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The Netherlands

The Netherlands
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Our next and final destination for our 2011 trip was the city of Amsterdam, a reasonably short train ride north from Brussels. A popular destination, Amsterdam is the capital city of the Netherlands (but not the seat of government, which is The Hague – go figure), and has much to recommend it. There are historical buildings and world-class museums, and a beautiful network of canals. But when many Americans (and maybe people from other countries too) hear the word "Amsterdam", they first think of some of the other, more notorious attractions of the city. In particular, they think of the relaxed enforcement of drug laws, and of the city’s famous red light district. At the risk of being the most boring tourists ever, I will have to admit that we didn’t look into either of these phenomena, though we were certainly aware of their existence going in. But one could not help but notice the many "coffee shops", where the menus list varieties of intoxicating inhalables (one has to wonder where one goes for actual coffee – maybe Starbuck’s).

A 'Coffee Shop'

A 'Coffee Shop'
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And though we knew and avoided the general location of the red light district, we did once take a shortcut through a narrow, dimly lit street which turned out to be on the southern fringe of the district. If you’d like to experience an awkward tourist moment sometime, try walking with your wife and daughter down a street where there are store windows displaying women in lingerie for sale (the women, not the lingerie), or rather for rent for short periods. Sorry, no photos of this attraction – I understand they really don’t like that.

Anyway, if you’re looking for details about these sorts of points of interest, you’ve come to the wrong website. If you’ve been reading much of the narrative, you probably already know this isn’t the sort of thing we do on our vacations. We’re mostly interested in churches and museums and scenery and historical stuff. Unfortunately, some of the churches and museums in the city have strict no-photography rules, so you might find that the Amsterdam section of this website is shorter than the sections for most of the other covered cities. But here’s some historical stuff:

The details of the founding of the city of Amsterdam seem to be on the muddled side. But geographically, it seems there was once a landlocked lake in the north of what is now the Netherlands, when a series of catastrophic floods struck in the last part of the 12th Century. This lake, known as the Zuiderzee (or "south sea"), expanded hugely as a result, and eventually a connection was formed with the North Sea. Also formed by the floods was an estuary emptying into the Zuiderzee, known as the IJ (pronounce "eye"), into which some local rivers flowed. One of these rivers was a shortish river from the south, known as the Amstel. There is a legend that two fishermen trying to escape a storm on the Zuiderzee landed at a point near the mouth of the Amstel, and that their dog threw up on getting out of the boat. The city of Amsterdam was eventually established on this spot.


Vicinity of Amsterdam

Vicinity of Amsterdam
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Whether there is any truth to this is murky, but it seems that a trading post was set up in the area in the early part of the 13th Century. Since the 11th Century farmers had been building dikes at various places across the local terrain in an attempt to control the local waterways, which had a bad habit (if you’re a farmer, or actually anyone trying to live in the area) of moving from one place to another unpredictably, and some good ones were built near the trading post on the Amstel. This led to the founding of the city of Amsterdam ("dam on the Amstel") in the late 13th Century. From the 14th Century on the city flourished, through trade with the Hanseatic League and (eventually) across the world, via the Dutch East India and Dutch West India Companies. The world’s first stock exchange was established in Amsterdam in 1602.

View of Amsterdam, Cornelis Anthonisz (1538)

View of Amsterdam, Cornelis Anthonisz (1538)
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In the 17th Century it was decided to re-plan the canal system that had evolved in the city to better support commerce and defense, so the city planned and began digging a system of concentric canals which remains (with a few alterations) in the 21st Century.

Canals and IJ

Canals and IJ
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Which is when we were making our way north by train from Brussels. The train dropped us at Amsterdam’s Central Station, and we caught a bus to our hotel, the Hotel Ibis on Valkenburgerstraat. After a short rest, we went out exploring (with a map!).

Central Amsterdam

Central Amsterdam
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We found the canals and the bridges that crossed them to be inescapably picturesque.

Oudezijds Voorburgwal
Oudezijds Voorburgwal
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Basilica of St. Nicholas and Oudezijds Voorburgwal
Basilica of St. Nicholas and Oudezijds Voorburgwal
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Staalstraat Bridge Across Kloveniersburgwal
Staalstraat Bridge Across Kloveniersburgwal
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Groenburgwal Canal
Groenburgwal Canal
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Oudeschans Canal with Montelbaanstoren Tower and NEMO

Oudeschans Canal with Montelbaanstoren Tower and NEMO
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Our wanderings eventually took us to a square called the Nieuwmarkt ("new market" – there is still a daily street market here). There is an obvious landmark in the otherwise empty square – a distinctive building called the Waag, or weigh house. This building dates back to the 15th Century, when it was built as a gate in the city wall. The wall was demolished long ago after the city outgrew its boundaries, but the Waag remains, having been used at various times as a guild hall, an anatomical theater, a building where goods were weighed (hence the name) and a museum, among other things. At the moment, there are offices upstairs and a café downstairs.

