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Prosperity, in the shape of everything from crass commercialism to genteel gentrification, has settled like a North Sea mist around Amsterdam's graceful cityscape of 17th-century canals and canalside houses. Yet "free thinking" and "anything goes" still maintain their place: They're the catchphrases by which Amsterdam lives its collective life. And all this free living is fueled by a robust Dutch economy, not by the combustion of semi-legal exotic plants.

City government has worked hard to transform Amsterdam from a hippie haven to a cosmopolitan business and cultural center -- and it seems to be succeeding.

A side effect of the city's concern with economics and image is that youthful backpackers who don't wash much, stay in cheap hostels, and think smoking hash is the high point of the city's cultural life aren't as welcome as they once were. But when they come back with a paycheck that allows them to stay at an upscale hotel, buy tickets for the Concertgebouw and the Muziektheater, eat in a Japanese restaurant, and splash out on a diamond or two, well, that's another story. Still, all is far from lost for the bohemian souls: If they want, they can smoke hash all the livelong day. And anyone can partake in Amsterdam's culture, history, and scenic cityscape, without stretching credit card limits.

So step aboard for a cruise through highlights from 800 years of history in this city of canals; a working knowledge of Amsterdam's history will add dimension to your visit. Then, go below the surface to fathom why the Dutch capital's lifestyle provokes heated debate in other countries, and to permit some of the impassioned artists and architects who helped to make Amsterdam worth visiting to take a bow from their places in the corridors of time.

Below Sea Level  -- Amsterdam lies up to 5.5m (18 ft.) below mean sea level. The city's solid, timeless buildings stand, and its 760,000 inhabitants live, where waves should by all rights be lapping. If the sea-dikes should ever go down, most of the city would vanish beneath the waves. Vondelpark would become a lake, the Metro would be truly drowned, and the trams would float away. If you happened to be standing on top of Oude Kerk's tower, however, you wouldn't even get your feet wet. Don't get too worried. The dikes are built to repel almost everything the North Sea can throw at them. Only a 1-in-10,000-years super storm could take them down (famous last words?). And because of climate-change concerns, the government plans to raise that safety margin to 1 in 100,000 years.

What's in a Name? -- "Dutch" is a medieval misnomer on the part of the English, who couldn't distinguish between the people of the Netherlands and Germany. To describe the former, they corrupted Deutsch (which, in German, means "German") to "Dutch." Another misnomer is "Holland," which actually refers only to the old Holland province (today's Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland provinces), not to the whole country. The Dutch call their country Nederland (Low Country), their language Nederlands, and themselves Nederlanders. But they recognize that "Dutch" and "Holland" are popular internationally, and being a practical people they use these terms.

Blue Days

Only a few remain of the more than 30 potteries in Delft that in the 17th century worked overtime to meet the newly affluent Dutch's clamoring demand for Chinese-style vases, urns, wall tiles, and knickknacks. Originally, pottery made in Delft was white, to imitate tin-glazed products from Italy and Spain. During the 16th century, superior-quality Chinese porcelain, decorated in blue, was imported to Holland. Delftware factories refined their products accordingly, using a white tin glaze to cover the red clay, then decorating it in blue. This Delft Blue became famous the world over; it was less expensive than Chinese porcelain, and skillfully made. Polychrome decorations were also used, on both white and black backgrounds.

Say It With Flowers

Holland has long had a close relationship with flowers, and it's not merely that the tulip fields south of Haarlem are a springtime blaze of color that attracts worldwide admirers. Flowers have deeper roots in this land of flat, green polders. Amsterdam's floating flower market is only the best-known example of a sales network that makes a flower store a vital service in Dutch towns and villages.

Maybe because so many people live side by side in such a small, well-ordered country, flowers provide a breath of fresh air, a touch of the natural world when much of the environment is artificial. A Dutch house without flowers would be like Edam without the cheese. Gardens, balconies, rooftop terraces, window boxes, and vases, are all pressed into service. Additionally, no visit to a dinner party would be complete without an accompanying bunch of flowers for the host. And Dutch men don't share the macho hang-up of some nationalities at being seen carrying flowers in public.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.