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Amsterdam: Now you've seen it all

[Photo: Memphis Commercial Appeal]

A street market in the Jordaan section of Amsterdam makes a beautiful backdrop for a March 2001 snowstorm.

Churches and sex shops, old masters and hip hash bars make this a European city of contrasts.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002

AMSTERDAM -- Arrive in some cities and they quickly seem alluring, almost batting their eyes. Other cities show the faded face of wealth earned and spent long ago. Still others have a stark countenance that dismisses visitor and resident alike.

And then there is Amsterdam.

Depending on which canal bridge you cross, which turn you take up which narrow street, Amsterdam is alternately boisterous, lustful, cultured, reserved.

photo Predawn light casts a blue glow onto the narrow streets of Amsterdam, where bicycles are a common mode of transport.

[Photo: Memphis Commercial Appeal]

Its streets teem with people young and old, dressed casually or in businesswear, hurrying about on foot or on bicycle. Faces are white, black, brown, yellow.

[Photo: Memphis Commercial Appeal]
Prostitution is legal and regulated in the Netherlands, with prostitutes paying taxes on their earnings, getting regular medical checkups and, in many cases, joining unions. Here, Belinda, a prostitute in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, talks with a prospective client from her rented window space.

Prostitutes sitting at large windows wear only lingerie and a half-smile, and they hurry to the front door if a passerby even nods. Tour buses deliver loads of visitors to live sex theaters; peep shops and collections of erotica are not coy about what they offer.

You can peruse the history of marijuana in a tacky little museum, then step next door and buy pot or its seeds; you can even smoke it in public.

Yet despite this sleaze factor, Amsterdam is also the city of fabled art collections, centuries-old churches and the poignant tale told by Anne Frank, too soon gone from a world she trusted.

Because Amsterdam's wonderfully efficient Schipol Airport is a major transit point for North Americans heading elsewhere in Europe, you may find yourself with a long layover there. Once you have prowled one of the world's great duty-free shopping areas, take the escalator down to Schipol's train station, and for about three euros (roughly $3), you can make the 20-minute ride into the city to enjoy some of its diversions.

Better yet, make Amsterdam your destination and view all of its many faces.

See the sights from sea level

The part of Amsterdam most appealing to visitors is defined by a series of roughly concentric, U-shaped canals that spread out from the Centraal Station. This busy train station backs onto the IJ River, and a few miles off is the North Sea Canal.

Amsterdam's 45 miles of canals twist past about 90 islands. The easy way to get a feel for the city is to pay for a narrated tour on one of the numerous glass-topped canal boats. Typically they stop at major tourist destinations, and a one-day ticket allows you to get on and off at each.

The best deal is the Museumboat; its one-day ticket also provides 50 percent discounts on admission to major museums. Other boat tours cost about 14 euros and complete their circuit in 60 to 90 minutes. Make sure the boat's engine does not drown out the narration.

From the boat, you'll pass below many of the city's 6,800 buildings dating to the 16th century; about one-fourth of them are deemed to be of such historic note that they cannot be remodeled without government permission. The stepped-gable rooftops are a landmark of Amsterdam, though the style originated with Spanish architects when that nation ruled this land.

Often fronting the old buildings are live-aboard boaters, part of Amsterdam's bohemian nature. There are about 2,500 houseboats, many of them converted from narrow cargo barges that once plied the canals. The boats are personalized by everything from potted plants and flower boxes -- tulips in season, of course -- to kids' fingerpaintings covering the windows to a clothing mannequin fixed in place of a boat's wooden figurehead.

Art for the sake of art

As befits a great city, Amsterdam boasts museums with unrivaled collections, though things are a little egocentric.

The famed Rijksmuseum (RYKS-museum) is large but easily navigable with a guidebook. The building resembles a French chateau as well as the Centraal Station, because one architect designed both.

photo Visitors to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam view The Syndics of the Drapers Guild, a 1622 painting by Rembrandt van Rijn.

[Times photo: Lance A. Rothstein]

The red brick museum, three floors in three contiguous buildings, sits on tree-shaded lawns. Its ground floor is pierced by a pedestrian and two-way car tunnel -- a shortcut from the nearby canal to the Van Gogh Museum, a block away, and fancy old apartment buildings.

The Rijksmuseum houses the national art collection of the Netherlands. Here are porcelains, ceramics, tapestries, stained glass, gilded wall panels, furniture with exquisite inlays, even four-poster beds and doll houses.

The Dutch collection dates from the 15th through the 19th centuries. There also are large displays of Spanish, Italian and Asian works.

