As soon as our plan for The Netherlands was finalised and our tickets booked to Amsterdam, I started searching for walking tours of the city. The first link that came up in the search was ‘Free Walking Tours Amsterdam’. Impressed by what I saw on their website, we registered for it.
We had landed at around 9 PM in Amsterdam the previous night and the next morning was the walk. Jet lagged in a new country and trying to figure out the transport there got us late by around five minutes to the starting point. We saw the group leave and after a jog caught pace with them.
The first stop was at Condomerie, the world’s first condom speciality shop where men can go and get customised fittings of condoms. They also have varieties of lubricants and other products related to sexual pleasure.
Now, I looked around and saw that none of the other members in the group were taking any pictures. Having missed the introduction, I wasn’t sure if there was a rule of no photography. I walked up to Marius, the tour guide and told him we had missed the introduction and asked him if we were in the right group. He told us sternly that we were ten minutes late (by now) but kindly permitted us to join the walk.
METROPOLITAN – THE PASTRY ROOM
The next stop was my favourite, Metropolitan -The Pastry Room. We sampled the popular Dutch stroopwaffle and Marius announced that this place had the best hot chocolate.
After the tour, we came back to have that and trust me having that hot chocolate was like going to heaven and coming back! It was the best I have ever tasted! Thank you, Marius.
Red Light Area
We then proceeded to the red-light area. Photography is prohibited in this area. Called the De Wallen (the walled area), this is the only place in the world probably where religion and prostitution live side by side. Even while we walked the streets of the De Wallen, we heard the tolling of the 14th century Oude Kirk (Old Church) bells. There are around 400 windows in this area from where women stand and cater to customers. One rule is that women cannot solicit on the streets. So, we saw women in small rooms behind glass walls ready for their work.
How did this area become a hub for prostitution? One reason is that women would solicit men in gambling bars and then take them to their own parlours later. The gambling bars thus started to lose customers, they came up with an innovative idea that suited everyone- they set up parlours with fancy interiors and gradually starting employing prostitutes. Another reason for the flourishing sex trade in this area is that Amsterdam has been a trading port for many centuries where there were many sailors, traders and migrant population. Many centuries ago it was also the time when there was abject poverty. So, men offered their wives for some money and a few herrings (which happens to be a favourite street food even now). So, to cater to the influx of sailors and traders the red-light area came to be established here. One version says that during the 16th century when prostitution was punishable, the women in the trade would slip notes with their confessions under the church doors. The priests would then seal the confessions and pardon their ‘sins’ in exchange for acts of indulgence.
It’s well known that The Netherlands is one of the few countries where prostitution is legal. But Marius informed us that this does come with its share of problems. Crime has increased behind closed doors and the women who are in the business are mostly from East Europe and 90 per cent of the customers are from outside the country. So, it’s a law that is mainly profited by people outside the country. Also, the rent for the windows (rooms) has shot up so women are having to work extra to pay the rent.
Thereafter, we stopped at a point and Marius explained how in the 1600’s the Dutch were possessed by the ‘Tulip mania’. Tulips were introduced to Holland in the late 1500’s as an imported item from Turkey and were viewed as exotic flowers, which only the affluent could afford. In 1634 the urge to possess tulip bulbs was so great that other industries were almost neglected!
The prime variety of tulips could cost as much as $150,000 in today’s money. There were even professional traders who would trade tulips on people’s behalf. People even purchased tulip bulbs on credit and after taking loans, thinking they could make huge profits out of it. But by 1637, prices began to fall and never recovered. Holders of tulips were forced to liquidate and declare bankruptcy.
As we walked along the canal to our next stop, Marius explained that Amsterdam is part of the 1/3 of Holland that lies below sea level and is slowly sinking. The Netherlands is called so for this very reason- 1/3 of it lies below sea level. Through a sophisticated and complex anti-flood system of dikes, pumps (windmills earlier) and sand dunes along the coast, the city is kept from flooding.
The whole of Amsterdam is built on poles drilled into the wet soil. And these poles and buildings are around 200-700 years old. He pointed out to buildings which are tilted or leaning forward. Wood rots over a period of time and especially so when water levels drop and the wood is exposed to air. Hence, the buildings lining the canals are mostly crooked. There is an agency appointed by the government to check water levels regularly and to maintain records to repair and reinforcements.
We then stopped at Den Waag, the oldest standing non-religious structure built in 1488 which now houses a café. But it has witnessed many a historical event. It was constructed as a city gate as an extension to the walls of Amsterdam, but when Amsterdam expanded beyond the walls, the walls were demolished and De Waag became a standalone structure. It was put to use as a weigh house (where goods were weighed) prior to the 1800’s when there was an absence of standard units of measurement.
