AMSTERDAM… difficult to resist!
Amsterdam, known as “The Venice of the North”, carries well its name: water is omnipresent. Like a unifying thread, it guides our steps everywhere, leads us from one bridge to another under the kind look of strange residences, narrow and leaning, supporting each other. Strolling along the shores of its canals, getting lost in adjacent alleyways, to finally find our way at the turn of a monument or an animated place. The street has so much to offer that it is quite difficult to resist the charms of this magical town, giving itself without any reserves to such an extent that we often forget the richness of its museums.
Amsterdam takes shape
As early as the thirteenth century, on its shores came the first German and Portuguese ships, unloading crates of pickled fish and beer barrels Amsterdam emerges from the marshland. Man marks out his first canals, draws his bridges and locks. To protect it from the violence of tides, he erects embankments behind which nestle the homes of herring fishermen.
During the course of the sixteenth century, at the time when religious wars were wreaking havoc, it represented a haven of tolerance for many. Since the 17th century, bankers, traders, and artists of all nationalities settled down while Dutch ships sailed back from their distant expeditions, laden with silk, precious stones and spices. Fine residences flourished along the river Amstel, which will give its name to the town: Amstel + dam = Amsterdam. Its painting is completed, the name found: Amsterdam emerges from its rough sketch and becomes a piece of art!
Today, Amsterdam is 740’000 inhabitants, more than 1’000 bridges and numerous canals. Capital of the Netherlands, it is built above sea level, with heavy piles like giant arms supporting the houses but with much effort. The latter are tall and narrow, the windows do not have any shutters and the walls are made up of dull red bricks; a quite austere architecture but so traditional of the North. Still, our gaze reach to their roofs surmounted with gables of diverse shapes: tips, stairs, bells and other amusing geometries. From their rooftops, springing from the stone, we can even catch a glimpse of a beam fitted with a hook where a rope is solidly attached for hoisting furniture, or like in the past, heavy merchandise.
Amsterdam, “light and shade”.
Of course, no one will think twice about its "Red Light District" located in the town centre, and its window prostitutes, or even its coffee shops where cannabis is in free commerce. The city has the Holland Casino where you can play poker. Nevertheless, Amsterdam is also and above all a city of art and romantic strolls. It is to the will of its canals and alleys that the beauty of the city is slowly unveiled. In a taxi-boat, walking or cycling, as here bicycles, omnipresent, give the rhythm to the traffic! Many artist painters came to dip their brushes in this exceptional light: Rembrandt, master of "light and shade", Van Gogh, Vermeer and so many others whose work of art can be admired at the House of Rembrandt, the Van Gogh Museum or at the Rijksmuseum. We will also discover its modern art museum or its historical museum carrying the arms of the town: three crosses of St Andrew, patron of the fishermen, and its two lions, symbol of courage, and the whole adorned with the imperial crown. And we will stop, full of emotion, before the house of Anne Frank, the little Jewish girl sent to the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen and whose secret diary traveled all over the world.
Feeling an unusual desire? So get on board the Amsterdam, a faithful replica of a ship of the Indies Company; enter the barge museum “Hendrika Maria” to discover the amstellodamish home; observe the diamond polishers at “Gassan Diamonds”; discover the superb flower market along the Singel canal; breathe in the tranquility of the hidden gardens like the Béguinage; visit the very explicit museum of sex or take a tour of Java Eiland, a peninsula linked to the port by a bridge and whose modern architecture is bound to surprise you!
Here, a rendezvous is given in front of the obelisk at the Dam market place, just like in front of St-Michel fountain in Paris. Then, on the ground at Spui or around Leidseplein, small animated bars welcome us where we will drink a Dutch beer. Feeling a little hungry and the typical restaurant offers the national menu: a split peas soup or still, a “stamppot”, a casserole made up of cabbage and meat cooked in stock. We can also find a diverse number of international restaurants, especially Indonesians, due to its colonial past. However, it is recommended to simply stroll about while nibbling a delicious “broodje” sandwich filled with cheese or herring, sold in the street or in the “eetcafé”.
We leave the tumult of the city, towards the South-East, for a bucolic promenade between Haarlem and Leiden, where in spring, stretching out of sight, the fields are painted with tulips, but also narcissus, hyacinths, crocuses that are sold over at Aalsmeer like fish, with sellers openly outcrying their types and prices. And so, shimmering bouquets and sleeping bulbs load our arms with perfumed promises.
Then, there are the amazing villages of fishermen along the Ijssel Lake which absolutely needs to be discovered. The charm and the authenticity of these places make them an inevitable stopping place: paved alleyways, tall and narrow houses, peaceful canals, bascule bridges. At Marken, after having visited the workshop of the shoemaker where clogs climbed up to the ceiling, we will take a stroll along the embankment set with the houses of fishermen in black or dark green wood. A village, which seems to live out of time, a “museum-village”, everywhere looks too beautiful, too clean, too peaceful! Next stop: Edam, famously known for its market of cheeses in summer, which, in their orange, red or black wax dress, proudly exhale their fruity or cumin-enhanced perfume! We will cross a small place edged with gable houses and we will penetrate the house-museum where we will discover with surprise its sloping floors, built-in beds and its famous floating cave.
On the road to the beaches, in the direction of Aalkmar, we will discover the mills, wings in the wind, like lighthouses dominating the plain. In the distance, herons are busy chattering and the reeds are whispering, Don Quichotte is surely not far away
Finally, we breathe in the vivifying air of the sea of the North, this last “barren land”, at Egmond aan Zee or at Wijk aan Zee, and sing softly in the wind Brel’s “Port of Amsterdam”, already growing distant Amsterdam, a city like a refrain that we will never forget.
Text: © Valérie Claro • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra