City Of Canals

Trip Start Aug 17, 2010
Trip End Sep 16, 2011

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Where I stayed
Thomas' Apartment

Flag of Netherlands  , Noord-Holland,
Saturday, May 14, 2011

Amsterdam – city of canals – and the canals make Amsterdam a very pretty city indeed ! The canals, figuratively as well as physically, define this city. And bicycles. Thousands of bicycles. Everywhere.

Weekends are fascinating - all that is needed is a sunny afternoon, to sit at one of the many cafes along the canal banks, sipping white wine and watching the parade of pedal boats, private craft and cruise barges sail up and down in complete chaos. In other cities, young guys out to impress cruise up and down city streets in hotted-up cars – in Amsterdam, they do this on the canals in their customised cruisers. The mix of no-idea tourists tootling around in hire boats with the professional cruise barges makes for highly entertaining watching, horn blasts, yelling and all ! Jim christened one of our favourite spots "Pandemonium Corner" as we watched ever closer misses between watercraft turning from one canal to another. No water police in sight and apparently liberal laws relating to drink–boat driving added spice to the spectacle !

We took a canal cruise ourselves after a couple of weeks in Amsterdam, which we found added to the experience, as we could relate to the landmarks being pointed out as the boat sailed along. The perspective of the city from the canals was very interesting and different from walking along the canal banks, and of course, the brief loop out into the harbour gave us a great view back to the city. Of amusement were the number of bicycles hanging off the street racks, about to fall into the canals. Apparently a lot of bikes are lost to the waters !

There are 3 main canals of interest in Amsterdam in addition to the Amstel River, the fundamental waterway the city is built on – Keizersgracht (The Emperor's Canal), Prinsengracht (The Princes’s Canal) and Herengracht (The Gentleman’s Canal). Our cruise started at the railway station ( built on pontoons over the water ) went down to the Nieuwmarkt as far as the 7 bridges – a unique viewpoint where a series of 7 bridges across the Amstel River line up in parallel, so you look right down through them all. Turn into the Herengracht and cruise back to the station – with many of the posh dwellings built by the wealthy merchants in the day pointed out by the skipper – well, why do you think its called the Gentleman’s Canal !

Beware of the bicycle in Amsterdam – The Bicycle Is King ! The roads consist of a centerway for trams, a lane on each side for cars, a cycle lane on each side, and of course the pavement. Bicycles ride on any and all of these travelways at all times, and in anywhich direction, totally disregarding any traffic signals. And did I mention there are thousands of them ? And this is legal, or at least, tolerated by the police. Here we have a good example of the pragmatism of the Dutch. Amsterdam is a small, cramped city ( well, its all reclaimed land using multiple canals in a concentric pattern as drainage, so what do you expect ) with a lot of people – especially on the weekends when it appears the entire youth population of the UK descend on it. These people need to move around – and what better way than a flow of 2 wheeled pedal bikes. Its all about the traffic flow and avoiding gridlock. Hence the use of any available space to ride through on ! Scooters and strange little micro-mini cars also appear to be tolerated to behave like bicycles. This leaves the roads proper for the delivery vehicles, taxies and anyone crazy enough to consider driving in Amsterdam. It all seems to work, but is totally bewildering and somewhat stressful for the visitor. Look both ways before taking a step people !

I believe the road law in Amsterdam is that if a car hits a bicycle, it’s the car driver’s fault, regardless. Full stop. Dutch pragmatism again – man in steel armour versus man on 2 frail wheels. We did hire bicycles one day and immediately noticed the different in driver behavior – total tolerance and giving way without hesitation. Wow. Imagine if the law in Australia was changed – eh !

Where did we go on our bicycles ? To the Woods ! or rather Amsterdamse Bos. Yes, we discovered Amsterdam has a natural forested park nearby, easy cycling distance, and we headed out to discover a delightful park of winding laneways through overhanging trees. Small lakes dot the park, linked up by canals ( of course ) offering the casual boater small exploring adventures. We found the Bos late in our visit, but would definitely have gone back for a picnic and possible row on a warm sunny afternoon.

