Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Amsterdam is one of Europe's great cities, a unique center of shipping and trade that has stirred the imagination for centuries. Long known as a gathering place for disaffected groups and outcasts of all sorts, Amsterdam proudly embraces its role as a bastion for free spirits. Many tourists come here to experience the city's legalized drugs and prostitution, the two best-known examples of Amsterdam's permissive culture. I was more interested in the city's historic sites and treasured museums, which range in time from Amsterdam's early founding on the site of a literal dam up to its present metropolitan sprawl. I had allotted two days in Amsterdam to explore the various tourist attractions, and there was a lot to see.

I left from The Hague at 6:00 am, boarding another train to take the short trip northeast to Amsterdam. The Dutch countryside was just waking up as I rode the rails, with a handful of cars (and bikes) out on the roads as the train passed. I saw more of the flat, low-lying fields with windmills turning lazily in the distance. Everywhere the fields were interspersed with small canals and waterways; only a few of them were large enough for boats to travel on, and I guessed that a lot of the rest were used for irrigation. Or perhaps it was due to much of this terrain being located below sea level? It was all picturesque in any case, and it made for a pleasant ride.

Amsterdam Central provided my first view of the city. The great central hall where the trains arrived was a gleaming modern showcase of glass and steel, kept neat and clean by the station's workers. The visitor area below had the usual assortment of shops and fast food restaurants, providing a useful place to grab some breakfast. Outside, the building's front edifice was a different matter entirely. This was a regal 19th century structure full of pomp and bombast, with the Dutch coat of arms in the center and two glitzy clock towers flanking the main entrance. The central station was constructed on a series of artificial islands in the lake that sits to the north of the city, and approximately 162 thousand people pass through it daily. As a first site to see on arrival, it made an excellent first impression.

One small note that probably no one cares about aside from myself. I spent a great deal of time crisscrossing the city over these two days, working around times that various attractions were open versus when they were closed. As such, these pictures are not strictly in chronological order, and represent more of a thematic take on this trip, grouped together by subject area. I'll do my best to present this information in a way that makes sense, but wanted to clarify that up front, in case the weather in some of these images suddenly leaps from sunny to rainy without other explanation.

An example of this would be the church in the above picture, the Basilica of Saint Nicholas (Sint-Nicolaaskerk), which I visited on two different occasions to find a time when the building was open. While this is not a particularly famous or historic church in Amsterdam, the richly decorated interior was more than worth stopping to see. The structure dates to the late 19th century, and it is located right across the water from the central train station, making it one of the first things that visitors to the city will often spot. The exterior of the basilica was mostly nondescript, aside from the two towers in front and central domed spire in the center of the building. Inside was a different story, with lavish paintings and Latin inscriptions covering almost every surface of the walls. Religious figures and scenes from the Bible were presented in vibrant color, and the sun was streaming in through the windows at the time of my visit, illuminating these depictions in brilliant light. The stained glass behind the altar was even more colorful, if possible, and the central dome reared up to an impressive height when viewed from directly underneath. It should go without saying that this is a Catholic church, of course, and it looked nothing like the Protestant churches that I would be visiting elsewhere in the city. As I had seen back in Delft, the different Christian denominations had significantly different views about what their respective places of worship should look like.

These are images of some of the narrow streets and major byways in the central part of the city near the train station. Amsterdam is a city built on the water, with concentric circles of canals ringing the original heart. In between these rings, the oldest parts of the city retain much of their medieval feel, with a zigzagging warren of streets twisting and turning in every direction. It's easy to get lost in these pedestrian-only back streets, and I was fortunate to have a map. The one major road, Damrak street pictured above, was an obvious contrast. This would be a terrible city to try and drive through; public transportation or walking looked like much better options.

