Today Amsterdam looks like it did in the 1600s, on old Dutch paintings – clouds blown past high gabled houses, churches, and bridges reflected in quiet canals. How many stories the city can tell, like aged seaman who is full of tales, that are not always proper in a good society…
“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth, it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”
― John Green
The Central Station
As many travelers before, we start the walk at the Central Station that resembles art museum. It sits at what was the harbor entrance, where gally sailors debarked from the ships and were met by ladies with red lanterns. Behind us lies the Golden Age Amsterdam quarters – the wealthiest place on earth. Goods came here from all around the world – spices and tea, German beer and wine, Chinese silk and porcelain, African slaves, South American sugar.
The Royal Palace (1650)
Looking around and upon colorful building facades, we got to the Dam Square. The city was born right here in about the year 1250. Where once land trade routes crossed, now stays the Royal Palace that is, strictly speaking not a palace and not a royal. In medieval times it was City Hall where city council and mayor met. The building became knows as Royal Palas only after Napoleon invasion.
The New Church (De Nieuwe Kerk)
On the right from the palace stands The New Church. Actually, it is 600 years old and only 100 years “younger” than the Old Church in the Red Lights District.
In this church, Dutch monarchs got married and “inaugurated”. I cannot say crowned because they never wear crowns.
Despite Protestant’s beliefs that music tempts people to thoughts of carnal desire, De Nieuwe Kerk has two organs. The main and older organ from 1655 beautifully covered in figures playing music. The relief under the organ includes playing angels.
De Papegaai Hidden Church
We retraced our steps back to Dam Square and proceeded along Kalverstraat with thousand shops to the hidden Catholic church – De Papegaai Hidden Church or Petrus and Paulus Kerk. The church got its name after carved parrot over the entrance (it is still there, to the left of the gable). Catholics were able to worship there even during prohibition times.
Few more blocks and we were in front of the modest gate leading to the tranquil courtyard, framed by houses and two churches – Begijnhof. Since 1346 it was a shelter for the community of Beguines, women who hid from the outside world to worship God.
Nothing left of the original dwellings. The city oldest surviving house Het Houten Huis – simple black wooden building – dates from 1477. In front of it stays statue of one of the sisters. The last Beguines died in 1971 but the quiet place still provides accommodation to single women.
From this courtyard, after praying in Englese Kerk (English Reformed Church) Pilgrims boarded Mayflower and left for the New World.
We left Begijnhof through the unmarked doorway that looked like an entrance to somebody’s home and continued down Kalverstraat until it hits Muntplein square. There river Amstel and the Singel canal meet. At the center of the square stands Mint Tower which marked the end of the medieval city. Waiting in the middle of the busy intersection it was hard to imagine that beyond this point were only marshy fields and farms.
After the old tower went up in flames, it was rebuilt in 1620. Some tourists like to take a picture when the tower clock shows 4:20pm. Why this number is significant? It considered that national holiday for marijuana is on April 20 and in earlier days people used to buy a weed under the tower.
Along Singel canal floats unique and the only floating market in existence – Flower Market or Bloemenmarkt – flower shops placed on the top of barges.
Only there we saw the famous tulip flowers, the blooming season had already passed.
We were tempted by great discount on cannabis plant. I thought they would add some flavor to our garden!
Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum
After crossing few bridges, we reached Rijksmuseum – Gothic-styled red-brick building that reminds Central Station, probably because they both were built at the end of 19 century.
Online tickets bought upfront allowed us to immerse in the world of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen without waiting in long lines. Alex glued to Rembrandt’s Night Watch in the Gallery of Honors. He checked every single detail on enormous painting. I glided from room to room to check other Golden Age painters. I always awed by beautiful light on old Dutch masters canvas and thought it was an artistic vision but it is the natural shine of the magnificent city.
Behind Rijksmuseum is Van Gogh Museum with longest lines to enter if one does not have online tickets. Alas, no photos available inside, so the camera goes in the bag. We dived into the passioned vision of another great Dutch painter.
