I wasn’t prepared to see quite so many bikers in Amsterdam. It was a beautiful day, no doubt, and it seemed as though everyone who owned a bike, or was able to rent one from the street-stands was wheeling. They breezed about, kings of the road, hair trailing and baskets laden, as pedestrians got out of the way in the nick of time.
All in the name
The Dutch have figured out the business of dams and dykes like no-one else in the world. The name Amsterdam comes from the Amstel river being dammed (Amstelledamme) in 1222. Engineered entirely by man, their city comprises of ninety islands and a hundred and sixty canals.
The third most densely populated nation in the world (after Bangladesh and South Korea), Holland is needy for space and the Dutch are continuously tacking on mini islands to their shores. Proud as they are of their handiwork, “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland”, they envy their neighbours, Germany, France and Switzerland for their mountains and vast forests.
Down canals and brigdes
Intrigued by the ‘Red Light District’ (marked clearly on the map) and the coffee-shops where buying and smoking marijuana or hashish is de rigueur, visitors often gravitate to the old town. Seeing these phenomenons first hand have become the rites of passage for tourists, stories worth telling back home. Ladies of the night do rent window fronts and sit around, provocatively dressed, blowing kisses and eliciting custom.
Leaving the seedy, touristy old town well behind, I walked along the quiet, leafy canals: Singel, Herengracht, Keisergracht and Princengracht. The tall, slim houses with decorative gables and windows are truly charming. The canal water laps quietly in front, with passing longboats animating the scene. Cafes abound, packed with sun worshippers and here the city seemed to be on a relaxed, holiday mode. Further afield, on the streets of Jordan, Java, IJ Berg and the areas south and beyond, the scene shifts from the stronghold of visitors to the neighbourhoods of the industrious Dutch folks going about their business.
A liberal mindset
The abiding impression I was left with is that the Dutch are the most tolerant and accommodating people in the world. Jews fleeing the Spanish inquisition, Huguenots from France and other dissenters from Europe found it their natural haven. The Netherlands was the first nation to legalise prostitution in 1815, lift the ban from cannabis in 1976, allow doctor-assisted euthanasia in 1993 and allow same-gender marriages in 2000. My taxi driver, a Surinamese of Indian descent, said, “We have all kinds of people living here — there are Turks, Moroccans and half of Surinam is here, because it was a Dutch colony.” .