I'm such a fan of house exchanging. I've been able to stay in Amsterdam for six weeks with no accommodation expenses other than those for the couple of days I spent in Belgium. But beyond the obvious economic reasons for house exchanging it also enables you to have all the amenities of 'home' (such as laundry facilities) and gives you access to neighbourhoods with an immediacy that's not possible when you stay in a hotel - much as I love staying in hotels!
I've had two different houses - the first for most of my time in an area of Amsterdam called De Pijp, and the last week and a bit in an old canal house on the Brouwersgracht canal. I've enjoyed making comparisons between the neighbourhoods. De Pijp is south from the old centre of Amsterdam - just outside the central canal ring. The area was developed during the 1920s when Amsterdam experienced significant expansion. De Pijp is reputed to be one of the most multi-cultural areas of Amsterdam and, like many such areas, is rapidly gentrifying. My swap apartment was part of a block that was originally developed by the Catholic Church. There is a large church on one corner - still used as a church and with frequent, very tuneful church bells - but the remainder of the buildings on the block which had once housed a school and convent are now used for other purposes. My apartment had been developed from what had once been the convent, and around the corner there was a hotel, the police station, and some kind of community services building. One of the things I like about Amsterdam is the way blocks of buildings house a variety of functions.
'My' apartment was the top two floors of the central part of the building in the photo above, with the small windows under the eaves and the windows in the attic roof. The tower in the photograph also belongs to the apartment, but I took one look at the stairs you needed to climb to the top of the tower and decided it was picturesque but needed no further exploration. Below is part of the large, light-filled living area with its great art and somewhat quirky, Dutch-designed furniture:
The bedroom was in the attic upstairs. (Don't get me started on Dutch stairs...I will go on forever. They go on forever...steep, narrow, scary.)
About twenty metres from the apartment there was a tram stop to go to the city centre or to the Museumplein and Concertgebouw. I loved the trams. And everything I needed was nearby - a couple of supermarkets, restaurants, good coffee or lunch shops and a very beautiful flower stall:
When Amsterdam is promoted to tourists the emphasis is always on the picturesque inner city area bounded by the old, semi-circular canals. One can understand why this is so. It's a manageable area for people who have only one or two days to spend in the city and the buildings, streets and canals provide lots of memorable experiences and photographs. But I've enjoyed the opportunity to experience Amsterdam outside this area. The canal network extends beyond the old canals and most parts of Amsterdam are only a few blocks from one of the canals. In De Pijp I had only to walk a block to be at the Amstelkanaal
where one can stroll along the canal side and watch the boats and ducks and people taking advantage of the brief winter sunshine. In a city that's so very densely populated and where people live in comparatively small spaces the canals open up the landscape and provide some sense of contact with nature.
One of the reasons you go to Amsterdam is the architecture - or at least, that's one of the main reasons for me. The streets and canals of old seventeenth century buildings are very pleasing, and I've already written about the ingenious ways in which, for several centuries, the Dutch have integrated newer architectural styles within a seventeenth century scale. The rapid expansion of Amsterdam in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century brought a new flurry of architecture that produced some of the grand buildings of Amsterdam - Centraal Station, the Concertbebouw concert hall and the Rijksmuseum:
But the 1920s also produced what's become known as the Amsterdam School of Architecture. A few blocks from where I was staying in De Pijp is a complex of buildings called De Dageraad, designed by renowned architect Piet Kramer and built in the early 1920s. Like other Dutch architects of this time Kramer was inspired by the socialist ideal of making housing for the poor that was functional and aesthetically pleasing. He built in brick, but was concerned to provide flowing lines and detail that expressed character. Needless to say, few of the 'poor' could any longer afford to live in these buildings.
I've really fallen for the Amsterdam School of Architecture and have been planning in my mind an itinerary that would visit most of its major achievements!
For my last week or so in Amsterdam I moved to an exchanged apartment on the Brouwersgracht canal. My last post demonstrated how this allowed me to watch the Queensday canal spectacle. This is the seventeenth century house I lived in:
'My' apartment is behind the three windows at the top of the central building and the attic windows. Again, lots of even steeper, even narrower stairs. The Dutch people describe themselves as thrifty, and I've decided Dutch stairs are the ultimate expression of this thrift. When you live in small spaces, stairs are wasted space and must be confined to as small a space as possible. This was my living room, looking towards the canal-side windows:
and these are the views to the right and the left from the windows:
This apartment is in a very beautiful old part of town and on the tourist track, with canal tours routinely passing by. It is also just around the corner from the very trendy Haarlemmerstraat, which is a mixture of quirky boutiques, the latest in organic or 'biologische' food and responsible fair trade clothes, vintage furniture, revamped and recycled clothes, and food from all around the world. It was also just a few blocks along one of the most beautiful canals in Amsterdam from the Noordermarkt on Saturdays and Mondays - a great place to browse and shop for bargains, and home to very trendy and well-patronised cafes:
If I were going to live in Amsterdam I think I might prefer the relative calm of De Pijp, though I've also enjoyed the busy beauty of living on one of the most beautiful canals. I feel very fortunate to have had both of these experiences. I've now also met both my exchange partners and liked them very much. Maybe we'll have more exchange opportunities in the future.
By the way, for those who are interested, I've used www.homeforexchange.com to organise my house exchanges and have found it most satisfactory.