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The City of Canals

The City of Canals (2)

Art, architecture, and modern life with the sweet taste of past splendour beckon millions of visitors to this city every year. If there is one thing that never fails to appear on photographs, post cards or souvenirs of Amsterdam, it is the canals. 

1,281 bridges, 8 of which are lifting bridges, cross the hundred and sixty canals that cleave through the city. This network however is not only here for the sake of beauty; it is also a result of the planning and urban extension process developed by the city throughout its history. Lovely? Indeed they are. Romantic? Of course, but, more than anything else, they are also practical. 

Although history tells us that the first human settlements at the mouth of the river Amstel date from 1220, it was 40 years later that a dyke, the Dam (located where this square is now) was built, separating the northern and southern sections of the city. During the thirteenth century, dykes were also built in the sea, although the first canals that were opened in the city date from the early fourteenth century. 

The city’s first great expansion, which also took place at the end of the fourteenth century, saw the opening of canals around the Dam, and the establishment of the Singel as Amsterdam’s outer limit. 

The years went by and, with them came the Dutch city’s Golden Century, which brought trade and wealth to the capital, and consequent population growth. This increase also occurred because the city became a destination for many immigrants who were fleeing religious persecution in their countries of origin. A need to plan the city’s expansion therefore arose once again. The town planner Hendrick Staets came up with a plan that quadrupled the size of Amsterdam and featured the building of the Grachtengordel, a series of concentric canals surrounding the city. The three most significant canals represented the great powers of the seventeenth century Golden Age: the Gentleman’s Canal (the Herengracht), the Emperor’s Canal (the Keizergracht) and the Prince’s Canal (the Prinsengracht).

The last phase of expansion took place in the nineteenth century, when the city was opened southwards and the canals were also dredged to open up the city more extensively to the North Sea, in order to bring maritime activity up-to-date. Amsterdam’s problem was that its port was too shallow for the new merchant vessels, a fact that placed its prosperity at risk. 

In the twentieth century, with the development of roads and the railway, the canals became less significant commercially and their picturesque nature was enhanced. 

These river channels are Amsterdam’s face to the world. They feature the architectural jewels of several centuries of history, which are displayed to the visitors who travel along the canals either on foot or by boat. 

Their charms include the fascinating series of bridges, which are illuminated at night, the reflections of the beautiful canal-side houses, with their high, slim silhouettes, and the peaceful life of the houseboats, some of which have peeling paint and others lush onboard vegetation. Even in winter, when it freezes over, many locals get their skates out and the canals become improvised and sometimes dangerous racing rinks. 

History has marked Amsterdam’s geography and left a truly charming result.

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