Crusin’ the Canals

Trip 38, Day 6

We did a touristy thing today, one we’ve done once before. We took a canal boat cruise. There are several cruise companies and we had no particular preferences, but the cruises seems to start in several areas in the centrum – near the Anne Frank Huis, near the Rijksmuseum and a few others. We decided on the location near the Anne Frank Huis (which we visited many years ago) and “think” this may have been the same one as before. It’s an hour long cruise with some narration in Dutch and English, with color commentary from our Captain, James.

Overview of Central Amsterdam and canal system

The canal system in Amsterdam includes about 62 miles of canals (grachten) and ~1500 bridges. The back of our hotel actually looks out on a small canal. In Amsterdam’s Golden age (17th century), merchandise was transported along these canals and stored in warehouses along them. If you look at the buildings along the canals, most all of them have a hoist mast at the top which was (and is still) used to hoist things to upper floors, as the buildings are narrow (you were taxed on the width of ground space, so they built up).

Another fixture of Amsterdam are houseboats. Houseboats originated when sailors came into port and had no home, so they lived aboard their boats. Later, people found this was a cheaper way to have a home since they weren’t taxed. Some of these old houseboats in Amsterdam are over a hundred years old. The cargo ships were used to transport goods. The owner and his family lived in the small quarters below deck. After the second world war, these old transport vessels became the answer to the housing shortage in Amsterdam. Living on a boat might have been uncomfortable, but it was still cheap. Because of shortage in housing, in the sixties and seventies, more and more people in Amsterdam started to live on a moored ship. This all changed in the 70’s when the city required them to be connected to the city’s water, electric and sewer systems. You have to buy a mooring point for the boat. In Amsterdam, there are 2400 houseboats. Inside the Amsterdam city center, there are 750 houseboats with a permit. When you buy a houseboat in Amsterdam, most of what you’re buying is the mooring. Houseboats are not inexpensive. Purchase prices depend on how old the boat is. A used houseboat costs between 45,000 – 230,000 Euro and a new one from 175,000 to 1 million Euro.

Houseboat on Prinsengracht

For all the small boats you see moored along canals, it’s simpler. You still have to buy an annual permit, but unlike houseboats, they can moor anyplace they find a spot (houseboats must remain in the same location).

The ring system of canals and interconnects will eventually allow you to navigate to the Amstel river and to the North Sea.

You may have heard/seen of some of the old buildings in Amsterdam “tilting”. Since Amsterdam is located on a bog, houses are built on a typical foundation of wooden poles (piles). Long wooden beams, basically entire trees of 13 to 20 meters long, were drilled into the soil to reach the firmer sediment layer of sand. If the water level lowers below the top of the pole or the weight of the building causes uneven settlement, the pole will eventually start to rot and the house will tilt forward/backward/sideways. During our cruise, we passed by Centraal Station (Amsterdam’s main train station), which uses over 6,000 piles. Nowadays they fill up the pile with cement to make them extra sturdy, but in the old days they used wooden piles.If they didn’t build houses in Amsterdam on poles, the houses would simply sink into the swampy ground. The Amsterdam soil consists of many meters of soft peat and clay before the poles hit the first solid layer of sand. Builders didn’t give 400 year guarantees.

Parking is obviously at a premium and if you park along the canal, you have to make sure you set the parking brake. ~10 or so cars a year end up in the canal.

There are about 1.1 million people in Amsterdam and as many bicycles. According to James, they pull 10,000 of them out of the canals each year and 50,000 are stolen each year. Maybe you go to the flea market and see if your bicycle is there?

Our cruise took us out on the Amstel river (their only natural river), in sight of the famous “skinny bridge” and then out into the harbor, passing some giant river cruise boats that ply their passengers up some of the European rivers as far as Switzerland, and some of the new construction in the area with government and corporate offices, hotels and museums.

Coming back to Prinsengracht, we disembarked and walked past the Anne Frank Huis, which (outwardly) is much different in appearance than when we visited. There’s a visitors’ center and a modern facade built up around the house. We’ve seen a few of these bronze plates elsewhere as we walked, commemorating Jews who were deported to concentration camps, like Anne Frank. From 1941 to 1942, 1,700 Jews were sent to Mauthausen from Amsterdam, and 100 Jews were deported to Buchenwald, Dachau, Neuengamme (and later Auschwitz). From 1940 to 1941, an estimated 100 Jews were sent from German prisons to different concentration camps, then to Auschwitz.

This family of three, including a baby, were deported to and died in Auschwitz, in 1942.

All along our walk today, we noticed preparations for tomorrow’s Koningsdag (literally Kings Day), a celebration of the King’s ascension (from 1890-2013 the Netherlands had a Queen); the date marks the birth of King Willem-Alexander. Until the abdication of Queen Beatrix in 2013, the holiday was known as Koninginnedag (Koningnne is Queen). Apparently, it’s a huge party and there will be lots of orange. The color orange has come to symbolize the country, and to signify national pride. King’s Day (Queen’s Day before 2014) is one occasion on which the Dutch wear orange.Orange is the color of the Dutch Royal family, which hails from the House of Orange. The House of Orange-Nassau (in Dutch: Huis van Oranje-Nassau), The House of Orange-Nassau (in Dutch: Huis van Oranje-Nassau), a branch of the German House of Nassau, has played a central role in the political life of the Netherlands — and at times in Europe — since William I of Orange (also known as “William the Silent” and “Father of the Fatherland”) organized the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, which after the Eighty Years’ War led to an independent Dutch state.

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