by Lee Foster
Americans and the Dutch have always had a special feeling for each other. The relationship began in the first years of the U.S. republic, when savvy Amsterdam bankers loaned the U.S. $12 million to start the federal government programs. This was before the U.S. had established its credit rating. In the 20th century, enduring friendship resulted from the American military effort that wrestled the Netherlands from the Germans.
One of the pleasant ways to encounter the Dutch is to stroll their great capital, Amsterdam, an artwork in itself, an open-air museum of the 17th century. Over 6,000 houses from the 17th century have monument status and are preserved. Include in the stroll a visit to the Rijksmuseum, repository for the Golden Age paintings of the Dutch, the master works of the 17th century.
Arriving at Schiphol
Most visitors to the Netherlands arrive through Schiphol Airport, near Amsterdam. It’s intriguing to know that the runways are 12 feet below sea level and that until the mid-19th century the area was a lake, a dangerous lake where many ships sank. Hence the name, ship hole. The Spanish and the Dutch even fought a sea battle at this airport in 1573. Schiphol is an orderly airport, one of the easiest in Europe to fly in and out of. After several centuries as traders, the Dutch are expert at accommodating the foreigner. Because of its proximity to other countries, especially England, France, and Germany, Schiphol is also an important gateway and transfer point.
From Schiphol you can take the train into Amsterdam to your hotel. If you don’t have a hotel, the tourism office (VVV) at the train station can assist you. Be sure to pay a visit to this central VVV office, where you can get ample free information and a good map of the city, called the Falk Plan.
Contemplating the Dutch
Walk down the main street, Damrak, to the Dam, a large square that is the hub of the canals. Look around at the Government Palace, the church, the former post office (now a luxury shopping mall known as Magna Plaza), the peace monument to World War II, and the diverse people who cross the area. Over a cup of coffee or a glass of beer at a cafe, such as the Victoria Hotel at Damrak 1-5, you can see the full pageant of Dutch humanity walk by each hour.
From your contemplative position as a cafe idler, as Dutch faces pass before you, consider their story.
Amsterdam rose to spectacular wealth, political power, and cultural heights in the 17th century. In the year 1600 the Dutch had 2,700 ships roaming the oceans. This was the dominant fleet in an era when prosperity depended on ships that could explore and exploit the opening trade routes to the West and East Indies. Profits from these ventures collected in a compact secular city built on a dam that had been placed on the Amstel River in the 13th century.
Historic models for the modern Dutch character are commonsense merchants and businessmen, not inaccessible royalty or ethereal clerics. The city’s monuments are private houses rather than imposing cathedrals. The genius of Amsterdam was the ability of an entrepreneurial oligarchy to govern and to allow immigration of other elite into its numbers. The actual harbor and geographic position of Amsterdam was not as advantageous as its competitors, but the human factor in Amsterdam was extraordinary. (A good place to make the acquaintance of some of these remarkable men from the 17th century is the Civic Guard Gallery, a collection of significant portraits, at the Amsterdam Historical Museum.)
Amsterdam is a friendly and accessible foreign language capital. Getting around is easy, partly because 90 percent of the people speak English. There never were enough Dutchmen to impress their language on extensive foreign regions. The Dutch are a gregarious, pragmatic people who like to have travelers visit them and know how important the visitors who tour Amsterdam are for the economy.
As you leave the cafe to encounter the city, remember that central Amsterdam, this work of urban art, is unlike an American city of rectangular grids. The city is built on a design of several expanding horseshoe canals that fit one within the other. When looking at a map, with the Railway Station at the top, know that the smaller numbers for canal streets begin at the upper left and become progressively larger as the canal swings down and to the right hand corner of the map.
The pattern of the city becomes clear if you take the Round Boat tour through the canals. The boat tour also gives you a sense of what boat transportation in the city was like before modern roadways were created by filling in some of the waterways. Boats leave from the streets in front of the railway station and from Rokin Street every half hour for the one-hour trip. Live guides or a tape recording dispense ample lore about the city. You’ll lose track of all the bridges, which number over 1,000 in the inner city, but be sure the guide points out the lovely Magere Brug, Skinny Bridge, from 1670. Near the Skinny Bridge and scattered throughout the canals, you’ll also see all manner of houseboats, dwellings for some 10,000 people in the city. Another strategy for canal viewing is the rental of small pedal boats, called canal bikes, which seat two or four. They can be rented at the Leidseplein and along Leidsestraat at Prinsengracht.
Dutch Art and Cafe Idling
After the boat trip, make a pilgrimage to the Rijksmuseum, where the Golden Age of the 17th century comes alive. If you walk from the Dam to the Rijksmuseum, using your Falk Plan map, you’ll pass through intriguing side streets. The Rijksmuseum is the place to see art that you’ve known for years through reproductions. You’ll be seized by a fresh sense of discovery and recognition when you view an original oil whose image you have previously known only as a litho.