But to the casual, or hurried, museum visitor, just a few paintings by Dutch masters are the chief attractions:

The museum curators have made their centerpiece the wall-sized The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, which most of the world knows as The Night Watch. It is the masterwork of the man acclaimed the leader of Holland's Golden Age, Rembrandt van Rijn. It is a busy scene of one of the privately financed civic militias. Grime accumulated since Rembrandt finished the work in 1642 led art observers to believe it was a view of the group at night, hence the nickname.

But what once was dark now fairly glows, and the faces of the men appear lively, after a careful cleansing about 10 years ago.

All around this mural are galleries with other Rembrandts such as The Jewish Bride (one of his favorites) and The Syndics of the Drapers Guild. Here, too, are religious scenes by Rubens and Van Dyck, renditions of naval battles, and Frans Hals' charming 1622 Wedding Portrait. This painting defied current style -- as did The Night Watch -- by portraying its figures in more natural poses; here, the husband and wife are actually smiling.

A few galleries over are four works by Johannes Vermeer, whose precisely delicate touch and capture of light convinces us that we are in the room as the The Kitchen Maid pours that milk into a bowl, or that we can take a few paces and step into the narrow alley in View of Houses in Delft, commonly called The Little Street.

Gallery 227 holds one of those brooding self-portraits by the most famous of the 19th century Dutch painters, Vincent van Gogh. But you need only step out the back door of the Rijksmuseum and walk one block to enter the museum dedicated to that troubled soul.

Once in the fairly intimate Van Gogh Museum, you can glide from gallery to gallery and see both his style and his mental health change. His years in the Netherlands are featured in darker images, symbolized by The Potato Eaters, rendered in 1885. He moved to Paris, studied Impressionism, changed both style and subject matter. Here are his Sunflowers, more self portraits, the Bedroom at Arles.

On my most-recent visit to the Van Gogh, I asked one of the guards if I had missed Starry Night. "No, it is on loan now," he answered, adding, "Thank heavens! It draws such big crowds around it."

Before you leave the museum district to head back toward the Centraal Station, walk over to the former Heineken Brewery. Even if you are not a beer drinker, the tour through this facility is cleverly done and informative.

The buildings were in use for about 120 years until 1988, when beer production was moved to a distant suburb. Since May 2001, the big facility has been home to The Heineken Experience. The multimedia show recounts the 139-year Heineken family history and explains how a brewery operates, cleverly using videoscreens, motion simulators and original equipment ranging from scales to the giant copper brewing kettles.

There is sampling of the product along the way; visitors go through about 125 gallons a day. If you ask nicely, the beaming young bartenders might even show you how to "pull" the perfect glass of beer from the tap. And everyone gets a souvenir of the trip.

The other end of the spectrum

Perhaps you can visit Amsterdam without wandering through the Red Light District, but the very idea of government-sanctioned prostitution openly marketed is intriguing. The prostitutes are required to undergo medical examinations, and many of them belong to a union.

The district is about three narrow blocks wide by several blocks long. What you see typically are young, and not-so-young, women standing or seated in small rooms behind large windowpanes framed in red neon -- hence the name of the district. They wear lingerie or bikinis -- there is no nudity -- and while they sometimes smile at passersby, they generally look bored.

Customers stroll the narrow brick sidewalks, windowshopping, until they make their choice, then simply signal to that woman, who steps over to the nearby door. The women pull down shades or close curtains at the windows, indicating that they are with a customer.

I was told by an acquaintance that the charge is 50 euros for 15 minutes.

While not every doorway leads to one of these rooms, many others are sex shops displaying lurid photos or blunt, English-language ads. These places sell paraphernalia, often displayed in the window, or rent "video cabins" to view tapes, or both. There are also theaters whose sidewalk signs promise live sex shows with admission of 25 euros.

Here, too, is the recognized heart of Amsterdam's drug trade. Possession of roughly one ounce of marijuana is legal. Smoking pot in some "coffee" shops such as the famous Bulldog or even in public is tolerated, but police are said to be cracking down on harder drugs.

Meanwhile, one of the city's notable businesses is the Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum, in the middle of the Red Light District. If you like viewing science fair projects, this is for you.

Customers pay about 6 euros to enter a narrow, hot room and wander past amateurish posters reporting on the history and efficacy of marijuana use for medical purposes -- which unless I missed it, is the only reason for cultivating and using versions of the plant.

One poster, with snapshots, is an example of the overall quality of the displays. It relates how the Afghanis "fueled their struggle against the Soviet-backed government" by selling an apparently potent derivative named black hashish. It does not suggest the medical uses of this hashish.

