AMSTERDAM — Americans and the Dutch have always had a special feeling for each other. The relationship began in the first years of our republic, when savvy Amsterdam bankers loaned us $12 million to start our federal government programs. That was even before we had established our credit rating.
In the 20th Century, enduring friendship resulted from the U.S. military effort that wrested the Netherlands from the Germans.
One of the pleasant ways to encounter our friends the Dutch is to stroll Amsterdam, an artwork in itself, an open-air museum of the 17th Century. More than 6,000 houses from the 17th Century have monument status and are preserved.
Include in your stroll a visit to the Rijksmuseum, repository for the Golden Age paintings of the Dutch, the master works of the 17th Century.
Start with a visit to the central tourism office (the VVV, phone 266-444) at its office next to the train station. They'll supply you with a good walking-tour map. Begin with a walk down the main street, Damrak, to the dam, a large square that is the hub of the canals. Look around at the Government Palace, the church, the elegant post office, the peace monument to World War II and the diverse people who cross the area.
Over a cup of coffee or a glass of beer at a cafe, such as the Victoria Hotel at Damrak 1-5, you can see the full pageant of Dutch humanity walk by each hour.
The city rose to spectacular wealth, political power and cultural heights in the 17th Century. In 1600 the Dutch had 2,700 ships roaming the oceans. Amsterdam developed the dominant merchant fleet in an era when prosperity depended on ships that could explore and exploit the opening trade routes to the West and East Indies.
Built on a Dam
Profits from these ventures collected in a compact secular city built on a dam that had been placed on the Amstel River in the 13th Century. Historic models for the modern Dutch character are common-sense merchants and businessmen, not inaccessible royalty or ethereal clerics. The city's monuments are private houses rather than imposing cathedrals.
As you leave the cafe to encounter the city, remember that central Amsterdam is unlike an American city of rectangular grids. This city is built on a design of several expanding horseshoe canals that fit one within the other. The pattern of the city becomes clear if you take the Round Boat tour through the canals.
The boat tour also gives you a sense of what boat transportation in the city was like before modern roadways were created by filling in some of the waterways.
Boats leave from the streets in front of the railway station and from Rokin Street every half-hour for the 1 1/2-hour trip. Guides dispense ample lore about the city. You'll lose track of all the bridges, which number more than 1,000, but be sure that the guide points out the lovely Magere Brug, Slender Bridge, from 1670.
You'll also see all manner of houseboats, dwellings for 10,000 people. The most recent approach to canal viewing has been small pedal boats, called canal bikes, which seat two or four and can be used for self-guided touring. They can be rented at the Leidseplein and along Leidsestraat at Prinsengracht, among other locations.
After the boat trip, make a pilgrimage to the Rijksmuseum, where the Golden Age of the 17th Century comes alive. If you walk from the dam to the Rijksmuseum, using your Falk Plan map, you'll pass through intriguing side streets.
The Rijksmuseum is the place to see art that you've known for years through reproductions. You'll be seized by a fresh sense of discovery and recognition when you view an oil whose image you have known only as a litho.
Don't plan to see everything at the Rijksmuseum in one visit because it has more than 1 million art objects. Concentrate instead on a few images and avert your eyes as you pass through galleries on the way to your destination.
Consider Johannes Vermeer's deeply felt and quiet works, such as "Young Girl Reading" and "A Maidservant Pouring Milk." Add to them some of Rembrandt's paintings such as "The Jewish Bride," "Syndicate of the Drapers" and "Night Watch."
Rembrandt may strike you as a surprisingly modern sensibility. He rose to fame because of his ability to transform the annual "photo" of the company executives into a striking study of their character. His fortunes foundered but his enduring fame was assured when he didn't give all the executives equal prominence in a painting they were all paying for equally.
Ask a museum attendant to explain to you one or two of the immensely humorous paintings of Jan Steen, whose work catalogues the folkloric wit of the era.
After leaving the museum, take a walk to the Leidseplein, the premier place for further cafe idling and a perusal of the Dutch character. The famous old City Opera House on the Leidseplein is the scene of musical happenings nightly. A new Music Theater recently opened on the Waterlooplein.
Alive Day and Night