Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On the river Amstel

I've heard of bike-friendly cities, but until arriving in Amsterdam, I guess I've never been to one. Not only are there dedicated bike lanes, they are specially colored, and it appears that that cyclists get their own signals at major intersections. It's frightening and amazing to see several bicyclists turn left across a 5-way intersection without fear of being run down. At night, the riders all wear a similar white glow light that hangs down the front of their chest.

For a city of just a million people, Amsterdam has invested an extraordinary amount into their public transit system. In addition to the impressive network of bike lanes and bike-oriented traffic signals, there's also rail-based trams, buses, and heavy rail. I'm pretty sure I heard that they are extending their subway under the historic district (which one?)in a massive and ambitious effort to be completed circa 2016. Other than that reference, I've not seen any sign of the subway. It's hard to believe that there could be a subway under all that water and mud upon which the city seems precariously built.

They say that Amsterdam is built on Denmark and Finland because all the wood pillars holding up the buildings come from there. It's a perpetually flooded city, really, standing in 3 meters of water--one meter of mud, one meter of bicycles, and one meter of water. If you fall in, you can always grab a bike and pedal out.

Water from the sea used to be one of Amsterdam's three historical enemies and it's symbolized by the color white on their emblem. War is red and the Plague is black. They seem to have tamed the sea, using it to clean out the canals every other day, thus avoiding the stench that mars Venice. With several hundred islets and a couple thousand bridges crossing an impressive network of canals, the logistics of water level management seem daunting--one mistake and the centuries-old city would be washed away or destroyed by the subsequent wood rot.

The Red Light district really has red lights. And there really are women standing in store windows...well, they're not really stores--they're sex shops. Many times, the red curtains are drawn which indicates that commerce is taking place. The oldest church in town is situated in the heart of this district. Either it knows its market or the girls know theirs.


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