I seem to enjoy the free walking tours wherever I go (more or less). They often offer a more fun way to explore the city and feel less like an outdoor history lesson. So after my tour in Lisbon in February, Amsterdam was naturally next this time with http://www.freedamtours.com. At last, I need to gain some knowledge prior to the arrival of visitors later in April. So below is what I will tell them (so if you are coming over … please stop reading here ;o).
Where does the name Amsterdam come from? Amsterdam was built on swamps as a fisher village in the 12th century in the location that is now central station. Water ingress was obviously a big nuisance, so the people built a dam on the river Amstel. As you will have undoubtedly guessed by now, thats what gave the city its name.
Why the narrow (squeezed) houses that never look entirely straight? Back in the days, the taxation of houses was by width and I guess land wasn’t cheap either. So people built narrow, high houses instead. The staircases are worthy of a mountaineering training session. Given the complications that implied for moving places, all houses are fitted with a hook and pulley at the building’s gable to move stuff through windows. So that you don’t hit the wall constantly, the houses are also forward leaning. Further, since the Dutch built on a swamp the houses needed some form of stable fundament by ramming tree trunks into the ground. On average its 40 trees for a normal sized house.
What do Amsterdam, sailors, prostitutes and children have in common? They have in fact the same patron saint – Saint Nicolas. He is also the saint of pawnbrokers, merchants, the country of Russia and the city of Moscow.
Sex business & the church: That goes back a long time and is closely related to the Dutch marine efforts. Back then, sailing was a high risk job as many boats didn’t return from their expeditions. Naturally, the surviving sailors partied hard before heading to their next quest. Prostitution and partying sailors went hand in hand even though it wasn’t legal at the time. As so often, the Dutch took a pragmatic approach of tolerance. They preferred the sex trade to ‘good girls’ falling into sailors hands. Now, another thing with sailors was that they were rather superstitious. So they felt uneasy to leave the shore as sinners … and got absolution from the local churches (either before or after the act had taken place). Good business for the church and one reason why there is quite a lot of churches in Amsterdam.
Why is it called the ‘red light district’? The name seems to originate from the red lights that were used to indicate the business is open. It also has a favorable side effect to wait for customers in red light since it gives you a nice makeover and lets your skin look better. There are also blue lights to be found in Amsterdam – they indicate transsexual workers.
The miracle of Amsterdam … be underwhelmed! Even before the Spanish arrived the city was a pilgrimage destination owing to the ‘miracle of Amsterdam’. A dying man was given his holy sacrament e.g. given bread representing the body of christ. He vomited and the vomited bread was put into the fire. While the man died, the bread survived the fire and was then recognised as a miracle. A pilgrimage church was erected and many people came to the city (more business!).
Talking religion: Being home to some 250 nationalities, the city has to be reasonably pragmatic when it comes to religion. Originally Holland was Catholic owing to the Spanish king, himself a catholic, running the country. That, however, changed when Martin Luther entered the stage. You see, as a catholic it was always a little troublesome to be too rich while it is much more tolerated for protestants. The Amsterdam’s, especially in the golden age of the 16/17th century, liked that (e.g. now they wouldn’t have to go to hell).
The Spanish sent an army to mend things, but were defeated in the 80 year independence war under the leadership of William of Orange. Catholicism was then outlawed for 150y, but again in Dutch style tolerated if practiced behind closed doors. That’s why you have many hidden churches that were constructed in normal residences and often are still in service today. Being now on the side of non-catholics caused a major influx of people especially in the period of the spanish inquisition including many jewish people (that further brought sea maps to holland from the then pre-eminent marine power – Portugal – helping the rise of the dutch east & west indian companies and a key fundament for the Dutch golden age).
Coffee Shops & Marihuana remain a grey zone with a lot of tolerance and a good portion of looking away: If you thought weed was legal in Holland – think again. It is not, but tolerated. You can possess 5g and even grow up to 5 plants and coffee shops can sell the gear. They can’t, however, buy the gear legally wholesale and so it magically appears in their storage. Weird, but politicians turn a blind eye (although there were coffee shop closures nearby schools to avoid being only able to sell weed to locals in Amsterdam). Coffee shops also can’t advertise, are called ‘coffee shops’ rather than ‘weed shops’ and also tend to pay higher taxes. Why is the government looking away? Well, that goes back to the hippie days in the 60’s & 70’s when Amsterdam had a drug/heroin issue. Nowadays large coffee shops like the Bulldog sold gear already then illegal. The governments approach was similar to the sex trade centuries earlier – rather than banning it outright, it decriminalised consumption in coffee shops it get people off the streets. And it worked. Italy, France and Spain have something to learn judging by user statistics.
Dutch courage – heard that before? As the story goes, the Dutch used to drink Jenever (Dutch gin) before heading into battle with the english during the Anglo-Dutch wars in the 17th century that gave them courage. So basically they fought intoxicated. Later on, the english developed gin based on Jenever.
The Dutch going state side: The Dutch were among the nations trying to discover a North West passage to India and commissioned capitain Hudson to do so. Instead of India, they ended up with a East US settlement that was named New Amsterdam. During the Anglo-Dutch wars (I think the second), they lost it to the britsh who renamed it New York in honor of the Duke of York. Still, there are many areas in NY left that have Dutch origin such as Haarlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Wall Street was a defense wall back then and the not so grid like streets below wall street still rem ind of that today.