The reason that the "museum" room is warm, despite its oscillating fans, is that a picture window on one wall looks into a "grow room," where dozens of marijuana plants are prospering. This room apparently is shared by the store next door to the Hash Museum, which sells seeds. A tourist leaving the store told me she saw a customer pay $350 for about 30 seeds.

The Red Light area attracts not only the curious tourist and the purposeful customer but also both pickpockets and bedraggled street people. The latter stand in the middle of the sidewalks, either staring vacantly or shouting to one another. Guidebooks agree that the Red Light district is both livelier and more dangerous at night.

Relax amid the rush

Make time to do nothing, either amid the sprawling greenery and footpaths that make up the 118-acre Vondelpark or at a table by one of the cafes in the popular squares. I found a warm Sunday afternoon in the Leidseplein so entertaining that I put off visiting the Rijksmuseum to another day.

Like several of the city squares surrounded by restaurants and bars, Leidseplein (LAY-tse-plane) draws patrons from the walkers, cyclists and inline skaters who move through the central city's maze of streets.

Motorists almost seem to be in the minority in Amsterdam's central city, probably because the efficient system of electric trolleys (here called trams) and bicycles (the city estimates there are 400,000 of them in use) combine with the often-narrow streets to make driving and parking more trouble than it's worth.

On weekends or summer days after work, the streets, squares and parks are filled with people walking dogs and pushing strollers. In the squares, they stop for a glass of beer, a smoke -- yes, there was more than an occasional whiff of pot -- and to watch the mimes, magicians and musicians who work the crowds.

Rouse yourself and follow your free tourist map into one of the trendy neighborhoods, such as the Jordaan and the recently rehabbed dock areas called KNSM Island and Java Island. Away from the tourist stops and bustle of the squares, you will find yet another face of Amsterdam.

If you go

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from the Tampa Bay area to Amsterdam, but Delta, Continental, United and British Air are among the carriers that offer one-stop service, with a change of planes.

STAYING THERE: English is widely spoken in Amsterdam, and the current exchange rate between the dollar and the euro is about even. Quality hotels are operated by such major chains as Radisson SAS, Hilton, Sofitel, Crowne and Best Western. Check your favorite chain's Web site or go to the booking site for rates and packages, or consult the guidebooks listed below.

ATTRACTIONS: The sites mentioned in the article are among the most-popular destinations for tourists with limited time. But there is one more site worth seeing:

[Times art]

The Anne Frank House, at Prinsengracht 263, was remodeled in 1999 so that all of the interior more closely resembled the physical arrangement during the two years-plus of World War II when the Jewish family hid from the German occupation troops.

For anyone who has read the teenager's diary, discovered in the building after the war, it can be an extremely moving experience. However, the house museum is also a major tourist destination; in order to avoid the long lines and the crowds that detract from the solemnity of these small rooms, arrive as early as possible.

It is open daily, in the winter months generally from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and in the summer months, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission for adults is 6.5 euros; for children 10-17, 3 euros; children 9 and under are free. Not all areas are accessible to wheelchair users.

There are about 70 canal boats, operated by four firms. All sell tickets for round trips, with prices starting at 8 euros. The Museumboat, which makes seven stops, is 13 euros but that includes a card good for discounts of up to 50 percent at some museums. I did not see ramps for wheelchair users but they may be available; ask before buying your ticket.

The Rijksmuseum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, closed Jan. 1. Admission is 8.5 euros for those 19 or older, free to everyone younger. This museum and the Van Gogh are near stops on trams 2, 5 and 20; the trams start at the Centraal Station. Both museums are accessible for wheelchair users.

Van Gogh Museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is 7 euros for adults, 2.5 euros for those 13-17 years, free to those younger.

The Heineken Experience is in a canalside building about five blocks from the Rijksmuseum, at Stadhouderskade 78. It is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays, closed on major holidays. Admission is 7.5 euros for adults; children, admitted with adults, are 5 euros. It is wheelchair accessible.

The Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum is at No. 148 on the street Oudezijds Achterburgwal; it is open from daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is about 6 euros. Narrow aisles would make it a difficult visit for wheelchair users.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Consult these guidebooks:

Insight Guide Amsterdam, 283 pages; APA Publications, $22.95; Citypack Amsterdam, pocketsized at 93 pages plus foldout map; Fodor's, $11; National Geographic Traveler/Amsterdam, 269 pages, excellent maps, newest of these three; National Geographic Society, $22.95.

Also, contact the Netherlands Board of Tourism, 355 Lexington, Ave., New York, NY 10017; call toll-free 1-888-464-6552; the Web site is

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