Time for some culture. Amsterdam is home to some fantastic museums, and on our list were the Rijksmuseum and The Van Gogh. Both are must sees for any visit. The Rijksmuseum is full of classic examples of the golden age of Holland as well as a really interesting history about the rise of Holland The masterpiece of the “Riks” is the famous 'NightWatch’ by Rembrandt, and it truly is superb. The Van Gogh also shows the history of Holland during Van Gogh’s life as it displays many works by Van Gogh contemporaries as well as Old Masters he was influenced by. It was wonderful seeing how his work evolved even if the end result wasn’t too good for Van Gogh.

One of the advantages of spending 3 weeks in Amsterdam is that it gave us time to see some of the sights outside the city. Jim and I particularly wanted to see one of the highlights of a spring visit to Holland - the Tulip Festival. Held just outside the city at the famous Keukenhof gardens, these gardens are open only for 6 weeks in spring to display over 3 million tulips grown specially each year. Unfortunately the unseasonably warm weather we have enjoyed so far, was not enjoyed by the Tulips and they had all but gone some weeks before we arrived in the country. The Keukenhof was still open and still very beautiful, but sadly lacking in the Tulip overload we had been expecting…. Ah well next time !

A more successful day trip was out to the famous Alkmaar cheese markets. Held in the same manner since the 1300’s, this traditional market was a fabulous spectacle. The quality of the cheese is judged by a panel of selectors, who determine what price by weight the cheese should be set at. Then all the cheeses are weighed by the guild to determine how much the farmer should be paid in total. The weighing of the cheese wheels, each more than 15kg, is done in slings by guild members wearing different coloured outfits and hats. There was lots of singing and running and moving of cheese… it didn’t make a whole of sense to us but it was fascinating to watch.

Holland is the land of windmills, but we really hadn’t seen any, and certainly none working. We decided to take a trip out to Zaanse Schans. Set on a large bend of the River Zaan, the old town has been preserved as when it was the heart of Holland’s industrial revolution. More than a thousand windmills ran alongside the river banks, now only about 11 are left. They were very beautiful and fascinating to watch, as these windmills have been retained in working order, and are open to the public for inspection. We visited the “paint” windmill, which was setup to grind components for different types of paint, such as chalk and ochre. There was a good stiff breeze up, and the heavy grindstones were being driven around at a good rate, speeding up and slowing down as the wind gusted and settled. The windmill actually consisted of 3 floors, and you could climb up and see how the grindstones were driven by the wooden gearing and finally off the windmill shaft itself. Needless to say, Lauren had to drag an absorbed Jim out of there, or he would still be pouring over the mechanics of it all ! The little windmill village had a cheese factory and crafts area, and spoiling ourselves with a bagette lunch at one of the cafes, we enjoyed a pleasant day wandering around Zaanse Schans.

One of the key features of a contemporary city we have noticed on our travels is the presence of green space for people to escape the hustle and bustle – i.e. a big park, and Amsterdam is no exception with the lovely Vondelpark. Set just on the border of the old city, the Vondelpark ( translates as “People’s Park” ) offers ornamental lakes, small wetlands, shady trees and lawn explored by a network of small paths linking off a ring road. Jogging, walking, cycling, rollerblading, musical instrument playing – all forms of recreation are encouraged, and with performance spaces provided as well, the Vondelpark provides a central place to refresh and revitalize after the demands of the city. In an effort to maintain the physical fitness we had built-up from our ski season in Are, we took advantage of the park to work on our jogging – putting in 2 laps of the park up to 3 times a week – that’s 6.5km x 3 per week, and yes – Lauren was running all the way, no stopping at all ! We also enjoyed a few lazy days in the park too, wandering around and relaxing on the grass next to the fountains in the lakes. Very nice indeed.

