Amsterdam Houseboat

Amsterdam Houseboat

Amsterdam is the Netherlands’ largest city with a population of more than 800,000 people. We were pleased to be part of the more than 3.5 million who visit each year. We transitioned from the luxurious life aboard Uniworld’s River Princess to the Hilton Doubletree located near the Central Station mass transit hub. Our room overlooked Geldersekade Canal with a commanding view of the city. We learned that in the early 1300s the local inhabitants built a dam in the Amstel River to protect their homes against the sea. The small fishing village grew thanks to the discovery of a method to preserve herring longer so that it could be exported. The city became an important center of commerce and a leading center for finance and diamonds. The ring of canals dating from the 17th century is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a great way to be introduced to Amsterdam. Our tour traveled on the Gentleman’s Canal, the Emperor’s Canal, and the Princes’ Canal. The scenery included houseboats as well as Golden Age mansions, converted warehouses, and important landmarks.

The Van Gogh Museum, the most visited museum in Amsterdam, features most of Van Gogh’s famous paintings such as “The Potato Eaters” and “Sunflowers.” We saw several self-portraits. We were able to trace his development in subject matter and painting technique. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed. Our guide deftly presented alternative explanations for some of the most common facts concerning this artist who is appreciated today more than he was in his lifetime. Did Van Gogh cut his own ear, for example, or did Gauguin?

The Amsterdam Museum, located in the old city orphanage, tells the history of Amsterdam. We learned that Amsterdam stands on millions of long poles driven deep into the soil. The old piles are wooden, modern piles are concrete. Without them, the city would sink into the marshy peat. Midway through the 16th century, Amsterdam was part of the powerful Habsburg Empire. In 1578, Amsterdam renounces Catholicism and abandoned its allegiance to the Spanish King Phillip II. In 1600, Amsterdam’s merchants with their fast ships dominated world trade in the 17th century. Ships sailed to the Baltic Sea, North America, and Africa, as well as present-day Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Brazil. In 1795, French troops entered the city and Amsterdam lost its independence until 1813 when the French retreated. Amsterdam changed rapidly in the late 19th century from an impoverished, crowded city, to a modern metropolis. In the First World War, the Netherlands remained neutral. On May 16, 1940, German troops entered Amsterdam and occupied the country for five years. There are about 180 different nationalities in Amsterdam. Prostitution is legal, but trafficking women is not. Amsterdam, more than any other city, is the capital of freedom. One of our later walks from Dam Square to the Waag took us through the red-light district where groups of young men congregated and a few women, even in the afternoon, displayed themselves in their small window stalls. Coffee shops, often filled with seedy young men, serve cannabis rather than coffee.

Asselijyn's "The Threatened Swan"

Asselijyn’s “The Threatened Swan”

We timed our visit to the Rijksmuseum so that we arrived shortly after it opened and had only a short wait before gaining access to this large collection of Dutch art. Later in the day there was a long line to enter the building as well as to buy a ticket. We spent the morning on level 2 with art from 1600-1650. Our loop took us by important works from classical Dutch art culminating in viewing Rembrandt’s “Night Watch.” In the adjoining Gallery of Honour we examined more work by Rembrandt such as “Isaac & Rebecca” also known as “The Jewish Bride,” Ruisdael’s “Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede,” Asselijyn’s “The Threatened Swan,” Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” and Hals’ “Merry Drinker.” For many of the most famous paintings a large format two-sided explanation with notes was available. We concluded our morning with a stop at the Library, an impressive book-filled room with a functional spiral staircase. We enjoyed a gourmet lunch at the museum’s café before touring the 1100-1600 collection that focused on religious art. Some of the pieces admired included Tricht’s “The Virgin,” Begarelli’s “Christ as the Man of Sorrows,” and Cacchini’s “Christ as Saviour.” It was difficult to differentiate the pieces of a hand carved German chess set from the 16th century. We only scratched the surface in viewing the impressive collection of the Rijksmuseum.