Nieuwmarkt from Kloveniersburgwal

Nieuwmarkt from Kloveniersburgwal
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Bob and Connie and Waag, Nieuwmarkt
Bob and Connie and Waag, Nieuwmarkt
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Restaurant-Café In de Waag
Restaurant-Café In de Waag
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From the Nieuwmarkt we made our way to the center of things, the Dam Square. The Dam Square was the site of the original dam on the Amstel. Over the centuries, the dam was widened and broadened, and adjoining canals were filled in, until all water was pushed out to a respectful distance. The square is now quite large, with a number of significant buildings surrounding it.

At the west end of the square is the Amsterdam Royal Palace, at the disposal (mainly for ceremonial purposes) of the reigning monarch, Queen Beatrix during our visit and King Willem-Alexander since her abdication in 2013. The palace was closed to visitors during a renovation from 2005 to 2009, but has since been reopened. During our visit it was surrounded by a fence with messages on it insisting that the palace was open. But to us it looked like they were still working on it, so we didn’t visit.


Connie and Bob and Royal Palace
Connie and Bob and Royal Palace
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Royal Palace
Royal Palace
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Cupola and Pediment, Royal Palace
Cupola and Pediment, Royal Palace
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Back Pediment, Royal Palace
Back Pediment, Royal Palace
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Other buildings around the square include the fancy De Bijenkorf department store and a Madame Tussaud museum.

Madame Tussaud Museum
Madame Tussaud Museum
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De Bijenkorf Department Store
De Bijenkorf Department Store
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In the middle of the square is the National Monument, built in 1956 as a remembrance of the victims of World War II.

Bob and Connie and National Monument

Bob and Connie and National Monument
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Just off the square, behind the Royal Palace, is Magna Plaza, a smallish upscale shopping mall.

Magna Plaza
Magna Plaza
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Magna Plaza Shopping Mall
Magna Plaza Shopping Mall
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Nella in Magna Plaza
Nella in Magna Plaza
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Magna Plaza
Magna Plaza
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At this point we started to make our way back toward our hotel. Commerce is alive and well in Amsterdam.

Businesses on Nieuwendijk near Dam Square

Businesses on Nieuwendijk near Dam Square
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Hotel Mevlana
Hotel Mevlana
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View from Nieuwe Hoogstraat to Oude Hoogstraat
View from Nieuwe Hoogstraat to Oude Hoogstraat
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Connie and Nella and Shop on Nieuwe Hoogstraat
Connie and Nella and Shop on Nieuwe Hoogstraat
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Connie and Nella
Connie and Nella
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On the way, we stopped at a supermarket to buy some drinking water and supplies. We found the cheese department to be quite impressive. They take their cheese very seriously – I was admonished to not take photos of the cheese department (too late!). Maybe they didn’t want any of the other markets to steal their cheese secrets. They’ve probably moved on to new cheese technology by now, so they shouldn't object to the posting of a couple of pictures:

Cheese Section of Supermarket
Cheese Section of Supermarket
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Cheese Department in Supermarket, Nieuwetijds
Cheese Department in Supermarket, Nieuwetijds
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We walked through the pretty Amsterdam streets, eventually arriving back at our hotel.

Munttoren and Kalverstraat
Munttoren and Kalverstraat
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Tower of Zuiderkerk
Tower of Zuiderkerk
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Across from the hotel we noticed an abbreviated pink car, a Canta LX. Apparently these cars were built to be tiny – you could fit one inside of a Smart car. They are apparently custom-built for disabled people – there is a model on which the back opens, and a wheelchair can be driven directly into it, so the driver never has to leave the wheelchair. The imposing 160 cc engine of the LX delivers a top speed of 30 MPH, and it is not necessary to have a driver’s license to operate one. It is also legal to park a Canta on the sidewalk.

Pink Canta LX

Pink Canta LX
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After marveling at the Canta, we returned to our room. We needed to rest up for our next day’s activities, which we planned to start with a visit to Amsterdam’s world-class art museums.

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