Don’t plan to see everything at the Rijksmuseum in one visit because there are over a million art objects. Concentrate instead on a few images or galleries per visit. Literally avert your eyes as you pass through other galleries on the way to your destination. Consider Johannes Vermeer’s deeply felt and quiet works, such as “Young Girl Reading” and “A Maidservant Pouring Milk.” Add to them some of Rembrandt’s paintings such as “The Jewish Bride,” “Syndicate of the Drapers,” and “The Nightwatch.” Rembrandt may strike you as a surprisingly modern sensibility. He rose to fame because of his ability to transform the annual “photo” of the company executives into a striking study of their character. His fortunes foundered, but his enduring fame was assured, when he didn’t give all the executives equal prominence in a painting they were all paying for equally. Ask a museum attendant to explain to you one or two of the immensely humorous paintings of Jan Steen, whose work catalogs the folkloric wit of the era. It’s incredible to think that the Dutch created between three and four million paintings in the 17th century, so great was the demand.
After leaving the museum, take a walk to the Leidseplein, the premier place for further cafe idling and a perusal of the Dutch character. The Leidseplein is a busy square at the south end of Americam’s central canal ring. The famous old City Opera House on the Leidseplein is the scene of musical happenings nightly. The Leidseplein is alive with people all day and night, especially in clear weather. One senses an air of delight and freedom at this place, complete with street musicians and itinerant performers.
Classical music is a fitting expression of the city’s cultural refinement. Consider an evening at the Concertgebouw, the city’s most ornate and historic music hall. You might chance upon the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra playing selections from Bach, Handel, and Telemann.
The richness of the city’s culture owes much to the diversity of lifestyle permitted by the headstrong but tolerant burghers, then and now. From within Europe, the Netherlands attracted many energetic people who could not thrive in the narrower confines of their native countries. Portuguese Jews, French Huguenots, even the Pilgrims who ended up in America, added their presence to the Dutch blend. Around the Leidseplein you can see some of this diversity.
Also on the Leidseplein, the restored Art Deco Cafe in the American Hotel is an interesting stop. This mammoth room, built in 1892 and restored in the early 1990s, is a national monument to fin-de-siecle grandeur. Today the room is a meeting place for the city’s writers, artists, and talkers. At the cafe you can catch up on your reading with the provided newspapers and enjoy a meal or a mid-afternoon coffee. The American Hotel, an art deco masterpiece, is one of the appealing Amsterdam lodgings.
At some point in your walks or cafe idling, you may find that the works of man should give way momentarily to images of nature, a refreshing counterpoint. Walk to the Vondelpark, a visionary expanse of urban greenery named after a Dutch playwright. In the park you’ll find people strolling, walking their dogs, relaxing on the grass, and fishing. Throughout the Netherlands there are many fishermen with long telescoping poles, who do more meditating than actual catching of fish. In the Vondelpark you can also see displays of flowers for which the Dutch are justly famous. South of Amsterdam you can visit one of the world’s largest flower auctions, at Aalsmeer. VVV can help with arrangements. Large flower-selling barges in Amsterdam are along the Singel canal near the Munt Tower. There you can buy cut flowers or have bulbs shipped back to your home.
Amsterdam Houses and Hotels
After the Leidseplein, make another excursion on foot along the canals. As you glance up at the sumptuous facades, you may wonder what life was like inside the houses during that flourishing 17th century. Several opportunities exist to satisfy your curiosity. One of the best is the Amstelkring Museum, including the Our Lord in the Attic Church, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40. Amstelkring preserves one of the last remaining interiors of a classic house from the 17th century. Also intact, upstairs, is a small Catholic church, one of about 60 that flourished discreetly after the Protestants took control of Amsterdam. On a grander scale, at the Willet-Holthuysen Museum, 605 Herengracht, you can see the interior and furnishings of a later, patrician canal house, complete with glass, ceramic, and stoneware collections, plus period rooms from the 18th and 19th century. The Netherlands Theater Institute, formerly the Toneelmuseum, 168 Herengracht, exhibits a third interior, with memorabilia collected from the performing arts.
Aside from the American Hotel, Amsterdam prides itself on the presence of several hotels that can’t possibly be duplicated elsewhere because they are located right in 17th century canal houses or recycled early church and government buildings. These hotels are interesting attractions on a walk. One of the most distinguished is the Pulitzer, which consists of canal houses along the Prinsengracht, or Prince’s Canal, numbers 315-331. The hotel is tastefully conceived and deftly executed, preserving the facades of the buildings, but modernizing the compact interiors. Walk through the hotel to see an art gallery in the hallway and perhaps stop for a Heineken beer, Amsterdam’s finest, in the lively Pulitzer Bar. The Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel is a hostelry whose bustle approximates the city’s vitality three centuries ago. The Renaissance complex includes the Lutheran Round Church, whose secularized interior is a high-tech conference venue under an imposing dome that dignifies whatever proceedings take place.
