Amsterdam… An Intriguing City of the Past— And Future

Photo of Amsterdam canal with flowers by Curt Mekemson.
I’ve always found Amsterdam fascinating. Its unique history, romantic canals, and picturesque buildings are only a few of the reasons why.

I first stopped off in Amsterdam in 1967 on my way home from a two year stint of teaching World and African History to high school students in West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Peggy was a high school exchange student in the Netherlands at the time. She made several trips to the city. Imagine if we had bumped into each other!

I’d already visited Athens, Rome, Geneva, and Madrid when I arrived in the city. Only London was left on my whirlwind tour of Europe. In three weeks I was supposed to be in Philadelphia, teaching at a black, inner-city school. But first, I had to fly to California, visit with family, buy a car, and drive back across the country. I also had to check in with my draft board in Placerville. A war was raging in Southeast Asia and it had quotas to meet. It wanted my body.

One might think with all of this that my memories of Amsterdam would be vague, at best. But there was something about the city that captured my imagination. The canals were part of it, but there was also a rich history, buildings with personality, and great food connected to its Dutch/East Asia history. On later trips, I would add its passion for bicycles and liberal policies regarding prostitution and marijuana. The latter two because I felt that their prohibition created a lot more problems than their legalization.

Peggy and I were in Amsterdam this past summer in preparation for our boat trip up the Rhine River. Actually, we had planned the trip two years earlier to celebrate Peggy’s 70th birthday. Our kids and grandkids were joining us. And then covid had hit. We were fortunately able to reschedule it. The fact that our boat left from Amsterdam was a plus. We planned to spend a few days in the city before and after the trip to take advantage of our luck. The photos for today’s post and next Friday’s will focus on our time in the city. Today, I will feature canals, street scenes and bikes. Next Friday will be devoted to the city’s unique buildings and other things we found interesting and fun. Note: Peggy didn’t carry her Canon camera while we were in Amsterdam. She had decided to experiment with her iPhone, examples will be in the next post. 🙂

Photo of life along an Amsterdam canal by Curt Mekemson.
We stayed in a small hotel just off one of the canals when we arrived and spent a part of our evening sitting outside next to the canal drinking beer, watching the boat traffic, and enjoying a perfect evening along with several hundred other folks, mainly locals.
Houseboats are one of the reasons visitors find the canals so charming. Peggy and I admired a similar scene when we rented a 60′ narrowboat and explored one of England’s canals.
Photo of Amsterdam canal by Curt Mekemson.
Flowers, trees, and Amsterdam’s unique buildings all add to the ambience.
Photo of bikes along Amsterdam Canal by Curt Mekemson.
As might be expected, bikes are a part of most canal shots. You can’t escape from them!
Someone had even added flowers to a bike for photo ops overlooking the canal. I suspect a fee would be involved.

Amsterdam claims the title of Bicycle Capital of the World. Five minutes in the city is enough to agree. They are everywhere. It wasn’t the case in 1967 when I first visited. Like most other cities in the developed world, automobiles were in ascendance. Communities were being plowed over to make way for freeways. Bikes, people, houses and historic structures were considered impediments to the flow of traffic. Bicycle advocates in Amsterdam fought back in the 70s and government officials listened. It was a battle I also fought in Sacramento City and County where I organized the first county-wide conference of bike advocates to push for bicycle friendly policies on a city and county-wide basis. Bikes had served as my primary form of transportation at UC Berkeley and in Africa. I continued to commute in Sacramento. (My advocacy for bikes and other forms of alternative transportation would eventually lead to the City Traffic Engineer walking out of meetings when I walked in. When I was nominated for the board of the mass transit district, the mayor said ‘over his dead body.’ I probably shouldn’t have been proud of these reactions, but I was. Grin. BTW, I got the nomination.)

Photo of mass bicycle parking in Amsterdam by Curt Mekemson.
This photo of Amsterdam’s bike parking lot next to the train station gives a sense of just how impressive Amsterdam’s devotion to bicycles is. In addition to the ground parking there is a large two story parking garage. You certainly wouldn’t want to lose track of where you parked your bike. Peggy and I had that problem at Burning Man with its 70,000 bikes. There are close to 900,000 bikes in Amsterdam!
Bicycle parking lot in Central Amsterdam photo by Curt Mekemson.
This was a bike parking lot in central Amsterdam near the hotel we were staying.
When we returned from our Rhine River cruise, we stayed at the Ibis Hotel. I shot this scene from our window. In addition to Europe’s sleek and super-fast passenger trains, bikes can be seen stacked up alongside Amsterdam’s port. The docks for Rhine riverboats are on the left.
A closer look at the stacked bikes.
I was also impressed by the maze of tracks leading into the central train station. This was another photo from our hotel. I rendered it in black and white for fun. The emphasis on mass transit, bicycles and walking in Amsterdam is definitely a commitment to the future in the fight against global warming.
Amsterdam street scene photo by Curt Mekemson.
Walking the streets gave a sense of the domination of bikes. But it also it also provided a view of the beauty of the city, its unique buildings and fun shops.
Another street scene.
Walkway photo in Amsterdam by Curt Mekemson.
Quieter walkways with carefully tended landscaping were also fun to explore.
And, of course, you can spend hours walking along the canals. I’ll finish today’s post with this photo. Next week I will take a closer look at buildings and some of the fun ways we entertained ourselves in the city.

