Friday, February 21, 2014

Canal cruise best way to see Amsterdam

We started our day sharing a laugh with the server at the coffee shop, when she said what a nice day it was. It was five degrees celsius. Well at least it wasn't raining or blowing for our walk to the canal boat tour. We were fortunate that we could do this since the canals have been frozen during the last three winters.

Amsterdam has more than 100 kilometres of canals, about 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. The three main canals dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, form concentric belts around the city, known as the Grachtengordel. Before we arrived here I had no idea just how many canals there were.

We passed under the most interesting bridges, one called the Blue Bridge, which hasn't been blue for a long time. Another bridge the Skinny Bridge connected two sisters, who lived on either side of it.

There are several locks along the canals and until the 1980s some were still operated by hand. These locks serve a good purpose since they are opened to flush out the canals four times a week in the summer and twice a week in winter making the canal water clean and more importantly not smelly.

Amsterdam was a centre of trade for coffee, tea, spices, slaves, gold, sugar and ivory. The harbour was filled with many trading ships. Our canal boat passed the Flower Market, which lies on floating barges. Tulips originally came from Ottoman Turkey, another rich trading country. Today the Dutch are one of the most important flower growing countries in the world. Trade in petroleum is huge making the Netherlands the world's largest petroleum exporter. Since Amsterdam is connected to the North Sea by the North Holland Canal and the Rhine River by the 72 kilometre Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, it is easy to see why Amsterdam is such an important port today.

The canals are lined with the oddest shaped houses. Many were built so that they pointed out at the top. One of the reasons for this was that it made your house look bigger. And other was that it was easier to haul up furniture or to keep dry goods safe from floods. Some of the four- or five-story houses were built to line up with houses that were built on wooden pilings that were now rotting. There were some very narrow houses, including one only three metres wide, built that way to cheat the taxman.

Lining the canals were thousands of houseboats all built after World War II to combat a housing shortage. Some were built on old canal boats, others were on concrete barges and others were purpose built. They ranged from wrecks in need of some TLC and other very elegant homes. No more are being built so they have become expensive and much in demand.

We passed many interesting buildings such as the very modern NUMA science museum, which mirrors the subway tunnel underneath, the Hermitage and the Nieuw Kirk containing Rembrandt's grave. The old Jordan district, which was built on the outskirts of town because of it's tanneries, is now a very desirable area to live. The Flea Market originally run by Sephardic Jews from Spain is still in business today.

By the time our cruise came to an end I had a much better understanding off the city's history. I wonder what it would be like to live in one of those narrow houses or perhaps a canal boat.

Back on land we had to dodge a brass band playing some upbeat Dutch music. It was the Heineken Brewery Band playing right across the street from the Heineken Brewery and their much touted Heineken Experience. We decided to visit. It was a bonus for us, since it was the brewery's birthday and admission was free.

Well, the museum part of the show was interesting – the architecture of the 19th century Heineken brewery buildings, authentic interiors, old photographs and state decorations the Heineken family received, a famous gold medal from The Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889, which you may see reproduced on each can of Heineken, the impressive copper beer tanks and a quiet horse stable with the well groomed draft horses. By the old copper vats we had a taste of the heated barley combined with water. Lots of people didn't like it but I thought it was great with its distinctive Horlick's flavour.

Part of the "experience" is more hands on and it has a bit of an amusement part that may have been arranged by people who had too much beer themselves - parts of it are simply irritating like screenings of very old beer commercials, parts are just plain silly like a quasi-3D movie, where an actor swims in a pool of beer and spectators are asked to feel like they were beer while being brewed,  shaken, sprayed with water and bubbles and finally placed on a conveyer belt and bottled. We sampled the beer and were told to drink from under the foam to keep the bubbles in the beer. You could make your own music video and make graphics moving your hand and activating your wrist bracelet. At this point the brewery part was lost. We were glad that it was time to move on.

Our next stop was completely different, the Van Gogh Museum, one of the busiest museums in the world. The museum maintains the world’s largest collection of the works of the world’s most popular artist - Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), his paintings, drawings and letters, completed with the art of his contemporaries. The museum was very busy making it difficult to appreciate the paintings, dodging between so many visitors.


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