Saturday, April 04, 2009


"The verdure of the trees reflecting strongly upon large windows which are kept bright and free of dust, add infinitely to their luster and magnificence." wrote a visiting American back in the 1700's.

This succinctly explains Amsterdam to the modern traveler as it did during the revolutionary years of Europe and America.

The brick and stone buildings shine with spotless oversized windows that reflect the branches and leaves of the tree-lined canals.

Amsterdam is a place you must experience, rather than just explore. My first visit in 2000 was about exploring, visiting the sites, going to the Keukenhof and the cheese auctions in Alkmaar. My time was spent mainly in the center between Centraal Station and Dam Square, very bustling and busy and hosts to the travelers and locals who like the adult night life. Because of this, Amsterdam did not enthrall me as Paris, Egypt or Bruges did and still do.

This time I came to work and I've done more than just explore, I've experienced Amsterdam, and now I have a very different perspective of this place of 700,000+ people. There are the frustrations of running a business in this aged and lovely city, but there are also the triumphs and joys of spending one's precious time here.

Let's start with the basics.

Amsterdam began to emerge from a sleepy fishing village in the late 1200's at the mouth of the Amstel river. Lords van Amstel feuded with counts and bishops that lasted for another century.

By the late 1300's, controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy, the little city perfected the method of curing herring (in 1385) and started to become a truly rich port as it also became the stopping ground to export beer and other wares from its mutli-purpose built homes that were also warehouses.

In 1452, the second major fire caused legislation that outlawed any buildings being constructed of wood. A few years earlier the marriage of Philip the Good of Burgundy to Isabella of Portugal put the Low Countries (as Netherlands was known at the time) in control by the all powerful Habsburg dynasty. FYI: Philip's son, Charles the V became, in later years, the King of Spain.

In 1568, the Dutch Revolt under William of Orange (a Protestant) arose and the power of the Catholics eroded quickly and within 10 years the Alteration occurs, where the Catholics are expelled from Amsterdam. William of Orange was assassinated in 1584, when he was shot on the staircase of his quarters in Delft (not sure if any of his porcelain broke from the shot).

In 1634 tulip mania begins in Amsterdam and Rembrandt becomes a Dutch sensation and in 1648, after many decades of war with Spain (80 years), the Treaty of Munster ends the fighting and the Netherlands is born.

For the pilgrims of the new world, later these United States of America, prior to sailing across the Atlantic, they went to Leiden to escape persecution from the British and stayed for 11 years before setting sail in 1620. There is a museum in Leiden describing their time in the Netherlands.

The 17th and 18th centuries were of great expansion and creation of wealth for the people of Amsterdam, including the creation of the East India Company as well as it's expansion around the world, including New Amsterdam, later to be called New York City.

In the 1960's, as in other parts of the world, strife and riots shook Amsterdam and droves fled the city and not until the late 1980's was the city once again a place of tranquility.

For those who are use to loud noises from city life, Amsterdam has to be one of the most silent cities in the world due to the few cars, relatively speaking, that travel throughout its streets. But when you are at street level, the site is anything but tranquil. There are throngs of people, bicycles, trams and mopeds and each one is plying their way through the narrow streets of Amsterdam. But, thankfully, most go about without any incidents of crashing into one another, it's actually quite remarkable!

When you visit this city, and please spend at least a week, rent a bicycle, it is the only real way to get around. Their bikes are single speed and many do not have hand breaks, just use your pedals to break. It takes getting use to. Many of the bikes are Chinese made and they sound it... the clanking of cheap metal can be constantly heard along bike paths all over the city. New and shiny just is not seen in the bikes of Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is a city that loves the arts and they have many museums, some are famous, like the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum whereas others are unique, like the Torture Museum, Hashish and Marijuana museum as well as distinct as the Bag and Purse Museum.

The most famous is the Rijksmuseum which holds some of the cities best and most valuable works of art.

