Amsterdam’s botanical garden was a 17th century source of healing herbs and fascinating new food flavours. Robin Powell takes the long way there.
It was an early summer’s day in Amsterdam. The elm trees lining the canals were in lime green leaf, the sky was blue and the light was accentuating the colours in the red and gold barges on the canals and highlighting the white window frames that make the canal-front houses look wide-awake.
It was a wonderful day to look at gardens – Amsterdam has so many parks and gardens it is Europe’s greenest capital - and my plan was to start with the Hortus Botanicus, the University of Amsterdam’s botanical garden which was established in 1638 as a herb garden for the city’s doctors. During Amsterdam’s age of trade it became not just medicinal, but sensual, a repository for the tropical seeds and plants collected by the West and East India Companies. Coffee, pineapple, cinnamon and palm oil: all were launched into Europe from these gardens. But when I checked with the concierge about the best walking route to the Hortus Botanicus, I was advised to change my plan.
Tourists take boat trips on the canals, locals use bikes. Photo - photolibrary.com
It was Amsterdam’s open garden day, and a series of private homes, all within a walkable radius, would be open. What an opportunity! Some of the gardens were in Amsterdam’s swankiest streets of 16th and 17th century canal houses, and I would need to walk through the houses to view the gardens. Canal homes are connected to each other, like terraces, but unlike terraces each one is different. Modern glass and concrete butt up against ornate brick constructions, trimmed with swags and sculpture, or to more austere, brown brick, non-nonsense buildings in which you can easily imagine the Calvinists holding earnest business meetings. The one unifying feature? They are all skinny. Land taxes were once levied on building frontage, so homeowners built up, not out. The frontage taxation made sense, of course, in a city short of building space and constructed on marshland (half of Amsterdam is below sea level).
Bicycles on a bridge at Herengracht, where each house tells a story. Photo - photolibrary.com
As also occurred in Venice, that other watery city of the North, houses were originally built on spongy peat and clay, but people soon devised ways of sending piles down through the water to the bedrock below. Amsterdam has more canals and more bridges than Venice, but it doesn’t use the canals as roads as the Venetians do. Instead people get around on foot, by tram, and overwhelmingly, by bike. There are more than half a million bikes in Amsterdam - the canal cleaning teams dredge up 10,000 misplaced bicycles a year!
As I walked to the first garden on the list, cyclists whizzed or rattled past me, depending on the vintage of their bikes, their weekend shopping in the
basket on the front, often including a barely balanced bunch of tulips or long loaf of bread. The garden, like quite a few others, was a small walled
courtyard, reached by walking through a thrillingly designed interior, which mismatched contemporary design with antiques of various periods and an
absence of clutter. Part of the appeal of this and the other simple courtyard gardens was their intimacy, and the surprise of finding them, blushing
with pink hydrangeas and peonies, secreted away behind brick and stone.
One group of neighbours had decided on a different approach. They had removed the back and side fences to create one big garden that their back rooms looked out and down upon. Trees and shrubs were used to break up the space and create semi-private areas while allowing the biggest possible central parterre. Lilacs, rhododendrons and spirea were all in bloom, and of course, in concrete urns by the fountain were tulips, with their incomparably clear colour and elegant shape.
The number one flower lovers' day trip out of Amsterdam is to Keukenhof, where millions of tulips and daffodils flower in spring. Photo - photolibrary.com
Art and flowers
The tulip plays a big part in Amsterdam’s history; at the height of the mad mania of the bulb, in 1637, a couple of bulbs were worth a canal house. When the bottom fell out of the market, some of the city’s wealthiest merchants careened down the wild slide into bankruptcy. The extremes of the tulip market have made it a metaphor for speculative bubbles ever since. The fringed, feathered and striped parrot tulips that caused the hubbub have since gone out of fashion in favour of the lean, sleek, chic varieties, but you can see plenty of them at the Rijksmuseum, in paintings by Rembrandt and his 17th century contemporaries.
The Rijksmuseum is just one of the museums you don’t want to miss in Amsterdam. As well as the Rembrandts and Vermeers there are lovely exhibitions of delftware and furniture, doll’s houses and porcelain. The other must-see is the Van Gogh museum (it’s just down the road a bit) which originally housed the collection of Vincent’s bother Theo and now has Van Gogh paintings and drawings as well as works by his contemporaries. And don’t stop there. Having seen what modern art looked like in 1890, step next door into the Stedelijk Museum to find out what modern art looks like now. This museum is now one of the leading modern art museum in the world and houses works from the 1850s on, including by Monet, Matisse, Chagall, as well as shifting exhibitions of contemporary artists.
Protestants were initially unhappy with the design of the Rijksmuseum, considering it 'too Catholic'. They nicknamed it the 'Archbishop's Palace'. Photo - photolibrary.com
I did finally get to the Hortus Botanicus, foot-sore and very happy to relax amid some green for a while. But, as always in Amsterdam, an intriguing bit of history was hiding in plain sight wherever I looked. This character makes Amsterdam a wonderful city to wander, and to wonder.
The Palm House at the Hortus Botanicus is home to a 400-year old cycad, the world's oldest living pot plant. Photo - photolibrary.com