Canal cruise in “Venice of north” – Amsterdam

Boarding fast train from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, we reached Amsterdam central station. Amsterdam central station is located at the hub of activities and as soon as we came out, our heart started to resonate with this one of the liveliest of European cities.

Just outside central station, trams painted from top to bottom with colorful advertisements were crossing each other and a substantial gathering of commuters were waiting to take trams to their respective destinations. The tram that I found most impressive was the one decorated with a newspaper. Men are men, the wishful thinking that one could read newspaper standing; waiting for the tram with both hands free, and without one’s wife cribbing about it, caught my imagination. Alas! I could not read that newspaper, it was in Dutch

Amsterdam Centraal

Amsterdam Centraal

In front of central station there was a water canal with frenzied tourist activity. Water is everywhere in Amsterdam. It flows through canals, spread all over Amsterdam, spanned with beautiful bridges, and dressed in choicest colors picked from Van-Gogh’s canvas.

This 800 year old capital of Netherland is also known as the city of canals. But, water wasn’t always the aesthetic presence in Netherlands, as one-third of country lies below sea-level, Dutch had to reclaim land from water to rebuild the country. In-fact the name – Netherland – means the lower land.

We decided to cruise to get the first impression of the city. In ETAP, I noticed several discount coupons for a few tourist attractions & activities. I picked some of them and those cards fetched us a discount of a few Euros on the cruise.

A lady guided us about the history of Amsterdam and monuments on either side of banks. Amsterdam got its name after construction of a dam over Amstel River in 12th century. Initially it was called Amstellodamus that developed into Amsterdam. Before construction of that dam, Amsterdam was mainly inhabited by fishermen. Though Amstel River was flowing right across the settlement, but farming was not possible as Amstel River was directly connected to the sea. During 6 hours of high tide period it used to get flooded with sea water, making it unusable for irrigation purposes.

After construction of the dam, the Amstel River got rid of “saltization” of its fresh water. The doors of the dam were kept closed during high tide period and were opened at low tide period to drain excess water. Construction of that dam started to attract many towards Amsterdam and can be called as the starting of farming in and around Amsterdam.

Around the same period, for their long sufferings, then ruler  allowed citizens of Amsterdam to have free trade (without any toll tax) in all Netherland. With that decision Amsterdam immediately got an upper hand in overall trade and became the trade centre of Netherland.

Our guide added that the land was dirt cheap at that time and now it is almost impossible to buy land in Amsterdam. She sounded, if she could travel back in time she would like to own big chunk of land

As we moved, we noticed replica of an old 17th century ship with figure head of two men. It was looking like a pirate ship. It was maritime museum.

Another view of Maritime Museum, Amsterdam

Maritime Museum, Amsterdam

As Amsterdam is an old harbor so it is very natural that they are proud of their ancient sea prowess. In this museum maps, models of old ships and equipments to determine directions have been kept. If time could permit, I would have liked to walk on its deck to have a feel of 17th century’s sailor’s life!

Maritime Museum, Amsterdam

Another view of the Maritime Museum, Amsterdam

The guide was speaking about the history of canals and told that in the turbulent history of Amsterdam, 17th century is considered the golden age. In that century, Dutch ships sailed to Indonesia, Brazil and Africa, gathering an impressive empire in the process. Prosperity attracted large number of immigrants to Amsterdam. As Amsterdam expanded to accommodate its growing population, need was further felt to expand the canal network.

The idea was that the city council would buy the land around the city, dig the canals and lease plots back to developers. The plan was passed in 1607 and work began six years later, against the back drop of corruption – with people of Amsterdam, buying up the land they thought the council would soon have to purchase.

In 1613, construction of canals started, based on a comprehensive plan that had four concentric half circles with their ends resting on IJ bay, interconnected with radial cross-streets. These canals were constructed from west to east like wiper movements and not from centre onwards as is the popular myth.

Before that there was only Singel canal that encircled the city from middle Ages and served the purpose of the moat. The three main waterways were set aside for residence and business of the richer and more influential Amsterdam merchants, while the radial cross streets were reserved for modest artisan’s homes. The outermost canal called Singelgracht (don’t confuse it with old Singel canal), was constructed for defense and water management purposes.

It took decades to complete the project, but by 1690s it was all pretty much finished off – ironically at a time, when Amsterdam was in economic decline. In total, canal covers more than 100 Km area of Amsterdam. These canal and waterways embody the very spirit of Amsterdam.

Currently Amsterdam has one river, 160 canals creating 90 artificial islands which are connected by more than 1280 bridges. The number of canals has led Amsterdam to be known as the “Venice of the North”. It seems I am under extreme Venetian influence. First, I wrote about “Venice of East”, now I am writing about “Venice of North”. I wish that the next would be Venice and not Venice of west or south.

