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On foot through Amsterdam

One of the city's many bicycles. Credit: Moyan Brenn

Amsterdam’s secrets are revealed to Halima Ali on a fact-filled walking tour of the Dutch city


“The Dutch are lovely people but they don’t like to be ruled,” says Jacob, my tour guide. “So when Napoleon said people needed to have last names, they made up silly names like Little Fart. It was their way of rebelling.”

It’s my final day in Amsterdam and I’ve done the sights, narrowly avoided colliding with countless bikes and packed some tulip bulbs in my suitcase, but it’s only now that I feel I’m getting a real insight into the Dutch psyche.

Beginning on the cobbles of Dam Square in the heart of the old city, Jacob paints a picture of the past, explaining that the Amstel River once ran down from where Centraal Station now stands, and through the pedestrianised shopping street where crowds of tourists and locals are browsing.

We survey the square’s sights as Jacob takes us through the history behind them. The white conical pillar of the National Monument commemorating those who died during WWII, the gothic 15th century Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and the building which was home to the world’s first stock exchange.

As we pass the Royal Palace, Jacob points out the powerful floodlights that would light up the surrounding area if anyone dared to relieve themselves on the palace walls. “It’s the Dutch way of saying ‘shame on you’,” he explains with a wagging finger.

Making our way to the canal region, we pause on the widest bridge in the capital, known locally as the Multatuli bridge, shuddering as Jacob tells us of the prison that was once beneath our feet. “The water would come into the cells, bringing the rats with it,” he says.

As we walk, we see the narrowest house in the capital — at just one metre — designed to get round paying high taxes based on the width of the front of the building. We marvel at the small details pointed out to us, such as the different sized windows providing an optical illusion to make the houses appear bigger. Or the stairs leading up to front doors positioned higher than ground level. All of this trickery was designed to demonstrate wealth.

In stark contrast to the expensive canal-front houses, we arrive at Spui Straat, a graffiti-ridden street where squatters have occupied the buildings for more than 30 years — the squatting movement here has existed since the 1960s and 1970s.

Jacob fills us in on the black market for bicycles. In the 1960s, the government gave the city an early version of London’s ‘Boris bike’ scheme. The white bikes were free to ride — but people took them home, spray painted them and kept them.

We end the tour back where we began in Dam Square, and as we go our separate ways, I feel I’ve learned more about the city in these two hours than I had in the previous two days.

360 Amsterdam offers free walking tours daily, beginning at Dam Square.

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