If Amsterdam has a historic heart, the square pictured above is surely it. Known simple as "Dam", this is the location where the original dam blocking the river was constructed, and out of which the city grew and expanded over the centuries. The formal building at the western side of the square is the Royal Palace of Amsterdam (Koninklijk Paleis), one of the residences of the Dutch royal family. My understanding is that they don't spend very much of their time in this building anymore, and that it's mostly used for fancy state functions and diplomatic receptions. The eastern side of the square holds a national monument to the deceased during World War II. The Netherlands were of course occupied by Nazi Germany and spent four years under foreign rule; this tends to be not as well known (at least in America) because no major battles were fought in this country during the war. Next to the Royal Palace is the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk), using the same name as the New Church in Delft. Amsterdam confusingly also has an Old Church and New Church, known by no other names. Whenever there are public speeches or huge protests in Amsterdam, this square is where they are concentrated (despite its relatively small size). I would be visiting all of these locations a bit later, but when I first stopped by, they were all closed due to the early hour. For the moment, I kept going.

One place that was not closed was the Begijnhof, an inner courtyard that dates back to the medieval period that formerly housed a group of religious women. As the name suggests, this was a courtyard owned by the Beguines order, and although there are no longer any sisters who live here, the small number of private residences are rented exclusively to older women who live here as a place of refuge. The buildings themselves are protected historic structures, and the courtyard remains at medieval street level - several feet below the current street level. Visitors have to walk down a short flight of steps to enter, which is an odd experience. The Begijnhof is intended to be a place of quiet reflection and prayer, and that was exactly how I found it. While outside the walls the city was bustling with the early morning, inside the air was quiet and undisturbed. It was a perfect place to sit and read a book for a half hour while waiting on some of the museums in the city to open.

The Begijnhof also contains two churches. One of them is the small chapel associated with the Beguines, which was finely furnished in its own right but otherwise unremarkable. The more significant building is the one pictured here, the English Reformed Church of Amsterdam. This small building was the original Beguines chapel, and it's one of the oldest surviving structures in the city. When Amsterdam officially sided with the Protestant cause during the Dutch Revolt in the late 16th century, this building was confiscated by city authorities and turned into a place of worship for the English-speaking Calvinist community. In one of those amazing historic connections, this church is where the Pilgrims worshipped before setting sail for Plymouth. Historical sticklers may recall that the Pilgrims first left England for the Netherlands before deciding to travel to the New World to set up their own community. The chapel remains in use to this day, continuing to hold English-language services and proudly displaying flags from the British Isles, Canada, and the United States. I found the chapel to be a simple, dignified building that wouldn't have looked out of place in an ordinary small town. Only the weathered brickwork on the outside hinted at the great age of this place. This is a very easy place to miss when visiting Amsterdam; for Americans in particular, it's neat to stop and see the place where the Pilgrims worshipped before they entered into our national folklore.

Near the Begijnhof and across one of the canals lies the Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt), a place where flowers of all types have been sold from atop floating barges for more than 150 years. This is definitely a touristy spot, and there isn't going to be anything of great cultural importance here. Still, it was fun to walk past and see the sheer quantity of flowers on sale, with flower bulbs being one of the industries that the Dutch specialize in. Overinvestment in tulip bulbs actually caused the first ever stock market crash in the 1630s, one of the zany facts that history throws out there. This market will sell pretty much anything flower-related, as well as everything stereotypically Dutch in nature (windmills, wooden shoes, etc.) Oh, and there's also a whole bunch of cheese shops next to the flower market, including one that advertises a cheese museum. Are cheese and flowers supposed to go together in some way?

More seriously, I traveled back to the Royal Palace next and had the chance to take the public tour right when the building was opening for the day. The core of this building was constructed during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, and this was originally used as the town hall for the city. The palace was appropriated by Louis Napoleon during the French revolutionary period, when he was installed as king by the actual Napoleon, and the Dutch royal family continued to use the building after the House of Oranje was restored to power. Visitors enter the building from street level, and the tour ascends from there into the palace's central hall, which is the location where the above pictures were taken. This is a beautifully decorated hall, with walls and floors carved from marble, along with a geographical theme that appealed directly to me. There are two globes set into the floor tiles, one for each hemisphere, and a statue of Atlas holding aloft the world at the far end. The Dutch royal family has exhibited good taste here, demonstrating the power and wealth of their nation while keeping things refined and elegant. I understand that this hall remains in use for state functions, and the choice seems appropriate.

