AMSTERDAM — A traveler doesn’t know where he’s going, said the scribe; a tourist doesn’t know where he’s been.
A sneer plays about the lips of most travel writers when they utter the word “tourist,” preferring to embrace the conceit that they and the like-minded are “travelers,” distinct from the benighted category of visitor infamous for gaudy attire, clueless behavior and a lack of discerning.
But does the stereotype really hold?
This small, energetic and exceptionally tolerant city, though dense with tourists, welcomes them enthusiastically. And the reasons are not just economic. There is a sense of camaraderie here, of shared delight. The Dutch admire curiosity. And what but curiosity, a desire to explore the unfamiliar, compels someone to cross continents and oceans to take in the sights?
Take a moment to talk to the tourist next to you on the tram, the canal cruise, in the Van Gogh Museum, and rather than a boor or uncultured Philistine, you may discover someone far more worldly than you expect. After all, the “beaten track” of tourism becomes that for a reason. It’s where the main points of interest reside.
One could argue that today’s travel cliches are precisely the sort of off-the-beaten-track adventures where you are less likely to meet the locals, much less be welcomed into their lives.
Amsterdam has all the elements of an inviting urban experience: an appealing quality of life; a distinctive topography defined by its many canals; a remarkable history as the seat of a 17th-century maritime power; a rich, varied culture; fascinating architecture; and close proximity to some of the most stunning flower plantations and gardens in the world.
It is home of the first stock exchange and, for more than 400 years, the city also has been a center of the diamond trade. But less glittery pleasures take precedence.
Even were it not for the fast, efficient mass-transit system of trams, Metro and buses, Amsterdam would be an easy city to navigate. It’s eminently walkable, and the concentric canals make it almost impossible to get lost (unless you wish to).
In addition to the Amstel River, Amsterdam — “Mokum” to locals — has one of the largest harbors in Europe, and most canal cruises also will usher you into the periphery of the shipping lanes. It doesn’t take long before one realizes that the city shares at least one characteristic with New Orleans: At high tide, parts of Amsterdam are below sea level.
Pedestrians, have a care. Bikes rule in Amsterdam. So look both ways, or rent one yourself.
Dam Square, a few blocks north of the rail nexus of Central Station, may be the historical city center, home to the Royal Palace and whatnot. But before you flee into the neighborhoods along the canals to find the real city (and enjoy a little breathing room), beer lovers should treat themselves to one of the oldest taverns in Europe.
A mecca of the craft brewer’s art, In De Wildeman is nestled inconspicuously on Kolksteeg, just off the shopping promenade of Nieuwendijh, and one of only 30 members of the beer tappers coalition of the Netherlands. Order a De Eeem Extreem, or any other of the day’s eight to 10 specials, and marvel. It’s splendor in the glass.
Three of the city’s top cultural attractions are joined by the same plaza (Museum-Plein): the Van Gogh Museum, the (national) Rijksmuseum; and the famed concert hall Concertgebouw, with a fashionable commercial art and antiques district just to the north.
Also not to be missed: the Anne Frank House, a haunting, worthwhile experience despite the long lines; and the Rembrandt House.
The local architecture is both familiar and exotic. Along some canals, what a Charlestonian might call row houses dominate, tall and narrow and handsomely appointed. Though the streets are not without their share of old mansions, most are occupied by consulates, banks and other businesses.
If one wonders why so many businesses and houses have a block-and-tackle set-up depending from top-floor gables, it’s because the doors and staircases of Amsterdam are notoriously narrow. Families on the move ship their furnishings and other belongings out the window.
The custom or makeshift houseboats one sees moored along many sections of the canals are not mere decoration. The city suffers from an acute housing shortage, and space is at a premium. Yet to the wanderer on foot or on bike, nothing seems crowded — until you reach the fabled Red Light District.
OK, OK, the Red Light District. We were getting to it. If you are expecting seedy and dangerous, you’re in the wrong place. Clearly marked by metal pillars with a rosette of LEDs, it inhabits the most beautiful part of the city, especially at night.
Apart from the legion of bars and restaurants, the streets are filled with everything from loud, boisterous young men showing off for each other to couples, families and new moms pushing strollers.
The reddish-orange neon portals and the ladies beckoning from within seem like just another tourist attraction, as do the (wink, wink) “coffee” houses, but the reality is not quite what the imagination might conjure. These coffee shops emerged on a large scale when the city decriminalized marijuana in 1976, and it remains their chief (well, only) product, but it’s still not expressly legal. It’s just ignored.
That said, last April the government announced it intends to pass legislation to restrict the sale of marijuana to local patrons, allegedly avoiding imported crime.
When to go
If you fancy rubbing elbows with the tourist throngs and daytrippers from other parts of the Netherlands, time your visit for Queen’s Day (April 30), the celebration of the queen’s birthday. But make certain you’ve made hotel reservations well in advance. It’s a mad house.
April is the best time of year to take in Keukenhof Gardens in nearby Lisse. It is renowned as the world’s largest flower garden, a tapestry of tulips and dozens of other varieties so vivid it has to be seen to be believed. Half-day and full-day tours are offered from Amsterdam.
Language is no problem in the Netherlands. The Dutch put most of us to shame linguistically. Most speak three or four languages — fluently — and English is so pervasive that asking a local if he speaks it is a minor affront.
For all practical purposes, “Holland” and “the Netherlands” are interchangeable terms, but if you want to impress the townsfolk, make the distinction. Divided into north and south provinces, Holland actually is an area in the Netherlands. And Amsterdam is the centerpiece of the north.
A very broad-minded, fun-loving centerpiece.
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.
Shops and restaurants enliven the south end of Rembrandt-Plein.×
Another canal scene, with a small fleet of paddleboats.×
Many appealing pathways wind through Keukenhof’s splendor.×
The majestic Hotel de Europe looks down on the avenue Vijzelstraat.×
Night brings allure to the city’s most beautiful sector, the notorious Red Light District.×