Travel: The canals of Amsterdam 

Water flows through the arteries of this historic trading city


I've stayed in two Amsterdam hotels located on the Singel Canal. The Hotel Estherea is a gorgeous assembly of canal houses on an old-world theme. And while I reveled in its interiors, I loved the nighttime outlook. With the canal bridges outlined in tiny lights and the cobble lanes lit by standing lamps, the watery setting was stunning.

A few doors down huddles the budget Hotel Hoksbergen. And while my first-floor room was small (to put it nicely), from the bed I could look directly out on a Singel Canal on which, in late autumn, the municipal boats were scooping up the fallen leaves.

All of which reminds me that Amsterdam has a lot going for it, but central to its charm is its canals ( grachten in Dutch ) - 165 in total, covering 755 kilometres.

In Medieval times, Amsterdam began as a marshy polder in which houses on piles lined narrow waterways used for trade. Today those early canals, built in the 14 th century, are mainly in the Oude Zijde (old side), off the Amstel River.

Among that area's attractions are its narrow alleys lined with the city's original bars and cafes, the Oude Kerk (old church) and several Jewish synagogues and museums, the Rembrandthuis museum and the Red Light District.

But the more glorious Amsterdam canals were built in the 17 th century, or Golden Age, when the Oude and Nieuwe sides expanded outward to accommodate the docks and warehouses required to house and service what had become a world-wide trading empire.

What is referred to as the "17 th century canal ring," or Western and Southern (or Eastern) canal belts, are four concentric canals - the Singel (closest to the Oude Zijde), the Herengracht (gentlemen's canal), the Keisersgracht and the Prinsengracht (in that order) - that appear not unlike a half-moon, or cluster of stringed pearls.

Last August, UNESCO added this canal ring to its World Heritage List, citing its importance as an icon of large-scale urban planning, and its exceptional architecture, particularly the unique and beautifully restored gable-style canal houses.

Happily for visitors, this is a pedestrian (or cycling) paradise. Canal-side lanes are so narrow that small cars and delivery vans venture gingerly. Streets that cross the canals, particularly the major Leidsestraat, support cars, bikes, trams and people in no particular order of importance - meaning that every type of propulsion must co-exist, and they do.

(In some areas, different types of paved surface, including fitted stones of various shapes or sizes, are the only indication that a road use has sifted from, for example, bike lane to tram track.)

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