Gastroenterologist and advocate Dr. Jun Ruiz embarks on a solo journey to the “Venice of the North”, and discovers the bliss and delights of Amsterdam
Amsterdam is the capital and the largest city of the northwestern European country of The Netherlands. Holland is the region composed of only two of the 12 provinces on the western coast of the country, but this name has been often used informally to refer to the whole of The Netherlands.
The country is best known for its canals, tulips, windmills, and cheese. It is also known for its liberal stand and tolerance in some social issues that divide nations. The Netherlands was among the first countries to legalize abortion, prostitution, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. The country is recognized for its tolerant drug policy, allowing smoking cannabis under certain terms and the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops.
The name Amsterdam is derived from the word Amstelredamme, which meant a fishing village near the river Amstel where a dam was built in the 13th century. The name was later shortened to Aemsterdam. Today, it is one of the top financial centers in Europe and is home to around two-and-a-half million Dutch people in its metropolitan area.
The famous Amsterdam canal system was built based on a comprehensive city planning in the 17th century, a period known as the Dutch Golden Age. There are 165 canals, called grachten, 90 islands, and 1,500 bridges. These were built to enhance trade, facilitate transport, and reclaim land to expand the city. The three major canals, embracing the heart of Amsterdam, form concentric semi-circular belts around the city, and are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It has earned the title “Venice of the North”.
On my recent trip to Iceland, I had to decide on a European stopover where I could enjoy two to three days of sightseeing and exploration, as there was no flight that goes all the way from Manila to Iceland. Amsterdam appeared to be a great choice, as I have always been fascinated with the scenic canals, the majestic windmills, Van Gogh, and tulip farms. The city is compact enough to be explored during my short stay, and Amsterdam in autumn seems to be the best time to visit. Amsterdam has so much history and culture contained in such a small area.
The heart of Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a popular European destination, with five million visitors annually. This trip to Amsterdam was an unorthodox journey for me, as I travelled solo for the first time for a major vacation. I had to research details extensively without the benefit of an organized tour. I did well with some help from my doctorfriends, like Sonny Abragan, Gene Tiongco, and Vivian Tan.
After 20 hours of air travel, I finally arrived at the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. I took the train to the City Center that only cost six euros (30 minutes travel time) instead of a taxi cab for 50 euros. My hotel was situated in the heart of Amsterdam, and the great location provided me convenience.
As it was already late afternoon, I headed to Dam Square, which has been called the “Amsterdam’s beating heart”. It looks like a lively average European square filled with people, mostly tourists, some vendors selling food and souvenirs, a few street performers, and a flock of pigeons. As a meeting place, Dam Square is to Amsterdam, as Trafalgar Square is to London. The name originated from the dam that was constructed on the river Amstel. Contrary to its current ambiance, the square had a turbulent history being the site of riots, massacres, and protests in the past.
The imposing neo-classical Royal Palace by the square was built initially as a town hall, and then converted into a royal palace. It is currently used for ceremonial state functions. The nearby Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) is the official coronation church of Dutch monarchs. On the opposite side of the Dam stands the 22-meter high obelisk of the National Monument. This memorial is dedicated to Dutch soldiers who lost their lives in World War II, and a symbol of the Liberation.
The Red-Light district
When the night had fallen in Amsterdam, I had to satisfy my curiosity to witness the notoriety of the city. I explored De Wallen, which is Amsterdam’s infamous red-light district and the designated area for legalized prostitution. I was surprised to see many people, mostly tourists, men and women, young and old, checking out the area.
There are more than 100 one-room apartments rented by sex workers who offer their services. These women entice onlookers from behind their glass windows illuminated with red lights. I have to admit most of the women are really beautiful, sexy, young, and in barely there skimpy clothes. While I was looking through the glass windows at the women under the red neon glow, they tried to seduce me but I only smiled back with some hint of embarrassment. Taking pictures of the women is not allowed, so do not attempt to click on your cameras. The experience was definitely worth a visit – a sort of window-shopping.
The city’s scenic canals
The next day was to explore Amsterdam’s main attractions – the historic canals and the museums. To get a general overview and vibe of the city, I purchased a 24-hour ticket for the hop on – hop off sightseeing bus and boat tour. This is a great way to discover Amsterdam at your own pace. Given the limited time as I had made plans to visit a museum that day, I completed the entire loop of sightseeing of the stunning vistas the city has to offer by riding the open-topped double decker bus without any stops.
