Amsterdam: Canal Ring

“WE HAVE a saying in Dutch: ‘In de aap gelogeerd’ or ‘You slept in the monkey house’ – which means you’re in trouble, having a bit of bad luck. That comes from here.”
I’m in the In’t Aepjen (In the Monkey) pub, one of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam and one of only two still with a wooden façade. Inside, there is barely room for an ancient oak staircase and a tiny bar backed by shelves full of Dutch gin, glasses and curios that heavily feature monkeys in recognition of the pub’s name.

“A lot of seamen would drink here always,” says Frits, the only barman as well as the owner’s son. “It was also a hostel. When they couldn’t pay cash, they would pay with monkeys. Real monkeys. There were always monkeys on the ships as rich people wanted them for their homes. So the hostel became full of monkeys in cages and when the seamen came back on their ships, they were scratching themselves from the fleas.”

The story does not really stand up to research – the name appears on maps long predating this building, built as a private house around 1550 – but there is no doubt a truth lost somewhere in the retelling and embellishment over the centuries.

What is certain is that the street it stands on marks the original edge of the city, as its name reveals: Zeedijk. This was where a sea dike protected the growing city from the tides that once flooded this low-lying land as they swept up the River IJ from the Zuiderzee.

Zeedijk was once very respectable – Amsterdam’s first street lights were put up here in 1544 – but fell onto hard times when the wealthy merchants moved to smart new addresses along the Herengracht in the 17th century. The many bars, a remaining ship chandler’s and the sex trade hint at the story of its decline.

A few steps away from In ’t Aepjen is the Oudezijds Kolk, a narrow mud-brown canal that passes under the street. Wooden winches stand beside a pair of lock gates – this was one of the city’s sluices, used to flush out the canals, and I can also see a cast iron lift bridge. North, towards the harbor, the back of the Basilica of St Nicholas, Amsterdam’s largest Catholic church, looms over a row of typical leaning Amsterdam houses lining the other bank.

Their varied gables all bear hooks that were once used to haul goods to the secure upper floors and remain essential for house removals. The canal is lined with gas lamps whose elements have been replaced by electric ones that still throw the same warm light. Take away the bicycles chained everywhere and a few modern shop signs and it is a view that seems little changed for centuries.

On the corner is Het Melkmeisje restaurant, bearing the sign of a milkmaid with two pails on a yoke and the date of 1731. One can almost touch the history and I imagine a rosy-cheeked country lass having to make her way through the raucous crowds of sailors that once inhabited these streets. A loud group of tourists trailing the cloying smell of dope remind me that some things never change.

A canal boat tour passes below me, tracked silently by a police boat also heading towards the harbor, no doubt part of the security for an EU summit that has taken over the National Maritime Museum. The modern harbor, built on reclaimed land, extends a long way from the former shoreline and the museum is merely one of a grand series of buildings that now stand in what was once water.

On a clear day, the blocky Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvaartmuseum) is visible from afar but today a drizzling rain hides it until the three towering masts of an old wooden ship, the Amsterdam, loom out of the mist. This replica of an East India merchant ship that sank during a winter storm in 1749 is a highlight of the museum, which had a major refurbishment in 2011.

The building itself is impressive enough, built in 1656 and raised on 1,800 wooden piles. Inside, its galleries are filled with exquisite ship models, maritime paintings, nautical instruments and the latest in audiovisual trickery to tell the story of the city’s connection to the sea.

“From its founding in 1200 for 400 years, Amsterdam was a small village,” says historian Peter van Ruijven. “You could walk across from the center in Dam Square to its edge in three minutes. In 1300 we started trading with Germany and Poland in the Baltic Sea. We traded herring to the Baltic and brought back grain for bread. But in 1600 we won the lottery when we went overseas to Asia.”

As well as a monopoly of the Asian spice trade, the Dutch entered the transatlantic slave trade and fishermen venturing further north into the Arctic also began whaling, a trade that lasted unto 1964. “We were the biggest whale hunters in the world,” says Peter. “The blubber gave lamp-oil that was also useful for keeping rope flexible.”

Such goods were stored in the very building we are standing in. “This was a ship’s warehouse,” says Peter. “Six ships in a row could be built on the shore here at one time. It was not just Henry Ford who thought of the production line. But a wooden ship by itself is nothing; you have to equip it and this warehouse housed everything from rope to cannon.”
The riches flooding in from overseas funded a massive expansion in the city during its so-called “Golden Age”. The wealthy merchants built themselves new houses along the canal zone, while the poor people were put as far away as possible in the Jordaan district. By 1650, Amsterdam had exploded in both size and ambition.

Opposite the Maritime Museum, a line of warehouses spreads out to the east and west, many now a mix of social housing, expensive apartments and business start-ups in the way of so many ports since containers have taken over the shipping trade. A sturdy Seaman’s Hostel stands on the corner, near the entrance to the Entrepot-Dok that stands next to another still-working cast-iron bascule bridge, dated 1906, over the Nieuwe Herengracht. It’s one of many man-made canals that worm their way into the very center of the city and beyond.

“In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the port of Amsterdam was full of sand,” says Peter. “The big ships could not reach the port; they had to anchor two kilometers or more offshore. You had to reload your cargo onto lighters or barges to take it off. The canals allowed merchants to take their cargo directly to their own warehouses anywhere in the city without having to handle it again. In economics, transport is everything. The cheaper the transport, the more money you make. From Amsterdam, it can be carried again by barge to places such as Hamburg, Lubeck, Copenhagen or London. We are at the center of a vast trading web.”