There is a lot of construction going on at the Museumplein at the moment, with renovations happening at the Rijksmuseum and with the just-begun new construction at the Stedelik Museum, which will be a white box made of what looks like fiberglass (but one can only guess - possibly cement) with a very large overhang. This is the upscale part of Amsterdam with extremely large homes and expensive international shops all within walking distance of the 1860's built Vondelpark with its English inspired landscape covering 110 acres.

The I AMsterdam is a campaign to advertise this fascinating city. Art can be found all over Amsterdam, from the classical to the modern, from the religious to the outrageous, as you can see below.

Art can be VERY subjective.

Of course the Netherlands is known for it's tulips and a trip cannot be complete in the Spring without visiting one of its flower attractions. The Bloemenmarkt is the last remaining floating flower market in Amsterdam and it is very touristy, selling bulbs that are shipped all over the world.

Bloemenmarkt is one canal long and not anything special. For the truly outstanding, go outside of Amsterdam where the real flower gardens are to be found.

One of the charms of any city is to find a place that makes you feel welcomed. Mine was this little watering hole next to a more famous pub Cafe Belgique. But I like this one much more.

This great little watering hole is called Bols Proeflokaal De Drie Fleschjes and is located at Gravenstraat 18 and is owned by a man who lives the good life. He opens it up when he feels like it and he hangs out with the patrons while a bartender tends to their needs. They rent out the barrels to businesses and when the barrel runs out, you either buy another fill or another name goes on it. A great little spot that is not too well known but well worth a walk-by to see if it is open. They sell great beers (some from Belgium) and some Dutch gin (genever or jenever) and their phone number is: 020-6248443.

Of course one of the greatest draws are the canals. Amsterdam first started with the Amstel river and as time went on, the fishermen and farmers diverted some of its water into canals and over time, more and more fortified canals were built to make Amsterdam the water-laden city it is today. It is actually below sea-level, with only the heart of the center of Amsterdam being about 7 feet above sea water.

Boathouses on one of the many canals in Amsterdam. At a time, not too long ago, it was cheaper to own a houseboat than it was to buy a house or flat, but the city felt too many houseboats were congesting the city's canals, so increased taxes have now made living on a houseboat a luxury or a privilege rather than a convenience of euros. Many of them are floating gardens and hold a romantic voice in peoples' hearts and minds, even from those people who are just floating by.

One way to see the sites from the canals is to take one of many canal boat rides that are available to all, for the right price. But if you are lucky, as I was, ride with a local, the time spent can be quite wonderful.

The Atlassian Amsterdam office crew had the good fortune of doing just that. Valerie, who is part of our partner program and who is responsible for the European partners, invited us on her boyfriend's (Nicholas) 21 foot boat to cruise the canals in what was definitely the nicest weather Amsterdam has had in 2009. It is late in the evening and I still didn't need a jacket.

Atlassian crew enjoying the ride along the canals in Amsterdam.

You see many of amazing buildings - grachtenhuizen (canal houses) - all along the route. Many buildings built in the 1600 and 1700's with some later in the 1800's and even the 1900's.

This row of canal houses are on the Herengracht many of which were built in the 1600 and 1700's. Some of them may be leaning a little to the left or the right, but they still show their true majesty after 350 years.

Amsterdam has many styles of buildings which most were built after 1521 (since they are of stone) and the 1600 and 1700's are the majority of the buildings.

This row of canal houses is unique since all of them have shudders

I also love this row of canal houses with their lovely red shudders

One of my favorite buildings is currently the Theatermuseum. I am hoping to go inside later this week. The Theatermuseum was built in 1617 and was known as the Bartolotti House and was built in the Dutch Renaissance style of Hendrick de Keyser. This building is located at Herengracht 168.

Another of my favorite buildings is the Concertgebouw or Concert Hall in the Museumplein.

Concertgebouw is a Neo-Renaissance building that was open to a public architectural competition and the architect AL van Gendt won. There are two music halls and the Grote Zaal (main concert hall) has almost perfect acoustics even though the architect had no musical knowledge. It's first concert was on April 11, 1888 with 160 musicians and a 600 person choir. In 1983 the foundation was having subsidence issues and the entire building had to be lifted to remove the old original supporting piles, which were 43 feet deep, and pour in concrete pilings that are now 59 feet deep.

