Wednesday, March 6, 2013


My introduction to Amsterdam was pretty mixed.  It was the final port on our Viking river cruise, and we disembarked on a cold, gray, rainy Sunday morning.  We didn't have to remove our luggage from the boat until later in the morning, so we thought we would get off early and find a church service (of any denomination).  It was 9:00 a.m., the perfect time for church.

Apparently, that is not the case in Amsterdam.
My sisters in front of the locked up Oede Kerk (Old Church)
Within a block or so of the dock was a large church, but there was not much going on there.  We listened for ringing bells.  There were none.  We kept walking, sure that we would quickly find an open and operating church as we had in other European countries on Sunday morning.


What we got instead was an accidental eye-opening (or eye-closing, depending on how you look--or don't look--at it) walk through Amsterdam's famous red light district, where scantily dressed women beckoned from behind full-length glass doors and windows. As it was rather early on a Sunday morning, I suppose the "window displays" weren't as numerous as they could have been, but it was definitely enough to get the flavor of the place.  It wasn't one of the scenes out of The Best Two Years, that's for sure.
"Jesus loves you" in Amsterdam, even if you don't go to church.
Besides that, Amsterdam is one of the dirtiest European cities I've visited.  There was trash all over, on the streets as well as the sidewalks.  In their defense, we were walking around one of the less savory parts of town--the docks and the red light district.  In addition, we were there after a Friday and Saturday night, and Amsterdam is clearly a party city.

It definitely took me a while to see Amsterdam's more positive side.

The first thing that drew me in was the network of iconic, picturesque canals crisscrossing the city and lapping at the building foundations:
Amsterdam /
It was also hard not to be charmed by the thousands and thousands of bicycles.  We loved seeing everyone, young and old, riding bikes to work in the morning, and that included men in suits and women in skirts. Even in the rain they rode holding umbrellas over their heads.
Underground bicycle parking at the train station
There were plenty of cars and buses, but Amsterdam doesn't seem to have a huge problem with traffic:

I have a thing for pigeons on cobblestones, another check in Amsterdam's plus column:

Amsterdam is a city known for its art museums and impact on world art,

Okay, not exactly classical art.  Some of the real thing
will be forthcoming in future posts.

. . . but I was also charmed by its street art:
A 19th century Dutch writer best known for his novel
denouncing Dutch colonialism in the East Indies
Hey, look!  They must LIKE Americans here! Okay, okay. I am starting to like them back.
The clincher was the cheese, the exquisitely tasty, piquant, and complex Dutch cheese.  We spent a very enjoyable afternoon at a cheese-tasting class at the Reypenauer Cheese Shop.
Reypenauer Cheese Shop, Amsterdam /
The ten of us and another ten or so people sat at tables in a basement room of the shop.  In front of each one of us was an assortment of cheeses on a very nice cutting board.
During the tasting, we cut our own samples, and we could have as much as we wanted. A man (woman? I can't remember) at the front of the room guided us through the hour, teaching us about the different types of Dutch cheese and the origins and manufacturing process of our six samples.  Along the way we filled out this chart:
It was heavenly.  I must confess that since returning home I have become a gouda aficionado and like keeping my fridge stocked with this surprisingly variable cheese:  After all, I have to have a use for the cheese cutting board I brought home with me:

Then there were a few times when the genius of the Dutch was very apparent:

. . . as was their sense of humor. The engraving on the base of the statue below translates as "Amsterdam Sweetheart: A gift to the city from the Van Hunter Cigarette Co., 1960."  During the 1960s youth movement, this was a gathering place for protestors.  I looks like the Amsterdam Sweetheart is still a symbol of anarchy:

I have no idea why these giant lizards were hanging out in Amsterdam, but they made my hubby happy, which made me happy:
We ran into David and Goliath in the foyer of the Amsterdam Historical Museum. The wooden figures were carved in the mid-17th century by Albert Jansz. Goliath stands over 16 feet tall and David is about 5'3"

David looks a bit like a girl scout, don't you think?  I'm not sure who the other figure is.  A footman?

There is more Amsterdam to come, both good and bad, but in the end it is pretty hard to ignore this eclectic, iconic, creative world capital.

I highly recommend this book for anyone traveling to the Netherlands. Russell Shorto is an American writer, a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, and a former director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam. Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City reflects years of study and six years of actually living in the city. Shorto defines Amsterdam's peculiar version of liberalism as "cooperating to advance individual power" and a blend of "collective sensibility and extreme liberalism."

I came away with some of the reasons I dislike Amsterdam reinforced: prostitution and the sex trade, excessive marijuana use, lack of religion, squatting, lack of protection for the Jews during World War II (in spite of the Anne Frank story), and the country's involvement in the slave trade. However, I gained new respect for Amsterdam as the site of the world's first stock market and its role in creating international finance; for its contributions to the art world, to intellectual freedom, to publishing, and to social consciousness--especially in regards to the poor; for its incredible feats of engineering; for its championing of women's rights in both birth control and voting; and (last but not least) for its contribution of pickled herring to the world's cuisine and tulips to the world's gardens.

1 comment:

  1. I liked Amsterdam a lot more than you did. It is very unique, distinctive. Very different in many ways than anywhere else we've been. I also love that you focus on things I barely notice, the street art, quirky statues, funky store fronts. Then as you post them I get to enjoy what I kind of missed and didn't appreciate. The world is an enjoyable place through your eyes.