Thursday 14th June, 2001
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Writer : James Frankham

A brilliant amber orb gains buoyancy on the horizon. Steam escapes from the stacks on the foreshore and the haze absorbs every shade of the rising sun. Groups of wind turbines whir in the billowing clouds.

Cutting through the grey-blue water, STARSHIP joins the channel leading to Ijmuiden, the seaport of Amsterdam. Martin guides her into the lock with just centimetres clearance on each side. The steel gates close ominously behind us and water pours in, lifting the 100 tonne vessel in less than a minute to the water level of the North Sea Canal. The low grassy flanks of the channel rise sharply from the water, extending out to a distant vanishing point. A Russian-built hydrofoil ferry flies past the traditional 40 metre Dutch Canal barges.

Dawn over Amsterdam.
[ photo - James Frankham ]

Amsterdam’s past is implicitly linked to the sea. In the late 1400s, nearly two thirds of ships bound to and from the Baltic had Dutch owners; in part due a decree in 1275 freeing the community from paying tolls on locks and bridges. In 1578 Calvinist brigands captured Amsterdam from Spanish colonialists and declared a republic. This began a heyday for Holland’s capital as merchants and artisans flocked in, creating a new class of moneyed intellectuals and ushering in the Golden Age. At the same time, Dutch ships dominated sea trade between England, France, Spain and the Baltic countries, and had a virtual monopoly on North Sea fishing and Arctic whaling. Of course it was the mighty Dutch East India Company that controlled European trade with Asia.

Cathedrals of Industry.
[ photo - James Frankham ]

In the 17th century the Dutch merchants directed their fortunes into banking and finance, consolidating their position with construction of a railway system and the North Sea Canal. The same exuberance that existed 500 years ago is alive today in what is surely one of Europe’s enduring centres of art and culture.

Birgit and I follow the river boats that glide along the canal and momentarily disappear under the bridges that span the water. Small oases exist within the urban fabric. On junctures of bridges and streets, cafés of latté-sippers soak up the sun and watch the passing milieu. A church, orientated out of sync with the orthogonal canal pattern, creates a sunny corner where smiling loiterers read newspapers on its steps.

Canal traffic.
[ photo - James Frankham ]

Since the Middle Ages the city has lured migrants, contributing to the melting pot of cultural diversity that is encouraged within the society today. It is most evident closer to the city centre where the streets close in and the throngs compete for pavement real-estate. It has been a long time since I have been in a dense crowd and I seem to have lost my ability to navigate. I shuffle with the left-right-right-left indecision of a left-side-driver on the continent. I am unaccustomed to the urban rush.

Layers of multimodal transport whisk citizens through the city. Bicycles have a sophisticated system of designated roadways while pedestrians stick to the adjacent pavement. Trams and vehicles share the cobbled roads and bridges that arch over canal boats. I’m sure, once acquainted with the complex scheme, it is possible to move around with the greatest ease and elegance. Today however, it will be enough just to practise walking!

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