Text and Photos by Cheryl Levitan
he year 2020 is behind us and the spring of 2021 is at hand. How appropriate that a year that holds both uncertainty and promise should end in the number 21, a number long connected to risk and luck. But to quote Thomas Jefferson, “With great risk comes great reward.”
With canceled trips and forfeited deposits a hallmark of 2020’s disrupted travel, I’m betting on actually being able to see the world again later this year. Although I’m not quite ready for unchartered and exotic locales, there are many destinations that are safe yet also hold surprises for travelers if they know where to look.
At the top of that list? Amsterdam. Known for its canals, world-class museums and abundance of bicycles, it also has a number of features that are decidedly odd. But at a time when globalization has brought “sameness” to the far corners of the world, Amsterdam’s uniqueness makes it engaging and immensely refreshing.
So what makes Amsterdam so different?
It begins with the area’s topography. Originally just marsh and swampland, the city was made habitable by draining the swamps and designing a system of canals capable of being flushed to remain clean and control flooding.
But with no firm land, houses were built on wooden posts driven deep into solid ground. Over time, many were replaced by concrete pilings, but not before centuries of settling and rot caused buildings to tilt and lean in directions other than the original standard forward cant. As to that last point, choosing to construct a building pitched forward would seem to be an odd decision but one made to avoid taxes.
First two images: Bikes with carriers are common in Amsterdam and make it less safe for sightseeing tourist cyclists who are unfamiliar with where they are going.
Next: Exactly which houses are leaning is not always easy to discern when many have settled unevenly after their 1600s-1700s’ wooden beam supports have rotted. Most have been resupported with concrete beams.
Last: It’s very expensive to park in central Amsterdam. But if you have a tiny car, you can park in a motor scooter space, which is cheaper.
During Amsterdam’s Golden Age of growth and development (the 1600-1700s), taxes were assessed on a property’s width, not area. To save money, buildings had a narrow frontage but were often quite long. If you’ve ever carried something heavy or large up a flight of stairs, imagine doing that on the narrow and winding steps this construction design created! The pragmatic Dutch found a solution.
By attaching strong pulleys to the front of their gabled roofs, they leaned the building forward so that items hanging from the ropes wouldn’t damage the facade on the way up or down. These buildings also predated the advent of house numbers, necessitating gable stones (facade plaques) be added to make a business or home easier for others to find. Often designed with clues to the owner’s occupation, many are still there. It’s quite a sight — individually crafted buildings, each with a personality or lean all its own, still standing after 400-plus years of history.
Walking Amsterdam’s canals, fronted by tree-lined walkways (blessed with their own rolls and dips thanks to those tree roots), is one of life’s great pleasures. It’s also easy in a flat and compact city where speeding bicycles, not crime, are the only hazards to cross your path.
With more canals than Venice, Amsterdam’s fabled waterways are lined by 2,500 houseboats. Along with the wonky houses, those houseboats are one of the signs that this city is just a bit peculiar. Running the gamut from the impressive to those that appear ready to sink, one is a sanctuary for stray and abandoned felines and, in a city with the greatest number of museums per capita, one is a museum about — what else — houseboats.
The Dutch language is puzzling as well.
It isn’t pronounced the way it looks (and it looks pretty confusing with extraneous letters and double vowels). Correct pronunciation requires the ability to roll letters, lifting the tongue and employing a significant amount of phlegm in the back of the throat. Fortunately for tourists, almost all residents speak excellent English (and a number of other languages).
And, finally, in a country where people tend to be rather tall, the bathrooms in most local establishments are oddly shoe-horned into the smallest spaces.
It occasionally requires contortionist moves to sit down, and washing ones’ hands is quite a feat in microscopically sized sinks. With no apparent standards in how these fixtures operate, turning on a tap or flushing a toilet can become a scavenger hunt for the necessary pedal, button or pull.
How best to experience this quirky destination? In a city where bicycles outnumber inhabitants, the natural inclination might be to travel on two wheels. Think again! Pleasure riding on unfamiliar bike lanes while enjoying the sights does not mix well with pint-sized cars negotiating those narrow roadways, and volumes of bicyclists rushing to and from work or parents transporting multiple children in oversized bike carriers. In this city, which is 25 percent water, orient yourself first with a guided cruise of those fabled canals to see and hear about this historic city and its stunningly modern additions. After that, the best transport is your own two feet.
