I’ve crossed through much of Europe by now, and I even managed a day tour to Maastricht back in 2007. But that cloudy day in the town which named one of Europe’s most famous documents has been my only meeting with the Netherlands. Until now I have not had the pleasure of indulging myself in all those treats for which the country is so famous. The tulips, the Edam and Gouda cheeses and the hashes.
I have not really had any great need to visit the country, since it seems so comparable to Denmark. Not that it is in any way, but you start feeling a slight reluctance towards a country when you are constantly compared to or mistaken as them.
Dutch. Danish. What is the difference.
Understandably to the outsider there might not be that much of a difference. We are considered tall and blond, living in flat countries and with a naval history only rivalled by the greater nations and each other. To the untrained ear we speak languages which sound similar and we bike whenever we can.
To Danes – and I presume Dutch – there is a world of difference. We do not look at all the same, and in both countries the tall and blond are far from the majority. We might both be living in flat countries, but in the Netherlands they have dams to keep out water from overflowing the land, while in Denmark we have islands. As a colonial power the naval history of the Netherlands differs greatly from that of Denmark, where the English made certain in the beginning of the 19th century that our navy became kindling.
Most importantly, the languages are miles apart and the sounds not even comparable, and as I’ve realised our biking cultures are very different too. But more about that later.
Hands up, who have done a weekend trip to Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is a popular destination and I had read beforehand that the locals where getting increasingly tired of how much the tourist industry dominated the old city.
But I’d decided to gift my boyfriend with a weekend trip to somewhere in Europe, and the flights to Amsterdam were just the better option. So we ended up visiting the Dutch capital this September.
And I am mighty happy that we went. I can certainly understand why people are drawn to the city though for some the abundance of coffee shops might also factor in.
I was surprised by the city. I had not really imagined the canals to the extent that they encircle the old town. Neither had I been prepared for how many Dutch merchants houses actually made up the inner rings.
Amsterdam can according to newer excavations trace its history further back than the 12th century, which is considered the birth of a small fishing village on the riverbank of the Amstel River. In this Amsterdam compares to Copenhagen, where metro excavations have revealed very much the same – that the city was inhabited prior to the 12th century.
But what makes Amsterdam unique is the layout of the city with the rings of canals surrounding the medieval city. The inner most canals are Singel and the Kloveniersburgwal which surrounds he medieval part of town though not much remains of this period. From here on out extends massive system of canals which divides Amsterdam into some 90 islands connected by around 1,300 bridges and viaducts.
The network of canals took form during the Golden Age of the Netherlands, from 1585-1672. The most celebrated of these canals are the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal), and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) which create a spiderweb of semicircular rings extending from the centre of the city.
The houses here are not only some of the finest Dutch houses too be found, they are also massively expensive. The most prestigious of them all are found at the Gouden Bocht – the golden bend – on the Herengracht, where the houses are double sized.
Location, location, location.
What to do for a weekend in Amsterdam?
1. Feeling queasy from eating a strange muffin at an Amsterdam coffee shop, check!
2. Gazing through the windows of the Red Light District, check!
3. Seeing an original Rembrandt which might in a few years no longer be a Rembrandt, check!
4. Shopping in Bijendorf, check!
5. Freezing through a canal tour, check!
6. Tasting some of the cuisines of the old Dutch colonies,check!
7. Walking through most of the inner and outer rings of the city, check!
8. Getting to know Dutch traditional cuisine, check!
9. Being yelled at by the local cyclists, check!
The only thing we didn’t do was hop on a bike, but being from Copenhagen that is not really anything special. Moreover, I would not feel very comfortable biking around Amsterdam. In Copenhagen, I’d estimate that 30% wear helmets, but in Amsterdam I only ever saw two people wearing helmets. In my opinion not wearing a helmet is bat-shit crazy.
The helmet issue was not the only difference. In Denmark we have small indistinguishable bells which we never really use. The hip guys who like to bike as if they were sprinting past the goal line in Tour de France mostly yell something like ‘move it’ to get the rest of us to notice them. In difference, the Dutch seem to love large colourful bells on their bikes, which they use whenever and wherever they can. Especially when they see a tourist.
It is a favourite pass time to shock tourists who are not taking care when stepping off the walk path. Though they are ten or 15 meters away they will ring. It seems as if their constant ringing with bells has become their silent rebellion against the many tourists filling the streets and pushing out the locals.
I can easily understand that attitude towards tourists, since the entire inner city seems devoted to the tourist industry -be it tulips, cheese, wooden shoes or marijuana. I can only hope that my own Copenhagen will be sparred the mass tourism, which affects Amsterdam.
It seems reasonable that the government has agreed to a law which states that shops in the centre have to sell products to locals in order to be allowed to remain. They have also made regulations which have put a stop on the conversion of inner city property to hotels as well as made strict rules on the use of AirBnb.
And the problem is in the inner city. If you only step a little beyond the inner rings you will find a much more pleasant Amsterdam to walk around in. We made a few detours out to the more natural and balanced parts of Amsterdam, and should we come again it would be to see other neighbourhoods. With the colonial history of The Netherlands I can imagine that there is a great cultural diversity beyond the inner city.
But it will be many years before I plan to return to the Dutch capital. I don’t like being one more reason for Amsterdam to have become what it is. Next time I go to the Netherlands, I want to explore Rotterdam or Leiden or perhaps Utrecht. There are so many options in the Netherlands.
And then I wish the Dutch all the best with reforming their city and taking it back, because tourism should never dominate local life.