We think of novelties when we think of Amsterdam, a city that symbolises the progressive and liberalised ethos of a Europe that is supposedly new in all senses of the term, and supposedly free from its Old-World trappings. From an outsider’s viewpoint — founded and fed on cultural stereotypes — Amsterdam even seems alien to its geographical context, rendering the adjacent towns, and even the Netherlands entire, somewhat superfluous.
As you approach the city — on trains or buses or ferries — the outlying scenery, with its farmhouses and horse ranches, seems devoid of all significance. These are relics of the past, having no place in modern Amsterdam. Yet here are the ranches, within Amsterdam: here are the farms and church spires (Gothic) and buildings made of stone. And here is the even more ancient river, the Amstel — a wild thing now thoroughly domesticated — coursing restfully through the many canals of
Yes, Amsteldam — with an L — was what the original riverfront town, on one of the continent’s busiest marine trade routes, was once called, until it became, through slight corruption of language and, over time, massive inflow of imperial money, Amsterdam. Money is the driving force here, giving this city its historic gravitational pull that even Rembrandt couldn’t resist. The great artist was a genius in running up great debts that he could barely manage to repay. And yet he chose to make Amsterdam his home.
Living in the city was expensive, but also exciting, stimulating and creatively fruitful for Rembrandt, who, like most others, was a migrant here, struggling to meet all the demands urban living makes of you. Today, there’s a square dedicated to him in Amsterdam — the Rembrandtplien, where there’s a sculpture depicting the artist that stands high on a pedestal, with Rembrandt luxuriantly berobed and the top of his hat glinting under the December sun. In front of the sculpture, on ground level, stands another set of statues: a bronze-cast 3D adaptation of one of Rembrandt’s great paintings, The Night Watch, built as a tribute by a couple of Russian sculptors. There’s Rembrandt’s house also somewhere in the vicinity, which you can tour for a sum of €10. Round it all up with a visit to the 200-year-old Rijksmuseum — the Netherlands’ national museum — to sample some of his masterpieces at firsthand.
Doubtless the Dutch Masters have contributed in no small part in making this city the preferred haunt for young artists from all across Europe. The creative dream is kept alive in Amsterdam. And this is one of the few cities on the planet where stores selling easel and paint are never without a handful of serious customers surveying the shelves. The contemporary arts museum, a short walk away from the Rijksmuseum, stands testimony to Amsterdam’s high-art credentials. The Van Gogh museum — which until last month was hosting an excellent double exhibition on the formative works of Van Gogh and Edward Munch, artists who turn out to have had a lot in common — usually has a queue of tourists waiting outside, unfazed even under the annoyingly persistent December drizzle.
The creative dream is kept alive in Amsterdam. And this is one of the few cities on the planet where stores selling easel and paint are never without a handful of serious customers surveying the shelves.
But once the artsy pretensions of an average tourist here come to an end — and that’s soon enough — the city changes its colours. Indeed, Amsterdam changes colours whenever you want it to do so. There are, for instance, exhibitions to suit all tastes and palates. The constitutionally unsqueamish could head over to the exhibition showing preserved organs and parts of the human body, or to the gallery where medieval instruments of torture are given pride of place. Else, amble off to the Red Light Museum, celebrating the world’s oldest profession, which Amsterdam became one of the first cities in the world to give open legal sanction to: green light for Red Light, went the cry.
And green light for the green stuff, too. Smoking weed, or marijuana, in this city is considered a perfectly kosher pastime, even by the law-enforcement agencies. One soon understands that the many “coffeehouses” around town, exuding the pungent, intoxicating and unmistakable aroma of you-know-what, have very little indeed to do with the dealing of coffee.
In the last few decades, the idea of Amsterdam has atrophied in the popular imagination. It’s as though the centuries-old heritage of this place has been supplanted as a whole by the urban shorthand that everyone seems to be reaching for to describe Amsterdam these days: sex and drugs, minus the rock-’n’-roll. The local authorities, with the help of a far-reaching and well-funded P.R. campaign are attempting to reverse that, and to draw attention to Amsterdam’s central position in European culture and world history. They’re quick to point out that the city’s coat of arms — the unfortunate triptych, “XXX” — visible on several buildings and flags here is far from being a symbol of sleaze, representing instead the “three vertical St. Andrew’s Crosses”, according to the official Amsterdam tourism website.
Such details emerge slowly, only if you spend some time in Amsterdam, and only if you slow your own pace down, as you would inside the galleries and lengthy corridors of the Rijksmuseum. The version of Amsterdam meant strictly for tourists is very limited in scope, and that’s the way it is in more or less all the major cities of the world. The choice is between looking at the place as an amusement park — as Amsterdam is often viewed my many — or as a museum. The former is a place where cheap thrills are all that count, while the latter can often quietly redefine who we are by influencing experiences and memories. Asmterdam, with its many contradictions, cultural riches, progressive ideals and artistic heritage, can have just that sort of subtle museum-like influence on us that we’d earlier thought the city to be incapable of.