Amsterdam, More Than a Big Red Light

Firmly shored up in the lowlands where the River Amstel meets the IJ lies the city of Amsterdam, a bulwark of liberalism and tolerance that for the past century has earned a name as one of the most entertaining destinations in Europe. Sharply defined by its aqueous environment, Amsterdam is carved with a network of over one hundred kilometers of canals which almost inevitably has led to comparisons with Venice. The parallels aren’t reduced to their waterways either: both owe their prominence to their emergence as key trading ports: Venice, on the Adriatic coast, as the ultimate meeting point between East and West; Amsterdam as a major player in the once hugely profitable markets of the North and Baltic seas, even before the rise of the Dutch Republic as a trading (and colonial) superpower. However, unlike its famous Italian doppelganger, which has almost become a museum of itself, Amsterdam is an electrifying, modern, and astonishing place—a city that not only has moved forward with the times but that on occasion has even forced the times to keep up with its pace.

Amsterdam owes its present reputation to its permissive laws concerning the use of soft drugs and the sex industry. As is the case with most stereotypes, there is an element of truth amidst a sea of speculation surrounding these, the two most notorious reasons why Amsterdam is known the world over. In relation to the former, the fact is that since the 1970s the Dutch authorities have turned a blind eye to individuals carrying small amounts of cannabis for personal use and have effectively sanctioned its safe consumption through the emergence of authorized establishments—nowadays even certified with the emblematic green and white coffeeshop license. While over the past decade the government has clamped down on the domestic production of marijuana and has tightened the rules regulating coffeeshops—most notably, prohibiting the sale of both alcohol and drugs in the same place—there are still around two hundred of them in Amsterdam alone, where adult locals and visitors alike are free to choose from a list—a menu of sorts—of different varieties.

Licentious Amsterdam. Photo: getyourguide.com

The fact is, too, that Amsterdam’s red-light district stands out as the gold standard among the many across the continent. There’s a reason for this, though, and it owes nothing to coincidence: not only is there a legal scaffolding that ensures the sex industry is largely legitimate and above board, there is also a centuries-long tradition linking the area known as De Wallen to the procurement of sexual services. Indeed, so intrinsic is the connection between the two that in 2007 a statue affectionately known as “Belle” was unveiled in the area, right in front of Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city, paying tribute to all sex workers. But that’s just quintessentially Amsterdam—the blend of old and new, the coexistence of conservative and liberal tendencies, the respect for profane and devout attitudes.

Because there’s a lot more to Amsterdam than a big red light shining on a thick cloud of smoke. Comprising close to one hundred individual islands joined by over five hundred bridges, this is not only the commercial and financial center of the Netherlands, this is also a uniquely quaint northern metropolis—and there is no better time to explore it than the summer. A famously bike-friendly city, Amsterdam boasts a network of over four hundred kilometers of cycle lanes that stretches across the full extent of the city. Amsterdam’s splendid architecture tells an absorbing story of wealth and reinvention over the course of the centuries. Near the town center, in the area between Nieuwmarkt and Singel, monumental constructions recall the country’s sumptuous past, from the old city gate of De Waag to the extraordinary Royal Palace on Dam square, originally built as the City Hall at the height of the Dutch Republic’s fortunes in the seventeenth century. Adjacent to the northern end of the palace is also the Niuwe Kerk, a church consecrated in 1409, destroyed by the Great Fire of 1645 and reconditioned as an exhibition center in 1979. Through the month of June until July 10 the Niuwe Kerk will exhibit this year’s winners of the World Press Photo competition.

Jordaan by night. Source: Wikimedia.org

Jordaan by night. Source: Wikimedia.org

Unlike so many European capitals, Amsterdam’s appeal resides not so much in key landmark buildings but rather in the queer details of so many “ordinary” structures, often tall and narrow—and therefore also frequently leaning this way and that. Devoid of especially portentous buildings, the neighborhood of Jordaan, the Dutch answer to New York’s Tribeca, offers a delightful combination of art galleries and trendy boutiques along the outer rim of the canal belt and is possibly the most charming cycling itinerary away from the bustle of the city center.

When it comes to charm, though, nothing beats a cruise along the Grachtengordel, Amsterdam’s four concentric canal rings—this too a priceless legacy of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. Stunning views and irresistibly picturesque settings provide so many photo opportunities you’d be well advised to actually put the phone or camera down and take in the contained yet visibly prosperous Baroque atmosphere. Though many of the houses along the different canals—from the center outwards known as Singel, Herengracht (Lords’ Canal), Keizersgracht (Kaisers’ Canal) and Prinsengracht (Princes’ Canal)—have been reformed, you still get the unmistakable feeling as you glide past the ancient homes of onetime merchants that you’re traveling through the pathways of history.

Since we have already yielded to the stereotype earlier in this piece, why not indulge in yet another received image of the Netherlands: wind mills. Over nine thousand of them once peppered the Dutch landscape, and though that number has shrunk by about ninety percent, there’s still close to one thousand around. Of them, only a handful are in the vicinity of Amsterdam but there are worse ways of spending an idle summer’s day than on an excursion to Zaanse Schans, approximately twelve miles northwest of Amsterdam, to visit a cluster of eight restored windmills. Other options suitable for the summer are visits to the famous Albert Cuypmarkt in the Oude Pijp area, just outside the perimeter of the ancient fortification around the city and right next to the museum area of Oud Zuid, which is home to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum among others. Similarly, the famous Vondelpark, with its open air theater season running from May to September, is tremendously popular.

The event of the summer this year, however, is certain to be EuroPride, which is returning to the city for the first time since 1994. Amsterdam has a long history of open-mindedness towards sexual orientations which dates all the way back to the interwar years, when the lax attitude of the so-called Lost Generation spread across continental Europe, from Paris to Berlin to Vienna and Amsterdam. It should come as no surprise, then, that in 1987 Amsterdam became the first city in the world to erect a monument in commemoration of LGBT victims of the Nazis, known as the Homomonument, and that in 2001 the Netherlands became the first country to recognize same-sex marriage. EuroPride kicks off from Vondelpark on July 23 with Pink Saturday, an event that since 1979 takes place yearly in a different Dutch city and that on this occasion will lead onto the traditional Pride Walk to Dam Square. Two weeks later, on August 6, EuroPride culminates in the traditional Canal Parade with as many as eighty LGBT organizations preparing extravagant floats showcasing their cause but also their joie de vivre.

Canal Parade, Amsterdam 2015. Photo: backpackingman.com

Following Amsterdam’s painful struggle against Nazi occupation in the Second World War Queen Wilhelmina added the motto “Heroic, Steadfast, Magnanimous” to the city’s coat of arms. Amsterdam is all of those, and then some. So much is obvious even from a short visit. Once the dust settles on a few days of action, perhaps even living out in full your Dutch cliché before departing the country, savoring a selection of cheese or having a glass of gin at the emblematic Café ‘t Mandje, tapping your foot to the infectious tune of Brel’s “Amsterdam”, this will eventually sink in. And once it does, it’ll make you smile.

Published in issue number 7 (June/July) of the Miami Herald’s LGBT lifestyle magazine Palette in June 2016.

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