Amsterdam: Split personality

Amsterdam is undoubtedly a city with a split personality. Culture hounds visiting Holland’s capital will be well rewarded with a treasure trove of art galleries and museums rivaling even those of London and Paris.

In fact, Amsterdam has more museums and galleries per capita than any other European city. Add to this cultural mix the city’s unique canals, historic architecture and world-renowned music and art festivals, it’s little wonder Amsterdam has been named the Cultural Capital of Europe for 2001, sharing the honour with Oporto, Portugal.

Peer a little deeper into the city’s sprawling core and you’ll find a cultural phenomenon of a different sort. The famous Dutch tolerance for prostitution and drugs has left many a North American traveller jaw-agape. Rather than sweeping such activities under the carpet, the Dutch have legalized and organized the sex-for-sale profession and accepted the use of drugs illegal elsewhere. This has made Amsterdam a city where almost anything goes — a wide-open Red Light district, legalized brothels and a semi-legal drug refuge.

Red Light district
<img src="” align=”left” />The “Walletjes,” or Red Light district, is so popular it rivals the city’s 55 museums as a tourist attraction. Every evening, a stream of busses stop at the edge of the district to turn loose a flood of camera-totting tourists into the narrow streets where more than a thousand scantily clad working girls display their charms behind large windows. Tittering tourists appear to outnumber the serious “shoppers” by 10 to 1.

Also lining the streets of the area are so-called coffee shops (brown cafes) where you can order a double espresso and buy marijuana, hashish or more exotic drugs. “Brown cafes” are scattered around Amsterdam, and advertise their drug wares with a marijuana leaf painted on the door or window. Inside, a large menu advertises the various brands of drugs.

Alternatively, you can just pick up the phone and order your drug of choice — and it’ll be delivered directly to your home or hotel. Drugs are technically illegal in The Netherlands, but Dutch authorities have decriminalized them and police do not bother people who sell or use small amounts.

Museum canal cruise
But sex and drugs are but a small part of the fabric of this fascinating city. It’s a wonderful city to stroll around and explore the historic architecture, serene parks and shopping areas. Or take a bicycle and peddle among the more than 600,000 cyclists of Amsterdam.

A delightful alternative is to take a canal cruise. Amsterdam is a spider-web of four canals that crisscross the city’s 17th century core and 1,281 bridges span the enchanting water routes. One of the best water outings to take is the Museum Boat that stops at 27 museums along the way – jumping off at any one that tickles your fancy.

Probably the most famous is Rijksmuseum, ranked one of the most important museums in Europe. This year celebrates its 200th anniversary, displaying works by Dutch masters from the 15th to 19th centuries, such as Rembrandt (the famed Night Watch), Vermeer and Frans Hals.

Nearby, the new and magnificent Vincent van Gogh Museum, is a feast of some 200 paintings and 500 drawing by the tortured artist and including contemporaries such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Monet.

And the newly restored Rembrandt House has on display more than 100 paintings, prints and drawings by Rembrant and other 16th and 17th century masters, including Raphael, Durer, Holbein and Rubens.

A grim reminder of Holland’s darker days is the re-opened Anne Frank House where the young girl wrote her diary and hid with her family during the German occupation. A new educational museum, the preserved Secret Annex where the Frank family hid, has been restored to its wartime condition.

Of special interest to Canadians
The Netherlands Flowerbulb Information Centre has announced that Canadians buying tulips and other flowering bulbs in Holland will no longer have them confiscated by Canada Customs.

Previously, many bulbs would have a sticker authorizing importation to the U.S. — only to have them grabbed at the Canadian port of entry. Now, if you buy packages of bulbs stickered with an official “Certification of Inspection” issued by the Plant Protection Service of the Netherlands, it’s good for both the U.S. and Canada.