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Destination: The Netherlands : Pilgrims' Progress : In Amsterdam and Leiden, tracing the years spent in Holland before they sailed to the New World

November 20, 1994|JUDITH BELL | Bell is a Virginia free-lance writer. and

AMSTERDAM — Standing in the enormous Dam Square in the center of old Amsterdam, I was tempted to block out the sounds of the trams, cars and pedestrians; to envision this most modern of European cities when it was home to the Pilgrims, in the decade before they journeyed to America. My husband and I were here to connect with a part of our American heritage, to travel back to the roots of that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving. We had come to the Netherlands to walk in the Pilgrims' footsteps.

In 1608, a dozen years before the Pilgrims left England to establish New England's first permanent settlement in what became Plymouth Colony, they first sought refuge in Holland, in "the Low Countries, where they heard (there) was freedom of Religion for all men," according to the writings of Pilgrim William Bradford. Although the Holland of their time proved too liberal for the Pilgrims, during their stay there they absorbed subtle aspects of Dutch ideas and traditions that they brought to their American home and, eventually, into our lives.

The 17th-Century Amsterdam that was the first stop on their journey was the center for an explosion of geographic exploration and international commerce. Established in 1602, the Dutch East India Co. was trading, among other things, the domestic pottery that made Delft famous, and Ming porcelain from China. The population was cosmopolitan, representing a cross-section of the world, including Germans, Poles, Hungarians, French, Spanish, Muscovites, Persians, Turks and Indians--most of whom came to buy and sell. Newcomers camped in temporary shelters outside the city walls while streets were laid and houses erected.

Walking through crowded Dam Square and listening to the intonations of an unfamiliar language, it was easy to imagine the confusion of the Pilgrim farmers from pastoral England.

The Amstel river flowed freely through the Pilgrims' Dam Square--the city's heart--on its way toward the harbor linking it with countries beyond. The Dutch preoccupation with international commerce was reflected in the buildings surrounding the square. Except for the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and the Town Hall, the main buildings were warehouses for Dutch traders.

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Today's Dam Square remains the setting of much of Amsterdam's public life. Nieuwe Kerk, first mentioned in writings from around 1400, continues to dominate the skyline, although it is now used not for religious purposes but as a public house where concerts and art exhibitions are held. Other historic buildings--including the Town Hall--have since disappeared.

Perhaps the best place to experience Amsterdam as the Pilgrims found it is in the Amsterdam Historical Museum. Located in a quiet courtyard off Kalverstraat, a few miles south of Dam Square, in a series of 17th-Century buildings that during the Pilgrim's time housed the Civic Orphanage, the museum covers the history of the city from the mid-13th Century to the present and puts Amsterdam's past into perspective, making subsequent walks around town more informative.

Although identifying titles are in Dutch, the museum provides booklets with English translations. Yet many exhibitions need little explanation: An illuminated flat plan of the city shows how the city grew; a light picks out each 25-year period down through the centuries and simultaneously illuminates the relevant phase of the city's growth; paintings depict the city's historic landmarks as they were when originally constructed.

Next door is the Begijnhof courtyard: a magnificent diamond-shaped cobblestone collection of 17th-Century buildings. Although the houses are still occupied today, to enter the courtyard is to step back in time. The courtyard was constructed in 1346 as a cloister for Roman Catholic lay sisters. But in 1578, when the Reformation swept Holland, all Catholic churches became Protestant, including the one (now known as the English Reformed Church) standing within the Begijnhof. (A concealed Catholic church was subsequently located in one of the houses.)

The passageway connecting the Begijnhof to the Historical Museum is hung with oversize canvas paintings of the Amsterdam civic guard--a group of marksmen that formed a union for civic defense and to help maintain public order at the end of the 14th Century. They later founded guilds for archers, crossbowmen and men with early firearms. These group portraits, often painted at their annual banquets, hung in their respective guild houses, like group photos from a reunion. About 50 of these paintings hang here, the largest collection of its kind.

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