Amsterdam began as a medieval fishing village at the mouth of the Amstel River and is now the capital of the Netherlands – and one of Europe’s most smoker-friendly cities. Its unique shape, the half moon of the canal ring, was created in the 17th century when Amsterdam was noted (as it still is) for its freedom of expression. It was at this time when the city first became an important haven for the persecuted, such as Huguenots and other dissenters who all settled there, and prospered.

Present-day Amsterdam is one of Europe’s leading tourist magnets – famous, some would say notorious, for its open-mindedness about prostitution and the soft drugs on sale in some of its coffee shops but there’s far more to this easygoing city than sex and marihuana. Such as its tulip market, Edam cheese rolling, Dutch gin, wooden clogs, delicious chocolate, fine tea, wholesome and fortifying food, seven windmills and 550,000 bicycles.

During an evening canal cruise, I asked the waiter if Amsterdam was still tolerant towards smokers. “The only thing we are intolerant of,” he replied while firing up my cigar and pouring me another drink, “is intolerance itself.”

In the Middle Ages, the people of the region built dikes along the coast of the Zuider Zee to protect the peat bogs from winter storms. In a sea wall of that kind, the mouth of a river is a weak spot. The medieval solution was to build a dam straight across the river with a culvert in it for drainage. Once the dike was there, the mouth of the river became the site of a fine harbour, first for fishermen and later for merchants who transhipped incoming goods (including tobacco) onto inland ships.

To create room for 17th century Amsterdam’s growing population, the city authorities decided to create three main semicircular canals with streets connecting them. The semicircle consisting of Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht has since characterised the city. They’re still the best places for a stroll while enjoying a fine smoke.

Until 1935, Amsterdam expanded in circles around the old city until a new conception of city planning was formulated, separating residential from business areas.

One of Europe’s friendliest cities, Amsterdam’s international air and sea ports are, unlike their counterparts in other less tolerant parts of the world, still smoker-friendly, as are all of its hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes.

Nicotine lovers can light up virtually everywhere, but the problem is with so much on offer, where do you begin to enjoy this friendly, vital city?

The Van Gogh Museum is a good place to start as Vincent enjoyed smoking an early briar pipe and no doubt the occasional early Dutch cigar. A corncob pipe can be seen in one of his post-Impressionist paintings. Also on view are works by his friends, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin (another smoker) and Manet. Like most museums everywhere, it’s not advisable to light up a cigar while viewing the exhibits but you can smoke in the café, or on the stepsoutside.

The Rijksmuseum is a shrine to Rembrandt, one of the greatest artists of all time (and yet another smoker) and other famous Dutch artists and should not be missed.

There are another 38 museums to potter around, and a total of about 225 stages if you prefer to sit back and enjoy a night at the theatre, concert hall or jazz club. They’re all smoker-friendly although generally you shouldn’t light up in theatre auditoriums as the tobacco haze may spoil the view for other members of the audience behind you.

In the heart of historic Amsterdam are several traditional tobacco shops – the most renowned of which is probably PGC Hajenius (Rokin 92, 1012 KZ Amsterdam. Tel: 00 31 209 6237494). Founded in 1826, the shop has been transformed over the past year from an old-fashioned, almost oppressive environment, into a spacious haven for cigar aficionados.

A few steps from its impressive Humidor room takes you to a large curved counter displaying hundreds of the world’s finest cigars, accompanied by tasting notes. The library on the gallery houses over 500 books on cigars and tobacco, freely available for customers to browse through at one of the reading tables. Easy chairs are provided if you want to relax with a coffee (or something stronger) while enjoying your favourite cigar and there’s even a private Heerenkamer (gentlemen’s room) for smoker-friendly meetings with friends and business acquaintances.

Or there’s the Cigar Lounge, open to residents and non-residents in the Amstel Hotel (a good reason to stay there) at Professor Tulpplein 1, 1018 GX Amsterdam.

Amsterdam’s Pipe Museum shop (Prinsengracht 488, 1017 KH Amsterdam. Tel: 00 31 20 421779) is open from Wednesday-Saturday, midday – 6pm. “Every good smoker of pipes and cigars may light up,” said curator, Don Duco, “but cigarette smokers are not encouraged!”

The museum first opened in 1969 in Leiden and about three years ago moved to the city centre. Part of its impressive collection of 4-500 modern and antique pipes are on display in the shop and the rebuilt museum is expected to open by August 1998.

Half a century earlier, from July 1942, the Frank and Van Daan families, both Jewish, were forced to live in hiding from the Gestapo in the unoccupied offices of the company run by Mr Frank. It was during this period that his young daughter, Anna, began to write her personal diary. On August 4, 1944, they were all arrested and deported. Only Anna’s father survived; he found the diary, published it and the book became a worldwide best seller.

Which is reason enough to visit the Ann Frank Museum at No.263 Prisengracht where you should refrain from smoking out of respect for the dead. And ponder on the growing worldwide phenomenon of anti-smoking fascism that is already forcing California’s smokers to hide away in their own homes.

In Europe, at least, there’s still hope for the oppressed smoker. The great thing about the Dutch capital is that it allows you the freedom to behave as you please in an atmosphere of mutual respect. All you have to do to blend in with the local population is to relax and be yourself.

And smoke to your heart’s content.

© Copyright James Leavey, 1998. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.