-visit while you’re here.

Yuri Dijskstra and Olav Meijer are old school pals and they’ve been close all their lives. Now they’re also in business together. This beautiful La Casa in the little working suburb of Amsterdam is one of the best I’ve had the privilege to visit; wonderful selection of cigars, a very cool downstairs bar, complete with rare and aged whiskies, rums and Cognacs – and best of all, a killer vibe.

I strike up my Dutch Regional Edition cigar while Elvis does his stuff via the sound system. A couple of hours spent here is like being in your own episode of Cheers. Old friends swing by, make the acquaintance of new ones. There’s a game of pool, a smoke and a couple of drinks and they move on.

Darkness is falling as I slump into my cab for the drive back into the city. I’ve had a great day in Amsterdam. If you know where to look, it’s a paradise for cigar fans. And even without the cigar shops, it’s one of my favourite cities. So what’s stopping you? The bicycles are waiting.


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