Traveling in Europe: Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Holland, travel, bikes, bicyclists

Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam

Amsterdam was a place of contradictions. It was large, in terms of things to see and do, and small in terms of area, though I still managed to walk a good seven hours one day, getting lost on the wrong side of canals. It was cosmopolitan but kind of dirty because of so many people, the sidewalks and streets sporting numerous stains and dead gum and just general grime. I find that cities of this size end up with the group mentality issue. Like mob mentality, this massive city entity is one of mindless automatons, people all trying to get to where they’re going, without willing to move or adapt or politely let someone by. I cannot stand crowds for this reason; not because there are a lot of people but because there are a lot of people being mindless and self-absorbed and not trying to work with the whole. Drives me nuts.

Amsterdam, travel, transportation, trams, bikes

One of Amsterdam’s trams

But…I maneuvered through the flight to the train and from the train station to the tram, even though the police gave me the wrong directions. There are plenty of trams and buses, and getting around is easy, as long as you watch out for bike lanes. I did blunder twice into a bike lane and nearly got smeared. Even so, the Dutch never swore at me (that I understood) and moved out of the way and I apologized profusely. Holland is the land of bicyclists, probably only second to China. At train and tram stations I saw thousands of bikes parked in racks. On the narrow, medieval cobblestoned streets there are often trams, cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians. A sidewalk might exist and might also be very narrow. A painted line in most cases is all that separates the bike lane from the sidewalk or road. And sometimes you just have to scoot around a parked car or someone moving items in and out of a building.

Amsterdam, travel, buildings, Dutch architecture

Dutch buildings are tall, narrow and lean

The buildings, ranging in years from four-five centuries to recent, are narrow and tall. The windows are likewise very high. It seems back in the 16-17th centuries people were taxed by the width of their houses so they built up. Of course they were probably taxed on width because the land was reclaimed foot by painstaking foot from the sea, and most of Holland is below sea level. In fact, if I ever wanted to build anything near or on water I would hire a Dutch hydraulic engineer; they’ve been doing this for centuries.

gables, Dutch houses, moving hooks, winches, Amsterdam

A good example of fancy gabling and the hook for moving items in through windows.

As all the buildings are high and thin, it means there are many many narrow stairs, in fact too narrow to move furniture up. So they built hooks on the top end of the buildings by which to pulley items into the structure, and they’re still used to this day. Because of this way of moving furniture  the buildings indeed lean out into the streets,because a perfectly perpendicular building would have its windows and facade smashed in a move. The buildings have several different types of gables, (step, bottle, etc.) which were popular for distinction as well as design at the top window. Before street numbers, shops had plaques that differentiated them or what they did or sold.

And of course, everywhere there are canals. Before coming to Holland when I thought of canals I thought of Venice. How was I so ignorant? Holland is truly the land of canals, everywhere. Some areas have more than others but they are like the veins of the land. The land between the agricultural canals is called a polder and the Dutch manipulated every aspect of building below sea level. Not only do the canals provide irrigation, they also work as routes for delivery and transportation as well as being a way to maintain the land. Theywork as a bleed-off when the water levels rise and save many structures from flooding. Truly amazing when you think about it. Now days, sewage is not dumped directly into the canals and they are pleasant, with numerous boat tours or houseboats.

Amsterdam, canals, Dutch, polders, history, architecture

One of many picturesque canals

Holland, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, history, travel

This building sat all by itself.

canals, houseboats, Amsterdam, polders, history, travel, culture

These houseboats are often 100 years old.

The streets are a mixture of cobblestones and modern paving, just as the buildings go from modern to five centuries old. There is not grid in a medieval aged city as the streets grew organically out of the center. In this case the Amstel River played a role in forming Amsterdam’s streets, which horseshoe out. Wandering up and down these streets and canals and just looking at the buildings that people take for granted was as interesting to me as going into a historic cathedral or a museum. Canada’s oldest buildings might only be one and a half centuries old (especially the west coast), established by people moving into natural geographic areas and planning out their towns. The sheer age of European cities gives a much more organic and haphazard growth.

There is actually enough to talk about with Amsterdam that I’ll do a second post on some of the other historic aspects.

Europe 2011: Amsterdam
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