To a vast number of people, the name “Amsterdam” conjures up visions of a rampant emporium of drugs and sex. Rest assured, the vice is here in ample supply, but if you have even a tad of interest beyond getting royally knackered in a red-light district, then it will be clear to you that there’s so so much more going for this city.
Amsterdam is a grande dame of sorts – sophisticated in taste, and refined by prosperous centuries. However, despite having impeccable table manners, she hasn’t forgotten how to be warm and precocious – to get down on the floor and play with the kids a bit.
It is appropriate then that Amsterdam has been a mother city: a mother of modern capitalism, a mother of tolerance, a mother of the modern republic, and for a New Yorker, still fondly remembered as the mother city of NYC.
It’s a proud city- full of life, confidence, positivity and openness – a rare place of “live and let live”- Though, truth be told, like any metropolis, it’s not without its downsides. Organized crime has taken hold of the town’s legal vice “industry”, most heinously in the red light district, where it engages in human trafficking and exploitation. And, for all the city’s openness, I know of someone who was attacked on the street because he was gay. Bad things happen everywhere, unfortunately.
The neighborhood around the train station is best missed. This is where the unadventurous, hedonistic day-trippers hang out: Stumble off the train, get stoned, get laid, come-to in the morning and stumble back on the train. On weekends, mobs of drunken, young, British men make a zoo of his area.
The further one heads into the tangles of street and rings of canal, the more even-keeled the place becomes – hidden little squares of book sellers, cloistered medieval convents, the famous Bloemenmarkt (tulips!), stately churches, modest cafes and bars, and of course, the magnificent houses of the Golden Age’s well-to-do.
It’s an ambling sort of city – no straight lines, no hard angles – even the old mansions lean forward slightly to facilitate the hauling up of goods to upper-floor storerooms. The canals wrap around the cityscape in tree-lined ribbons of water. Without the canals, the city would be impossibly cramped and dark – The presence of so much water gives the place gills – breathing room and light.
(Speaking of canals, someone has to clean them, especially all the bikes that fall in)
Quiet conversation emerges from cafes and weed smoke occasionally wafts from a coffeeshop. The daytime is certainly not lazy, but definitely not hectic.
Amsterdam, in general, is full of sensuality, but the night bears it especially well. In one venerable sidestreet bar, old men may be drinking jenever, and in another place, ramshackle bookshelves and colorful art may line the walls… The streets themselves are an enticing labyrinth by night, with lights reflecting off the canals, and hundreds of dark nooks. And the red light district…
De Wallen has been catering to the carnality of the waterfront for centuries. It’s a strange spectacle – women writhing in windows, while hundreds gawk in curiosity and desire. The scene is made all the more surreal by the tower of Oude Kerk (built 1306) looking down from on-high. This is the heart of the old city, and nearby also stand De Waag, Nieuwmarkt, and other medieval locales.
Not far from here is the Begijnhof, a line of homes surrounding a large courtyard completely cut off from the rest of the city. Dating from some time around the Black Death, it was a home for widowed and single women of the church who, while not sequestered nuns, did charitable works and took vows of chastity. When we passed through, the morning before leaving, there was a soprano duo singing at the altar of the church here – – piano and crystal clear singing. Sobering and sublime.
(SCROLL DOWN FOR A HISTORY OF AMSTERDAM)
Amsterdam had one of the greatest runs in history. It’s a relatively new city- settled around the 1200’s, when the Amstel River was dammed. (The place of “The Dam” still exists). It remained relatively obscure for a few centuries, and so, was never a center of Medieval culture, and thus, never firmly established the feudal institutions and extreme religion of that age.
The city didn’t rise to prominence until after 1588, when the Dutch Republic drove out the Spanish Empire during the Eighty Years War. As the first modern Republic, it was not bound by a totalitarian religious and political regime. Its policy of relative religious freedom drew in Europe’s misfits- Huguenots, Jews, and traders and artists driven out of the cities of Southern Netherlands (modern Belgium), especially from the formerly prosperous Antwerp.
Its policy of free trade inspired the city to become an economic powerhouse- the first major mercantile city of the Modern era. It spread its influence far and wide, establishing bases and colonies in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. At its height, it was the most prosperous city on Earth. The magnitude of the city’s wealth at this time can still be seen along the canal rings, where the houses of the merchant class still stand proudly. Its stock market, founded in 1602, is the oldest continually operating exchange in the world. Accordingly, it was also an intellectual and artistic center of Europe- the home of painters such as Rembrandt, and philosophers such as Spinoza.
In 1609, the Dutch West India Company, one of two major arms of Dutch trade, hired the English explorer, Henry Hudson, to find a northerly route to Asia. Instead, he found the American river that still bears his name. In 1624, on an island where that river meets the sea, a colony was established called New Amsterdam, which eventually became a city that had its own unprecedented run in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Dutch only held New Amsterdam for a few decades, but the similarities between the mother and its child are striking. Historical Amsterdam is huddled around a ring of canals and has a bustling, congested feel, full of pedestrians, trams, cars, and bicycles darting here and there. In its heyday, the city was the preeminent commercial city of the world, much as New York was in its prime. Amsterdam drew the misfits of the world under a spirit of openness, much like NYC has done. As an artistic and intellectual center, it is home to world-class museums and orchestras, as well as ambitious and successful artists. The two cities also draw a constellation of tourists.