Wednesday, May 23 , 2018, 3:34 am | Mostly Cloudy 55º


Frank McGinity: Amsterdam’s Allure Flows Easily with Canals, Bikes, Food and Museums

For drought-weary Santa Barbarans, the presence of water is a welcome sight — but a vital part of the historic city’s identity

The canals that crisscross Amsterdam do more than serve as a transportation corridors. They’re all part of an extensive system of water management tools that serve the city, which sits about 20 feet below sea level. Click to view larger
The canals that crisscross Amsterdam do more than serve as a transportation corridors. They’re all part of an extensive system of water management tools that serve the city, which sits about 20 feet below sea level. (Frank McGinity)

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There is no drought in Amsterdam. In fact, there’s water everywhere.

Amsterdam has more than 160 canals, along with pumping stations and dikes. They’re all part of a complex water management system, which is crucial since much of the Netherlands’ capital and surrounding area is below sea level. The international airport, for example, is about 20 feet below.

But the charm of the water and canals makes for a unique experience, especially for visitors from drought-challenged Santa Barbara. Our hotel, The Ambassade, was on a canal. Frequently passing by the hotel are tour boats navigating under the many bridges and waterways. A boat tour of the city can be a fun — and easy — day trip.

Along the waterways are the stately mansions from the golden age of Amsterdam. At one time, the Netherlands was the most powerful trading nation in the world, and very rich. The mansions along the canals reflect that opulence.

Two particular tours we took — the Museum Van Loon and the Museum Willet-Holthuysen — demonstrated life in that era. The paintings, furniture, chandeliers and gardens were all there for our tour. You were carried back in time.

Carrying us forward was the obvious bike culture in Amsterdam. Like water, there are bicycles everywhere. It was estimated by our guide that there are more than 900,000 bikes in Amsterdam, which has a population of only 800,000. Special bike paths are designated throughout the city, so be careful as you walk. Or better yet, join them in a special bike tour. No traffic jams here.

Carrying us forward and back are the extensive number of museums.

The Van Gogh Museum was our first stop. It probably houses the most extensive collections of Vincent Van Gogh’s work since he was a native Dutchman. Three floors tell the story of his life and premature death by suicide at age 37. We were able to view two of his best-known paintings, “Sunflowers” and “Vincent’s Bedroom.”

Not far from the Van Gogh is the Rijksmuseum, which was founded in 1885 and covers the history of the Netherlands. It has more than 8,000 pieces of art and historical objects. Of course, Rembrandt’s famous “The Night Watch” is prominently displayed, along with several Vermeers.

The final museum in this complex is the Stedelijk. We were fortunate to be there for a premier showing of Matisse paintings. Some of his great renderings of this type of art are on full display, and from sheer size and color, they are overwhelming.

It wasn’t all museum hopping during our stay, however.

We took several side tours. One was to Rotterdam, the City of the Hague (home of the International Court of Justice) and Delft, famous for its unique pottery.

Another excursion was to the famous flower auction in Aalsmeer. Here, 20,000 different varieties of flowers and plants are auctioned off using the “Dutch auction” formula. Using the auction clock, all the characteristics of the flowers are recorded inside the clock with the bids noted on the periphery.

More than 100,000 transactions a day are recorded using this method. And flowers purchased in the morning, may show up on the streets of New York in the afternoon.

Our final stop — you guessed it — was to a windmill. While at one time there were 30,000 windmills in the Netherlands, today there are 1,000.

Windmills, as we know them, are used to generate electricity. But over the centuries, they had many other uses, such as grinding corn, making furniture and pumping water.

The one we visited, called the Sloten Windmill, was used to pump and stabilize water levels. Today, this mill can pump more than 60,000 gallons a minute using a large steel cork screw, all powered by the wind. The miller explained how it worked and even let us move the windmill to the right angle for the wind.

We shouldn’t skip over the many fine restaurants in Amsterdam. Just within walking distance from our hotel were two very good, moderately priced restaurants — the Proeverij 274 and Casa di David.

Our final night, however, was a highlight: Dining at Johannes. The proprietor said the restaurant would soon be written up in The New York Times, and we experienced why.

A nice way to leave this city. Call it a city that works and inspires.

— Frank McGinity is a Santa Barbara resident. The opinions expressed are his own.

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