For some time after that it served as an anatomical theatre where surgeons performed well…surgeries! The legendary Dutch painter Rembrandt depicted De Waag in his 1632 painting titled, ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.’ In the early 19th century it was the site for punishments and Marius showed us a painting of a guillotine in front of the building. As with the whole of Amsterdam, De Waag is also slowly sinking due to the porous soil, and repair and maintenance work is routinely carried out.
Next stop was the erstwhile headquarters of the Dutch East India Company or the VOC. The VOC was a formidable megacorporation formed by competing Dutch trading companies in 1602. Its main purpose was trade, exploration and colonisation of East Asia throughout the 17th and 18th century. Being surrounded by water, it is no surprise that the Dutch were pioneers in exploration by sea and subsequently cartography.
The Dutch discovered Australia in 1606 and had named it Nova Holland. And also New Zealand, which they named after Zeeland, a village in Holland. Similar is the case with New York which was called New Amsterdam originally and Brooklyn gets in name from Breuckelen, a village in Holland.
We visited the National Maritime Museum later where we saw maps dating back to the early and mid-16th century where only the west and north of Australia are shown on the map because the rest of it had not been explored!
The VOC was a multi-national company and global employer, probably the first of its kind and in its prime it built and owned 1500 ships and employed 25,000 people out of which 3000 were in Holland. It was a forerunner of all modern corporations and even the British East India Company is believed to have been built on this model. But due to socio-economic changes in Europe and lack of proper financial management the company shut down in 1800. It was acquired by the University of Amsterdam in 1965 and now houses the Department of Sociology.
Smallest Tea House
Next to the VOC is the smallest house in Europe with an area that’s 2 meters wide and 5 meters deep built in 1738. Marius informed that there used to be a tax imposed on the width of the house so to escape that the owners kept it at a bare minimum of 2 meters.
It’s now the smallest tea house in Europe with just one single table.
During the walk, we noticed in many places three X’s marked. Marius explained that it represents the 3 dangers that afflicted Old Amsterdam- fire, floods and the Black plague. We saw these marks everywhere-on buildings, on benches in the promenade, on flags, etc.
What's in a Name?
The next was not exactly a stop in the walk but more of a cultural perspective. Dutch people have funny names. You will understand why when the surnames are translated into English. As a disclaimer Marius stated that we not get offended by his language and that he is merely explaining what the surnames mean!
Here I have listed the less offensive names. It all started when Napoleon Bonaparte had occupied Holland in 1811 and for the purpose of census made it mandatory that everyone pick a surname/family name, which was not a common practice for the Dutch. They thought it would be a temporary measure and picked offensive and comical surnames as a way of rebelling against their French occupiers.
So, you have surnames such as these:
· Naaktgeboren (Born naked)
· Poepjes (Little shit)
· Kaasenbrood (cheese and bread)
· Rotmensen (Rotten people)
· Suikerbuik (Sugarbelly)
· Spring in ‘t Veld (Jump in the Field)
· Schooier (Beggar)
· Scheefnek (Crooked-neck)
· Uiekruier (Onion-crier)
· Niemand (Nobody)
Along The Walk
Oldest Bank in Holland
We then stopped at the oldest bank of Holland. In the 15th and 16th century, there was a constant tussle between the Catholics and Protestants with the latter overthrowing the former in 1580. The Protestants closed all the Catholics monasteries and convents, and the Magdalena Convent (formerly a Catholic convent) became a house for the poor.
In 1614, a municipal pawn broker, Stadsbank van Lening purchased the former convent and converted it into a bank where the poor could get credit at fair rates instead of taking loans from private lenders at exorbitant rates.
An architect was hired in 1616 to give the convent a makeover and he was the one who designed a relief over the door depicting three women pledging their possessions.
Earlier, laws pertaining to the construction of buildings were very strict and even windows were taxed. So, we saw a few buildings with the window frame but no windows. Opposite this is another wall where artefacts and objects salvaged and retrieved from the devastating 1953 floods are displayed.
Free Walking Tours Amsterdam
We concluded the tour at this point. As the name of this tour suggests (Free Walking Tours Amsterdam), there is no upfront payment for this and it’s purely on a tip basis.
We checked with our Airbnb host about how much an appropriate tip amount would be and payed that. I would highly recommend this tour as it gives a wonderful insight into the history, culture and quirks of Amsterdam in just 2 hours!