After several hours in a museum, we found our way to Vondelpark, near the Rijksmuseum. This 116-acre park has ponds, tree-lined pathways, playgrounds, an open-air theater, and cafes. A statue of 17th century Dutch writer and poet Joost Van Den Vondel is located near a central pond.

The Dam Square lies in the historical center of Amsterdam. The neoclassical Royal Palace served as the city hall from 1655 until its conversion to a royal residence in 1808. Next to it on one side is the 15th century Gothic New Church and on the other Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. The opposite side of the square is dominated by the National Monument, a white stone pillar erected in 1956 to memorialize the victims of World War II.

Palm House

Palm House

The Botanical Garden, Hortus Botanicus, founded in 1638 by the city, contains more than six thousand tropical and indigenous trees and plants. The initial collection was amassed during the 17th century through plants and seeds brought back by traders of the East India Company (VOC) primarily as an herb garden for doctors and apothecaries. A single coffee plant from this collection is said to have served as the parent for the entire coffee culture in Central and South America. The Palm House is an interesting structure. The leave of a Giant Rhubarb captured my attention. Since not many flowers were in bloom, a water lily and Lady’s Eardrop were all the more memorable. The butterfly exhibit located in a greenhouse was too hot for us to enjoy. The Botanical Garden gave us a different perspective on Amsterdam.

We wanted to visit the Anne Frank House but were unwilling to stand in line for 1.5-3 hours. As an alternative, we decided to visit the Dutch Resistance Museum. This turned out to be a wise decision which gave us a much fuller understanding of how the Dutch people responded to Nazi Germany occupation from May 14, 1940 to May 5, 1945. The exhibition introduced us to the many forms resistance took: strikes, forging of documents, helping people to go into hiding, underground newspapers, escape routes, armed resistance, and espionage. More than 107,000 Dutch Jews including 60,000 from Amsterdam were deported to Nazi concentration camps. Of those deported only 5,500 lived. Of the 25,000 Jews who went into hiding, 18,000 survived. Another 8,000 Jews survived but were sterilized. The person who delivered daily bread in a Siegburg, German prison also carried a handmade chess set between two players. “They’ve taken all the children away” is a special exhibit within the museum about the transports on June 6-7, 1943 of 1,269 Jewish children taken from the Vught concentration camp to the Sobibor death camp. Stories of the children and testimonies of bystanders create a heartbreaking picture of what happened. The Dutch Resistance Museum is a powerful reminder of the courage it takes to stand up to injustice.

Before we left Amsterdam, I wanted to visit the Amsterdam Public Library which was located only a block from our hotel. I am so glad I did. This is the best public library that I’ve ever seen! This architectural gem is spread over seven floors. The children’s room is lit with lights fashioned after jacks. In addition to unique collections, it has a theatre, a radio station, conference rooms, exhibition space, a music department, study pods, a readers’ café and a restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking the city. It has an underground storage area for 2,000 bikes and 1,200 parking places for cars. It is open 7 days a week and hosts 2.5 million users and visitors a year. We took advantage of the restaurant to order a takeout pizza and salad.

We enjoyed two fine restaurants in Amsterdam. Van Speyk combines Dutch and French fare. It is located between the Central Station and the Dam Square in a building that dates back to 1659. I took advantage of the special of the day, a three course meal that featured a salmon entree. Indrapura is an Indonesian restaurant located on the Rembrandt Square. We ordered the Purnama Rice Table. What a delight of tastes including pastry minced beef, fried corn-cakes, melinjo nut chips, fried soya beans, fried salty fish with peanuts, sweet and sour vinegar cucumbers, fresh vegetables with peanut sauce, seasoned vegetable dish, flavored vegetables with coconut milk, spicy chicken with red peppers and soya, spicy beef with coconut milk, sweet pork with soya sauce, skewered lamb and pork, mango salad with beansprout, steamed rice, and fried rice. What a treat!

Amsterdam is one of the truly great cities of the world!