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Floating through the ‘Venice of the North’

Pic_1._Aerial_of_the_Amsterdam_CanalsBy Laura Bijnsdorp

 

A few weeks ago, I visited the Netherlands again. Since leaving university life, I had not been back in three years. The Netherlands is an amazing country, though the weather is not my cup of tea. But lucky for me, the summer began and the heat was on as soon as I arrived!

 

During my three-week stay, I mainly visited family and spent lots of quality time with my sister and best friends. I had had to miss a few of them for three years so was beyond happy to see them again. I explored the various markets in Utrecht and Amsterdam, did some much needed shopping, had a few great BBQs and house parties that made me feel like a student once again and re-explored some of my favourite places. But my favourite summer activity that we did was boating through the Amsterdam Canals.

 

I had lived in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, for about a year while I completed my Master’s. It is a gorgeous city with lots of old architecture and a vibrant multicultural population. Among the main attractions and sights are the many canals that flow through the city. These canals are not just a pretty attraction; they made Amsterdam the wealthy capital it is today!

 

In the 13th century, Amsterdam was just a small fishing village on the banks of the Amstel River. The name comes from the combination of Amstel and Dam, the latter word indicating a dyke or dam built to hold back the sea. Amsterdam was proclaimed a city in 1306, and by the end of the middle ages, it had become an important centre for maritime trade in northern Holland as its port developed on the river mouth.

 

At that time, the city only had one semi-circular canal called the Singel, which was designed both for drainage and for military defence. The city grew around the port and Damplein. To create more space, the marshy soil first had to be drained. The houses were then built on wooden piles. In 1452, a fire destroyed almost all the city’s timber-framed buildings, and brick became the most common material for rebuilding the city.

 

A vast project for defence and the large urban growth was carried out in the 16th and 17th centuries. The new line of defence based on a new boundary canal, the Singelgracht, designed by Daniel Stalpaert, extended the city outwards by around 800m. This also led to the construction of a new port and trading city, built along a network of three new main canals, which made it possible for trading vessels to dock.

 

Amsterdam's growth made it one of the great European capitals, and its port became the most important for international maritime trade. In 1685, the city's per capita income was four times that of Paris, allowing the quantity and quality of the real-estate development along the canals throughout the century.

 

The example of this city, enriched by its maritime trade, defended by its canals, dykes and locks, and never flooded throughout its entire history, attracted the attention of all the great European builders of the day. It directly influenced civil engineering and town planning in England, Sweden and Russia, where Peter the Great recruited its craftsmen and engineers to create Saint Petersburg, in similar swampy land on the banks of an estuary.

 

Now Amsterdam is an important administrative and financial centre. It shares the role of political capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with The Hague. From one canal in the 13th century to more than 100 kilometres of canals, about 90 islands and 1,500 bridges! The 17th-century canal ring area, including the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan, was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. It is no wonder that Amsterdam is also known as the “Venice of the North”.

 

To explore these canals, which also would give a new view of the city; you can do all kinds of tours or rent all kinds of boats. We decided it would be fun to explore the canals at our own pace and with a good group of friends. I was surprised how easy it actually was to rent a boat and explore the canals. The city has a handful of companies that rents out small boats. All you need to do is make a reservation. You don’t even need a boat license! For about four hours of rent with eight people, we only had to pay $20 each. This is even affordable for students living in Holland at the moment! We also brought a few bottles of wine and a cooler full of tapas to take us through the afternoon of exploring the canals.

 

Touring through the canal made me fall in love again with Amsterdam from a new perspective. We passed the old and colourful brick houses, including the Anne Frank House and the narrowest house in Amsterdam (it’s only two meters wide!). It was fun passing other residents or tourists doing their own tour on the canal, frequently being invited to “jump ship” and join their own boat party. We switched the task of being captain, which in a few instances caused for a few bumps against the tunnel-walls we frequently had to manoeuvre through. But we had no worries as the boat was basically bullet-proof! I could do this for weeks if the weather would allow it!

 

The day was over much too quickly, and we made it a point to make sure to do another boat trip on the canals before I left Holland. I would recommend it to anyone that is currently in Holland!

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