October 08, 2007

Amsterdam in passing

Amsterdam gets its name from the Amstel River and the dam that blocked it at the present day Dam Square. The city was officially founded in 1275 after the residents living near the Amstel dam were granted toll freedom – meaning they didn’t have to pay tolls as they navigated the waterways of Holland. Amsterdam itself has over 90 islands (polders, flat land created from what used to be water by pumping out the water), 160 canals (grachts), over 1200 bridges, and a population of approximately 750,000 people. Almost all of what makes up Amsterdam today was completely underwater 700 years ago.

Netherlands is the official name of the country. Holland is the name of the province of which Amsterdam is the capital. It united with other provinces as a country to fight Spain in 1579. With Amsterdam at its centre, Holland was the most important region in the newly formed country and remained the informal name of the country.

Over 20% of Netherlands is below sea level and much of the land has been reclaimed from the sea, hence the name Netherlands, or the "Low Countries". Over the centuries the innovative and industrious Dutch people have sectioned off land with dikes and have used windmills to pump water out of low lying areas, creating farmland where there was previously only water.

Many of the 17th century waterfront warehouses and gabled merchants' dwelling have been converted into residences. Equally distinctive are the houseboats with their flowerpots, pets and washing lines, one of the most recognizable sights of Amsterdam.

A houseboat moored in front of canal houses

The slanting houses of Amsterdam

Amsterdam is also known as the City of Bikes, since there are over one million on the streets today. The typical bike in Amsterdam is called an Oma-Fiets (Granny Bike). There is no need for mountain bikes as there are no mountains in the Netherlands, and if you had one, it would likely be stolen within 24 hours. Bikes here are so old and rusty because of rampant bike theft. The rule of thumb is to spend more on a lock than the bike itself.

Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands and prostitutes in Amsterdam's Red Light District work in clean premises, pay taxes, receive regular medical checks, are eligible for welfare, and even have their own trade union. Pot smoking is also legal and acceptable in Amsterdam. Coffeeshops, establishments in which hashish and marijuana are sold can be found in many streets of Amsterdam.

Clockwise from top left: A granny bike, preparing hashish outside a coffeeshop, magnets of Amsterdam


jazzmint said...

holland is one of the place i'd like to visit someday

Hijackqueen said...

I can never forget Amsterdam! It is also my first time seeing live show freely on the street.

A Mom's Diary said...

jazzmint, you should. it's a very nice country.

hijackqueen, it's pretty common there yeah.