The tour then headed into a series of rooms that were used at one time as living spaces for the royal family, but which have long since been turned into museum exhibitions. These quarters were lavishly decorated, and somewhat reminiscent of the tour given at Versailles, if a bit more restrained. The main focus of the tour was the portraits of the royal family, with many successive generations of the House of Oranje portrayed in roughly chronological order. This same family has held power since the days of William the Silent with few interruptions in the line of descent. Certainly a much cleaner process than the succession to the British throne over the same period, which was often little short of a disaster before the 20th century. At the end of the exhibit was a line of formal portraits of all the various ruling monarchs, right up to the current king at this time of writing, William Alexander. The whole thing was professionally produced and an excellent introduction to the historic members of the Dutch royal family. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that the Royal Palace has an absolutely gorgeous restroom, no doubt because the place is still used for state functions!

With the New Church located adjacent to the palace, it was the obvious destination to visit next. Unfortunately this place was a major disappointment for me. For starters, note the banners on the outside proclaiming the "World Press Photo 16" exhibition. Churches are almost always free to visit across Europe, but here in Amsterdam, the New Church was officially designated as a "museum" in order to charge admission to visitors. This was a transparent attempt to make money off of tourists, and it immediately soured me on the location. Inside, views of the New Church were blocked by informational displays and works of art. It's not that these were poorly made or uninteresting subjects; the world press photos and street-level pictures taken from cities across the world were excellently put together. However, this didn't feel like the right place to see these things, and it took away from the building itself to put these exhibits in the nave of a historic church. I literally could not see much of the building's architecture because there were various signs in the way. To me, this felt like the hollowed-out husk of a church, with the structure remaining but the substance long since departed. The New Church dates back to the 15th century and this is the site where coronation of the Dutch royals take place; I wish that they had chosen to focus on those aspects of the building, rather than these out of place art displays. As I said, this place left me underwhelmed.

From the New Church, I crisscrossed the canals and headed to the Old Church (Oude Kerk) a short distance off to the east. The Old Church is the oldest building in Amsterdam, dating back to the early 14th century with a number of revisions over the years, and located in the middle of the infamous Red Light district. While that might seem like a strange pairing, there's a reason why the church was located in the middle of this historically seedy area. When the Old Church was initially founded some 800 years ago, this was part of the port district, and the religious men and women associated with the church were deliberately trying to push back against the sinful ways of the sailors that came into town. Amsterdam's commercial shipping has moved out of the city's center over time, but the Old Church itself still remains.

Even though the Old Church pulled the same shenanigans of charging admission by claiming to be a museum, I couldn't help liking this building much more than its newer cousin. Just from the outside, the building was a clear mismash of different building materials, with stone used some of the time and brick used at other times. I found the unusual location of the Old Church to be charming, literally in the middle of a neighborhood of canals and side streets, with no major roads or other important structures nearby. While the New Church was designed to cater to the city's elites, this older church was intended for the poorest individuals and those seemingly furthest away from religion. The whole place felt quirky and genuine.

Inside, there was another one of those mostly-fake exhibitions taking place, but the designers here had the good sense to make the displays unobtrusive. The church itself was essentially untouched, and I was able to walk through it and appreciate the ancient building without interruption. The Old Church had a long and narrow design, with the same simplicity seen in many of the other Protestant churches I had been visiting. The basic pattern was a stone floor of rough stones, white-painted walls with little in the way of ornamentation, and a wooden ceiling that complemented the wooden chairs and pews. The ceiling retains most of the wood originally used in its construction, and some of the planks date back to the 1390s. It was all neat and orderly. I could easily imagine some of those dour Calvinists from the 17th century coming here each week for services; there was a painting from one of the Dutch Masters on display at the National Gallery in Washington DC that I saw afterwards, depicting the Old Church and what it looked like in the early 1600s. It should come as no surprise that the painting showed almost the identical scene as I encountered on my visit. This place felt untouched by the passage of time, though of course that was flatly untrue. This building was looted and partially burned on several occasions during the Dutch Revolt. Walking quietly past the rows of old seats, it was easy to imagine otherwise.

