Venice of the North

Amsterdam with the possible exception of Venice, is probably the best preserved city in Europe where it’s still possible to imagine a world before the car. History is constantly evoked in the details of houses that defy the Netherlands’ waterlogged geography. Walking in the canal belt leads one back 350 years to the Golden Age following the Dutch Republic’s final defeat of Spain. That 80-year struggle produced a self-sufficient society keen to explore and trade with the rest of the world.
As you pass the tall, narrow houses that buckle on soft, soggy ground, you appreciate how a mercantile society spent its newfound affluence on domestic dwellings,  which continue today to convey elegant order and precision. If you look up above the eyeline, you’ll see how each house has subtly different gables. Some are stepped like the crenellations of a medieval castle and some employ curly plaster  in the  Baroque fashion of the 18th century hiding the steeply pitched roofs behind. These gables function as the decorative icing on a cake, hiding the more banal details of structural construction though cccasionally it’s possible to see how the attics that extend behind meet the façade at a sharp angle. These grand frontages disguise functional loft spaces of which the only visible clue is the ubiquitous pulley hooks used to hoist up food, furniture and fuel into the houses because the staircases were built so steeply.
On a winter visit it’s possible to wander across canals leeched of colour by Jack Frost, but the city is largely quiet as the residents dash through the cold that seeps into the skin like a contamination. On a previous visit at Christmas we were so chilly that in order to stick to our sightseeing we found some long underwear to avert frosbite-induced amputation. But at Easter the famed Dutch skill at gardening becomes evident. Canal boats become impromptu roof gardens and almost every house proudly supports window boxes or pots that spill down the steps and onto the street.
Nowhere else in the world encourages cycling as much as Amsterdam. The quays become flashpoints for tourists on foot encountering sanguine cyclists who duck and weave around the dozy visitors taking their eyes off the road to read their maps. But this dodging game becomes an admirable alternative to the familiar process of avoiding trucks and cars in other cities.

What I’ll remember from the recent trip is the enjoyment of wandering late at night away from the main tourist arteries and looking into the homes of local residents as they came home from work to cook, socialize and put their feet up. In Amsterdam, life has a communal quality that quietly discourages the drawing of blinds or curtains. On the contrary, the cosy interiors are illuminated and left open to view. For a nosy flaneur, this affords an unprecedented sense of access to the lives of random strangers at home even to the point of seeing a naked Amsterdammer sitting nonchalantly at a desk, in all probability doing the weekly shop online. Residents of this city are somehow closer to nature, perched as they are above the briny deep that washes all around them.

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