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The International Writers Magazine

Amsterdam on Water
Marianne de Nazareth

The air was full of airborne seeds in Amsterdam, with spring in the air. Drifts of them lay on the sides of the roads, along with the petals of pink cherry blossom. They fly into your face as you run to take the tram, they floated along the sides of the canals while we took the canal boat ride - what the heck are they I wondered till Paap told us!

"There are 50,000 Elm trees planted in Amsterdam," revealed Paap our Dutch boatman with an American accent, as he steered us down the canal. "These are the seeds of the Elm which is our national tree and every Dutch child when he learns to draw a tree, draws an Elm" And to think when I first saw all these similar trees sprout their seeds with the first rustle of spring, I thought, " God! These Dutch are so boring, don’t they have any creativity? Just plant one tree across their country?" Well now I know better! They are still all Elms but so many different varieties!

These are the kinds of gems Paap plied us with while he took us around Amsterdam on his unique canal tour. Seven of us Erasmus Mundus student journalists - Cuckoo, Ruta, Rose, Al, Munni, Bamrung and I took a two hour trip which cost us a princely four Euros and we got off with a wealth of information which was priceless.

Since Amsterdam is below sea level it has a continuous battle with keeping the sea water out. In fact the whole city is built around canals. Amsterdam was originally built on the shores of the saltwater Zuiderzee, but with centuries of land-reclamation the city now borders the freshwater lake of IJsselmeer.

The center of old Amsterdam is shaped like a horseshoe, with four famous canals which Paap took us along to enjoy. Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht and what made it more exciting is Al lives on Prisengracht which is considered an upmarket area. Definitely the best way to see the city’s beautiful gabled houses, is taking a canal tour. Sitting in the boat ,Paap took us along the most expensive real estate area in Amsterdam called ‘The Golden Bend’ on Herengracht. " Look straight ahead, he said, " there are seven bridges all in a line." And they were, perfectly in an amazing straight line!
"Do people fall into the canals and drown?" asked Al and Paap said, " well people down mostly drown ‘cause they are either drunk or the water is freezing cold. You would last just a few minutes in such cold water."
As we went along Paap pointed out the Amsterdam zoo. He said, "in the old days the canals ran around islands and this was the German ghetto and the Germans built fences to contain them inside. In fact the story of Anne Frank centres around here as Jews were hidden by locals in the bear and monkey cage. Artis is the oldest zoo in the world." Pointing to the botanical gardens that we passed Paap explained that the gardens were originally meant for medical research by the catholic monks way back in 1638. But once the country turned Protestant the gardens were taken over.

As the boat glided along the canal, Ruta decided to take off her shoes and dangle her toes in the water.
"Feels great!," exclaimed Ruta in her typical clipped style till Paap explained that not all the boats in the canals, have their sewage system connected to the city sewage. Oops! Ruta retrieved her precious toes in a jiff and swore to take a shower once she reached home! However the city does have a system of flushing the canals out every day with fresh water so that they do not stagnate and smell.
"Prinsengracht is the busiest canal on Queens Day," said Paap, "here it becomes a one way canal!"
We passed a House Boat museum which we never noticed while walking and towering up into the skies was Wester Kerk which Anne Frank saw from her window while she was in hiding. A huge queue of tourists stretched out from the Anne Frank door "and that happens everyday," revealed Paap, " it is one of the most popular museums in the city."
The Wester Kerk tower is gorgeous, its freshly painted gold sceptre glinting in the afternoon sun. "Wester Kerk was officially opened in 1631," says Paap, "and that is where Queen Beatrice and Prince Klaus were married. The tower bears the symbol of the imperial crown of Maximilian of Austria and is a symbol for Amsterdamer’s abroad. The hour bell weighs more than 7,500 kgs and only the hammer is 200 kgs! Go listen to the carillon played every Tuesday by the 50 bells from noon to 1pm.

And of course, Rembrandt is buried in 1669, inside this church in an unmarked grave."
"You are lucky!," shouted Paap, when suddenly our boat came upon a classical musician who serenades tourists from his boat with his French horn. All dressed up in a bright waist coat he circles his boat around the bridge where tourists stand above and tip him at the end of the performance. We had witnessed another little quirk of Amsterdam, with its tourist friendly innovations.

As we went down the Singel canal we passed the stunning double spire St Francis Xavier Church. It’s a dream inside with its carved pulpit and huge stained glass windows. Further down Paap pointed out the narrowest house in the world. It is just one metre wide infront and was barely wider than its front door. 166 Singel has an arch of yellow roses and apparently these houses are kept narrow because of the soft peat they are built on. Other versions state that the tax you paid was on the width of the frontage of your house. Plus the houses are built to hold one another up and the forward lean could mean anything, though Amsterdamer’s state, it’s to be noticed!

Passing the worlds only Floating Flower Market, Paap explained that in the old days farmers sold their flowers from open boats. Today those boats have been firmly anchored to the side of the canal and have been turned into beautiful floating florist shops.

It was time to get off as our two hours were up. Paap dropped us off at Spui which is close to the famous Dam square and we jumped onto land, after a really enriching ride.
Those who would like to contact Paap, his tour is called Aquasnor and you can beep him on
06-53897887 or mail him on

© Marianne de Nazareth June 2007

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