The Netherlands have always had an intimate relationship with water. In a very real sense, the nation is founded on the conquest and manipulation of water, and the picturesque windmills and dykes featured so prominently on postcards are the visible reminders of this domination. Though these waterways are less important today then they once were, there are few more pleasant ways to appreciate the canals than to rent a houseboat for a week or two, and spend your time exploring the famed canals of Amsterdam.
Waterways of the city
In the Netherlands, water has been successfully harnessed to serve the needs of man, and nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the canals that used to grace many Dutch cities. The canals are the reason for Amsterdam’s nickname, ‘Venice of the North’. There are almost 100 kilometres of canals in the city and the four main canals which see the majority of the water traffic: Prinsengracht (Princes’ Canal), Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and Singel. There are also numerous smaller canals, each with their own charms.
Of course, there is much about Amsterdam that is pretty, but most people will agree that the canals are one of the most beautiful and romantic. In the daytime, the canals form charming backdrops to many a street scene, with their serene green waters, floating ducks and swans. At night, the canals become even more enchanting as many of the bridges and houses along their banks are illuminated. The bridges are especially entertaining, firstly because there are over 1200 of them, and secondly because many are beautiful constructions, perfect not only as subjects themselves but also as observations points from which to watch the people and boats going by.
There’s certainly plenty to watch. In the days before motorized vehicles, the canals were an important means of transportation, and even though they are less important today, the waterways still carry a continuous stream of entertaining traffic on its waters. Many of the vessels on the canals are cruise boats, bearing a load of visitors along the more picturesque routes. Others are private vessels, on their own private errands or pleasure rides.
During this festival, you’d have to fight for a place on the banks. Hundreds of thousands of spectators lien the canals to watch gaily decorated floats sail by, and gape at the antics of nearly naked revellers partying on the floats. Of course, you can elect to join the masses on the shore, but there’s nothing quite like a front row seat, is there? And for enjoying the parades on special occasions, or just a simple, relaxing view on normal quiet days, the best place to do it is from the deck of your very own houseboat, perhaps sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on a cut of Gouda cheese.
What Its like on a Houseboat
There’s really nothing quite like being on a houseboat. Its not like living in an apartment, shut away from the outside. It’s more like being in a very solid tent, where you can feel the wind blowing and hear the noise of the wildlife. It gives you a more intimate connection with you’re environment. When you’re in a houseboat, you can feel the water lapping against the boat hull, rocking you gently. If another boat passes you at speed, you can feel it. Of course, unlike a tent, you can still enjoy all the conveniences of living in a house — a television, hot showers and a full sized bed. Many houseboats are moored in special houseboat parks, where you can have the company of other house boaters, but you don’t like where you’re currently moored — if there’s too much traffic, you don’t like the neighbours or you’re bored with the view — you can just up anchor and sail a little further away. Yes, there are a lot of advantages to living on a houseboat!
Houseboats are a popular accommodation option in Amsterdam and scattered on the city’s 100 km network of canals are about 2,500 of them. Houseboats have always been found on canals, but in Amsterdam they only became really popular at the end of the Second World War, when an housing shortage and an oversupply of cargo boats made people decide to take to the waters. The houseboats used to be quite cheap to buy but nowadays, the number of houseboats have been restricted and this has resulted in soaring houseboat prices. In downtown Amsterdam the smallest boats will sell at 80, 000 Euro at the least. Still, there are always companies that rent out well equipped houseboats for only a little bit more than a hotel room, so visitors can experience the unique living on a houseboat.
In the beginning, the houseboats were rather primitive to live in. The quarters were cramped, fuel was just a wood or coal stove, sewage went straight into the canals, telephones were a shore luxury and water had to be lugged on board. Today though, houseboats are as modern as the owner could wish for. The boats have gotten much larger and even though they aren’t as spacious as normal apartments, they are still quite comfortable. Any houseboat can be connected to the electricity, water and gas grids.
Sewage still goes straight into the canals, but then that’s all right, since that was one of the reasons the canals were built for in the first place. Most of Amsterdam’s households used to discharge straight into the canals. Periodically, strategically placed pumps would bring in fresh water from the river Amstel or the IJsselmeer, a big fresh water lake in the centre of Holland, and flush out the canals. Of course, nowadays all households are connected to a more conventional sewerage system, and by 2005, all houseboats are also supposed to be connected. Still, when on a trip around the canals, it would be a good idea not to trail your hands in the water or jump in for a swim. Every year, city workers remove tons of sludge from the river, as well as an amazing number of shopping carts and bicycles.
Life on a houseboat
In summertime, the most taxing activity on the canals would probably craning your neck to watch a particularly attractive visitor walk by along the banks, but in the wintertime, there is more active fun to be had. If the winter is cold enough to freeze the waters, the Dutch (and you) can strap on their skates and head for the ice, stopping only for a bit of hot chocolate or snert (green pea soup). Of course, there is the danger of thin ice, especially around the edges of moored boats, under the bridges and near the banks. Every year, there are people who die under the ice and caution is warranted, but certainly not enough to completely restrict you from skating. Unfortunately, global warming has meant that the winters aren’t as cold as they used to be, and the canals rarely freeze over any more!
And, if you’re bored with watching the water traffic drift by, you can always just step on shore. Most of the main canals, where you’ll find the majority of houseboats, are near tram, bus and subway lines, so its very convenient. Most houseboats will never leave their moorings, but if you really want to, you can even sail off on your houseboat (unless it’s a rented one of course, in which case you might get in trouble). All in all, a houseboat is a grand way of seeing Amsterdam, and certainly makes those inevitable holiday snapshots just a little bit more interesting and unique.