Originally one of the marshiest parts of Amsterdam, prone to regular flooding, the narrow slice of land sandwiched between the curve of the Amstel, Kloveniersburgwal and the Nieuwe Herengracht was the home of Amsterdam’s Jews from the sixteenth century up until World War II. By the 1920s, this Old Jewish Quarter, or Jodenhoek (“Jews’ Corner”), was crowded with tenement buildings and smoking factories, but in 1945 it lay derelict – and postwar redevelopment has not treated it kindly either. Its focal point, Waterlooplein, has been overwhelmed by a whopping town hall and concert hall complex, and the once-bustling Jodenbreestraat – the “Broad Street of the Jews” – is now bleak and very ordinary, with Mr Visserplein, at its east end, one of the city’s busiest traffic junctions. Picking your way round these obstacles is not much fun, but you should persevere – among all the cars and concrete are several moving reminders of the Jewish community that perished in the war, including the imposing Esnoga (Portuguese synagogue) and the fascinating Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum), as well as Rembrandt’s former home, the Rembrandthuis.
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A sad relic of the war, De Hollandsche Schouwburg was a one-time Jewish theatre, which was turned into the main assembly point for Amsterdam Jews prior to their deportation in 1942. Inside, there was no daylight and families were interned in conditions that foreshadowed those of the camps they would soon be taken to. The front of the building has been refurbished to display a list of the dead and an eternal flame along with a small exhibition on the plight of the city’s Jews, but the old auditorium out at the back has been left as an empty, roofless shell. A memorial column of basalt on a Star of David base stands where the stage once was, an intensely mournful monument to suffering of unfathomable proportions.
The lush Hortus Botanicus, the city’s botanical gardens, were founded in 1682 for medicinal purposes after an especially bad outbreak of the plague. Thereafter, many of Amsterdam’s merchants made a point of bringing back exotic plants from the East, the result being the 6000-odd species exhibited here today – both outside and in a series of hothouses. The gardens are divided into several distinct sections, each clearly labelled, its location pinpointed on a map available at the entrance kiosk. The outdoor sections are mainly devoted to temperate and Arctic plants, trees and shrubs, while the largest of the hothouses, the Three-Climate Glasshouse, is partitioned into separate climate zones: subtropical, tropical and desert. The gardens also hold a butterfly house and a capacious palm house with a substantial collection of cycad palms. It’s all very low-key – and none the worse for that – and the gardens make a relaxing break on any tour of central Amsterdam, especially as the café, in the old orangery, serves tasty lunches and snacks.