Grachten in Dutch means canal. The three main concentric half circles of canals have very interesting names and history associated with these names.

The one that followed Singel canal (the middle age canal) was called Herengracht (also known as Gentleman’s canal). Herengracht is widely known for most prominent addresses in canal belt as the plot of land around it were meant for cities wealthiest citizens at canal construction time. For the same reason, at some point of time it was also called Golden Bend, and today it is known for the large houses along the canal.

It was followed by Keizersgracht or Emperor’s canal. This canal was named so after Maximilan I, 15th century patron of the city who belonged to Hapsburg dynasty of Austria. It is the widest canal among the main three. Keizersgracht feels calmer than the closer to center Herengracht & shop filled Prinsengracht (one that followed Keizersgracht).

Prinsengracht, also known as Prince’s canal, is the largest among the main three. It is filled with houseboats, locally owned shops and galleries. Today it is by far the liveliest of Amsterdam’s main three.

An attractive house boat

It is named so after the 16th century Prince William I or the Prince of Orange, forefather of the Dutch Royal family. He is the honored father of Holland. He was the main leader of Dutch revolt against the Spanish rule that set off the 80 year war with Spain and resulted in independence of the united province in 1648. Dutch national anthem ‘Het wilhelmus’ was written in his honour.

Wiliam of Orange was killed by a catholic Frenchman ‘Gerard’ who, in his opinion, felt that Wiliam of Orange had betrayed the Spanish king and catholic religion. Wiliam of Orange is reputed to be the first world head of state assassinated through the use of a handgun.

A large number of personal ships were lined along the canal. Our attention was drawn to the Dutch tricolor fluttering over a boat.

The Dutch tricolor

The Dutch tricolor

The national flag of Netherland is a horizontal tricolor of red, white and dark blue strips. Introduced in 1572 it is one of the first and oldest tricolors that are still in use. This flag was derived from flag of the Prince of Orange – that was orange, white and blue. Orange of that flag was replaced by red, & blue by dark blue.

The reason for the change was to replace faint colors with dark shades that are visible from far. In the beginning, orange was made of natural or herbal dyes of yellow and red. During long voyages, yellow used to fade away, leaving distinctive red stripes.

Netherland’s National color is orange – A symbol of solidarity and identity with the house of Orange (of which Wiliam of Orange was a descendent) & it is used, among other things, in the clothing of Dutch athletes and players.

Further, we noticed a tilted green color ship. That monumental ship like structure is renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano’s Nemo – The largest futuristic science centre in Netherland. The outer wall of this building is made of copper that after oxidation gave it a distinctive green color. On the flat landscape of Amsterdam this building is visible from far and acts like a landscape.

Renzo Piano’s Nemo

Renzo Piano’s Nemo

We were told that after visiting numerous Museums of this museum city, if our hands start itching to touch and feel or if we get tired of saying “No” to our kids keeping them away from work of arts, it is the best place to visit. Contrary to other museums here visitors are encouraged and they must touch the collection and experiment with it.

A picturesque traditionally styled wooden drawbridge was lifted to let our boat through. It was Magere Burg or Skinny Bridge. Burg is the Dutch word for bridge. That was a double leaf Dutch drawbridge connecting the banks of river Amstel. The original bridge was built in 1670, but as traffic on Amstel increased, a wider bridge was built to replace the narrower one. It is among the most beautiful and famous of Amsterdam bridges.

Magere Burg, Amsterdam

Magere Burg, Amsterdam

There were large house boats parked along canal. They were very well kept and were decorated with plants and flowers. Fighting a battle against water and after domesticating it, Dutch are romantic about water.

House Boat in Amsterdam

House Boat, Amsterdam

These house boats are used as alternative houses for some months in a year, a nostalgic nod to the free floating life styles of the mid-nineties. I didn’t see anyone inside them, so I don’t know if they were occupied at that time or not, but vegetation definitely gave soul to these houseboats. It seemed that the owner has just gone out and may return anytime. I must accept that my desire (that is unsatisfied till date) to live in such serene houses increased manifolds after looking at them.

At Reguliersgrachten, seven humpback bridges could be seen in quick succession, one of the prettiest views of the cruise.

Reguliersgrachten, seven humpback bridges could be seen in quick succession

Father-son duo enjoying the cruise

Father-son duo enjoying the cruise


Clicked my pictures, hmmm

Curious in Amsterdam

Curious, Amsterdam

Rachit was keenly and engagingly enjoying the canal cruise. He was deeply engrossed in looking out and my wife felt it was right time to capture his expressions without catching his attention. Anyway as he is growing, taking his photographs has become time consuming & sometimes annoying affair. He is no longer satisfied with his pictures. For every single photograph of him, I have to hand over camera to him & keep on smiling till he takes two or three of mine. Sadly, like mirror, camera also does not lie & I have to delete all of them afterwards.