We mentioned cruising down the Herengracht and observing all the fancy houses. One of these houses has been recently opened-up as a museum – the Canal House, aiming to present the history and development of Amsterdam, and we decided to check it out. The “house” was more like a mansion, with magnificent reception rooms on the ground floor, high high ceilings, sumptuously papered walls, imposing fireplaces and large works on art on the walls. A great marble staircase wound its way up – clearly the rich merchants of the day had a statement to make. The museum was organized as a series of 5 rooms that we were guided through. Each room offered an audio / visual presentation using models of the city as it developed. The exhibits were cleverly designed, and included a replica giant dolls house – which were a popular hobby for the ladies of the time and involved a great deal of craft-skill as the rooms in the doll’s house were faithfully reproduced with actual scaled-down fittings, furnishings, crockery, etc. We also learnt how the city was expanded, using thousands of wooden piles driven into excavated canal beds, before the waters were let back in. An impressive construction effort – driven by a desperate need to accommodate an expanding commercial and residential population – that’s Amsterdam for you !

Where we were staying – Thomas’ fantastic loft apartment – was well located in the Oud West district, giving us easy access walking access to all areas of Amsterdam. Thomas had left a card set of walks around the city ( similar to the card sets for Bars, Cafes, etc ) and we resolved to try and complete as many as we could ! ( Also good for travelers on back-packer budgets ! ). There were a short set that took us around our immediate neighbourhood which served to familiarize ourselves; themed walks such as one that took us around where all the museums are located; or precincts such as the Jewish quarter. We ended-up doing a long long walk around the new port area – Amsterdam’s equivalent of the Docklands in Melbourne, which was interesting from the perspective of appreciating how the Dutch had integrated restored historical port buildings ( such as warehouses ) with the new residential developments.

Another long long walk was one of the last we did – to visit the 2 remaining windmills in the Amsterdam city itself. We walked through the Jordaan and continued on past increasingly residential areas to find a poor old dilapidated windmill, which had clearly seen better days. Until recently this windmill had been a working saw mill – but it looked like economic reality had hit, and the windmill was partially wrapped-up in tarpaulins, and the surrounding workshops deteriorating in the weather. Turning around, we then walked all the way back and onward past where we had come back from our port walk to find the 2nd windmill alive and well – fully restored and maintained, attached to a micro-brewery, offering us well-earned refreshment after all the walking. This windmill (though now a private residence !) was open for visits on the weekend, and also “turned-on” once a month for the entertainment of tourists.  A welcome turn-around in circumstance from its poor cousin on the other side of the city.

Yes, and for those who are wondering, there was also a walk through Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District, which we undertook on a Friday night, all keyed-up over being daring and feeling naughty. In reality, we found the Red Light District to be somewhat underwhelming – maybe in the past it lived up to its reputation, but today, it just struck us as an expanded version of Melbourne’s King St – down at heal tawdriness, full of over-excited young drunk guys on Bucks Nights. The city council has been clamping down on the infamous “windows” so even that special distinction of Amsterdam has been dimmed. Not worth it to be honest, and we quickly moved on out to the more gentile environment of the Brown Cafes.

Brown Cafes are what Amsterdam has instead of pubs. Named “Brown” after the typical brown stonework and wood used in their construction , the Brown Cafes are snug little venues, with a small bar and lots of little tables that you sit at while imbibing small glasses of beer. The atmosphere is different from a pub, as firstly, there is only room for 2 or 3 people to prop-up the bar, and so secondarily, people tend to huddle around the little tables in deep conversation, elbows bumping each other. It’s a more intimate environment, which is good if you are there with a small group of friends, but not so good if you want to meet people, which is what a more traditional pub does tend support, with its more open plan.

We really enjoyed our stay in Amsterdam and it was wonderful to spend a decent bit of time there. It gave us a great feel of how the locals live. Holland is famous for many things, one of them being cheese. Before we headed off we decided to sample this reputation for ourselves and indulge in a day of cheese ! After breakfast – of cream cheese on toast of course – we headed off to a master cheese class and tasting. This was wonderful and really informative, even if Jim and I could not guess the ages of the cheese correctly ! After a hard day in school it was lunch by the canal and a bagette (blue cheese for Jim, goats cheese for Lauren). Just time to head to one of the many artistan cheese shops to get some advice and suggestions to make up our cheese board for dinner….ummmmm.  A wonderful end to round out a really wonderful stay in Amsterdam.
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Alex McCall on

It's sunny and you sat near a river/canal with wine...does it get any better than that. Enjoy!

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