Amsterdam: canals and freedom


by Zeynep TANITKAN

(photos: Recep Peker TANITKAN)




In the seventeenth century, Amsterdam became one of Europe’s wealthiest cities. It acquired a pleasant backdrop of canals and narrow facades, an appetite for art and skilled craftsmanship, and the opportunity to develop a respect for all kinds of freedoms. In the past few decades, it has harnessed these advantages to become a popular tourist destination, with more and more art and history to consume by day, and more and more excitement and passion being synthesised by night.




One of Europe’s most charming, photogenic cities, Amsterdam is also one of its most easy-going. It may not be the best place to go if you are looking for a challenge or trying to get away from the tourists. But its canals with their decorated iron bridges - and its endless variations on the themes of boats, houses, roofs, windows and spires - soon put you at ease. Together with the surface water, a long tradition of urban civilization and a long history of affluence somehow enables Amsterdam to preserve its live-and-let-live character even in this day and age. In the famous antique, flower and cheese markets, there is plenty of opportunity to spend but little pressure. And hardly a visitor – whether there for the art or there for the steamy nightlife – fails to comment on the cool folk and liberal and relaxed atmosphere.


The fact that the city has more bicycles and trams than cars certainly helps, offering an antidote to the chaos of Ankara or Istanbul – or, indeed, of any of Europe’s more bustling capitals. There is no place her for traffic jams, exhaust fumes or parking quarrels! Due to the walks and bicycle routes along the canals, you can visit the whole city without need for a guide.


Amsterdam can keep you busy for weeks. It has more than 50 museums, numerous exotic restaurants – Chinese and Indonesian for starters – and a wealth of specialist shops. Yet almost everything is within walking distance. By evening, the city offers almost endless entertainment. Within a single week in September, it is to play host to Eminem, the “Wasted” punk festival and the international “Gaudeamus” classical  music week.


A city on water


The Dam started life as a fishing village on the Amstel River at the end of the twelfth century. By the end of the seventeenth, it had become the trading centre of the worldwide Dutch Empire and one of the richest cities of the world. With little dry land available, it was also one of the most densely-populated. The architecture reflects this in steep staircases and narrow streets, doors and corridors.


During the enlargement of the city in the 17th century - Amsterdam’s Golden Age - three main canals were built: the Herengracht, Keizergracht and Prinsengracht, forming concentric circles known as Grachtengordal west and east of the city centre. Thus today’s familiar townscape took shape. There are more than 100 canals and 1,000 bridges. A late-afternoon boat trip ending at the port is one way to get off your feet. It also reveals many aspects of historical and contemporary Amsterdam – hotels, offices, warehouses and some of the stranger canal boats – not immediately apparent from the land.


Built on water, the city gives you the impression that you are living in a dream - or a reflection. Buildings constructed in the thirteenth century look old but still function well. The past and future exist simultaneously. The “Venice of the North” lacks the hot sun and deep colours of the Italian city, but makes up for this with its own cheerful, self-confident atmosphere. Opinion varies on the historic “brown” coffee-shops, which sell all kinds of drinks and snacks – a gift to civilisation or dark corners of an otherwise bright civilisation?


Tulips and light switches


The central square is called The Dam. Four hundred years ago it was surrounded by fishermen and storks. Now it is one of the liveliest locations in the city. In this square, you can visit the monument erected in commemoration of those who lost their lives during World War II, the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), now a cultural center, where Queen Beatrix was crowned. Stroll down from here - taking in the many gift shops - to the Leidseplein, a square noted for its many cafes, bars and theatres, and for night clubs like the legendary Melkweg and Paradiso. The music goes on until dawn.


The celebrated canalside flower market is also located nearby. Here you can buy tulips, a national symbol, but you will need a certificate if you want to take these tulips abroad. Not far away are the buildings where the famous diamond expert Coster processed the “Kohinoor Mountain of Light”, used for the Crown of the United Kingdom in 1852. Visitors can see how such renowned diamonds are processed at the diamond processing workshops. Amsterdam is not only famous for its diamonds and flowers; it also has its own special shops for toothbrushes (witte tanden winkel), electric light switches (knopenwinkel) and interesting paper goods.


Needless to say, Amsterdam’s Red Light district is equally special. As far as possible, the atmosphere is celebratory rather than sleazy. There are numerous bars and strip clubs. Many drugs and stimulants are sold legally in the coffee shops. The city boasts a sex museum offering “entertaining and exquisite visions of erotica”: sculptures, historical documents, photographs, paintings, prints and videos from the Roman era to modern times, and from all over the world. The Dutch capital is also a favourite meeting place for the world’s homosexuals.


Meeting Rembrandt


Amsterdam’s museums – and particularly its art museums - are its number one draw. The Rijksmuseum is one of the world's leading art museums. Its unrivalled collection of 17th-century Dutch art includes famous pieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer. To some of these works, reproductions do little justice: the life-size group portrait The Night Watch has to be viwed in its full proportions. And its dramatically real protagonists (Rembrandt included) insist on making eye contact from their century of darkness and light.


The museum contains much sculpture and decorative art, from medieval times onwards, as well as painting. However, its unmistakeable 1885 building is under renovation. Until 2008, the finest 17th century works are on view under the title The Masterpieces. The house where Rembrandt lived for nearly 20 years and created many of his works of art has also been turned into a museum, known as Rembrandthuis. The artist’s preliminary sketches and the oil paintings of his students are the main exhibits.



Few visitors to Amsterdam pass by the opportunity to view more than 200 paintings of Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum. Also on show are some 500 preliminary sketches and nearly 700 letters written by the extraordinary master. Marked out by its modern architecture, the museum houses paintings by Gauguin, Manet, Pisarro, Monet and Toulouse Lautrec for good measure. Meanwhile, many works of modern art from all around the world are exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum. Picasso, Monet and Kandinsky are all represented.


Glimpses of the past


A growing number of museums offer glimpses into the past of Amsterdam, the Netherlands and indeed Europe. The Amsterdam History Museum contains archaeological findings dating back to the 13th century, and artefacts of silver, gold, glass and porcelain. The Shipping Museum hosts one of the largest maritime collections of the world: arms, equipment, flags and paintings, particularly from the 17th and 18th centuries. Although generations have passed, there are still queues outside the house where Anne Frank and her parents were hidden during the Nazi occupation, and where the Jewish girl - later to die in a concentration camp - wrote her famous diaries. There is also a Jewish history museum in a restored synagogue in the old Jewish quarter.


Other specialist museums display the history of the theatre and the press, for example. The New Metropolis, or National Science and Technology Centre, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, has interactive exhibitions on science and technology. On national heritage days, many of Amsterdam’s museums are free of charge, and at other times combination tickets can be purchased. Significant savings can also be made by purchasing travel cards. Little is forbidden in Amsterdam and the only thing which is difficult is choosing what to do next.



(DIPLOMAT  -  August 2005  -  Ankara)