Boarding a fast train from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, we reached Amsterdam central station in twenty minutes. The area around the central station is hub of activities and as soon as we came out, our heart started to resonate with this one of the liveliest of European cities.
Just outside the station, trams painted from top to bottom with colorful advertisements were crossing each other and a substantial gathering of commuters were waiting to take trams to their respective destinations. The tram that I found most impressive was the one decorated with a newspaper. Men are men, the wishful thinking that one could read newspaper standing; waiting for the tram with both hands free, and without one’s wife cribbing about it, caught my imagination. Alas! I could not read that newspaper, it was in Dutch
This 800 year old capital of the Netherlands is also known as the city of canals. In front of the central station there was a water canal buzzing with frenzied tourist activity. Water is everywhere in Amsterdam. It flows through canals, criss-cross entire Amsterdam, and is spanned with beautiful bridges dressed in choicest colors picked from Van-Gogh’s canvas. But, water wasn’t always had the aesthetic presence in the Netherlands, as one-third of the country lies below sea-level the Dutch had to reclaim land from water to rebuild the country. In-fact the name – the Netherlands – means the lower land. According to a popular expression, “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Holland“. In my opinion, the expression fairly brings forth the tireless achievements of the industrious Dutch people who changed the physical appearance of their country by “conquering it from the water”.
We decided to cruise to get the first impression of the city. In ETAP, I noticed several discount coupons for a few tourist attractions and activities. I picked some of them and those cards fetched us a discount of a few Euros.
On the cruise, a lady-guide was speaking about the history of Amsterdam and monuments on either side of the banks. Amsterdam got its name after construction of a dam over Amstel River in twelfth century. Initially it was called Amstellodamus that developed into Amsterdam. Before construction of that dam, Amsterdam was mainly inhabited by fishermen. Though Amstel River was flowing right across the settlement but farming was not possible. Amstel River was directly connected to the sea and so during six hours of high tide period it used to get flooded with sea water making it unusable for irrigation purposes. After construction of the dam, the Amstel River got rid of “saltization” of its fresh water. The doors of the dam were kept closed during high tide period and were opened at low tide period to drain excess water. Availability of fresh water was the starting of farming in and around Amsterdam and the farming possibilities attracted many more towards the city.
Around the same period, for their long sufferings the count of Holland, Floris V, , allowed citizens of Amsterdam to have trade without any toll tax in all the Netherlands. The decision immediately provided them an upper hand in overall trade and Amsterdam became the trade centre of the Netherlands.
The guide sighed, “The land was dirt cheap at that time and now it is almost impossible to buy land in Amsterdam”. She sounded, if she could travel back in time she would like to own big chunk of land
As we moved, we noticed replica of an old seventeenth century ship with figure-head of two men. It was looking like a pirate ship, but is actually a maritime museum. As Amsterdam is an old harbor so it is very natural that they are proud of their ancient sea prowess. In this museum models of old ships, maps, and equipments to determine directions have been kept. If time could permit, I would have liked to walk on its deck to have a feel of seventeenth century’s sailor’s life!
Here, let me share the importance of Cartography – the technique of making maps. According to Sanjiv Sanyal, the author of the “Land of Seven Rivers” – the reason of European dominance during Europe’s colonial expansion phase was growing technology gap between them and everyone else. And the cutting edge technology of that time was cartography. The discoveries made during sea voyages were put down on hand drawn maps. These maps were considered top secrets and were the focus of the international espionage. Before each voyage only the captain was allowed to have a look at them and to make his own copy from the royal library. He was expected to return his hand-made copy with new discoveries marked out once he got back. The accuracy of these maps proved far more effective and important than the advancement in war weapons. I am sure this information would change the way we look at these old maps.
Further, we noticed a tilted green color ship. The monumental ship like structure is renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano’s Nemo – The largest futuristic science centre in Netherland. The outer wall of this building is made of copper that after oxidation gave it a distinctive green color. On the flat landscape of Amsterdam this building is visible from far and acts like a landscape. The guide was emphasizing that after visiting numerous Museums of this museum city, if our hands start itching to touch and feel or if we get tired of saying “No” to our kids keeping them away from work of arts, it is the best place to visit. Contrary to other museums here visitors are encouraged to touch the collection and experiment with it.
Soon we were crossing a picturesque traditionally styled wooden drawbridge that was lifted to let our boat through. It was Magere Burg, or the Skinny Bridge, a double leaf Dutch drawbridge connecting the banks of river Amstel. Burg is a Dutch word for bridge. This bridge derives its fame from the 1971 Bond movie, Diamonds are forever, in which it is in the backdrop of a macabre scene where a dead woman is pulled from the Amstel river. The bridge derives its name from the Magere sister living on the two sides of Amstel river who got the first bridge constructed in 1670 so they can visit each other daily with least inconvenience. It is believed that the sisters gradually lost all the funds during the construction and hence the bridge also started to be called as the skinny bridge. Some believe that the bridge earned this appellation due to its narrow width. As traffic on Amstel increased, a wider bridge was built to replace the narrower one in 1871 and even this was replaced with even wider bridge in 1934. The Magere Burg is among the most beautiful and famous of Amsterdam bridges and it provides the beautiful view of the city.
There were large house boats parked along canal. They were well-kept and were decorated with plants and flowers. Fighting a battle against water and after domesticating it, Dutch are romantic about water. These house boats are used as alternative houses for some months in a year, a nostalgic nod to the free-floating life styles of the mid-nineties. I didn’t see anyone inside them, so I don’t know if they were occupied at that time or not, but vegetation definitely gave soul to these houseboats. It seemed that the owner has just gone out and may return any-time. I must accept that my desire (that is unsatisfied till date) to live in such serene houses increased manifolds after looking at them.
Rachit was keenly and engagingly enjoying the canal cruise. He was deeply engrossed in looking out and Jaishree felt it was right time to capture his expressions without catching his attention. As he is growing, taking his photographs has become time-consuming and sometimes annoying affair. He is no longer satisfied with his pictures. For every single photograph of him, I have to hand over camera to him and keep on smiling till he takes two or three of mine. Sadly, like mirror, camera also does not lie and I have to delete all of them afterwards.
Through this cruise we had a fascinating and relaxed start of the tour of the Amsterdam, getting a feel of this quaint little city and it’s laid off life. People were sitting on bank side café and enjoying their cupful café in a sort of soul-searching peaceful surroundings. We kept on crossing tourists gleefully waving and expressing the fun they were having. It was a beautiful cloudy day and weather was perfect for a mother of two to take her kids on a bicycle ride. I have to pause now; the last picture has reminded me that I too have to take my young kids for ‘still-not-so-cold’ winter evening stroll.