Amsterdam is not a city founded by Rome; Rome wanted nothing to do with those unhealthy, marshy lands. It wasn’t until 1200 AD that a small fishing village was built around a castle on a dam at the mouth of the Amstel river, called “Amstellredamme” – translation, dyke (dam) on the Amstel. With time it was a city built entirely by intelligent town planners working with rich traders. In the 1600’s, during the Dutch Golden Age, local merchants established the Dutch East India Company, which became the strongest trading organization in the world. At its height it had 150 ships sailing the oceans escorted by 40 warships and an army of 10,000 men. Amsterdam became the leading port in the world (it’s still Europe’s fifth largest), and its riches led to greatness It supported artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope here, and Boerhaave founded clinical teaching and the modern academic hospital. Its diamond cutters became world famous. Amsterdam’s decline started in the 1700’s following wars with the other major sea power, England, and continued with Napoleon’s conquest, the World Wars, and Nazi occupation.
Today Amsterdam is known for its multi-cultural tolerance – including it’s early embrace of marijuana in coffee houses and it’s red-light district. It has more than 60 miles of delightful canals that divide the city into about 90 islands linked by more than 1000 bridges, giving it some resemblance to Venice. We’re here mostly for the museums, but first a peek at the city.
One of the first things to notice in this city is that bicycles and bicyclists are everywhere; everyone seems to commute by bike. If bikes aren’t zinging past you, they’re parked in
row after row or head to toe on every available street or bridge. Cars are outnumbered and do not rule the road; bikes do. When biking in the US, I warily watch what a car is going to do, ready to react. Here it’s the other way around; cars warily watch the bikers, who do just about anything they want. And I must say, pedestrians also have to be wary about bicyclists; there’s definitely a pecking order, with bicyclists at the top. Consider crossing the street – OK, jaywalking really, but it’s a common event. Between the sidewalk and the road is a bike lane. So you look down the road to see if a car is coming – but wait! You’d better look down the bike path first, because there’s a lot more bike traffic and you’ll be flattened in an instant! So you wait for the bike lane to clear, recheck the road, and start across the road. HOWEVER, before getting off the road to the other side, there’s a bike lane to cross, with a lot of bike traffic. So you stand in the road waiting for the bike traffic to clear so you can dash to the sidewalk. Definitely trickier.
A distinctive feature of Amsterdam is its many buildings from the 1600’s. During the height of the Dutch Golden Age, numerous canals were dug around Amsterdam for defense and transport purposes, and many wealthy merchants had new houses built along these canals. These houses were generally very narrow with ornamental façades that
extolled the owner’s status. In Amsterdam, stepped gables were a popular flourish. These houses were both home and workplace, with attic and basement spaces to store goods like cotton or cocoa. Hooks were affixed to the top of the narrow houses to hoist furniture and
goods up and through the windows, a tradition still employed today. The buildings of Amsterdam are also often decorated with art, both old and contemporary.
OK, the comparison with Venice was a stretch, but still the many canals and bridges bestow on this city a delightfully pleasant and scenic tranquility, illustrated below. That
last picture shows the Magere Brug drawbridge spanning the Amstel. It’s the last of what were once hundreds of wooden bridges crossing the canals; its mechanisms are still worked by hand.
Let me show you some of Amsterdam’s more famous buildings, like the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church. Of course there is an Oude (old) Kerk that was a small chapel in 1306, undergoing many alterations until its final form in the 1500’s, shown here (now used for non-religious purposes). The Oude Kerk became too small to serve the expanding Amsterdam, so a new basilica was started about 1400, dividing Amsterdam into 2 parishes – and subsequently centuries of competition. The Nieuwe Kerk was damaged by fires in 1452 and restored to its final late Gothic structure, shown in the pictures below.
The interior of the Nieuwe Kerk is lit by 75 windows, a few shown here.
Nearby is the Royal Palace, originally built in the mid 1600’s as a town hall in keeping
with the power and prestige of Europe’s commercial capital (it required 13,659 piles in the marshy ground to support it). When completed it was the largest and most expensive town hall in Europe. In the 1800’s, Napoleon’s brother crowned himself King of the Netherlands and transformed the building into a royal residence.
Amsterdam’s Central Station is not really old – it was built in the late 1800’s – but it is gorgeous. Built on 3 artificial islands facing the port, and 8,687 piles, this huge building
had to be a challenge to build. Pictures of the exterior are shown above; the interior is no less impressive, examples shown below.
Even the boarding area is attractive, particularly the metal art.
Well, there’s certainly a lot more to see, such as this basilica (Church of St Nicholas) – and let’s not forget the red-light district (where photos are not encouraged) – but let’s close this post with a quick look at Amsterdam’s ambiance, which is quite delightful. The ubiquitous canals and bridges of this large city divide it into domains that give it a small-town feel that’s palpable. And yes, there are touristy shops around – flowers, bulbs, china, wooden shoes – but they feel like part of the town rather than a tourist mecca. I hope the pictures below give you that feel.
Ah, humor me for one last topic before closing this post. The (very liberal) Amsterdam does not shy from using the (poorly clothed) human form in its advertising, which to this American is always a bit shocking, followed by my introspective amusement at my being shocked, followed by my appreciation of the often clever tongue-in-cheek thought behind
the advertisement. For example, the window advertisement in the first picture above, advertising stylish men’s clothes, is a clear reference to classical art showing men that are – ah – sweeping women off their feet (I’ve added an example of classical art in the next picture). I can’t imagine the outcry in the US with such advertising, but I do think there’s a sly cleverness to be enjoyed.
We enjoyed Amsterdam the city, but the real reason to visit is its museums. Next post – the Rijksmuseum.