A City Break
Base for our City Break in April 2015 was the excellent Room Mate Hotel Aitana which is located several hundred meters west of Amsterdam`s Central Railway Station, on the IJdock. In addition to the hotel, this artificial peninsula on the south bank of the IJ hosts offices, apartments, a marina, a base for the river police unit and the Palace of Justice. Although often called a river, the IJ (pronounced `eye`) is actually a bay in a body of water more akin to a lake. Today, the IJ is divided into two parts, with the west end linked to the North Sea Canal, which leads to the port of IJmuiden and the North Sea. To the east, are the shallow lakes of IJmeer and Markermeer which are separated by a set of locks.
We had a great room on the hotel`s top floor of the inland side which overlooked the city. A river view would have been even better but bear in mind that many of the rooms, apart from those at the western aspect, and some on the top couple of floors on the opposite side of the corridor, would be facing onto the tall apartment block across the street rather than the water. Best option for breakfast was Bagels & Beans, directly across the street from the hotel, with a tasty menu at a reasonable price, plus there was a panoramic window facing the river.
Views from our room are shown above, plus a shot of the very strange hotel lobby pillars - perhaps the architect had been exploring the Red Light District the night before coming up with the bizarre design!
The river features a never-ending nautical parade: anything from tiny dinghies to long, inland water cruise ships, from expensive yachts to magnificent tall ships, and from glass-topped tour boats to cargo ships, tugs and dredgers. The futuristic Eye Film Institute building was directly across from the Aitana Hotel.
One of the best ways to familiarise yourself with the layout of the city centre is to take one of the numerous canal boat tours. Most spend an hour or so cruising the inland waterways with the onboard guide relaying historic information and local anecdotes. We opted for one of the smaller vessels which can access some of the narrower passages and pass under the lower bridges. Some companies also offer harbour cruises on the IJ as an interesting contrast.
Amsterdam`s Central Railway Station was just a 10 -15 minute stroll away from our hotel. The station was designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers who was also responsible for the Dutch National Museum, the Rijksmuseum, which is also located in the city. Amsterdam`s railway station first opened in 1889 and now, it`s estimated that 260,000 passengers per day use the facility making it the second busiest railway station in the Netherlands after Utrecht Central.
Created to provided safe passage for pedestrians and cyclists, a 110 metre-long tunnel opened in 2015, having taken almost four years to complete. An impressive nautical-themed tile frieze depicts 17th century fishing boats on the IJ under the protection of several men of war. It covers the full-length of the underpass which runs beneath the tracks at the railway station. Locals must like the art work too because it was totally graffiti free when I saw it.
Having spotted three bottles of Champagne missing from this boat`s right-hand ice bucket, it looks as if the police are about to pull-over and breathalyse the skipper! It was swerving about a bit!
This ex-lock keepers house with a bad lean is now run as the popular Café de Sluyswacht. The original Montelbaanstoren tower (above right) on the bank of the Oudeschans canal was built in 1516 as part of the city Walls. The top half, designed by Hendrick de Keyser, was extended to its current, decorative form in 1606.
The Bulldog is Amsterdam`s most famous chain of cannabis `coffee shops`. In much of the Netherlands, local authorities tolerate the sale of small quantities of cannabis in these licensed establishments to the public for personal use. Most also serve drinks and food but they are not permitted to serve alcohol or other types of drug, and risk closure if caught. The idea of licensing the sale of cannabis was introduced in the 1970s in an attempt to keep hard and soft drugs use apart.
The Bulldog chain`s founder, Henk de Vries, began selling marijuana in 1970 at a pop festival. Business continued to `grow` and in 1975 he converted his father's sex shop in the city`s red-light district into the first Bulldog coffee shop. He gradually expanded, opening additional premises, and in 2001 the company began distributing internationally. The Bulldog group now also operates hotels in Amsterdam and Canada.
Even if you aren`t into the drug scene there are plenty of weird and wonderful sights as you wander through the city that could easily give you the impression that you`ve smoked too many spliffs or pigged-out on cannabis cakes - just a few examples are shown here!
A crowd had gathered on this bridge on the edge of the Red Light District and we discovered that a Japanese tourist, adorned with what appeared to be a Rising Sun Kamikaze headband, was about to throw himself into the water. The guide told us that during a major clean up of the city`s canal system a couple of years ago 15,000 bikes were recovered in one sweep. Luckily this section of the canal had been the subject of another clear-up that morning and a pile of bikes removed.
Our boat had passed under the bridge by the time we heard a loud cheer, followed by a splash, then lots of clapping so assumed that the intrepid daredevil hadn`t impaled himself on a seat post or a set of upturned handle bars. He may have still been in need of hospital treatment though, especially if he didn`t keep his mouth closed - the houseboats, and possibly some of the dwellings (brothels included), empty their sewage directly into the canal network and there`s always the local rat population to consider - better he stays off the `whacky baccy` next time!
Dam Square is located in the historical centre of Amsterdam and is one of the country`s best known and important locations. The present-day square takes its name after a dam on the Amstel River which was built around 1270 to first create a land bridge between settlements on opposite banks. It was this feature from which the city derived its name. Buildings looking onto the square include the neoclassical Royal Palace, which served as the city hall from 1655 until its conversion to a royal residence in 1808, the 15th-century Gothic Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.
The National Monument on Dam Square (above centre) was unveiled in 1956 to commemorate Holland's casualties of World War II. Besides serving as a daily reminder of the war’s atrocities and those lost, the monument plays a central role in National Remembrance Day when the royal family and local residents gather to pay their respects to fallen soldiers not only from WWII but also more recent conflicts. More images and information regarding the symbolism can be found here.
One of the city`s most popular attractions is the Anne Frank House Museum dedicated to the young Jewish girl who kept a diary while hiding from the authorities in Nazi-occupied Holland during the Second World War. The building stands on the banks of the Prinsengracht canal close to the Westerkerk but tickets go fast. I tried to book online several days in advance but the allocation had already been reached. The figure of Anne pictured below can be found in Madame Tussaudes. Below left: Snapped from a canal boat, this is the Jewish Resistance Memorial which stands overlooking the river Amstel at its junction with the Zwanenburgwal canal. Every year on 8-9 November, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht 1938 (Night of Broken Glass), people gather here to remember when Jews were attacked throughout Nazi Germany. Around 100 died and in its aftermath some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps.
Anne grew up in Frankfurt with her sister Margot and parents Otto and Edith. When Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933, the family emigrated to Amsterdam to escape the growing persecution of Jews. Then Germany invaded Holland in May 1940. Anne was given a diary as a birthday gift when she turned 13 which she completed faithfully. When Margot received notice to go to a forced-labour camp in July 1942, the family feared the worst and decided to go into hiding in a specially prepared secret annexe. Hope was shattered on 4 August 1944, when the house was raided by the security police following a tip-off. Anne was arrested and transported with the others to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she died of typhus in March 1945, just a few weeks before British troops liberated the camp. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only person from the secret annexe to survive the war. His secretary, Miep Gies, who had helped the Franks go into hiding and visited them often, had retrieved Anne’s diary from the annexe, and returned it to him. He had no idea of the depths of his daughter`s thoughts and feelings and finally decided to fulfil her wish by publishing the diary. The first copies went on sale in the Netherlands in June 1947.
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