Amsterdam may be one of the most well know cities in Western Europe. Before I went there in September 2011, I thought I had it all figured out: Cheese, Coffee Houses, Dutch Masters, Anne Frank and Windmills. During my week in the city, I was surprised to learn how much more interesting Amsterdam was than I had imagined. Every street seemed to hold a new piece of interesting trivia that made the city tick – these are some of my favorites:
1. Crooked Teeth Houses Line the Canals
As you walk around the canals of Amsterdam, you can’t help but notice the multitude of row houses looming over you. Tall and skinny, these houses define the classic Amsterdam photo every bit as much as bicycles and canal boats.
Spend more than a few minutes admiring them, and you’ll notice that in addition to tall and skinny, the house are also more than a bit crooked. All lined up and leaning every which a way, they resemble a set of teeth in need of braces. Most alarmingly, some of them seem to be leaning so far over the street that they are in danger of falling forward… on you.
|Leaning Row Houses in Amsterdam|
As it turns out, there is a very good reason for this tilt. Tall and Skinny house come with tight and narrow staircases – staircases that are nearly impossible to navigate when moving furniture and other large items. But, in a city filled with Canals, upper floors were the safest places to store items that could easily be ruined by flooding. So how did the Dutch get their goods to the upper floors? They hoisted them up the outside of the house. Each house has a large arm and hook stick out from the top. Items could be tied to this hook and pulled up to the desired floor.
|Hooks on the top of Amsterdam Row Houses|
No, all this pulling didn’t lean the house forward. This was done on purpose. Houses were built with a slight forward lean to minimize the chance of items colliding with the building facade on their way up. Some Amsterdam houses do have foundation problems which have lead led to slight shifts and leans. To fix these and help stabilize the historic buildings, black braces have been installed on the sides.
|Braces on the side of row house|
2. The City is Made for Bikes
There may very well be one bike per person in Amsterdam. I’m not saying that based on facts, just based on the literally hundreds of bikes covering every inch of the city. Coming from DC, I thought that I was familiar with bike friendly cities – I was wrong. DC’s got nothing on Amsterdam. This city was made for bikes.
There are bike lanes and bike stands on every street. Next to the train station there is actually a three story bike parking garage that was packed with bikes. It’s impossible to go anywhere without seeing a huddle of bikes locked out front. One of my favorite bike adaptations that I saw were these “bike slides” set up on stairs. Bikers can easily roll their rides down the stairs without having to lift them up.
|Bike Slide on Stairs in Amsterdam|
3. Public, VERY public, urinals
Walking around Amsterdam, I noticed a lot of green metal structures dotting the canals. They looked somewhat like large trashcans and I thought they might be some kind of recycling area. It was only later, when I saw a line of men waiting to use the recycle bin that I realize that these were public urinals. As in… right there in broad daylight urinals.
Its probably not surprising to learn, that along with the love and drugs that Amsterdam offers, came a fair number of partiers who didn’t want to waste valuable party time looking for restrooms. Public urination became such an issue, that the Dutch government erected outdoor urinals around the city. It turned out to be a good idea, these new potties cut down on this problem almost immediately. Unfortunately for them, they overlooked one problem – Women couldn’t use these urinals and felt it was unfair that they were not provided with conveniant public restrooms.
After a pointed protest involving several hundred dutch women urinating publicly on a bridge, the city saw their point and put in a series of little toilet rooms alongside the urinals. All seemed to be at peace with the pee-ers of Amsterdam, until the city discovered that the privacy afforded by the ladies restrooms was mainly being used by drug addicts and vagrants. After a very short run, the potties had to be closed and once again only the men could pee freely on the streets.
4. The great (Bi)cycle of life
As I mentioned, Bikes are one of the cities defining features. There are so many of them, that its sometimes impossible to find anywhere to lock them up. Instead, most Dutch bikes come equipped with a device that locks the bikes wheels so it can’t be ridden. This, for the most part, keeps the bikes safe where they are parked.
What you end up with is a bunch of free standing bicycles standing along each canal and road. So as you can imagine, this ends up being way too much temptation for the the public urination crowd – many of them end up tossing innocent bicycles into the nearby canals. In fact, so many bikes end up in watery graves, that several times a year a boat rigged with a crane drives through the canals and plucks out the unlucky bikes.
These bikes are then taken, cleaned up, and put up for sale where they are purchased by the same Dutch people who previously might of lost a bike to the tossers. This means its not uncommon to see someone riding a very rusty bike through the streets. Its possible that the same bike has gone through this canal cycle several times during its two wheeled life.
What about you? What are some fun facts you’ve learned about a city on your travels?