|Text by AFDHEL AZIZ|
Photographs courtesy of the
AMSTERDAM TOURIST BOARD
|The Skinny Bridge, seen here at night, is one of the famous wooden drawbridges in Amsterdam. (photo: Piet van der Meer)|
IF YOU are looking for a place to visit that is small enough to explore but big enough to offer plenty of delights, then the charming city of Amsterdam must rate high on the list. Founded on a dam on the river Amstel in the 13th century, the city went on to become a hub during the busy days of the 17th century when the Dutch were expanding their trading empire and doing interesting things like invading Southeast Asian countries.
Modern Amsterdam is filled with exciting contemporary architecture that somehow manages to blend harmoniously with the older houses. It is a city with a youthful approach to life, always alive and ready to try out new ideas and experiences. It also helps that many Dutch people speak perfect English and are usually friendly and willing to help people who are as clueless as I am.
Central Amsterdam is quite small but filled with interesting sights to see. Amongst the many attractions the city has to offer is the Anne Frank House, the wartime hiding place of a young Jewish girl and her family and friends, who were evading the Nazis. After spending two years avoiding discovery, they were captured and taken to the concentration camps, which only Anne Frank’s father survived. The diaries of the young girl, detailing their life in hiding, were found in the house and, since they were published in 1947, have gone on to sell 13 million copies. The house remains exactly as the Frank family left it, right down to the movie star pin-ups in Anne’s bedroom and the marks on the walls detailing the heights of the children.
Amsterdam is also home to many good art museums, including one dedicated to the work of the Netherlands’ most famously insane painter Vincent Van Gogh, he of the severed ear and Sunflowers fame. For those of you who like modern art, the Stedelijk has a major collection from the 18th century onwards, featuring the works of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and Chagall, as well as Impressionists like Manet and Monet, and newer painters like Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly — enough to make any modern art lover salivate. For those with a more classical bent, the Rijksmuseum has a fabulous collection featuring works by other great Dutch 17th-century painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, whose famous The Nightwatch adorns their walls. It also contains fine collections of Asian art and displays on Dutch history.
Amsterdam has superb public transport facilities, with an efficient and logical tram service that can whip you around the city without leaving a serious dent in your wallet. Buy a strippenkart from any tobacconist, post office or railway service and stamp it yourself — no hectoring conductors shortchanging you here. Amsterdam is also very bike-friendly, so the adventurous amongst you might choose to rent one and explore the city that way. It certainly makes a big difference to the pollution levels in the city. But be warned if you are a pedestrian — you not only have to cope with cars and buses, but tram lanes and cycle lanes as well. This means that if you do not want to be decapitated, you have to keep a very alert eye all around you when you are crossing.
But in a city cobwebbed with canals, undoubtedly the best way to see the sights of the city is by boat. Tours last 90 minutes and give you a spectacular introduction to old and new Amsterdam. The tours meander around the beautiful tree-lined waterways, giving you a close-up glimpse of life on board the city’s 3000-plus houseboats — a great way to live if you don’t get seasick. With the wind in your hair, and the sun on your back it is a truly civilised way to get to know a city. If you’re feeling particularly romantic, then maybe you might want to try taking your partner on a candlelit cruise in the evening, complete with dinner, flowers and music. However, the energetic amongst you might want to rent a pedalo or peddle boat, and you can happily wander around the canals at your own pace. Unusual sights abound from one-man bands on tiny rowboats to grand pianos being hoisted into the top floors of houses via cunning block-and-tackle devices. During the strictly controlled development of the city, even the wealthiest citizens had to conform to stringent design specifications which meant that individualism in residences was limited to things like the ornate gables that decorate each building. Bizarrely, property taxes were also levied according to the width of the house — hence the prevalence of tall, narrow buildings.
There is so much more to say about Amsterdam — the many restaurants and cafés serving delicious food from creamy cakes and pastries to spicy Indonesian and Surinamese dishes; the friendliest and coziest bars I have ever encountered in the world, where to strike up a conversation is to learn something delightfully new; clubs which play an exciting range of music from hip-hop to house to stuff you just can’t put a name to; the verdant Vondelpark south of the Leiseplein, ideal for lazing around on a hot summer afternoon; having a coffee in the orangery of the Hortus Botanicus, a botanical garden with over 6000 species — truly an oasis in the city. One thing is for sure — I’m going back for another visit.