Row your boat

In Amsterdam

Row your boat

A total of 165 canals, 1,281 bridges... The sound of motor boats puttering down narrow canals that radiate around the city like silky ribbons, and the strident jingle of bicycle bells. I’m in Europe’s sin city — the city of bicycles and canals — defined by its tulips and museums.

A city that was once home to farmers, fishermen, traders and craftsmen who, around 1220, settled along a dam built to protect the lowlands against the floodwaters of the Zuiderzee. By creating polders — areas of land reclaimed from water by using windmills to dry the land — the resilient Dutch created this country that lies lower than sea level. The Dutch are proud of this and say: god created the world, and the Dutch created the Netherlands.

Amsterdam is basically a collection of islands divided by a ripple of concentric canals and united by bridges. Legend has it that Amsterdam was founded by two fishermen looking to escape a storm in the Zuiderzee (South Sea). The story goes that their dog jumped ashore and threw up at the spot where the city later developed. No one knows for sure, of course, but we do see older versions of the city’s emblem that sport two fishermen in a boat, along with a dog.

Patterns in foundation

Today Amsterdam is defined by its canals,  and life revolves around the water. Built in concentric horseshoes, they are the framework of the city. In the golden age, the city’s traders gathered exotic goods and brought them here, their ships sailing right up the canals to their front doors. They stored those goods — like cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper — in their attics. In 2010, the Amsterdam canal belt was officially included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

We decide to explore the city from the water. The options are endless — there are more than 200 companies that run canal tours of all kinds; you can navigate your own craft, or splash out on a motor boat; take a dinner cruise or a hop-on hop-off canal boat. We take a canal cruise in an open boat from one of the moorings in front of Central Station. It’s a great way to get a sense of the place, and also gives you the perfect angle of the city’s decorative gables. The canal belt of the golden age consists of three main encircling canals dug in the 17th century, which form concentric belts around the city fringed by distinctive elm trees. The first phase of the construction began with the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal), built in 1612; 50 years later, the Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) were built.

A journey along the canals is time travel, evocative of the era when wealthy bankers and famous merchants ordered homes built in the latest fashionable styles, ranging from Baroque to Neoclassical, and got their portraits painted by famous painters. There are small details like plaques and gable shapes on the façades that hark back to this history. Many old canal houses are museums, or banks and offices.

As we gaze up, the guide points out to the hook in the gable, to which a pulley wheel and rope can be attached to pull up goods, instead of the narrow staircases. We pass the ‘dancing houses’ — as the city grew, many of its houses which were made of wood and built right next to one another were under a constant threat of fire. So it was decided that houses should be built from stone. Because these ‘heavy’ houses sank into the boggy soil, long wooden piles were subsequently used as foundations. Over the years, they have settled and sunk into the mud, so now, many of the canal houses in Amsterdam are skewed and lean forward like drunken sailors.

Along the Singel canal, we see the narrowest house — only one metre wide! However, appearances are deceiving, because this is the façade facing the water! The actual façade is wider. In those days, they were taxed on the area facing the water. The guide regales me with trivia like the bicycle thieves who have a tendency to throw their stolen items in the canals, leading to an annual dredging of the water which turns up thousands of missing bikes.

Where there are canals there are bound to be bridges. We pass under impossibly low stone bridges. As we float along, cyclists zoom across the bridges like unguided missiles. The bridges of Amsterdam come in all shapes and sizes— my favourite one is the Magere Brug or Skinny Bridge, which is a narrow bridge with a drawbridge that, as locals say, was built by two sisters who lived on opposite sides of the river. It features in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. Most of the bridges also double up as parking spaces for the zillions of bicycles in the city.

We glide past houseboats moored on canals — living on water became popular after World War II, when the city suffered from a housing shortage. Locals saw an opportunity in renovating old boats into affordable living spaces, avoiding rent and taxes. “But it’s not all rosy. It’s noisy and there are tourists peering into your windows,” the guide says with a smile. At one point, the canals became so crowded with houseboats that Amsterdam finally passed a law requiring a mooring permit; now living on a houseboat is as expensive as living in a small apartment. I see residents relaxing in gardens on decks and roofs, with cushy upholstered chairs on deck, with tables and chairs for al fresco.

Going with the flow

In the 19th century, the city was described as ‘a beautiful mistress with really bad breath’ — referring to the stench of the canals. “The canals are clean today,” says our guide, and when I give him a disbelieving glance, he repeats, “I swear it’s true. Even Queen Maxima swam in the waters of the canals for a charity event.” The water in the canals is refreshed regularly and pumped in through the locks. Amsterdam’s focus in the 21st century is on enhancing the city’s water quality for improved livability. There are many ways to see Amsterdam, but nothing quite so special as the perspective you gain from being out on the water.

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