Day 3 in Amsterdam – The Red Light District, Amstelkring Museum, and Westerpark
No trip to Amsterdam is complete without a peek at the city’s oldest neighborhood, which has hosted the world’s oldest profession since the year 1200. The Dutch call this area “De Wallen” or “The Walls”, after the old city walls that once stood here. Amsterdam’s current city government is trying to contain the sex trade so that it’s limited to this area of the city.
This was my fourth visit to the city. I had to check it out on my first visit, naturally. On my second visit, with Mark, he wanted to see what the fuss was about, so I checked it out again. Then I went with Brad, and it was his first visit, so once again I found myself traipsing through De Wallen. Thankfully, on my fourth visit, I no longer had any desire to witness the decadence. However, there are a lot of cool historical things to see in this area, so off we went. Taking photos is verboten (unless you want a police officer or a gargantuan bouncer reminding you of this, up close and personal, if you try), so I limited the photos to inanimate things.
I thought this was cool, though. This statue is titled “Belle” and it depicts a full-figured woman standing in a doorway at the top of a few small steps, as she looks confidently out into the world.
It was created by Els Rijerse, a Dutch artist. The bronze sculpture is located on Oudekerksplein, in front of Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest church. Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute who now works at the Prostitute Information Center. The statue is meant to show respect to the millions of women around the world who earn their money through prostitution.
In order to prevent vandalism, the statue is fortified with steel. Belle is perched atop a high, granite pedestal meant to deter those who engage in so-called ‘wild-peeing.’
The same square, bordered by pubs, coffee shops and bordellos, already sports a sculpture of a hand caressing a breast, one of several bronze and iron statues donated to the city of Amsterdam by an unknown artist. I found that one as we strolled. Here it is.
The sculpture is on the ground around the Old Church (Oude Kerk), which dates from the year 1300. I’ve always liked the look of this church. Next time I visit, I think I’ll pay the 5 euros and go in. They say there’s not much to see inside. When you walk through, however, you’ll be standing on 2500 gravestones, which are embedded in the floor. This includes the most famous one, just opposite the entrance: “Saskia 19 Juni 1642”. It’s the grave of Rembrandt’s wife.
The rest of the walk was relatively boring, being that it took place early in the morning, when the area is at its most quiet. But in keeping with my intention this trip to visit low-key or quirky museums, I decided to finally visit the Amstelkring Museum.
Catholicism was illegal for two centuries (from 1578 to 1795) in Amsterdam. But like pot, it was tolerated. When hard-line Protestants took power in 1578, Catholic churches were vandalized and shut down. Priests and monks were kicked out of town, and Catholic school kids were harassed on their way to school. Open worship was forbidden to Catholics. Therefore, they had to gather secretly to say Mass at home or at work. In 1663, a wealthy merchant built Our Lord in the Attic, one of just a few places in Amsterdam that served as a secret parish church until Catholics were once again allowed to workshop in public. This church, embedded right inside a Red Light District townhouse, allows you to see the hidden church. Plus, you get to see inside a historic Amsterdam home.
This room below is the parlor, the largest room of the house. Here’s where the family received guests and hosted parties. The decor at the time was focused on symmetry. In fact, the door on the left, below, is a fake door that was put there to balance the real entrance door on the right.
The painting over the fireplace below is entitled The Presentation in the Temple and has hung here since the 1600s
You see the coat of arms on the fireplace? Below is a close-up. It is the coat of arms of Jan Hartman, the rich Catholic businessman who built this house for his family and built the church for his fellow Catholics in the neighborhood. The family symbol is the crouching hart (deer) and this became the nickname of the church – Het Hert.
So, let’s cut to the chase and get right to the church. You can see that it’s long and narrow, with an altar at one end, an organ at the other, and two balconies overhead to maximize the seating.
The balconies are suspended from the ceiling and held in place by metal rods. Although the attic church was hidden, everyone knew it was here. In tolerant Amsterdam, it was pretty rare for Catholics to actually be arrested or punished. At most, they were socially unacceptable. Hartman was a respected businessman, and he used his wealth and influence to convince the city fathers to look the other way as the church was built.
The altar is flanked by classical columns and topped with an arch featuring a stucco God the Father, a dove of the Holy Spirit, and trumpeting angels.
There were sections of the wallpaper and paint that was scratched away to show the multiple layers beneath. The color scheme inside today is based on the authentic colors discovered beneath.
At the other end of the church is the organ.
There is much more to this museum, and the audio tour that is provided with the cost of admission is excellent.
A little ways down the street, along the canal, you get a really beautiful view of an area called “Little Venice”, where the houses rise directly from the water – no quays or streets. Amsterdam was built in a marshy delta area, similar to Venice, and like Venice, it grew rich on sea trade.
The little cafe outside offers one heck of a view while you drink your beer.
In the photos above, you’re viewing the back of these homes and businesses. The fronts of these places are located on the next street, Zeedijk. The street called Zeedijk runs along the top of the “sea dike” that historically protected sea-level Amsterdam from North Sea tides.
Once a day, a city worker unlocks the green box by the railing and presses a button. The locks open, and the tides flush out the city’s canals.
