Published in From The Bridge, issue 11, Autumn 2007.
Amsterdam is an enigma, with dollhouse-like houses, cobblestone streets and pretty bridges and canals within metres of cannabis cafes, squatter art and a flourishing red light district. Which makes it all the more interesting for travellers on one of the many river cruises that make the capital of The Netherlands their port of call.
The cruises dock within walking distance of the city centre, in an area known as Eastern Docklands. This long-neglected area once thrived on shipping and when the ships were diverted elsewhere, became home to prostitutes, squatters and drug dealers. It’s a great example of urban rejuvenation.
Although the rows of apartments are spankingly modern, they have been designed to look like canal houses, while the bridges are quirky versions of the old ones elsewhere. Restaurants, cafes and landscaped communal areas add to the urban village feel.
It’s a short walk from here to Central Station, the Royal Palace and Dam Square, which is a great spot for people-watching and street entertainment. From here, rings of canals wind their way through the city. Follow the Herengracht (the grand canal) and the Prinsengracht to discover curious little shops, cafés, bars and quaint houses dating from the 17th century when Holland enjoyed its Golden Age thanks to its maritime success in the East Indies.
Walking is the best way to savour the lively atmosphere of this flat and compact city. Even the organized tours which cruise companies offer usually include a walking component. For a city with a population of just over 700,000, Amsterdam is flush with museums, art galleries, theatres and concert halls.
Bus tours take in some of the wider city area, including Rembrandt’s Mill on the Amstel River. The 1680 windmill offers a classic Dutch vignette but actually its only connection with Rembrandt is that it is near a statue of the artist.
For an insight into Rembrandt’s life, visit the house in Jodenbreestraat where he lived and painted for nearly 20 years until he went bankrupt in 1656. The neighbourhood has many of the city’s most interesting shops, galleries and “brown cafés”, so named because they are brown with age and cigarette smoke.
Rembrandt’s house doesn’t have any of his oil paintings. For those you’ll have to go to the Rijksmuseum, which also has an enormous collection of works by other Dutch masters, along with porcelain, silver, furniture and dollhouses. Around the corner, the Van Gogh Museum has the world’s biggest collection of Van Gogh paintings, including his famous works The Potato Eaters and The Sunflowers.
Almost all cruise itineraries include a boat trip on the city’s canals. Sadly the plastic roofs on some of the boats could do with some upgrading to improve visibility. Nevertheless, you’ll glean snippets of interesting information such as how dykes allow the city to be situated below sea level without being flooded.
You’ll pass houseboats galore, many of them with well-established gardens on deck, and you’ll have a greater appreciation of the fine patrician houses that were built during the Golden Age. One of the houses on the Prinsengracht is the Anne Frank House, a museum that is likely to move you more than any you have seen.
Anne Frank wrote her famous diary while her family hid in this house from the Nazis. She died in a concentration camp shortly before her 16th birthday. Climb the stairs behind the bookcase that concealed the secret annex, see Anne’s pictures of Ava Gardner and the English princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, on the walls and view the original diaries in a gallery downstairs.
For light relief, the flower market reaffirms the Dutch love of flowers, though it is a tourist haunt as much as it caters for locals. So too the Gasson diamond factory, where if you can’t afford to buy the precious gems, you can still be dazzled by their beauty and watch the diamond cutters and polishers at work.
Beer lovers will enjoy the Heineken Experience at the original Heineken brewery where you learn about the art of brewing, take a virtual ride through Amsterdam on a beer delivery truck and get to try some beers for yourself.
As well as being famous for their sweet treats such as poffertjes (little pancakes), the Dutch love their herring. Jonk’s herring cart, at Spui, is an Amsterdam institution. Rijstafel, a legacy of The Netherlands’ colonial rule in Indonesia, is an experience not to be missed. Countless restaurants in Amsterdam offer the banquet of Indonesian dishes but two worth looking out for are Idrapura and Kantjil.
One of Amsterdam’s most talked about restaurants is in the Eastern Docklands, close to where your cruise ship docks. Fifteen, an offshoot of Jamie Oliver’s London flagship, is in a huge warehouse on the waterfront, with a trattoria next door offering a cheaper version.
One striking building to look out for while you are strolling around this area is NEMO, the giant green National Centre for Science and Technology, shaped like the bow of a ship. It has a rooftop terrace where the locals go sunbaking. And in a country where it drizzles more often than it is sunny, that’s an enigma too.
© Christine Salins