Good tourists that we are, we enjoyed two canal cruises.

The first one was a dinner cruise. It was lovely to watch the city transform from sunset warmth to nighttime glow.

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The second cruise was on an open-air boat. By chance we were the only two guests for our 6 pm tour. Our guide was therefore relaxed and chatty, and the captain took us on a longer route than usual.

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This means we heard quite a few tour-guide stories. Here are a few (as best as we can recall!):

Design by taxes

Amsterdam’s Golden Age was the 17th century. The Dutch were the first to master the sea routes around the world. They constructed the best ships. They developed a network of outposts and trading relationships in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania. They were the Microsoft, Google and Apple of the 1600s.

Amsterdam grew quickly and lavishly from a marshy fishing town to a grand city. As all cities do and must, Amsterdam needed to tax its residents, especially its nouveau riche, to fund its projects and services. Tax calculations for property owners were based on at least three visible metrics: width of the façade of your building, the number of steps from the street to your front door, and the number of window panes (not just windows, but window panes) in the public facade. Frugal owners built narrow buildings, which required tight steep interior stairs that didn’t take up too much of the restricted floor plates. Ostentatious, fabulously rich owners built wide houses, with tall front stairs, and windows divided into many small panes.

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XXX

Amsterdam is famously a liberal, tolerant city. Marijuana and sex are both openly available. So, when we saw flags and plaques everywhere with three X’s — XXX — we thought this had something to do with the city’s adult obsessions. Silly tourists.

Three X’s in stripes of black and red are three crosses of St. Andrew. St. Andrew was a fisherman who was martyred in the first century AD. A fisherman saint was perfect for fishing-town Amsterdam.

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But our guide told us that the three X’s commemorate three terrible events in Amsterdam’s history: A horrific flood that destroyed the city in the Middle Ages; two immense fires that destroyed most of the city in the 15th century; and a reprise of the Black Death in the 17th century. That flood was an early impetus for the Dutch mastery of dikes, canals and locks. After the great fires, stone and brick replaced wood as principal building materials; today there are almost no wood-facade buildings in Amsterdam.

(After a bit of post-trip research, it seems that, while engaging, the three-disaster inspiration is probably not true. Good story, though.)

Crooked buildings

Many of the buildings in Amsterdam date from the 17th century and earlier. The city was built on a swamp. It is not surprising, therefore, to see buildings that lean a bit to the right or the left. Right across from the house in which we stayed, two buildings leaned away from each other, leaving a gap at the top of their four stories.

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What would it be like to live in one of these left- or right-leaning buildings? We could plainly see tilting windows. Since Amsterdam is a protected historical city, no one can adjust the exteriors. But you can renovate the interiors and make floors level and walls vertical if you want. No worries about sloshing morning cups of coffee, and apples rolling off the table.

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We noticed that very many buildings lean out toward the street or canal, and we thought this was more evidence of uneven settling. No. This is a design solution. You may know already that a beam and hook project from the top of most Amsterdam houses and buildings. Because the buildings are typically very narrow with steep tight interior stairs, you can’t carry a sofa or refrigerator to your upper rooms. The beams, with pulleys added, support the hoisting of furniture and building supplies up the face the building and into upper rooms. The facades of many houses purposefully lean outward to make it easier and safer to lift big objects up the face of the building without hitting the walls and breaking the windows.

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Fresh water

Until about 1930, the city of Amsterdam faced waters that opened onto the North Sea. Sea water filled the canals. Locks helped protect the city from storm surges.

By 1932, the Dutch had built great extensive dikes and barriers that today keep the North Sea out of their land.

The water in Amsterdam’s canals is now 100% fresh, fed by the Amstel river and rain. Currently, there are sixteen locks within the canals. 14 of the 16 locks are closed a few nights a week to create water currents that refresh the canals from nearby lakes. 

French style, yes, but…

Most of the bridges over the canals and river are unadorned and utilitarian.

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There is however a showier bridge, the Hogesluis Bridge. Perhaps France gave this bridge to Amsterdam, or bridges in Paris inspired its design. Despite (because of?) its Frenchiness, this bridge exasperated the city’s maritime community. The bridge passes low over the water and can’t open up to let large vessels through. At the time of its construction, this waterway was a major course for cargo ships. After the arrival of the new bridge, the ships needed to sail for hours out of the waterway, into the ocean, and back in the other side. Those pretty French…

 

What’s your address?

For hundreds of years, there were no numbered addresses in Amsterdam. Visitors found their destination house based on its design characteristics. The variety of picturesque gables came from the need to distinguish each house from its neighbors’.

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House and business owners also displayed plaques on the fronts of their buildings.

 

For merchants and guilds, the plaques or even sculptures announced their area of work. This elaborately decorated wood facade celebrates the skills of the woodworker whose atelier it is.

