The Hazards of Life in Amsterdam

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July 20th 2019
Published: July 21st 2019
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We wake up to the sound of heavy rain. Issy decides on a morning of domestics so I head out into the downpour alone. Indoor destinations are looking attractive so I make my way towards a couple of interesting looking churches, safe in the knowledge that these wouldn’t have been on any of Issy’s itineraries.

I stumble across Rembrandtplein Square which is dominated by a very large cast iron statue of the great master. I read that it was first unveiled here in 1852 which makes it the oldest statue that’s still standing anywhere in Amsterdam. Twenty two bronze statues that represent the characters from Rembrandt’s masterpiece “The Night Watch” stand at the foot of the main statue and have only been added in the last decade or so. I stop to take some happy snaps of the sculptures. I’ve noticed that one of the great advantages of taking photos in the pouring rain is that there aren’t generally too many annoying tourists standing in the way to ruin your shots. I’m soaked to the skin and might catch pneumonia, but at least my photos will be good. Well apart from the streaks of water across them.

I move onto the Oude Kerk, or Old Church. The ever reliable Wikipedia says that this is Amsterdam’s oldest building. It then goes on to add that it is also Amsterdam’s oldest church. I’m not entirely sure why it thought it necessary to add that last bit. It was founded sometime around 1213, and was originally a Catholic Church. Apparently the Catholics and the Protestants had some fairly strong disagreements about a few things around the time that The Netherlands was trying to separate itself from Spanish rule, and in 1578 it was taken over by the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. A lot of the art and decoration was removed or destroyed by the Calvinists and as a result it looks a bit bare and austere today. The floor is made up entirely of gravestones, and apparently around 10,000 of Amsterdam’s citizens are buried here in 2,500 graves.

I walk down a very dark and narrow alleyway next to the church. It’s all painted bright red, and it’s so narrow that I have to turn side on and press myself against one of its walls to let someone else past. I reach a slightly wider section and glance sideways through a window and happen to notice a young lady wearing nothing but some very fancy underwear. I panic. It seems that I may have inadvertently found my way into the Red Light District. I don’t remember seeing any red lights, but then I remember the red paint. No one told me about paint; only lights. There are signs everywhere saying that you’re not allowed to take photos of the young ladies. I didn’t really need to be told. I’m going to have more than enough trouble explaining to Issy how I came to be wandering around in the Red Light District without having photos to prove it. I put my camera in its bag and zip it up tightly, and walk straight ahead with my head down and my eyes glued to the pavement directly in front of me.

The Red Light District really does seem to entirely surround the city’s oldest church and its oldest building, so there doesn’t seem to be too much doubt about who got here first. I wonder whether the logic for putting the Red Light District around the church was to make it easier for everyone to get to confession.

I wander on further and eventually decide that it might be safe for me to glance sideways. I find myself in Dam Square, which is the city’s very large main square. It is dominated by the Royal Palace and Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) on one side, and the 1956 National Monument commemorating the Dutch casualties of World War II and subsequent conflicts in the centre.

I decide to pass on going into the Palace for now on the basis that Issy might have some interest in going there later, and go into the church instead. It is apparently no longer used as a standard Church, and is used instead for exhibitions and organ recitals. It is also used when the need arises for Dutch Royal investitures and weddings. It was apparently built in the early fifteenth century when the Oude Kerk became too small to cater for the city’s growing population by itself. It was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1645 and was then rebuilt in the Gothic style. Like the Oude Kerk it’s also a bit bare and austere, and was also apparently gutted of a lot of its decoration and artwork when the Protestants took over from the Catholics during the Reformation. This even extended to whitewashing the walls to cover up some of the frescoes, although some attempts have now been made to uncover these again. There’s an organ recital in progress as I walk in, and the exhibition includes a number of audio visual displays, and display boards about the history of the church and Dutch history in general.

I’m feeling a bit confused about the marketing strategies used by the two churches. I paid 12 Euro to go into the Oude Kerk where there were no no organ recitals, no audio visual displays, no audio guides and a lot of bare walls, but only 9 Euro to go into the Nieuwe Kerk where the walls were still a bit bare, but all the other things missing at the Oude Kerk were included. I wonder if maybe they’re working on the logic that you’ll go to the Nieuwe Kirk with its prominent position on Dam Square first, and will then feel so guilty after walking through the Red Light District to get to the Oude Kerk that you’ll be more than happy to cough up the extra 3 Euro as penance.

We head out for dinner and stumble again into Rembrantplein Square. We seem to be doing a lot of stumbling today, and the drinks order suggests we’ll be doing more when we leave. We discuss the dangers that Amsterdamers face on a day to day basis. Apart from the on-going risks of getting mown down by a bike or drowning in a canal, we wonder how many Amsterdamers are injured or killed every year getting up and down the stairs in their apartments. The so-called stairs up to our apartment would be called ladders back home; they’re nearly vertical. We think that it’s only a matter of time before we come to grief on them, and we’re only here for a week. We also found out today that most of Amsterdam is two metres below sea level. The people here all look quite relaxed despite the constant threat of being mown down, or drowning, or falling down the stairs. We start to wonder whether maybe this is where the coffee shops come in. There do seem to be quite a lot of them here.

Additional photos below
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24th July 2019

Photos in the rain
Keep the camera dry! Amsterdam is dangerous when you step in the bike lane by accident.

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