For those of you who are keeping track of Peggy’s and my journey, we are now in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Tomorrow we will be in Badlands National Park.

26 thoughts on “Amsterdam… An Intriguing City of the Past— And Future

  1. Our son-in-law is a transport economist and avid cyclist. This comment of yours would delight him—’My advocacy for bikes and other forms of alternative transportation would eventually lead to the City Traffic Engineer walking out of meetings when I walked in’.

  2. Travel by bike is such a good idea in many places. Mass adoption seems to depend to some extent on the climate. Where I live, not may city people have embraced biking in the snow and cold of an Alberta winter (November through March)!

  3. One reason why Amsterdam and most European cities look nice is the absence of advertising signs. This is the blight of the US and Australia instantly recognizable for ugliness because of the unfettered proliferation of signs. It is so off-putting that I make a deliberate attempt not to ever buy anything much if it is advertised on ugly signage. Why should democracy go so far as to visually assault me each time I venture outside?

    • To quote (or misquote) Ogden Nash: “I think that I shall never see, a billboard lovely as a tree. Indeed unless the billboards fall, I may never see a tree at all.” We’ve learned as we’ve driven back and forth across the US, Gerard, some states have great laws limiting billboards and others don’t: South Dakota, which we drove across yesterday being an example of the latter. –Curt

  4. Wonderful photos, Curt. I love all those bicycles! And the canals are beautiful. My grandparents lived outside of Amsterdam and we used to travel there when I was small. I’d love to go back again. Thanks for sharing your trip!

      • Cheese! That’s what immediately struck a chord. I’ll include some photos in my next post. And I loved the flowers there as well. I’ve never eaten smoked eel. Should I? The time before when I was there I ate some hot Indian food where the chef came out to see if I was surviving. 🙂 Damn, was that hot!

      • Ha ha ha. Loved your Indian food experience! Yes, try the smoked eel. It was amazing, which is why my 11-year-old self still remembers it. And, of course, the authentic Indonesian food. It’s to die for. Now I want to go back!

      • That’s so sad, Curt. My grandparents/mom grew up in Indonesia when it was Dutch colony and moved to Holland after WWII. I remember eating lots of wonderful Indonesian food in Amsterdam, but that was 50 years ago.

  5. The sight of all those bicycles brought a feeling of claustrophobia, and a brief thought of what makes bicycles so unworkable in places like Houston and its suburbs — or for people who depend on their vehicles for their work. I can’t quite imagine trucking along on a bicycle with my orbital sander and varnish box at any time, let alone in the heat of summer. Maybe Amsterdam’s smaller size makes it easier for most people. I suspect so.

    All that aside, it’s a beautiful city. I’d love to live in a canal boat for a while: ‘for a while’ being the operative term. I made it nearly a year on a Catalina 31 before the longer for a bathtub and a real closet overcame me and I traded romance for practicality.

    • For a while, Linda, a bike was all I owned in Sacramento and I commuted 20 miles a day. It would be darned hard to pull our trailer with a bike, however. :)Bikes in Central Amsterdam are very practical. Plus they would have to pave over half the town to accommodate as many cars. My biggest battle on the environmental front in Sacramento was in playing a central role in reestablishing light rail as a major form of transportation.

      Speaking of living conditions, our moving east has severely limited the space we are used to. But we do have the basics except for more of a kitchen. We’ve adjusted however, and the bottom line is Peggy and I are quire happy in small places, i’e. Seraphina the trailer.
      Mobility is very important to us, as well, obviously. I’d have a hard time identifying our truck as an environmentally sound vehicle. 🙂 –Curt

  6. I remember when I visited Amsterdam back in ’77, I didn’t know going in that there were canals – I thought that was a Venice thing. That was the first of several eye openers. Since then I’ve only been in the airport, en route to elsewhere. I’m due a return visit.

    I think if I were to have a bike in Amsterdam I’d probably need one of those Bluetooth trackers to find it in the throng. And of course, when I’d find it, it would be buried deep in the heart of a stack of bikes…

    • Don’t remember what I was thinking about Amsterdam when I first set foot there in 67, Dave, but I do know I left there impressed.
      That’s how we felt about our bikes at Burning Man. Especially at night after a few hors of play. 🙂

  7. That’s a lot of bikes. Previously, I thought there were more bikes in Tokyo than anywhere else. My first day in Shinjuku was a work day. I was up early and I watched the sidewalks fill with bikes, rows and rows and rows of them on every sidewalk. Now that I’ve seen your shots from Amsterdam, I’m willing to believe Amsterdam has more. Also, they seem to have provided bike infrastructure, which Tokyo has not done so well with. I’d like to brag about Portland, which has done a great job with using and providing for bikes. But our city’s got nothing on Amsterdam.

    Your photos are outstanding. I’ve seen photos of the city before, but I’m still impressed when I see more. It’s just so beautiful. The architecture, the trees, the water. Looking forward to more.

    • My first experience with lots of bikes was at UC Davis when I recruited there for Peace Corps, Crystal. They didn’t match the sheer numbers of Amsterdam (or even come close) but the University and the town of Davis have done everything possible to make the town and University bicycle friendly. As for bicycle to people ratio, Burning Man can match Amsterdam and possibly even surpass it. I would bet that with 80,000 people there, at least 79,000 have bikes. The message is, “Don’t go without one!” 🙂

      Amsterdam is a beautiful well-loved and a well photographed city. It’s impossible not to take photos, and hard to take a bad one. 🙂

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