 

It was Napoleon who imposed numbered building addresses during his occupation at the start of the 19th century. The residents of the city were very happy to see Napoleon leave, but were content to keep his gift of street numbers.

Houseboats

Unlike Venice but a bit like Sausalito, houseboats line most of the canals.

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On our cruises, the windows of the houseboats were directly at our eye level. We could see right into living rooms and kitchens. We could see people watching TV, having supper, cleaning up in the kitchen. Some interiors were white and spare. Others were more richly decorated. While fascinated, we weren’t sure we should be staring into such intimate domains. But we did.

The Dutch don’t have much interest in curtains anywhere. From our cruise boat perspective, as well as as we walked through the city, unfettered windows invited clear views of interior rooms as well as of the people going about their daily lives. In our part of France, all houses have shutters which are most of the time closed, and houses in neighborhoods like ours have walls and hedges all around them. The French sensibility is for privacy and protection. The Dutch sensibility seems to be for openness and sharing. I love my memory from one window on an Amsterdam street: A man was sitting in an easy chair in his street-level room, reading a book, with a cat on his lap. Relaxed and open; no need to hide.

Depending on the quality and state of repair, the houseboat itself may be relatively inexpensive. It is the cost of the space on the canal that will raise your eyebrows: usually hundreds of thousands of euros. And you have to pay for insurance, upkeep, utilities and taxes just like a land-based house. The houseboats connect to city utilities for power, water, waste, and communication; and they have addresses just like conventional houses. Many have tiny terraces. Imagine relaxing on your canal terrace in Amsterdam. Imagine also all of us tourists cruising by and watching you doing the dishes.

Floating Chinese restaurant?

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The Amsterdam Sea Palace Restaurant was styled after the Sea Palace Restaurant in Shanghai; it was first built in 1984. It is moored in the Oosterdok (eastern dock) area, not far from Amsterdam Centraal train station. For its grand opening, over 5000 guests were invited. The food and drinks were free at this celebration. Our guide said that if you invite Dutch people to an event with free food, every single one of them will attend, which was the reaction to the Chinese restaurant event. Alas, the owners and designers of this showy restaurant made two important miscalculations. First, they didn’t anticipate that Dutch people on average are taller and heavier than their Chinese counterparts. They also forgot that the river and canals of Amsterdam are fresh water, whereas the water in Shanghai is salty. Fresh water doesn’t provide as much buoyancy as salt water. As the hungry invitees gathered on board, the restaurant started to sink into the river. Everyone was rescued safely, but the restaurant had to be rebuilt, this time sitting firmly on concrete piers. 

Two bikes per person

Amsterdam has about 800,000 residents. But there are about 1.4 million bicycles. Why more bikes than people?

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Residents have their visit-family-and-friends bikes, and their out-in-the-city bikes. You take your good bike when you go visit your grandma, who has good bike security at her house. If you are going out on the town with your friends, you take your ratty, unremarkable bike. It is not unlikely that a junkie (as our guide said) will cut the security cable and take the bike. No matter. To get back home, you just buy another bike from another junkie. Everyone does it! Probably won’t cost more than 10 euros. The junkies are not (generally) nasty or violent. It’s part of the ebb and flow in the city.

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Red lights

Amsterdam’s red-light district is famous. It is right in the middle of the historic city. Along some side and main streets, in the evening, barely covered women sit and stand in red-lit windows. Sorry, no one is allowed to photograph the display windows. You’ll have to use your imagination.

But why the red lights? The story goes back to Amsterdam’s heritage as a trading and shipping city. Sailors back from long voyages had only a few things on their minds. To help out the sailors-in-need, thoughtful service providers colored their lamps red. Not against the law; just an aesthetic preference, you know. The women were visible through the windows, but were not offering themselves in the public way; so not illegal either. Maybe not so many sailors these days, but the red lights, the windows, and the visiting customers are still there.

Bull dog coffee shop, 1970s

The Bulldog Coffeeshop is the first legal marijuana cafe in Amsterdam, established in 1975. In Amsterdam, a Coffeeshop sells pot, and not alcohol. A café or koffiehuis (coffee house) sells, well, coffee, perhaps alcohol, and not pot. Important distinction. The story about the Bulldog Coffeeshop is that in the days before legalization, the proprietors operated underground. A stern bull dog guarded the entrance. Legalization arrived, but the bull dog remained. 

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Smoke boat

After the guide told us about the Coffeeshops of the city, we commented on how often we had passed through clouds of pot aromas as we wandered the city. The guide smiled, and he pointed at another cruising boat ahead, called the Smoke Boat. It is a pot-full cruise of the canals. He said that by law people can use pot only in licensed interior spaces, not in outdoor public spaces. So, glass encloses the passenger and crew areas. In summer, with the sun and heat, the windows fog up and no one can see out. Perhaps that’s fine with everyone; however, the captain is inside with the toking passengers. Would you like your cruise captain to be high too? 

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