Going past the canals

Going past the canals

Amsterdam is a bit concerned that beyond its windmills, cycles, canals and (Vincent) van Gogh, no one associates the city with anything else. No doubt these are all parts of Amsterdam's charm, but there's more to the Dutch capital than these apparent associations.

Like the expression 'going Dutch' whenever we imply that everyone would pay for themselves! I have heard people use this phrase for aeons without realising this must have originated somewhere in Amsterdam.

Where do you begin to write about a city with a population of 8 lakh, which plays host to 2 crore visitors and day-trippers - about 25 times the number of locals? What's more, the 8 lakh population has 10 lakh bicycles, while Amsterdam's global image is entwined with water as a Canal Ring with 165 canals developed through drainage and reclamation of land, and is today on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

I chose to stay in Leidseplein, a busy square at the end of Amsterdam's central canal ring that serves as a transport hub in the city, with a number of intersecting tram lines. The entire area is taken up by large terraces of bars teeming with tourists and locals relaxing with a drink while taking a break from shopping.

But it was when I set out on an exploratory walk that I learnt the hard way that Amsterdam is the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. I had avoided all four-wheelers on the road when I ran into the traffic, only to be sworn at by a bicyclist - I had unknowingly strayed on to a bicycle path much as I was occupied watching Dutch Baroque architecture-styled buildings lining the canal rings.

Amsterdam has the highest number of museums in the world - 51 in all. The celebrated Museumplein, a public square, has three major museums - the Rijksmuseum, called the Louvre of the Netherlands; the Van Gogh Museum; and the Stedelijk Museum. But I was not going to spend my time gaping at the paintings (even if it was Rembrandt's The Night Watch).

However, the Anne Frank Museum was different - here I was, prepared to join the queues of tourists waiting to enter Anne Frank House! (Anne Frank Huis, as the Amsterdammers call it). People love the Anne Frank House and form long lines to see the attic where this famous diary-writer lived for two years before being found out, a part of a fairly large canal-side complex.

Voice from the attic

Anne's writing has come to typify a tragic part of history and become a sobering voice of world literature. Her story details the turbulent conditions of a Jewish family living in hiding during the time Holland was occupied by the Nazis. Anne was only a child when she first took up writing her journal, but the book has grown to signify the sheer joy of life. The diary is the most translated Dutch book. It has been translated into 70 different languages and is published in over 60 countries.

At one time, this house, on 263, Prinsengracht, was the office of Otto Frank, Anne's father. While standing out in the queue, I tried to imagine how this street must have appeared 65 years ago. The gabled canal houses are the same, as is the canal flowing by, and the bicycles are still the major means of transportation.

On entering, I'm struck by the subdued atmosphere. The voices are low; the mood is solemn. Poignant excerpts from Anne's diary are splattered all over the walls, while an overwhelming sense of sadness hangs over this place. The long column with packed tourists make you feel like you are on a conveyor belt as everybody silently tiptoes through all the rooms, including the bathroom where Anne couldn't have running water, nor flush the toilet, because no noise whatsoever could be made.

Picture this...

It had just stopped drizzling, the sun still playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. This was the time to see the windmill at Riekermolen, a windmill located in a really beautiful setting along River Amstel and still in use to keep the area dry. This windmill is often called 'Rembrandt's Windmill' and is the only one actually remaining in the Amsterdam area. The farmland, replete with prosperous-looking cows munching away, the river flowing by, and the opportunity to genuflect to a statue of Rembrandt in front of the windmill made me feel at peace with myself.

Later, while wandering around the canals beneath a brilliant spring-green canopy, admiring the old houses, and this time to ensure I crossed the cycle paths with care, I found an Indonesian restaurant, a relic of former colonial imperialism. It was in the 20th century that the Dutch ruled over Indonesia, only to be interrupted by the Japanese occupation during World War II. Similarly, Surinameplein, a square in Amsterdam, is named after the now- independent Dutch colony Suriname, on the northern coast of South America.

Mauritius, too, was another colony where the Dutch colonists had decided to settle down. They destroyed forests and made the fauna & flora of the island, including the dodo, to deteriorate beyond recognition. The dodo, which features in the novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, has become an archetype for extinct creatures.

I have had my fill of windmills, cycles and canals. And, as for 'going Dutch' - I'm no wiser in knowing what this expression has to do with Amsterdam and the Netherlands.

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