Amsterdam is a city of traffic. Pedestrians weave hesitantly between sidewalks and bike paths, cyclists skirt cars on narrow laneways, trams and streetcars jockey for position on roads. Once in a while a bridge opens to allow a giant tourist cruise boat to pass through on one of the city’s many canals. Everything comes to a halt for the boats.
Boating the Amsterdam canals is a fine way to get to know the city. Even the novice helmsman will pick up the sense of direction and steering necessary to navigate the waters. It’s in knowing to choose the rightmost underpass when arriving at a bridge simultaneously with an oncoming craft, and giving the tour boats the necessary leeway to make their seemingly impossible 90-degree turns into wider pathways.
Peeking into the decaying houseboats moored along the canal walls reveals individual worlds in which people relax, watch TV, pour drinks, and peruse bookshelves as though the ground beneath them weren’t churning. They know they can be seen, occasionally, but that any captivated onlookers will soon be on their way, floating along to the next open window. Some celebrate on the water, hold catered receptions, waving to passersby in order to spread the cheer brought on by the novelty of being adrift.
If you’re on the canals at sunset, you’ll find yourself privy to glorious purples and golds reflected off the still water, especially if you choose to trek east of Artis, where most boats seem to dare not tread after dark. Once dark advances, however, the reassurance of streetlight arrives, lining the grachts along the canals, and the odd archway appears lit up with strings of bulbs, forming full ovals in congruence with the glassy surface. Keep exploring. Not all archways will accommodate your craft, but you’ll be able to get close enough, almost to the point of becoming irretrievably wedged, before you make the call and either turn around or duck.
Bring food. Cooked sausage meats and cheese and crackers and chewy, salty olives swimming in oil. Sea salt and vinegar chips, for a foolish jab at authenticity. Stubby bottles of Duvel and a slender white wine. Then simply breathe as the motor putters, allowing you to relax at no more than 10 miles an hour, the slosh of the water combining dreamily with cathedral bells, signalling the at-long-last arrival of sought-after peace.