The Old Church also offers a half hour tour of its main tower, which I was able to sign up for and take shortly after lunchtime. This tour is strictly limited, with only six guests allowed to take part in each group. Mine was even smaller, with only myself and one other tourist accompanied by the two guides. The tour climbed its way up a series of wooden steps, spiraling around tight corners with little in the way of headroom. At each platform, the guides would stop to explain some of the history behind the building and how the tower had functioned over the years. The tower also held the church's collection of bells, which date back to the 17th century and are still in use today. The largest of these bells is very large indeed, weighing in at 3700 kg (about 8000 pounds). With the frequent stops, this was an easy climb and a fascinating look at some of the machinery behind the church's operations.

Then there were the views at the top once the tour exited onto the roof. These were breathtaking, looking out over the sea of houses and glimpsing the central heart of the city from a bird's eye view. The straight lines carved by the passage of the canals were plainly visible, as were the flags poking up from above the Royal Palace and the central train station off to the north. The buildings here in the downtown followed no rhyme or reason at all, a smorgasbord of different heights and architectural styles ranging from the medieval to the modern. Up here, it was easy to catch the breeze blowing in from the open water only a few miles away, a true delight on this sunny day. There are a number of other places in Amsterdam where tourists can climp up to rooftop level for the views, but I can't think of anywhere better to do so than the oldest building in the city. Simply amazing.

As I mentioned before, the Old Church is located in the Red Light district of Amsterdam, and above are some of the pictures of what it looked like during the daylight hours. Despite the scandalous reputation, it was pretty tame here when I walked through. Aside from some tawdry signs and neon lights, this could have been an ordinary neighborhood. I honestly passed through some of these streets multiple times before I even realized that this was the famous Red Light district. (Comically, I was looking for the area on my map before it suddenly hit me that I was already in the district.) From the perspective of someone just passing through, this wasn't anything more scandalous that the sort of sexiness commonly seen on broadcast TV.

My next destination was the Amsterdam Museum, a collection of exhibits and artifacts related to the city's history. All of this historic stuff was right up my alley, and I spent over an hour wandering through the museum from top to bottom. Aside from detailed information about how the city changed as it grew over the years, there were also displays about the city's coat of arms, the keys to the city as presented to the French during the revolutionary period, a pair of intricately carved ivory tusks brought back from the Dutch colony in Batavia, a medieval strongbox that once held the city treasury, and much more. The building itself is a renovated historic structure, and the fancy Governor's Room pictured above was where city luminaries met on a weekly basis to conduct business related to the city's orphanages. For anyone interested in this kind of stuff, it was more than worth the admission price.

One of the city's biggest tourist attractions is the Anne Frank House, the place where Anne and her family hid from the Nazi occupiers as detailed in her famous diary. Entrance to the building draws enormous lines, and I went in the evening to try and avoid the worst of the crowds. This was only partially successful, as I still ended up waiting about an hour for entry, and I had relatively little time inside before it closed for the night. The Anne Frank House is a moving experience to visit; everyone walking through the building spoke in hushed whispers, and despite the packed crowd everyone was respectfully refraining from cutting in line. Because the hidden quarters were so cramped, however, they don't photograph particularly well. I captured the bookcase that swung out to reveal the secret staircase up to the attic, but the tiny rooms where Anne and her family were cooped up didn't come across very well on film. The request of her father, the only survivor of the group, was that the living area be left unfurnished when this was turned into a museum. While I completely agree that the museum should follow his wishes, it means that the upstairs area consists of a series of small, empty rooms. This is one of those places that has to be experienced in person, walking through these chambers and thinking about being unable to leave for months and months on end, living in constant terror of discovery. The tragic ending to this story only makes things that much sadder. This is not a place where anyone travels to feel good about themselves, but I'm glad it's a place that so many visitors come to see anyway.