Most visitors hope to experience Amsterdam like a local, not an easy task in a city that sees 20 times its population in tourists annually. Airbnb rentals became so widespread that the government recently banned them in central districts and severely limited them elsewhere to preserve neighborhood character and services. Visitors who still want an “authentic” experience can rent a houseboat or book a B & B canal house.
We chose instead to stay in a hybrid canal house-styled hotel, the Pulitzer. Located in the famed Canal Ring (where three major canals curve around the original medieval city), this hotel began as 25 separate houses on two canals. With connected interiors but retained exteriors, the hotel’s public spaces and gardens give way to a labyrinth of hallways and narrow staircases. Offering concierge-led area tours and cruises on their own historic wooden boat, what we really needed were a few gable stone markers to find the way to and from our room!
The Cheese Museum has lots of tasty samples. The old goat cheese was certainly aged but sounds less appealing than the vintage edam.
The Nemo Science and Technology Museum is full of interactive science and technology displays. A replica of a 1600s’ Dutch East India Company trading ship is docked outside. At one time, Amsterdam was the richest city in the world from trade.
With so many choices of things to see and do, we decided against crowded tourist spots and instead focused on the often quirky sites found only in Amsterdam.
The Nine Streets — These quaint nine alleyways lie between the waterways that create the Canal Ring and are easily the city’s best shopping hub. Filled with one-of-a-kind items, views from flower-bedecked bridges and an abundance of cafes for people-watching, it’s easy to understand why this is where locals gravitate.
The Jordaan neighborhood — Developed in the 1600s to house immigrants and skilled tradespeople, this is now one of the city’s most coveted neighborhoods. Just west of the famous canal’s mansions, its smaller townhouses are mingled with art galleries, boutiques, charming shops and restaurants. All built before the advent of street addresses, this is a place to see many interesting gable stones. What we didn’t expect to find were the seven miniature houses squeezed in a crack to the left of #54 Westerstraat’s door. Placed there as a whimsical answer to the apparently missing structures between #54 and the neighbor’s #70, the models are wonderfully detailed and built in the same architectural styles as the surrounding buildings. This secret little stack is easy to miss, serving as a reminder to take time to notice the little things.
The Jordaan is also home to 19 Hofjes, small almshouses clustered in obscure courtyards. The wealthy in Amsterdam have always donated generously to charitable organizations, many choosing to fund almshouses as free housing for the city’s poorer, elderly women. Small individual townhouses largely closed off from the rest of the city, a few are open to the public during specific hours. Once a year, these courtyards can be toured during a week-long open house.
Museums — In a city with more than 75 museums, visitors typically gravitate towards the Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum’s grand masters’ paintings.
We chose to visit these lesser-known gems:
The Museum of Bags and Purses: Of the 3,000 bags on display, it was the well-worn bag of Margaret Thatcher’s that held my attention. Remembered as much for her pocketbooks as her politics, she was never seen without her trusty Asprey handbags (which secretly held her speeches printed on paper specifically cut to fit her bag).
The House Boat Museum: Built to haul gravel, this boat was converted by the owner into a houseboat in 1965. We walked away with a good under-standing of life on the canals: cramped.
Museum of the Canals: This is an excellent multimedia experience in a magnificent 1600s double-fronted (two normal land lots wide) grand merchant house and gardens. Interactive displays bring alive the building of the canals and difficulties constructing homes along them.
Cheese Museum: The Dutch are passionate about cheese. Dutch Gouda accounts for 50 percent of all the cheese produced. Discussing cheese here re-minded me of wine tasting sessions; the nuances of flavor and the variations created by aging and degree of milk fat left me just as confused. But the cheese was so tasty and samples were abundant. Tiny Netherlands is a giant in the world of cheese, exporting more than any other country in the world.
Tulip Museum: Located next to the Cheese Museum, it tells the story of a flower that originated in the Himalayas (where it’s considered a weed). Brought here through trade with the Ottoman Empire, these little bulbs set off a frenzy, driving prices higher than the cost of a house. Fortunes were made and lost, but the tulip still holds a special place in Dutch culture.
For now, virtual tours will have to suffice. Visit iamsterdam.com for museum tours and shopping in the comfort of home.