“Amsterdam was a great surprise to me. I had always thought of Venice as the city of canals; it had never entered my mind that I should find similar conditions in a Dutch town.” – James Weldon Johnson
The coach driver ran through a well rehearsed list of do’s and don’ts peppered with little quips – my favourite being an instruction not to stand up in the on-board toilet when taking a pee as this results in a waterlogged cubicle and then he settled down for the two hour drive to Amsterdam.
When we arrived he ran through some useful information and he had plenty of time for this because there was a huge traffic jam all along the main roads of Rokin and Damrak and progress was slow to our drop off point at the central railway station. Before we got off the bus he reminded us that traffic drives on the right hand side of the road in the Netherlands and to be careful getting off or else instead of sightseeing in Amsterdam we would be in hospital instead.
Luckily the Hotel Ibis was close by and next to a multi-level bike park with thousands of rusting old bikes seemingly abandoned and parked randomly along the side of the street and we checked in and after some misunderstanding and confusion about the elevators found our room on the seventh floor with a good view over the North Sea Canal which splits the city in two and links the North Sea to the Zuider Zee to the east. It was also quite close to the railway line and we worried about a noisy night ahead but we didn’t stay around long enough for this to bother us right now and within fifteen minutes we were back outside and making our way to the historic city centre.
It was midday so time for a coffee break so while we debated what to do first we found a pavement bar on Damrak and ordered drinks. They turned out to be rather expensive and this was a bit of a shock but prices reflect the standard of living in the Netherlands, which is high because it is now one of the most prosperous countries in the World and according to the latest United Nations index on Human Development (2011) has moved up four places into third position just behind Norway and Australia and according to the IMF it is the ninth wealthiest country in the World.
Money creates happiness (in my opinion) and despite the fact that 20% of the population live below sea level, which would worry me, it is ranked as the happiest country in Europe in the Happy Planet Index; it has won the Eurovision Song Contest four times (1957, 1959, 1969 and 1975) but has a less enviable record in the football World Cup where they have been beaten finalists three times (1974, 1978 and 2010). More importantly to me however is that the Netherlands has the tenth highest visitor numbers to my blog!
It was sunny and warm and on account of this we decided to spend the afternoon exploring the canals and we thought that the best way to begin this was by taking a water taxi trip in one of the boats at the quayside opposite so after our drinks we selected the cheapest and took our seats on board for a one hour cruise on the water.
Amsterdam has been called the ‘Venice of the North’ but this isn’t a title that it holds uniquely because it has also been applied to Saint Petersburg, Bruges, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Manchester, Edinburgh and even Birmingham amongst others. It has more than one hundred kilometres of canals, about ninety islands and one thousand five hundred bridges. The three main canals, Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht were dug in the seventeenth century during the Dutch Golden Age and form concentric belts around the city with many smaller ones linking them together and the whole canal ring area is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The cruise took about an hour and took us through the canals to the east of the city, along the River Amstel for a short distance and then the west of the city, the North Sea Canal before returning to Damrak where we returned to the streets.
It was a warm afternoon so we walked to Dam Square where people were earning money for doing nothing but standing still and posing as statues so we quickly hurried past these and the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) but we didn’t go inside because Micky is allergic to churches so in consideration of this we continued west crossing the canals Singel, Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht where we stayed for a while at a pavement cafe and enjoyed a beer and the sunshine.
We were close to the Anne Frank House now on Prinsengracht and as this was on our ‘to do list’ we thought we might check the queue situation which the guide book warned could be quite lengthy at peak times. Although it was mid afternoon there was no queue at all so we decided that this was an opportunity not to be missed so we paid our entrance fee and went inside.
The house was built in 1635. The canal-side frontage dates from a renovation of 1740 when the rear annex was demolished and the taller one which is rather the point of the visit now stands in its place was built. The Frank family left Germany as the Nazis established power and Otto set up his spice and pickling business in the premises. Later Nazi persecution spread to the Netherlands and over one hundred thousand Jews were deported so the Frank family went into hiding inside the house in an annex at the rear.
The Secret Annex, as it was called in the English version of Anne Frank’s ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ enjoyed a secluded position which made it an ideal hiding place the family and four other Jewish people seeking refuge from the authorities. They remained hidden here for two years and one month until they were anonymously betrayed to the Nazi’s, arrested, and deported to their deaths in concentration camps. Of the hidden group, only Otto Frank survived the war.
After those in hiding were arrested, the hiding place was cleared by order of the arresting officers and all the remaining contents of the Frank family and their friends were seized as Government property. Before the building was cleared two friends who had helped hide the families, returned to the hiding place and rescued some personal effects. Amongst the items they retrieved was ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’.
It was an interesting experience to go through the hidden door behind the bookcase and to climb the steep steps into the rooms where they lived and hidden, the little guide book calls it a ‘Museum with a Story’ and this sets it out against other museums that do not have the same emotional connection. It is only small of course so the visit doesn’t take too long before finishing in the inevitable book shop at the end.
I read the diary after a previous visit to Amsterdam but the problem with it of course is that even before you start to read it you know the tragic and heartbreaking end and it is also worth remembering that the Franks weren’t unique in Nazi occupied Amsterdam and across the Netherlands it is estimated that twenty thousand people sheltered Jews at considerable risk to themselves.