Amsterdam's famed canal belt gets its own museum

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The Independent Travel

Amsterdam's famed 17th century canal district, a major tourist draw which was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List last year, now boasts its own museum.

"The history of the canals had never been told," said Piet van Winden, the head of the "Grachtenhuis" private museum which has just opened to the public. "They are probably the best conceived urban extension project in the world," he said.

"Here, we set the scene, we explain the how and why," he told AFP. "Our goal is to be a sort of gateway to the splendour of the canals. It's then up to each visitor to discover them on foot, by bicycle or by boat."

An estimated three million foreign tourists flock to the so-called "Venice of the North" to visit its protected canal belt, which is home to 8,000 monuments and will mark its 4OOth anniversary in 2013.

The four curved canals - the Singel, the Herengracht, the Keizergracht and the Prinsengracht - are a remnant of the Dutch Golden Age when this metropolis led the world in art, trade and architecture.

Fourteen kilometres (8.7 miles) long in total, and crossed by 80 bridges, they form a concentric belt around the city centre, including its famous red light district.

Their total surface area is 160 hectares, measuring 3.5 kilometres from east to west.

The new canal museum, located at 386 Herengracht (the "Canal of Burghers") in the former house of a banker who helped finance the United States' War of Independence, pays tribute to what is a masterpiece of hydraulic and urban planning.

An audio tour complete with multimedia presentations takes roughly 30 minutes. "The story is told in an informal manner, not as a lecture," according to van Winden.

The main protagonists (mayor, engineer or architect) can be heard debating while amending or erasing plans projected on a table until completion of the end result: four symmetric canals girding the medieval town.

"They thought of everything," van Winden enthused, citing "the defence of the town, its supply network, transports, hygiene, aesthetics and costs."

In another museum room, panoramic screens highlight the high points of Amsterdam life associated with the canals, including the "Gay Pride" and the incessant ballet of tourboats .

"The canal belt is not a commuter town," said Paul Spies, author of "The Canals of Amsterdam". "People live, work here. There's pollution but people live with it because they are proud to live here."

Along the canals, more than 6,000 brick houses, three or four stories high, have been classified historical monuments.

"There is unity in terms of structure and beauty but each house is different," according to Spies, who lauded "the remarkable execution" of the canal belts and its habitat.

"It's solid. they pulled out all the stops," he added. "The whole thing is unique as it has been exceptionally well preserved."