The next morning dawned rainy and cold, very different from the pleasant weather of the day before. My destination on this second day in the city was the art museums located to the southwest of the city center, grouped together in their own quarter near several public parks. The first one that I came across was the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam's largest and most prestigious museum as well as one of the most famous art galleries in the world. This enormous building was constructed in the 19th century and houses a huge collection of the works of art from the Dutch Golden Age, as well as sundry other antiquities of historic interest. I would be heading inside a little bit later, having already reserved an entry ticket online. Around the back of this building sits the famous "I am sterdam" sign, which has been featured in several different Heneiken commercials over the years, at least here in the US. On this gloomy morning, it was mostly deserted and the reflecting pool that trails away from the museum had a leaden cast to its waters. Sharp readers may note the presences of a bunch of metal barriers in these pictures; they were here due to Amsterdam 2016, site of the European Athletics Championships. These were about to begin a few days later in the Museumplein, the park in the middle of the museum quarter, where a series of viewer stands were in the process of being erected. No one was working on the games at the moment, and I hopped over barriers to continue taking pictures of the area.

My destination was a little bit further away from the Rijksmuseum in the form of the Van Gogh Museum. This is a much more recent addition to the collection of art galleries located in this part of Amsterdam, only opening in 1973 after Van Gogh's descendants lobbied to have it constructed. The current entrance to the building, with the glass exterior that descends down to the museum store and information center, was an even more recent addition to the original building. The Van Gogh Museum houses the largest collection of the artist's works anywhere, along with extensive information about his often troubled life. The museum does not allow photography of any of the paintings, but fortunately there are reproductions of many of them available for sale in the gift store (for some very steep prices), and there's no prohibition on photographing them. Below are a few of my favorites:

I actually don't like his "Sunflowers" painting that much, even though it's one of the most famous works from Van Gogh. I preferred this depiction of a flowering tree that I had never seen before, largely due to the color palette of blues, greens, and whites. My favorite work of all from this museum was the painting of clouds over an empty field. There's something about the mixture of the threatening blue above and the tranquil greens and yellows below that speaks to me in this painting. I'm a fan of Impressionist art, and I lean towards the Van Gogh works that are done in more of that style. His more surreal and abstract art has less of an appeal for me personally. Anyway, this museum was a wonderful collection of one of the world's most famous artists, and how one feels about Van Gogh will obviously dictate impressions of this place. Admission tickets can be difficult to obtain in the summer; I recommend buying them in advance online.

From the Van Gogh Museum, it was a short walk back to the Rijksmuseum once again, this time to enter the building and visit the collections. The original core of the museum sits in the brick center, with some of the later additions spiraling out into the wings. Visitors descend below ground level to enter, and then climb up the stairs to reach the collections themselves. The layout of the Rijksmuseum was one of the most confusing patterns I can recall, with stairs that connected to some levels but not others, wings of the building that were placed next to one another but didn't connect, and a need to return all the way back to the entrance in the basement to reach other parts of the museum. Despite having a map on hand, I ended up walking in circles repeatedly while exploring the museum. Maybe this was one of those things that you had to be Dutch in order to understand fully.

This hallway of the Rijksmuseum sits on the floor above ground level (American second floor, European first floor) and would have been one of the first places that the original visitors back in Victorian days would have seen. Looking more like a cathedral than a museum, the hall is richly decorated with stained glass windows and painted walls. The figures on display look like they could have come out of a very outdated version of a History of Western Civilization textbook, tracing the history of Western political and religious thought from the classical period up to the modern era. Beautiful as this might have been, it was hard for me to look at this as a historian of the British Empire and not see the old "civilizing mission" ethos reflected in these displays. There was a reason for that: this section of the building was designed in the 1880s near the height of the colonial period. It's useful to view today as a historical snapshot of how the Dutch viewed themselves at the time of this building's creation.