On a canal tour, I see the extent of the canals built during the Golden Age. Starting opposite the Rijksmuseum, the Blue Boat Company vessels sail down the Singelgracht and into the Prinsengracht. The audio commentary features a couple, “Ron and Nel”, who mix labored banter with some interesting facts. I learn that the Herengracht and Keizersgracht were residential canals but the outer Prinsengracht was a working one, hence its sides are much lower to allow for unloading of cargo.

We pass the Jordaan, whose name is perhaps a corruption of the word “jardin” given it by French settlers for its vegetable gardens. Its streets are still named after trees and flowers. Then comes the Anne Frank house with its endless line of visitors in the shadow of the Westertoren. The church beside it is where painter Rembrandt van Rijn was buried in 1669.

The commentary points out how much the canals have changed since then. When first built they were a dumping ground for everything from sewage to dead animals, which didn’t stop the breweries using the water to make beer – as I learn as we sail along the Brouwersgracht. “Our beer had real body!” quips Ron. The water, while still muddy, has been cleaned up to the point that it is now used for an annual swimming race. I’ve even swum in it myself.

From our boat we can look directly into some of the 750 or so houseboats that line the canals of the center. Originally a cheap solution to the 1970s housing crisis, they are now desirable properties. They vary from modern designer homes to rotting wooden shacks that look at real risk of sinking, but no one wants to give up one of the highly sought-after berths. Friends who live on them love the freedom and privacy of a boat but complain that the maintenance is non-stop. Still, on a summer day it looks like an enviable life.

The Prinsengracht is the only one of the three major canals that connects to the IJ, allowing the merchants and their warehouses a direct link to the harbor. We cruise the waterfront past the Central Station before turning back into the heart of Mokum – the Yiddish word for “safe haven” that is still used as a nickname for Amsterdam. From there, we pass such landmarks as the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) and the house where Rembrandt lived, now a museum, before we return along the Amstel and Singelgracht to our starting point. The whole tour around the historic city at a speed of a jog takes a little more than an hour.

One thing that strikes me from the water is that Amsterdam is a city of merchant houses rather than grand public buildings. The canals are lined with fine mansions which, while all individual, combine in a pleasing harmony due to the constraints on width and height imposed by far-sighted design of the city fathers. That planning extended to lining the canals with trees and mandating that houses were backed by large gardens (on which building was forbidden) – one reason for the city’s lack of parks.

To see inside one of these grand mansions I visit Museum Het Grachtenhuis (Canal House Museum), one of three stately homes open to the public on the Herengracht. Built in 1663, this house is furnished in the style of past centuries, while multimedia displays tell the story of the building of the canal rings and the house itself.

“The canals were built in two stages, the first from 1613-1660,” says the museum’s Jurjen Smits. “The second part sort of petered out around 1690 as the economy crashed and money started to run out. They were dug with hand labor. The land was very marshy – wetlands – and it is a bit like what happens when you dig at the beach.

“At some point you hit water and it has to be drained – a technique the Dutch were very good at. You hammer in very long wooden pillars to hit the layer of sand that lies underneath, about 12 meters deep on average. On top of those, you lay the stone walls that are still the sides of the canals today. Then you can let the water back in.”

Jurjen explains how the wood pillars, imported from Scandinavia, have to be kept below water to stop them rotting. Maintaining the water level of the canals is important both for the pillars supporting the walls, and the foundations of the buildings along them. That raises the issue of the number of leaning buildings in the city.

“When something can go wrong, it will – especially if you wait 100 years,” says Jurjen. “Due to water mismanagement or drought, the water level has dropped from time to time and the pillars will rot. Then you’ll see a house lean towards the street, where it is unsupported by buildings on either side. But the houses were designed for that. They are not too rigid and the construction allows for a little give.”

This city built on sunken tree trunks gave rise to a 16th-century riddle by Desiderius Erasmus: “I know of a city where the residents live in the treetops like crows.” I’m impressed by the self-confidence that created a city on a marsh. Jurjen points out that the house we are in dates to the same year as the Royal Palace of Amsterdam. “It was built on 13,659 wooden piles – I had to learn that number in school – but it seems you can overcome such obstacles if you have the will.”

Sitting on Dam Square, a massive cobbled plaza thronged with tourists, the Palace is often overlooked by those on their way to such attractions as the nearby Madame Tussauds. On its opening, however, it was hailed by poet Constantijn Huygens as the “Eighth Wonder” of the world. A 1668 painting by Jan van Kessel shows it with its limestone exterior still gleaming white, standing behind the dam on the River Amstel that gave Amsterdam its name.

It was commissioned as the Town Hall, making the “Royal Palace” name – adopted in 1806 when Louis Napoleon was briefly king of Holland – an incongruous one. The building was a tribute to the businessmen who financed it, rather than any monarch.

Inside, the furnishings left by Louis Napoleon make an interesting tour for those who like Empire furniture or ormolu clocks but the highlight for me is the vast Citizen’s Hall. A giant Atlas bearing a globe – there is another on the apex of the roof outside – looks down on a gleaming marble floor inlaid with three maps showing the known world of an earlier era. While the west coast of North America is missing, and Australia looks very vague indeed, the rest of the world is shown in detail, a tribute to the reach of the nation’s seafarers.

At the center of both hemispheres – and a third sphere of the universe itself – sits Amsterdam, whose reach literally spanned the globe along the waterways that start nearby. Like Atlas, the city carried a world on its shoulders but one it made itself.
From here, a merchant could send out a ship that might come back with a cargo to make his forture. This grand space and the city around it, are a manifestation of the saying: “God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

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