It has been my dream to take a cruise on the beautiful canals of Amsterdam after years of admiring beautiful photographs in travel books. This is truly a unique way of touring the city on the water to appreciate the lovely sights. For me, this was the perfect season to take the canal cruise as the colors of the leaves had changed to yellow, orange, and golden-brown during autumn. A canal cruise is a must for every first-time visitor to Amsterdam.
After completing the bus tour, I embarked on the hop on – hop off boat. The boat has a specially designed glass roof and wide glass windows to maximize the sightseeing. This fascinating boat experience gives you a uniquely different perspective of the city from the water as you can admire unobstructed and panoramic views of the beautiful buildings with majestic facades, opulent canal homes with distinctive gables, elegant bridges, and Dutch architecture along the shores. Many of these merchants’ houses have lined the canals since the Golden Age. This was such a relaxing experience to learn architecture.
A visit to the museum was next on my agenda. The museums are among the top attractions of Amsterdam. The two most popular museums are the Rijkmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, each with more than two million visitors annually. Along with some museums, these are located at Museum Square, and hopping from one museum to another can be done, if desired. You can get the “I Amsterdam city card”, but you will need to go to three museums a day to make the card cost-effective. The Neo-Renaissance-designed Rijkmuseum, arguably the grandest art museum, features more than seven million artifacts from the Middle Ages to the present day, and consists of the best of Dutch art.
The spectacular Van Gogh Museum is home to the largest collection of works by the much-revered painter Vincent Van Gogh. As I could only go to one museum, I chose a date with Van Gogh. The museum has 200 paintings and 500 drawings. The paintings are displayed chronologically, and the museum offers art fans and admirers an intimate look at the artist’s evolving style. In addition, I was amazed with his artistry and yet saddened by his often troubled life and pathos that might had contributed to his extra-ordinary talents. Now, you can only buy timed-entry tickets online to visit this museum.
I also wanted to go to the Anne Frank’s House, where the best-known Holocaust victim Anne, her family and friends hid from the Nazi authorities during World War II. This became a memorial to the Holocaust, after her father published her diary that described her life and the secret annex. I tried to get tickets online two months before my visit, but these were already sold out. Next to the museum is the Gothic-designed West Church (Westerkerk) that has the highest belfry in the city.
Strolling the Jordaan
As Amsterdam is a compact city that should be experienced outdoors, I explored the labyrinthine streets by foot on my third day. If you want to bike, this is a great way to experience the city like a local. The alluring canals and waterways served as the perfect backdrop for this exploration, and embodies the very spirit of Amsterdam. On a sunny day like this day, it was a must to stroll around the narrow streets, to check the market scene, and to enjoy the outdoors.
A friend suggested that I explore the upscale Jordaan district where the scenery is most picturesque and postcard-beautiful. The canals are lined with elm and lime streets, and crossed over by bridges of a variety of designs. There are also houseboats moored in the canals. It was fun wandering through the maze-like streets, checking the galleries, and meeting people, locals and tourists alike. If you want to get a break from walking, ride the distinctively blue and white trams.
The windmills of the countryside
After being enchanted by the beauty of the canals and amazed by the masterpieces of Van Gogh, I was eager to see the windmills and tulips that the countryside of Holland is famous for. Alas, the tulips only bloom during spring, and the gorgeous bulb fields in Keukenhoff are only open for 8 weeks in a year. In contrast, the majestic windmills can be enjoyed all year round. As a visit to the Netherlands would not be complete without marvelling at the windmills, I joined a half-day tour to Zaanse Schans in my last afternoon.
After traveling less than 30 minutes outside Amsterdam, we arrived at the museum village of Zaanse Schans. The view of the majestic windmills in the middle of the meadows was a spectacular sight, just like from the travel books. Again, this was an item checked on my bucket list. This attraction was created in 1960 as a monument to Dutch village life in the 17th century. The windmills from the region were relocated here to create a step back in time authentic Dutch village. After a demonstration of how the windmill worked, we went up to the deck of the mill via the narrow stairs to enjoy the panoramas from above. This was such a beautiful moment to be overwhelmed by the countryside. We also sampled cheese in a local cheese factory in the fishing village of Volendam on our way back to the city.
Despite my short visit to Amsterdam, I believe that I was able to enjoy the city to the fullest and achieved all the things what I wanted to do given the limited time. The city has more to offer, and I would not hesitate to visit again, even just for a layover. Like its popular marketing slogan, I love Amsterdam!
“The country is recognized for its tolerant drug policy, allowing smoking cannabis under certain terms and the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops”
January 2019 Health and Lifestyle