you look out of your hotel window across the sluggishly flowing water of
the Herengracht in which the elegant facades of the houses, trees, and
bridges are reflected then you have arrived in Amsterdam. You can also
spend a couple of hours in a "brown cafe" and find yourself in the "liveliest
city of the world." The walls are almost black with cigarette smoke, the
polished beer tap is in constant use and the clacking of billiard balls
sounds above the roar of laughter. There are some five hunndred of these
brown cafes in Amsterdam and they are all filled with people, serving as
living room, information exchange, and favorite local bar. Amsterdam vibrates
with life but can also be surprisingly calm and rooted, revolutionary and
insistent, exotic and tolerant. The changing seasons on their own pro¬vide
constant variety and seem more marked here. For instance when its seems
all of Amsterdam are enjoying themselves skating on the frozen canals in
the cold of winter, when the gabled houses are lit up by the early evening
light and bridges span the canals like golden arches, then one understands
why Dutch artists have painted these scenes time and again. Amsterdam is
a Breughel set, even while the city pulsates with modern life. Standing
still is unknown to the principal Dutch city and boundless curiosity led
to Amsterdammers pursuing the sea. They controlled the trade with the East
Indies with their ships and brought spices from East Asia in the early
seventeenth century to all of Europe. In the "Golden Century" Amsterdam
was the most important trading power of the world and today this city astounds
people not least because it is founded on five million spruce piles.
and economic expansion continued
at a more modest clip until 1795, when the city’s government of patriarchal
oligarchy was overthrown and the French managed to occupy the city.
By 1813, Amsterdam was experiencing a full economic recession, and many
of its centrally located mansions were abandoned, some of them even collapsing
entirely. The Industrial Revolution righted the city, however, in
the later part of the 19th century, and by 1870 Amsterdam had begun to
grow again, as working-class neighborhoods sprung up around its outskirts.
During this period and the period of the two World Wars, city-planners
experimented with filling in some of the canals, in hopes that this would
improve traffic-flow in the center of the city. Fortunately, in the
1950’s, these efficiency-friendly plans were abandoned in favor of preservation
efforts, rendering Amsterdam the rich monument to its own history we see
Amsterdam is centrally located
in the nation of the Netherlands, which is bordered by the North Sea to
its north and Belgium and Germany, to its south and east, respectively.
The Netherlands’ 41,526 km² area is very flat, with 27% of it below
sea level and 60% of the country’s population living in this low terrain.
Netherlanders have been attempting to reclaim their land from the sea for
more than 2000 years, using a variety of dykes, canals, and water-pumping
windmills. The collective North Sea Protection Works, a system which
keeps Amsterdam above water, is cited as one of the Seven Wonders of the
Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Netherlands boasts a population
of 16,318,199 people (as of July 2004). Of these, 91% are Dutch and
9% are Moroccan, Turkish, or of another nationality. The country
is one of the most densely populated in the world, surpassed only by Bangladesh
and South Korea. Allied with Germanic people, the Dutch are traditionally
a nation of shipbuilders and traders, and have been some of the most innovative
capitalists known to Europe. Today the nation struggles to accept
a growing immigrant population in sometimes cramped quarters where conservative
tendencies still hold sway.
Amsterdam had its
beginnings at a dam on the Amstel River sometime near the end of the 12th
century. The people who lived here and later became known as the
Dutch were descended from two early medieval tribes, the Franks and the
Saxons. The first mention of the name “Amstelledamme” (which, as
you may have guessed, simply means ‘Dam on the Amstel’) occurs in a toll
concession penned by Count Floris V of Holland on October 27, 1275.
It was not until the later 14th and 15th centuries that the city began
to take on the magnificent appearance it has today. Between the years
1585 and 1672, during what is sometimes referred to as Amsterdam’s Golden
Age, commercial success in trade allowed the city’s leading entrepreneurs
to build stunning private homes along its canals. But this prosperity
came screeching to a halt in 1672, when the Dutch Republic was simultaneously
attacked by both France and England. Amsterdam’s prosperity helped
its inhabitants weather this storm,
|Much of the best art in
Amsterdam is free: it is the city’s architecture and is on view 24-7, 365
days-a-year. Half of the buildings at the center of the city are
national monuments dating from the prosperous 18th century. For those
looking to travel even farther back in time, a few medieval wooden buildings
remain, the Old and New Churches and the graceful Houten Huis (the Wooden
House) at the Beginjnhof. The Netherlands’ three great native sons
are also in evidence in Amsterdam. Johannes Rembrandt (1606-1669)
was one of the finest painters, draughts men, and etchers of the 17th century.
His dark, luxuriant canvasses make the most of chiaroscuro and pre-figure
French Impressionism in their portrayal of light. Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)
took great pains chronicling the lifestyle of the Flemish merchant classes
with hyper-realistic portraits in rich yellows and pale grays. Tragic
post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was also born in the Netherlands.
His revolutionary use of color and light in painting and his turbulent
life have made him one of the most famous painters of all time and one
of the highest banking, with paintings selling for over $80,000,000.