Exploring Dutch Food
Walking in Amsterdam excites a healthy appetite that can only be properly assuaged at a good ethnic restaurant.
For the quick snack or light lunch nothing satisfies more than the characteristic Dutch little bread, or broodje, filled with cheese, meat, or fish. The prize filling for the little bread is paling, smoked eel, which comes from a large inland lake, the Ijsselmeer.
The two culinary glories of Amsterdam are the Dutch continental dinner and the valued legacy from the Dutch colonial escapade, the Indonesian Rice Table (Rijsttafel).
For continental food, a four-course dinner might consist of a fish salad as a start, followed by a lobster mousse, then a main course of filet of deer, topped off with ginger ice cream.
Equally prominent in the dining world of Amsterdam is the ceremonial meal called the Indonesian Rice Table. An old line colonialist and a revisionary historian could sit down to a Rice Table dinner and agree, if on nothing else, that the Rice Table is an excellent legacy of the Dutch colonial era. The Rice Table was actually a Dutch invention in Indonesia, rather than a native Indonesian manner of eating. You sit down with a large bowl of rice in the center and perhaps 15 condiment dishes of meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts to go with it. Some of the food is cooked; other dishes are served cold. The combination of spices and herbs in the dishes, including curries and peppers, makes the meal memorable. The pleasure of a Rice Table dinner arises from its leisurely exploration of a wide range of taste sensations, including pickled and sweet-and-sour foods, shredded coconut, and peanut sauce. If you don’t feel you have the appetite for a rice table, consider Nasi Rames, which consists of a plate of rice with several condiments around it, a kind of mini rice table. There are many good Indonesian restaurants to savor.
The Dutch also enjoy cozy taverns, called “brown cafes” after their ancient wood board walls. One such tavern is the pleasant Little Doctor, Het Dokterje, on Rozenboomsteeg, where you can order a liter of beer and a platter with sticks of mild Dutch cheese, which will be served with mustard into which you dip the cheese. The main Dutch drink, geneever, is a strong gin concoction. Another notable brown cafe is Hoppe’s on the Spui plaza. At this outdoor and indoor cafe you can watch the human drama in the heart of the Amsterdam University area. You’ll see some rather aged students because the Dutch tend to study at a leisurely pace and postpone taking their exams.
Cafe life flourishes day and night, especially on the Leidseplein and the Rembrandtsplein. At night, in the moon and lamp light, the canals, lined with 17th century houses, are engaging to walk along, especially in the streets south of the Thorbeckeplein. Nearby, the Slender Bridge on the Amstel River, called the Magere Brug, lit up at night, is one of Amsterdam’s loveliest sights. A night walk in Amsterdam’s red light district is another tourist favorite. Tax-paying prostitutes, registered with and protected by the vice squad, wait in windows for their clients. However, the drug culture in Amsterdam has created some security problems for the night walker, so use caution.
It is easy to explore Amsterdam’s shopping areas on foot. The city is the center of the European antique market. Near the Rijksmuseum, stroll Spiegelstraat and Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, where there are about 100 antique and art shops in a small area, one of the densest cluster of such shops found anywhere.
The art and antique scene developed here in the late nineteenth century in symbiotic relationship with the Rijksmuseum. Art dealers located their shops near the Rijksmuseum, which was one of their customers. Patrons of the Rijksmuseum could end their museum visit with a stroll down Spiegelstraat, perhaps adding to their collections. An inquisitive traveler could spend days exploring the dense cluster of Amsterdam’s art and antique stores.
The city has been a leading center for 400 years in the cutting, polishing, and mounting of diamonds. The Van Moppes have a complete tour and viewing room at their factory, Albert Cuypstraat 2. Coster near the Rijksmuseum offers another good diamond tour and shop.
The Kalverstraat, the most bustling shopping street in the City, is the epitome of the country’s mass-merchandising. The Dutch make sturdy and fashionable clothing, especially for children.
P. C. Hoofstraat, near the Leidseplein, is one of the most elegant shopping streets.
All these streets are only a few blocks long, so the walker can explore them easily. One of the better souvenir stores is located in the Munt Tower, where Delft blue ceramics are available.
Amsterdam is also famous for its open air markets. The most elaborate market is the Waterlooplein Market next to the Music Center. The Albert Cuyp Market is another lively outdoor market with a wide variety of food and merchandise.
At the Albert Cuyp Market enjoy a Dutch delicacy, raw herring with chopped onion. Watch one of the natives eat a herring first. Grasp the raw fish by the tail, swing it aloft, and lower it into your mouth. The Dutch place such an importance on herring that the fisherman who catches the first herring of the spring season makes front-page news.
Amsterdam–monument to urban design, repository for classic paintings, and vital modern metropolis–is easily accessible and full of enticing surprises for the traveler equipped with curiosity and a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands: If You Go
For more information, contact the Amsterdam tourism site at www.iamsterdam.com.