Amsterdam is Bike-City. Despite the fact that the geography of the city is dominated by canals, the bike is king. So much so that they have constructed a three story building near the central train station designated only for bike parking. Despite the extra spaces, bikes are parked everywhere – every piece of railing in the centre of the city has a bike chained to it. All the streets have clearly marked bike paths along which children and adults speed with gay abandon with little fear of the nervous tourists, cars, slow ploughing trams and other crazy cyclists.
Despite the Netherlands having a well-founded reputation as a polite and law-abiding society, bike theft is rampant. If you only chain your front wheel to the iron railing, the rest of your bike will be stolen. If you don’t chain your front wheel effectively, it will be taken to replace the missing wheel on another stolen bike that sadly lacks a front wheel. A curious fact shared by our canal boat captain on our one day in Amsterdam was that 15000 bikes are salvaged from the canals each year. He described the design of the canals as half circles of 3 metre radius. The bottom metre is made up of mud, the second metre is made up of bicycles and the top metre is luckily made up of reasonably clean water (he dipped a bucket in the canal at one point and showed us a glass of clear canal water). Presumably stolen bikes get thrown into the canals by impatient thieves who can’t find a matching front wheel within the appropriate turnover time. (Really – what else can you do with a one-wheel bicycle than throw it unceremoniously into the canal at midnight!)
Our canal boat driver for our one day in Amsterdam described the above process as ‘re-cycling’. Very amusing in English but I am not sure how it translated into the other three languages he was commentating in…French, Dutch and German. If you are short of time for sightseeing in Amsterdam, the Canal Boat cruise is a must and if you get a similar pilot to the one we got, he will give you great insights into the way Amsterdam has developed as a city, particularly the curious architecture that lines the canals. One simple decision by the early fathers of the city to ensure wide access to canal frontage was to tax each house-block based on its width. Since nobody likes to pay tax, each householder attempted to keep the width of the block to a minimum and provide the space in the house by extending its length. Two of the many curious examples of what developed were on our itinerary;
- the thinnest house in Amsterdam at a metre wide where those who over-frequent the extraordinary number of Chocolaterie shops would struggle to enter the front door.
- the house where the owner decided to curve the front wall of his house to give the appearance of greater width but without earning the extra taxes which were based on the house’s front border.
Of course the other way to see Amsterdam quickly and if you have no fear of death is to hire a bike and join the throng of bikers and cruise the bike paths to visit…
- Anne Frank’s House (pre-book, long queues in summer),
- Rembrandt Square with its many statues of the great painter’s portrait characters, thronging around the master,
- A quick look around Willet-Holthuysen Museum (10 euro entry) to get an insight into the ‘inside’ of those quaint, thin, leaning, lop-sided houses that line the canals.
Of course visiting Amsterdam without dining out would be senseless. Gayle has had lunch on the three occasions she has visited Amsterdam at La Place (Kalverstraat 203)…a gastronomic experience to dream of during the times when life does not allow you to lunch in Amsterdam. It consists of a series of food stations where you can mix and match a wide variety of freshly cooked and presented local foods and dine beside a canal. Perfect!