The cafe below dates back to the 1600s. It used to be a tavern back then. Sailors would arrive from a very long voyage (like, two years), bringing home fabulous items from faraway places like Bali. They would spill out onto Zeedijk street and into this tavern for some good Dutch beer.
In the 1970s and 1980s, this street was unbelievably sleazy, a no-man’s land of junkies and dirtbags. Now, it’s pretty trendy and upscale, with a large mix of ethnic restaurants, like Thai, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. Mark’s dream is to open a Vietnamese sandwich shop one day, and whenever we’re in another country, if he sees a Vietnamese restaurant, he makes note of their menu to see if there are any ideas and concepts worth incorporating into his place.
The former Cafe ‘t Mandje at #63 was perhaps Europe’s first gay bar, opened in 1927. (It closed in 1985). There are other gay bars on this street. I think it’s safe to say that this place below is NOT one of them.
Down the street is the colorful, red-and-yellow Lotus Flower Chinese Buddhist Temple.
As we continued our walk, we finally arrived at Nieuwemarkt (“new market”), a cute square with lots of little shops and food stands. Of course, Mark made a beeline for the herring stand. Ewww. Gross.
Our afternoon itinerary included a trip to Westerpark. The “Westerpark” (the real name is Culture Park Western Gas Factory, or Cultuurpark Westergasfabriek) is a public urban park in the northwest part of Amsterdam. It was a little bit of a walk to get there, but that’s okay. The walk took us through a part of Amsterdam that we’d never been, so I was looking forward to that. The walk started out well, with me encountering this super-friendly cat.
I took out my camera to take a few photos, and she immediately struck up a couple of different poses.
She let me pick her up. Don’t be fooled by the scowl. She loved it.
We finally arrived at the entrance
The park is a big green area with a theater, a cinema, an exhibition space and an events stage. It used to be a small neighborhood park, but it has been united with the vast area of the defunct municipal gas installations, which is where the “Western Gas Factory” (Westergasfabriek) part of the name comes from. The first part of the park we encountered was the green space, and it was peaceful and beautiful.
I even spotted a cute little rabbit.
We then came upon the buildings that divide the two parts of the park (the old and the new). The first one was De Bakkerswinkel, a bakery and cafe. We stopped in and had a drink. We were going to order a bite to eat, but the service was terrible. The waiters just stood around ignoring everyone, so we said fine, we’ll just go somewhere else. And we did.
Around the side of the cafe is a walkway that has lots of other little shops and cafes. Souvenir shops, clothing designers and other businesses have been moving in, giving the place a hipster-type vibe. At the back of the park is a long rectangular pool for kids.
The walk back from Westerpark was interesting. Westerpark is north of the hip Jordaan neighborhood, so the plan was to walk through this neighborhood. But the streets are angled kinda weirdly, and we ended up getting a little lost, which was kinda cool in a way, as it took us through streets that we never would have thought to stroll through otherwise.
The Jordaan neighborhood was great. Lots of restaurants and boutiques, and a very happening vibe on the street. If I were to move to Amsterdam, I think this is the neighborhood I’d want to live in.
Two years ago I went to Amsterdam with my friend/co-worker Brad. On that trip, we spend a memorable afternoon at a really great canal-side cafe. They just have tables outside the cafe overlooking the water; they had tables set up on a level a little below street level, taking you even closer to the water, so you could watch the boats go by. I wanted to visit it again, but I had no idea where it was. Well, as Mark and I emerged from the Jordaan neighborhood, I spotted it! It’s called Spanjer + van Twist, and I quickly snagged a table, the only available one down on that lower level.
There I am, drinking my cherry-flavored beer while watching a boat go by.
We were energized after the beer break, so I told Mark that I wanted to see the Tuschinski Theater, a movie palace from the 1920s. It wasn’t that far away, so off we went. On the walk there, I encountered another cat, just hanging out on the steps of a townhouse. Always a pleasant distraction.
We soon arrived at the Tuschinski. The exterior of the theater is an interesting hybrid of styles, a mixture of Art Nouveau and Art Deco – you get stone and tile Art Deco squares and rectangles, but they’re ornamented with Art Nouveau elements like Tiffany-style windows, garlands, curvy iron lamps, Egyptian pharaohs, and exotic gold lettering over the door.
Inside the lobby you get red carpets, nymphs on the wall, and semi-abstract designs. It’s still a working theater. You can actually rent a loveseat for two, which comes with champagne. It was built in 1921 by Abrahem Tuschinski, a jewish tailor from Poland who died in Auschwitz during WWII.
We ended the evening with Indonesian fare at Sampurna, at the nearby Flowermarket. Amsterdam has many Indonesian restaurants. This one looked really nice, and was filled with diners, so we figured it was pretty good. It was. We ordered a rijstafel (“rice table”), where they bring you as many as 30 spicy dishes, ranging from small side dishes to entree-sized plates, and a big bowl of rice or noodles.
I was already feeling stuffed just looking at all this food.
Mark ended the meal with a weird green dessert drink that was actually pretty terrific.
Time to call it a day.