It was completely different impressions and feelings than in Rijksmuseum. Nobody can say it better than the master himself:
“Those that prefer to see the peasants in their Sanday-best may do as they like. I personally am convinced I get better results by painting them in their roughness… If a peasant picture smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam – all right, that’s healthy.”
―Vincent van Gogh
How many canals are in Amsterdam? More then 160, plenty to get lost if you decide to take a boat yourself instead of a tour. I had no idea there were so many of them – more than in Venice!
We took an open-topped canal cruise near to The Central Station to get the quintessential view of the city. It was blissful to just sit and let the colorful gabled houses slide by as our captain pointed out interesting landmarks.
The three main large canals – Gentleman’s (Herengracht), Emperor’s (Keizersgracht), and Prince’s (Prinsengracht) – carve out the concentric waterways in the city. Keizersgracht canal was named after Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. We passed houses where Heinrich Schliemann worked for the last three years, Daniel Fahrenheit lived, and Peter the Great stopped during his first visit to Amsterdam.
Amsterdam’s canals are home to around 2500 houseboats. They span from very simple looking boats to brightly painted, laden with colorful flowers and cozy beach chairs. Next time I will rent the boat instead of a hotel.
Reguliersgracht is one of the most striking and serene canals in the center. It has one of the best views – a line-up of seven arched, brick bridges. Not sure I captured them all in this shot…
I was wondering how people manage to park cars in the narrow pathway along canals. Captain told us that on average 35 cars fall in every year. In my opinion, it is the very low number. There’s a special squad of four divers on call day and night to deal with vehicles taking a swim.
The boat took us back to the Central Station, the lazy time was over and we set off for another walk.
The Old Church (Oude Kerk), the Red Light District
In the middle of the unholy Red Light District stays the tallest city church – The Old Church, that was established around 1300. As many years ago it’s steeple visible from far away. Nowadays it is not home waymark for tired sailors, it points tourist to sex shops, cannabis joints, and “ladies” in windows. We visited the area in the morning but still saw few girls in a negligee looking disapprovingly on camera in my hands.
Around the right side of Oude Kerk stays small statue dedicated to the Unknown Prostitute, nicknamed Belle. It honors “sex workers around the world”.
The church inside is dark, cold and bare, it was stripped of all Catholic icons, altars and statues during religious wars in 16 century. Even organ was removed, but congregation soon discovered that they cannot follow the tunes and it was reinstated.
Among 2500 gravestones on the floor, we found the grave of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia. There are always flowers lying left by an admirer passing by.
The church quire contains stalls known as Misericords that date back to 1480. They also called mercy seats and helped clergyman who not supposed to sit for the duration of long services to cheat a little. On the back of each of the seats, there are humorous and profane carvings. Subjects can vary widely such as medieval folklore, Dutch proverbs or folk myths.
Jordaan, the Bohemian Neighbourhood
Not far from Amsterdam’s city center lies quiet Jordaan district. Charming narrow streets with flower-lined houses give way to picturesque canals. We strolled away from the Red Light District and crossed Sigel canal by Torensluis Bridge. Even though we did not reach Jordaan yet, but atmosphere already seems more Golden Age than the 21-st century.
Passing beer bikes with jolly companies somewhat disrupt the impression. Nothing can beat tapping your own cold beers and be checking the best hotspots of the city. 🙂
We voted for coffee and the best fried-cheese sandwiches and gazed at different gables shapes and sizes. I almost was run over by bicycles when stopped on the reddish pavement to make the picture; that is for bikes only.
The next canal was Herengracht. It is named after “heren”, the wealthy city merchants whose mansions lined the water. They were Dutch aristocracy, similar to the blue-blooded class in England.
Standing on the bridge through this small tranquil canal in the middle of Jordaan, it is hard to believe that it is in Amsterdam also.
Jordaan illustrates the real Dutch way of life, I certainly want to come back there and probably stay in one of the houses. We continued walking on Eerste Leliedwarsstraat, admired from the distance Westerkerk church with Habsburg crown on the top of the blue spire.
We ended walk in St. Andrew Courtyard, miniature garden surrounded by tiny residences. It felt like we were inside of one the Vermeer’s paintings.
This was the end of our three days in Amsterdam, and we moved to Leiden for more adventures.