Checking Out the 'Dam

19 Feb, 2005 | TravelTdp

Two weeks ago, I decided to go visit Amsterdam. My original contract was for six months, but it looks like I might not be needed for that long and, as I’ve been here for three and a half months already, I decided I was well overdue for a visit. It was a beautiful day to visit, at least to start anyhow. I had done a little reading to get an idea of what was there and what I should visit and then, off I went. For future reference, acquiring a map before you go is well worth it as signposts are generally notable by their absence. I was too tight to buy a map which meant I spent a lot of time getting lost in the various streets and alleyways, in no way an unpleasant experience I can assure you.

The site I read stated that Amsterdam is called the Venice of the north, due to all of it’s canals. It certainly has a lot of them. Combine them with architecture which wouldn’t look out of place at a Disney theme park version of continental Europe and it makes for a beautiful city. I’m a big fan of architecture, old and new, and Amsterdam has plenty of both. Around every corner there seemed to be another interesting vista.

I started off in Dam Square, which is the central hub of Amsterdam, and has the Royal Palace on one side (one of three Royal Palaces and rarely used except on formal state occasions, apparently). On the opposite side of the square is the ‘phallic’ Dutch Memorial in honour of the Dutch men and women who fought and died in WWII. After that I headed for the inspirationally named Old Church, so called because it’s Amsterdam’s oldest church. Now, I hadn’t intended to visit the red light district, but the Old Church, rather ironically, is smack bang in the middle of it. So, there I am, strolling around, looking at the strange shapes of the various parts of the church (it started as a single aisle church and has grown over the years to a full-on basilica), when I hear a tapping noise. I’d seen a few cafes as I was circling the other side, so I thought it might be an owner knocking on the glass to try and tempt me in. I was right about what the noise was, and it’s purpose, but I was wrong about the person (or, as I found as I walked, people) who was tapping. That’s right folks, ladies at glass doors were trying to attract my attention and offer me their services. Need I elaborate? (These were real life ladies of negotiable affection for anyone who reads Pratchett). Next I headed to take a look at the Church of St. Nicholas, which I had seen from the Old Church.

Around this area is also the centre for a lot of nightlife in the form or bars and cafes. To be honest though, you couldn’t go more than a few hundred yards in Amsterdam without seeing a cafe. I’ve been to Vancouver and Seattle, both of which had a large number of coffee shops/cafes, but I reckon Amsterdam must have more per capita than either of them. You do get some smells emanating from those in Amsterdam that you wouldn’t anywhere else. Hash is big business over here. I did find it rather ironic that some of the cafes were very keen to point out they didn’t sell alcohol though, very responsible.

I went from there to the Van Gogh Museum (I believe it’s pronounced Van Goch -- as in the Scottish Loch -- although the Brits tend to pronounce it Van Goff, which is at least better than the Americans saying Van Go). The museum houses the largest collection of his works. It’s located in what is called the Museum Quarter, which was referred to a lot, but which I couldn’t find on any maps as such, and, as it turns out, the map I printed didn’t extend far enough out to cover it. I knew the Rijksmuseum was in the same area and so I wandered around until I found a sign that pointed to it. At the Rijksmuseum I was lucky to find a street map which told me where the Van Gogh Museum was. I’m not usually a big art gallery fan, I’ve been in about three in my entire life, but I figured that I was in Holland and that if I wanted to look at some originals by one of the old masters this was the place to do it. I’m glad I did. The collection covers all of Van Gogh’s painting life and includes a remarkable number of ‘experiments’ as well as works from other artists (Manet, Monet, Whistler, etc) who were either contemporaries or who worked in the same vein. The quality of Van Gogh’s work ranges from average up to the sublime. Aspiring artists should draw encouragement that while he may be recognised as a fantastic artist (rightly so), he couldn’t do portraits. I saw one of the sunflowers paintings (there are five remaining, three with yellow backgrounds, two with blue), and the famous crows over a cornfield (I doubt that’s the official name) (edit: it's called Wheatfield with Crows), but I like the blossom against the sky painting best I think, it was done in honour of Van Gogh’s younger brother Theo’s new-born child. If you like them that much, you can buy prints of all his works in the shop. You can also check out many of the paintings online at: It took probably an hour and a half to do the whole museum, and I wasn’t dawdling, so leave some time if you plan on visiting.

Next I took a stroll around the nearby Vondelpark, Holland’s most famous park, or so I’m told. I would say that it was nice to get away from the hustle and bustle, but there where still huge numbers of bikes passing through the park and avoiding them took some doing on occasion. I like parks in cities.

From there I headed back downtown to see Anne Frank’s house. Anne’s father, Otto, owned a shop in Amsterdam where he hid his family when the Nazis came to power and started their campaign against Jews. In total, eight people hid in the shop (which isn’t very wide, but is apparently quite deep and has numerous stories) for several years in an area accessed by a sliding bookcase. The family was discovered in August 1944 (bearing in mind the Allies had landed in Normandy in June 1944) and were deported to concentration camps. Only Otto survived. I didn’t go in, but I can confirm it gets long queues. The best times to visit, apparently, are either early in the morning or in the evening (it’s open ‘till 9 in the summer).

And that was pretty much it for my tour of Amsterdam, not exhaustive by any means, but I got a good look at the place, and I was impressed, definitely somewhere I wouldn’t mind spending some more time.