And here we have reflections on a canal.

Canal houses reflected on a canal

One of the more famous areas is that of the 7 bridges. Since we were boating through it, I only got photos of half of the bridges, but it is still amazing to see.

Part of the seven (7) bridges, which is one of the most photographed in all of Amsterdam.

As we were boating along, we heard this music and found this.

A Rock and Roll band were standing in and on an American car while playing and singing to the crowd.

On the eastern side of Amsterdam, we found this pizzaria.

Boats motor up and give their order and in a few moments, pizza is handed through the window at this pizzaria.

One great event during our evening of boating was Sherali's daughter got to be captain.

Our new captain Jasmine drove under 5 or more bridges and did a spectacular job... we were all so proud of her!

For three times now, I have run into this canal performer and sure enough, during our boating, I saw him again!

This canal performer blows his horn while cranking his organ and maneuvering his boat... and he actually sounds really good.

One of the more famous sections of Amsterdam, also on the east side, is the Red Light district.

The Red Light district is famous and infamous for the women in the windows and the legal prostitution. People in the business are treated with respect and have public and business clout. Just another example of the tolerance that is Amsterdam.

As stated before, Amsterdam is a very quiet city, especially outside of the center, you just don't have those constant city humming noises that you do in most others and in the early nights it is even quieter, quite serene actually.

This is one example of a canal at night with lights reflecting off a calm, benevolent canal.

So why the three XXX's on flags, posts and elsewhere?

For many people, it represents pornography and debauchery, which Amsterdam is well known for, but in fact the flag of Amsterdam depicts three Saint Andrew's Crosses and is based on the escutcheon in the coat of arms of Amsterdam. The flag was adopted on February 5, 1975... so there!

One of the most interesting and peaceful places in Amsterdam is just four blocks from the frenetic Dam Square is the Begijnhof.

Begijnhof from the outside.

Begijnhof - English Reformed Church was built in 1419 for the Catholic sisterhood sanctuary known as the Bengijntjes for single women who did not take monastic vows but educated the poor and took care of the sick. The church was turned to a Protestant denomination following the Alteration in 1578.

the green past the church.

Begijnhof Chapel, across from the church, still holds symbols of its Catholic past.

People continued to practice their Catholic beliefs, in secret, at the Begijnhof Chapel until 1795 when tolerance returned, including religious freedoms.

Begijnhof - Het Houten Huis - No. 34 - is the oldest building in Amsterdam from around 1420 and one of the two remaining all wooden structures/buildings in Amsterdam since the city banned wooden buildings in 1521 due to devastating fires and also since most of the buildings in the Begijnhof were not built until after the 1500's.

Begijnhof - Palm Sunday celebrations, surprisingly, no palms, but some other branch was used as the reverend spread holy water over his congregation. Plaques that came from some of the buildings at the Begijnhof can be seen on the far wall.

These are close-ups of the various plaques that came from the buildings inside the Begijnhof. Of course they have a religious note about them. If you can guess what they say or are about, good for you. I'm still guessing.

A truly magnificent spot just north of Vondelpark is Hollandsche Mangege, or the Netherlands Horse School. This building opened in 1882 and was designed after the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. In the early 1980's the building, and school, were threatened with demolition but due to a major outcry from its neighbors, funds were raised and the school continues today.

Hollandsche Mangege's beautiful entrance.

Hollandsche Manege - a sweet horse who just wanted to say hello.

One of the two large corrals where students can learn how to ride as well as how to train their horses. Each of the students, on top of getting lessons, must perform duties at the Hollandsche Manege, like feeding the horses, cleaning the stalls and taking care of their gear.

The cafe overlooks one of the corrals. Barring the smell of horse manure, it is quite lovely.

These are the horses in the Hollandsche in 2007... oh so cute.

1 comment:

Greg Comstock said...

Fantastic photos! You've definitely inspired me to visit Amsterdam someday, when I'm fortunate enough to set foot in Europe.