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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

AMSTERDAM--WHERE BUILDINGS RISE ABOVE THE SEAS

Amsterdam
There's a certain romance lingering in the streets of Amsterdam
I loved my first visit to Amsterdam.  It was so unlike the city I expected—I won’t go into my foolishness here—and I found the city absolutely charming.  A young friend, Scott M., recently told me that the best way to see Amsterdam is to walk it, and that is exactly how we introduced ourselves to the colorful and historic city we visited on a three-day pre-cruise extension to our Viking Grand European River Cruise.

Getting to know Amsterdam in even this short span made it very clear why during their Golden Age in the 17th century the Dutch were one of the most powerful peoples in the world.  There is a saying in the Netherlands (basically meaning below land) that “God created the world but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

First dikes and then the windmills introduced from Mesopotamia in the 16th century made it possible to create this country from beneath the seas. 

Perhaps you think the first thing that impressed me was the canals, but no.   I loved the buildings!  They are beautiful.  Amsterdam is extraordinarily colorful, clean, and vibrant.  As I never tire of being awed by aspects of my travels, I was awed by the history of these beautiful buildings.

Amsterdam

Amazingly, every building in Amsterdam is a meter below sea level at high tide.  Buildings were constructed on now-ancient wooden pillars sunk 14 feet deep. The pillars were made from trees harvested and transported from Scandinavia and the Black Forest.  The pillars do not rot as long as they have no contact with air.  Pretty remarkable when you take a moment to consider man’s genius.

Amsterdam

The buildings are old—many date back to the 1500 and 1600s, so for an American, these dates are impressive in themselves.  Because land is so precious in the Netherlands, at one time buildings were taxed on their width—how much land they occupied—so builders concentrated on tall, narrow structures.  Most are three or four stories high and so narrow that they could not accommodate elevators in their modernizations and renovations. 

Amsterdam

That means that much of Amsterdam is also a city for the young who can climb the stairs; elderly people move out.  We saw some but relatively few young families. I’m sure there’s a problem in lugging “family paraphernalia” up those stairs too.  The youthfulness of this ancient city accounts in large measure for the vibrancy of the shops and pace and innovative ways of living along the canals’ edges.  It’s pretty exciting.

Amsterdam

Additionally, and quite wonderfully for us tourists to learn, is that attached to the outside of the top floor of each building is a winch or hook of some kind.  With the narrow stairways, furniture is moved in and out of apartments via the windows.  Up the outside of the building and then in to the apartment!  We didn’t see this occurring, but that would have been pretty cool if we had.

Amsterdam
Do you see the hook outside the top window?
Look at the other photos and see that each building has something
similar to this.
Some buildings were actually built on a slight angle—out toward the narrow street—so moving furniture would not rub against the abutting building.  Details, details, details.

Amsterdam
If you look at the blue building with the red shutters, you might be
able to see that it juts forward just a touch.

The buildings are colorful in all the shades of browns and burgundies and tans imaginable, with steep black rooves (ok, I’m dating myself with that spelling, but this is my blog, isn’t it?), and some uncluttered windows.  I asked our wonderful walking tour guide, Marieke, about the curtainless windows, and she suggested the habit goes back to a more religious period when the idea was to show a plain and humble life.  In any case, the result is shining glass panels twinkling in the sun or, on the lower levels, a peek into a household. 

Amsterdam

But just so you don’t believe that all of Amsterdam is set in the distant past, other parts are ultra-modern in architectural style. 

Amsterdam
Our hotel, The Movenpick
Amsterdam
Shall we call this New Amsterdam?
Amsterdam
Amsterdam
Quite a difference!
I am so glad we did not think of Amsterdam simply as a launching site for our cruise.  I would like to return and see more of this very interesting country.





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