Father-Son Duo Enjoying the cruise

Appreciating the surroundings

Bank Side Cafe in Amsterdam

Bank Side Cafe, Amsterdam

We had a very fascinating and relaxed start of our tour in which we got feel of this quaint little city of Amsterdam and it’s laid off life. People were sitting on bank side café and enjoying their cupful café in a sort of soul searching peaceful surroundings.

Boating in the Amstel River

Enjoying the Boat-ride in the Amstel River

We kept on crossing tourists gleefully waving and expressing the fun they were having.

Bicycle ride, Amsterdam

Bicycle ride, Amsterdam

It was a beautiful cloudy day and weather was perfect for a mother of two to take her kids on a bicycle ride. I have to pause now; the last picture has reminded me that I too have to take my young kids for ‘still-not-so-cold’ winter evening stroll.


  • Alien says:

    People were sitting on bank side caf and enjoying their cupful caf in a sort of soul searching peaceful surroundings. We kept on crossing tourists gleefully waving and expressing the fun they were having

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Rahul was right about his comment on your last story.

    MK – Very comprehensive and tight work. It has lots of information but it keeps the interest going as you keep reminding us that we are in a boat. Though I have heard from many about the ‘water’ aspect of Holland but I this story really made me much more educated on this topic. Thanks.

    It was good to know that you are deleting those photos. Kids can be really tough. I am sure that he knows that you delete those photos. He might be doing it for his own fun. I know someday he is going to find these stories on internet and I would have to hide myself, but the truth must prevail.

    While explaining the overall canal system, probably a aerial pic or two (sourced from some govt Dutch site or wikipedia) might have helped further in understanding it better.

    Hope you had a good walk with Rachit and Tanmay (incase you have started taking him out for walks).

  • manish khamesra says:

    Thanks Nandan.

    Rahul suprised me too with his last comment on the previous article. It seemed he has some insider info :), somtimes your friends know you better than even you know yourself :)

    About Rachit’s photos, sometimes I keep them too (of course those which didn’t have me)as some of them have very good composition and some shows his view point of a visit to a place :)

    I fully agree with you about the aerial view, yesterday I saw one or two at wikipedia too, but could not make out how to make a link and then I realized, I am lazy, …. man …. and left it.

    Its indeed always so refreshing to walk with kids. We do stroll with Tanmay in his pram :)

    Thanks again Nandan :)

  • Sudhir says:

    Thanks for taking us on the cruise.
    The newspaper bit was interesting and funny. You have aptly captured the mood in photographs. The pic of the 17th century ship is superb.

    As usual, a crisp post with pics to match.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Thanks a lot Sudhir for joining me on the cruise :) and for your appreciation.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Manish K – That was a ‘trackback’ comment. Essentially a link to ‘Alien’s’ site. Mostly these are spams and they link to those special sites which we would not want to get associated with. I delete those trackbacks.

    In this case, it appeared to me that its going to a normal site so I kept it. The e-mail id from which this comes also seemed like a normal id.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Thanks Nandan.

    Generally such trackbacks can be traced back, but as it was not possible in this case I was surprised. Thanks for clarification …

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks for sharing this beautifully narrated historical account of Amsterdam, the multi-cultural city.

    The 17th century ship and the Maritime Museum reminded me of a similar type of ship I had seen at Boston.

    Simply splendid.

  • Manish khamesra says:

    Ram Uncle,

    Thanks for going through it and getting a comment from you is always my pleasure. I love history and hence is the reason for going in detail about it.

    In-fact ghumakkar is enriching me too :)

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Contrary to popular belief a person hailing from Rajasthan is not very fond of water our guy Manish is on a channel surfing (pun intended) around the world. First it was Kollam and now in faraway Amsterdam.

    This city is known for another sort of activity but nice to know about its beautiful waterways and bridges as well.

    Where next Manish, Venice or English channel?

  • manish khamesra says:


    I will remain in Amsterdam, till I cover all other sort of activities of Amsterdam ;) as well (just joking). So you are interested :)

    As you might have observed that I have this bad habit of writing in very detail, somehow I have realized that I don’t know how to stop :) On serious note, it will take me a couple of posts before I will be able to finish my Amsterdam trip.

    I was wondering that with recession, ghumakkar has started to get less comments. It seems less and less people are interested in ghumakkari these days and more and more are keen to show that they are neck deep in their work and have no time to think about travel things ;)

    Difficult days ahead, so I am also stopping here. BTW thanks for giving me company even in these bad days of recession and gloom all over world or may be you also celebrated win by Obama by having a digression and a comment at ghumakkar.

  • I am genuinely grateful to the owner of this site who has shared this impressive piece of
    writing at at this time.

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