Amsterdam A City Below Sea Level
“Built on 11 million wooden poles (houten palen) and more than 100 km of canals”…with open mouths we listened to our tour guide “Michael” enthusiastically informing us of how Amsterdam is a city built on a swamp. We chose to do a free walking tour on our first full day exploring the Dutch capital as a way of getting our bearings. Our guided tour started in front of the National Monument in Dam Square where a group of people quickly gathered around Michael, an American guy with an interesting hat and an orange umbrella with a sign saying “free walking tour”. We spent about 2 hrs following him around and learning a great deal about the history and other titbits about this intriguing city.
Many of Amsterdam’s buildings and structures are supported by 15 to 20 meter long wood poles that sink through the mud and are fixed in a sandy layer that is about 11 meters deep. The Central Station, for example is supported by about 9,000 wooden poles. Amsterdam, also known as the Venice of the North is about one meter below sea level, with the highest point in the city being about seventeen meters above sea level. But there are very few high points, making it a very flat city that is great for bicycles, and indeed bicycles rule supreme as the favourite mode of transport around the city. Crossing the road in Amsterdam is a major adventure, since you not only watch out for cars but also trams and in particular bicycles that come fast and furious from every direction.
Michael explained that there is less of a working mentality in Amsterdam; usually people work less hours than in the rest of Europe and there is plenty of part time work opportunities. The Dutch are warm, friendly, have a very open and tolerant view of things and life in general. I like the idea of working less and having a better work/life balance, I think I should consider a move to Holland very soon.
We followed our tour guide Michael through a small passageway into a small central green area surrounded by well maintained and pristine looking old houses. The Begijnhof, is a collection of houses that belong to members of a Catholic sisterhood founded in the 14th century. The sisters live here as nuns, but without the vows and with the right to return to a secular world.
Although no longer the small fishing village of centuries ago, Amsterdam does feel quite compact and intimate with low buildings, little squares and narrow cobbled streets. With so many canals there are also plenty of bridges, with an estimated 80 bridges just around the city centre and more than 1,200 bridges in all of Amsterdam. We certainly enjoyed crossing quite few of them whist stopping to admire the canal boats floating by. In fact wandering along the many canal’s is an essential part of any exploring itinerary. The Seventeenth Century canal ring area inside the Singelgracht became part of the UNESCO world heritage list in 2010.
The canal’s were created in the 17th century to protect Amsterdam from the rising sea levels. To float along the UNESCO protected canal belt in a guided boat tour is a must when visiting this city.
A canal cruise is a very relaxing way of seeing the city from a different perspective and I strongly recommend it. We chose a canal cruise that departures from the little marina in front of the Central Station, courtesy of our walking tour guide Michael who recommended it and provided us with a discount voucher. It was a medium size boat that also provided us with an audio guide that can be listened to in whatever language you choose from a selection menu. The boat floats by some of the main highlights of Amsterdam. We also saw some lovely house boats along the canals and learned that there are more than 2,500 house boats in Amsterdam occupied by residents, with some also available to rent. I did look into renting one for us, but I could not find a 2 bedroom one in our price range.
The Jordaan Area
We visited this neighbourhood after our scenic canal cruise and explored its maze like streets and got lost in a labyrinth of canals and little cobbled streets. Not far from the city centre, the Jordaan was once a working class district that was home to refugees, immigrants and struggling artists including the painter Rembrandt Van Rijn, who moved here because he could no longer afford the high rent in the city centre. The area was know for its poor living conditions with small houses that were crammed full with large families. The slum-like living conditions hit a very low point during World War II. After the war a proposal to destroy the area completely and build new apartment buildings was turned down by passionate residents who wanted to preserve the history and character of the area. A restoration project started in the 1970s with a lot of investment turning it into one of the most desirable and best loved neighbourhoods in the city.
In our wanderings we found a taste of Brazil, a little shop called Sweet Bob Amsterdam selling handmade ” brigadeiros” – a small chocolate sweet very typical of Brazil, although they have changed the recipe a little and spiced things up by adding some other interesting flavours to the original mostly chocolate one. We loved it and bought a box of a variety of flavours to take home.
Cheese is big business in the Netherlands , there is even a cheese museum in Amsterdam, but although we did not visit the museum we did indulge in sampling their cheese at one of the many “kaas” shops around the city where shelves are stuffed full with delicious cheeses such as gouda, geiterkaas, and maasdammer.
After a lot of wandering around we stopped for a rest, drinks and snacks at a Dutch Pub and ordered a selection of “Bitterballen”, deep fried crispy meatballs, although our choice was mostly vegetarian with flavours such as beetroot, spinach, etc., that went down a treat.