The collections of the Rijksmuseum are enormous; it is supposed to hold about a million objects in total, out of which roughly ten thousand are on public display at any one moment. I wandered through the various halls of the museum, snapping pictures of anything interesting for several hours. (I did appreciate that the museum has no prohibition on photography, unlike the Van Gogh Museum.) The images above are only a tiny fraction of the collections on display. In addition to the usual paintings from European artists, the Rijksmuseum also has a sizable collection of Asian art, and quite a lot of materials on display related to the Dutch colony in Batavia (modern day Indonesia). That held a special interest for me, given the research that I had done into the British East India Company for my dissertation. There were also painted miniatures from Thailand, a pair of hunting pistols used by Napoleon, dollhouse collections from the 18th century, working scale models of sailing ships, and more random things than I can possibly describe. The Rijksmuseum has one of the greatest collections in the world, and it's pretty much a must-see destination in Amsterdam.

The central attraction of the museum is this huge hallway on the American third floor (European second floor). This is where the most famous works of art from the Dutch Golden Age are stored, in this imposing room with its decorated walls and high ceilings. In fact, one reason why the overall floorplan is so confusing in the Rijksmuseum is specifically to set up this unbroken vantage point in the featured viewing hall. This room also attracts the largest crowds, of course, which I tried to capture above. Everyone is here to see Rembrandt's works, in particular his most famous painting, "The Night Watch". This was a lot bigger in person that I had previously realized, about 12 feet by 15 feet in size. The other tourists were particularly packed together to view this painting, which everyone seems to know. My favorite Rembrandt work is another painting located in the same hall, the much more normally sized "Syndics of the Drapers' Guild". I've never seen another work of art that so perfectly captures the men who lived during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century. Dressed in sober black costume, these were the hard-working, God-fearing Calvinist merchants and artisans behind the explosion of Dutch financial and military power that emerged onto the scene in the years following the revolt against Spanish rule. I love the fact that these were all real people too, which Rembrandt managed to capture looking as though they just turned in the middle of a conversation to note the viewer's entrance into the same room. To me, this painting feels like a window into a very specific moment in history that took place almost four centuries ago, about as close as we can get to a photograph of an era long since departed. I've used this painting on many occasions while teaching because it's such a useful way of getting that glimpse into a bygone age.

The Rijksmuseum also holds this stunning library, which looks like a movie set version of an idealized book collection. Four floors of old tomes pack the walls on each side, with that ridiculously cute spiral staircase connecting them together. This is a place where researchers can come to do their work, and it puts even the reading rooms at the Library of Congress and the British Library to shame. It almost made me want to go back and start working in the archives again, just to spend more time in a place like this. Well... almost.

Down in the basement, the Rijksmuseum has additional special collections on some of their more unique materials. The first of these was the Navy Models Gallery, where there are hundreds of technically accurate to-scale models of wooden sailing ships. These were commissioned by the Dutch government in the 18th and early 19th centuries for use in naval construction, with the models eventually finding their way here. The level of detail on some of these ships was hard to believe; I don't even want to think about the number of hours required to produce these things by hand. Next was a collection of different porcelain amassed over the centuries, many of them coming from China initially before being replicated by local Dutch producers. This was not a field where I have much in the way of knowledge, but the collection certainly was extensive. Then there was the Armoury, an exhibit of weapons and armor with everything from medieval knights up to smoothbore rifles. This was much more in my wheelhouse, and I enjoyed seeing some of the rare items on display. Some of the pistols originally owned by wealthy nobles and merchants had elaborately carved handles, for example. Finally, there was also a collection of historic musical instruments, another subject near and dear to my heart. Some of the woodwind instruments in particular had bizarre designs, back in earlier centuries before their usage was standardized for orchestral performances. These collections alone could easily eat up a good part of a day, despite being a small subset of the larger Rijksmuseum.

