The Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam, experienced a Golden Age during the majority of the 17th century. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was founded to trade with India and other Southeast Asian countries. It experienced rapid growth and is considered to be a forerunner of modern corporations. The public was offered shares of ownership in the company and many of these owners realized fortunes as the company grew. The company became a pioneer of outward foreign direct investment by establishing foreign colonies where it possessed quasi-governmental powers.
You can’t talk about Amsterdam without talking about water. Most of the land mass of the Holland province is below sea level and has been reclaimed from swamp land. They have received global acclaim for this accomplishment. The system of canals in Amsterdam is a vital part of this water control plan. The buildings that line the canals must be built upon wooden pilings and over time there can be some movement. You can see homes that have experienced some sinking on one side. We were told that inside the home, the flooring would have been leveled but generally nothing will be done to shore up the foundation. The canal rings divide the city into 90 islands with over 1,700 bridges. However, the city is facing a major crisis related to the canals. The walls that line the canals are increasingly in need of repair and replacement. There are over 600 kilometers of walls that would require an estimated 400 years to be repaired.
Amsterdam is a “bicycle first” society. There are more bicycles than residents , every street has designated bicycle lanes, the central train station has a four level bicycle parking garage and curiously, every year the city retrieves 10,000 to 15,000 bikes from the canals. Bicycle traffic can be quite heavy in some areas and when crossing streets you must maintain an awareness of the riders. In many streets you are crossing bike lanes, vehicle lanes and tram tracks. We were told that in any incident between bicycles and vehicles or pedestrians, the bicycles will always be considered to have the right of way. Two things we noticed, virtually no one wears a helmet and the bikes are all very simple, standard bicycles, not the $1,000+ fancy ones.
We went on a “countryside” bike tour from Amsterdam. We started near the Amsterdam Central train station, initially riding northwest, crossing a couple of bridges. In a relatively short time, we were in a rural setting along one of the major dykes. We rode along farm land with cows, pigs and sheep and through a couple of small villages. Our looping route brought us back north of the city where we took a ferry back to the train station. It was a beautiful sunny day with perfect conditions for a bike ride.
One of the most notable museums in Amsterdam is the one featuring the works of the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. (The museum does not allow photographs so the images here were downloaded from their website.) Van Gogh began his painting at the age of 27 and produced his impressive body of work in only 10 years before his death by suicide. His younger brother Theo developed a relatively successful business as an art dealer and provided financial support to Vincent. He believed in his brother’s talent and the two kept up a long correspondence by letter.
Van Gogh moved to Paris around the age of 33 where he met and was greatly influenced by French artists Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. Two years later he moved to Arles in the south of France where his paintings grew brighter in color and he broadened his subject matter to include series of wheat fields and sunflowers.
Vincent suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions. His friendship with Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor when he severed part of his own left ear. In his final months he spent time in psychiatric hospitals and incredibly, he painted Wheatfield with a Reaper (photo above) during one of his hospital stays based on his view through the bars on his window.
Two things Amsterdam is known for: drugs and prostitution. The drug part is related to their “coffee shops” which are certain cafes where you can go to consume marijuana. Contrary to popular belief, marijuana is not legal in the Netherlands but it is mostly de-criminalized. The government collects taxes from the cafés but they turn a blind eye to just how the marijuana finds its way into the café in the first place. The main reason it hasn’t been legalized is due to their membership in the European Union which prohibits member countries from doing so. As for prostitution, this has been legal here since 1830. Amsterdam has a Red Light district which is in a very nice section of the historical area. In one area along narrow pedestrian walkways, the ladies sit or stand behind full length windows, so those who are interested can literally “window shop”. We can’t show you photos because there are signs indicating that no photos or videos are allowed but we did take a picture of my favorite nearby business, the Condomerie.
We took a canal cruise in a small electric open boat. We thought this would be preferable since you’re with a small group and you have full visibility in all directions at all times. Also, the small boat can fit under even the lowest bridges so we could go anywhere. The captain covered many of the same areas that we had already explored but it was fun to see them from a different perspective. We went past a row of homes that are referred to as the “dancing houses” because they are all leaning to different degrees in different directions.
Some fun food items to check out in Amsterdam. A stroopwafel is a waffle made from two thin layers of baked dough with a caramel syrup filling in the middle. You can buy them packaged or find them freshly made on the street or in markets. People in the western part of the Netherlands have been eating raw herring for over 600 years and trading in the oil from herring. All over Amsterdam you can find stands selling the haring either chopped with raw onions and pickles or in a small hot dog style bun. Another popular snack which you can get from the same stands is kibbeling, which is simply small chunks of white fish that are battered and deep fried. It will be offered with some type of sauce, garlic mayonnaise or tartar. And then there’s bitterballen. This is a snack that you’ll find in Dutch bars that is a creamy meat ragout filling that is rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried and served with mustard.
Next stop: Hamburg, Germany