Photo by Robert van Waarden
On a canal tour, I see the extent of the canals built during the Golden Age.
Starting opposite the Rijksmuseum, the Blue Boat Company vessels sail down the Singelgracht and into the Prinsengracht. The audio commentary features a couple, “Ron and Nel”, who mix labored banter with some interesting facts. I learn that the Herengracht and Keizersgracht were residential canals but the outer Prinsengracht was a working one, hence its sides are much lower to allow for unloading of cargo.
We pass the Jordaan, whose name is perhaps a corruption of the word “jardin” given it by French settlers for its vegetable gardens. Its streets are still named after trees and flowers. Then comes the Anne Frank house with its endless line of visitors in the shadow of the Westertoren. The church beside it is where painter Rembrandt van Rijn was buried in 1669.
The commentary points out how much the canals have changed since then. When first built they were a dumping ground for everything from sewage to dead animals, which didn’t stop the breweries using the water to make beer – as I learn as we sail along the Brouwersgracht. “Our beer had real body!” quips Ron. The water, while still muddy, has been cleaned up to the point that it is now used for an annual swimming race. I’ve even swum in it myself.
From our boat we can look directly into some of the 750 or so houseboats that line the canals of the center. Originally a cheap solution to the 1970s housing crisis, they are now desirable properties. They vary from modern designer homes to rotting wooden shacks that look at real risk of sinking, but no one wants to give up one of the highly sought-after berths.
Friends who live on them love the freedom and privacy of a boat but complain that the maintenance is non-stop. Still, on a summer day it looks like an enviable life.