I finally left the museum and headed to a more unusual destination. Our Lord in the Attic (Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder) is a historic church built into a residential house, located near the Old Church in the center of the city. Even though it's been turned into a museum now, I had a difficult time finding this place and walked past it twice. Why would someone build a church in a place like this? That requires a bit of history to explain. Following the conversion of the Netherlands to Protestantism, public worship of Catholicism was prohibited in Amsterdam, and the Catholic churches were all shut down or confiscated. This was somewhat understandable, given that the Dutch were in the process of fighting a series of wars against Catholic Spain for their independence. Still, the minority Catholic population in the city needed places to worship, and a series of churches were constructed inside residential houses in response. These were not secret churches - there's no way anyone could have kept their existence hidden for long. The city authorities knew about their existence. But they were willing to turn a blind eye as long as the Catholic parishioners were discreet about the whole process, and thus these house churches survived and even flourished. This is the only one of the dozen or so original house churches that has been preserved down to the present day. The whole thing was such a strange story that I had to see this in practice.

After passing up a series of staircases, visitors enter into the bottom level of Our Lord in the Attic. This has to be the oddest church that I've ever come across, with the architecture of the rowhouse forcing a ridiculously narrow structure to the design. A series of tiny pews ran back from the altar, which was decorated with the typical colorful Catholic iconography of saints. The two floors above the bottom level were then cut out, forming a chute of sorts in the middle of the building, with additional narrow spaces for worshippers along the sides of the upper levels. It was almost like a dollhouse version of a church, only blown up to real life size. The view out the window captured that, yes indeed, this was all taking place inside a residential building that was otherwise completely nondescript from its neighbors. I understand that this place doesn't get nearly as many visitors as some of the other sites I had been taking in, but I found it to be one of the most unique and interesting places in Amsterdam.

Here are a few more pictures of the canals that I took while walking through the city between all of these different destinations. I may have been underselling the merits of Amsterdam, which is a beautiful city on its series of waterways. Just walking around on a sunny day in the downtown is a thoroughly pleasurable experience. These particular pictures include walking past the gleaming National Opera building on its own waterfront, and the new Rembrandt Square with a lifesized version of the figures from his "Night Watch" painting. This particular sculpture was dedicated in 2009 on the four hundredth anniversary of Rembrandt's birth. He remains extremely popular in the Netherlands, and is widely viewed as one of the nation's greatest figures. Anyone traveling to Amsterdam should expect to see a lot of stuff with Rembrandt's name on it.

Before leaving the city, I also had to check back again with the Red Light district. How different were things there at night? Well it was certainly more crowded, with a lot more tourists passing through to see what was on display. And perhaps because this is such a big tourist destination, it really wasn't as lewd as I had been led to believe, at least from the perspective of someone walking through. There were plenty of neon signs advertising live shows, and hawkers calling for tourists to come see what the various establishments had to advertise. There were also lots of dancing women in skimpy bikinis in the windows, put there to lure passing men in to see the shows. But there was no nudity on display, and everything had an orderly, regulated feel. My understanding is that this area was a lot more seedy a few decades ago, and when it started to become a tourist draw, the city authorities came in and put a lid on the debauchery. I can't speak for what goes on inside these buildings; maybe the live shows are a lot wilder, and it's important to keep in mind that the city does have legalized prostitution. There are little booths where a visitor can walk inside and pay the women in the window for sex, no questions asked. However, like I said, for someone just walking through on the canal streets, there's nothing here that can't be seen on a basic cable television show.

That nighttime stroll was an end to the two days of madcap travel that I had spent in Amsterdam. When I woke up the next morning for my typical early train ride, I found myself walking past the Old Church on my way back to central station. The streets were utterly deserted with it being prior to 6:00 am, and the morning sunlight was just catching the tower that I had climbed two days earlier, while the lower parts of the building remained in shadow. Once again I felt an odd sense of kinship with this building, which had stood in this spot since the founding of the city, watching the centuries come and go with the passage of time. I took a moment to enjoy this spectacle, the rare visitor who had a chance to stand alone and consider the Old Church undisturbed by anyone else. It was a wonderful way to bid farewell to the city, as I turned and headed south to my next destination.