The end of our first full day in Amsterdam was fast approaching and the sun was setting as we walked towards “De wallen”, also know as the infamous “Red Light District (RLD)”. The oldest area in the city it is full of historic buildings, including a beautiful fourteen century Gothic old Church (Oude Kerk) .
The red-lit brothel windows leave nothing to the imagination. Prostitution is legal in Holland and since October 2000 window ladies of the night can openly advertise their trade. However, since 2007 the city is trying to shake off its hedonistic image and measures have been put in place to reduce the number of red-light windows.
Amsterdam is a city with the highest museum density in the world, so it is not surprising to find the Erotic Museum or the Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum here in the RLD. But we happily refrained from visiting and instead quick-stepped towards the tantalising cooking smells of the next door neighbourhood of China Town.
It was well past our bed time when we called it a night and caught a tram to our AirBnB stay in Javaplein. Our rented apartment was lovely and our host “Bart” could not have been more helpful, giving us all the maps and information we could possibly need for our memorable stay. He lived in the same building, on the apartment above ours and therefore it was easy to contact him if needed. The stairs up to our apartment were very narrow and steep and on our arrival in Amsterdam the day before, we were glad to have Bart helping us to carry our bags up to the first floor since the building did not have a lift, a common feature of the narrow houses of Amsterdam.
Saturday 8th of October 2016 and our last full day in the Dutch capital, Virginia and I stayed home and had a longer lay in followed by a leisurely breakfast, whilst Angelita and Juliano caught an early tram to the city centre. They had been booked on the 9:30 am slot at the Anne Frank’s House. We arranged that we would meet up with them later since both Virginia and I had already visited it on previous trips to Amsterdam. I in fact have visited it on two occasion’s; first time in 2007 with my friend Walkiria, our girly trip to Amsterdam was a special birthday celebration for her and then again in 2009 with my husband Brian, a getaway without our children who stayed with the grandparents in Scotland.
The annex at the Prinsengracht House, where Anne Frank hid with her parents, sister, and members of another Jewish family for two years in order to escape the Nazi’s prosecution during the second world war, has been well preserved and gives a grim glimpse into what life was like for them. Anne Frank wrote a detailed account into her diary of their everyday lives in the annex. As a 13 year old girl, Anne dreamt of being a writer, her dream made true by her father, who published her diary years later once the war had ended. I read her diary many years ago when I was a teenager living in Brazil, never imagining that one day I would visit the very house she so vividly described during her tragically short life.
Virginia and I met up with Angelita and Juliano at a nearby cafe later on in the morning and I we were not surprised to find Angelita in tears and so visibly moved by what she had just experienced inside Anne Frank’s house. I would recommend a visit to Anne Frank’s House to anyone coming to Amsterdam, just make sure you book your ticket on line in advance to avoid the long queues.
To cheer ourselves up we decided to check out one of our AirBnB host’s recommendation and go for a meal at the Pllek Cafe. We walked towards the North of Amsterdam Central Station to catch the short free GVB ferry ride across the water to the NDSM wharf, a former shipyard located on the banks of the River IJ. A very pleasant ferry ride and a chance to see some of the modern buildings and quirky architecture such as the buildings made of shipping containers that are found here in this post- industrial area.
The NDSM has blossomed into an enormous cultural and hip hotspot with a variety of bars and restaurants. Pllek has been constructed from old shipping containers, its interior has a maritime theme that makes the most of recycled materials. It is perfectly located with amazing river views. We absolutely loved the welcome and relaxed atmosphere, delicious food and being able to sit outside and enjoy the panoramic views.
With very full bellies we walked back to the ferry terminal and waited few minutes to catch another free ferry ride back to Amsterdam Central Station where it docks behind the station.
We thought of doing the Heineken Experience, but gave up after seeing the huge queue outside the museum. We opted instead to have a coffee at another outdoor cafe and finished our day chatting and reminiscing about our week that had started with 4 days in Paris (see previous post) and continued with the last 3 days in Amsterdam.
Early on the Sunday morning we retraced our journey by catching a train from Amsterdam Central Station to Paris Gare-Du -Nord and then onto London St. Pancras.
We arrived back in London later in the afternoon and got on the London Underground bound for my sister Virginia’s house. Although it was the end of our week in continental Europe as the chaperone sisters to our honeymoon couple, Angelita and Juliano, the adventure continued as I drove them home with me to Dorset for another week of exploring and sightseeing.
Have you been to Amsterdam? What were the highlights for you?