Amsterdam is the city of the possible, where Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” can get as much attention as the Sex Museum
ONE OF Amsterdam’s oldest churches, the 15th-century Oude Kerk, is located right in the midst of the city’s famous Red Light District. The church is in use only on Sundays; for the rest of the week it can be rented out as a venue “where one can dine exclusively and where it is possible to hold presentations and receptions,” as its online brochure puts it.
A similar utilitarian arrangement governs its more worldly neighbor. Under Dutch law, the prostitutes working in the Red Light District are recognized as a professional class. They work for only eight hours a day, pay their taxes, receive medical care and welfare, and are allowed to unionize.
The sacred and the profane in a cordial, live-and-let-live arrangement. You might call this the Dutch way, and every social conservative’s nightmare. Many of the flashpoint issues that have flummoxed other First World countries—prostitution, gay marriage, euthanasia, drug use—inspire no hand-wringing here. The famously tolerant Dutch have managed to finesse them with surprising open-mindedness and sobriety.
Thus, in Amsterdam, Holland’s sparkling capital, bustling streets like the Damstraat host shops and stores that are a breathtaking mix of the bohemian and the cosmopolitan, reflecting the country’s unique cultural watermark.
Chic haberdashery and strong coffee beckon to passersby side by side with mountains of cheese, traditional souvenir items and sex paraphernalia. Cheerfully lighted sex shops share cramped street space with quaint indie bookstores and cafés, while hazy pubs offer a choice of pastries laced with marijuana.
Since pot smoking is tolerated in this country (though heroin and cocaine remain illegal), some stores are dedicated to selling the best varieties of weed. “World-class cannabis seeds,” reads one.
The easy-going, laissez-faire attitude of the Dutch is not an aberration. The people who started populating the mouth of the Amstel River as early as the 13th century and who rose to global maritime and economic power in the 17th century are the hardy products of harsh conditions throughout history.
Holland itself, a marshy, unstable place situated below sea level, is a country won inch by inch from the sea. Amsterdam’s shimmering canals, festooned with over 800 bridges, is a constant reminder of the power of water over its fortunes.
Fortunately, when the Dutch overthrew the Spanish occupiers in the 16th century, they built for themselves a country ruled not by a royal aristocracy, but by a forward-looking intelligentsia—mostly immigrants and merchants who, by the next century, would make Amsterdam the greatest mercantile and trading center in the world.
That robust republican spirit, worlds away from the courtly affectations of its European neighbors, gave the Dutch a fierce sense of independence, open-mindedness and empathy. It also made their country a haven for the persecuted, especially during the tumult of the Reformation years.
The current Amsterdam skyline, in fact, is marked by the spires of Protestant and Catholic churches adjoining the domes of Jewish synanogues. Just beside the Westerkerk (West Church), a Protestant citadel with the highest bell-tower in all of Amsterdam, is the house where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis and where she wrote her diary.
Along with the Jewish Historical Museum and the Amsterdam Historical Museum, the museum in her honor is now a must-see destination for historically-minded visitors.
That liberal, populist streak is alive as well in Dam Square, the heart of Amsterdam and the very spot where the ancient Batavians (the ancestors of the Dutch) built their first settlement in the 1200s.
The square is now the site of the 17th-century Royal Palace, an imposing structure with none of the stiff, forbidding air of other royal residences. And for good reason. Amsterdam’s leaders at the time intentionally designed the building as a democratic town hall. Its most magnificent feature is a sweeping ceremonial space called the Citizen’s Hall.
Holland’s current monarch, Queen Beatrix, uses the palace and the adjoining Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) only for ceremonial functions, preferring to live instead in The Hague. From June to September every year, the building is open to the public. Its premises are not gated or marked off by uniformed guards. In fact, promenaders and passersby are free to sit right on the palace steps or duck under its intricately designed awnings once the rains come. (It rains 200 days in a year in Amsterdam.)
Opposite the palace is the National Monument, a white obelisk built in 1956 to honor the victims of World War II. The usual starting point for all walking tours of Amsterdam, the spot was renowned for years as a hippie mecca, drawing artists, bohemians, and free spirits from all over Europe who wanted to savor the charms of one of the world’s most tolerant cities.
Amsterdam, a dense urbanscape of mostly historic architecture ringed by efficiently regulated freshwater canals and rivers (they never overflow, and are only about three meters in depth), has a population of 780,000, some 51 percent of whom are single, making Amsterdam a vibrantly young, casual city.
The streets are lined with distinctive structures built upward, since space has always been a premium and taxes are levied on sprawl. The narrow elongated houses often sport a hoisting hook at the top—the only way to haul in furniture and other large stuff given the constricted entrances.
Residents pay some 4,000 to 6,000 euros per sq m for these apartments, which come with no balcony, no garden and no parking space. Parking itself is a luxury at 4 euros an hour, and the waiting list for a parking permit is said to exceed 15 years.
The steep price for housing has unexpectedly led to one of Amsterdam’s chief charms: its house boats. They’re moored everywhere on the canals—completely livable dwellings that are taxed more cheaply than their land-bound counterparts, though the owners also have to apply for a permit.
Taxes are also imposed on cars and even on dogs, since they are considered premium acquisitions in a city with very limited terra firma. But Amsterdam’s compact size also means that almost everything is within walking or biking distance. The city is really for bikers, with 15,000 km of total biking space and some 500,000 bikes.
Because everything is within easy reach then, Amsterdam is best experienced on foot, on a bike, or on a boat. A leisurely canal cruise provides a scenic overview of the city, especially its architecturally precious inner quarter.
Art lovers and the plain curious would love the fact that the city has some 40 museums, on everything from history and anthropology to sex and fashion. The Sex Museum is one of the most-visited spots on the Damrak, a commercial thoroughfare lined with colorful boutiques, food stops and shops.
There’s also a Tropical Museum, a Torture Museum, a Heineken Museum (celebrating Holland’s national drink), even a Museum of Bags and Purses.
Of course, taking pride of place in these art destinations are the Rembrandt Museum, Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum, which houses a vast collection of Dutch art mostly from its 17th-century Golden Age. This includes pieces by Vermeer as well as Rembrandt’s monumental “The Night Watch.” Vermeer’s “The Girl With a Pearl Earring” is not here, however, but in The Hague.
Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” meanwhile, is the crown jewel of the museum bearing his name, along with other popular works like “Wheatfield with Crows” and “The Potato Eaters.” Photographs are not allowed in any of these hallowed places, but at the Sex Museum, one can happily click away.
Art, sex, commerce, beauty, history, religion. “In Amsterdam,” said our guide, “anything is possible.” Now that’s a treat.