Wandering along Amsterdam’s elegant canals, one cannot help wondering what goes on behind all those stately, dark green doors. The city’s history, its Golden Age, its unrivalled museums: all these are sufficiently documented to lure an arts lover to this city by (and built on top of) the sea. Celebrating the 400 year old canals this year, there is a festival scheduled along their embankments as well as by the harbour side in the newest of Amsterdam’s artistic neighbourhoods, all perhaps affording us a new chance to unlock some of the city’s deepest secrets.

Canal Houses
Canal Houses
During August, these famous canals will once again host their own festival. Aptly named Grachtenfestival Amsterdam – “gracht” means “canal” in Dutch – this yearly event makes numerous canalside locations accessible to concertgoers. Focusing on young talent and educational formats, the festival has a growing reputation for presenting classical music in unexpected ways at equally unexpected locations. 

An excellent location to learn about the history of the canals is at Herengracht 386: Grachtenhuis/Canal House. There are four canals that end in the river Amstel on the one side, and the harbour on the other: the Singel (outer ring), Heren (Gentlemen’s), Keizer (Emperors’) and Prinsen (Princes’) canals. Until the 19th century when urban expansion crossed the river, this was the city of Amsterdam. The festival uses houses, churches, cellars and rooftops within this unique set of winding waterways on whose embankments neighhbourhoods both rich and poor flourished, where barges brought goods and services straight into the city’s heart. Highlight of the festival, the Prince’s Concert now takes place on such a barge. 

Anne Frank's House
Anne Frank's House
The most famous hidden treasure and secret history is, of course, Anne Frank’s hiding place. The world’s most beloved diarist hid with her family in an astonishingly small space before discovery and deportation during the horrors of the holocaust. A must-see when visiting Amsterdam, her home is now a well-run museum on the Prinsengracht. Get there early in the day as queues can run around the block. Anne’s story has recently inspired a new musical theatre piece whose première will be on May 8th, including the building of a new musical theatre! ‘Theatre Amsterdam,’ by the harbour side, has been created to house this production; it includes a surround sound system which has inspired composer Paul M. van Brugge (a well known Dutch composer of film music) to compose specifically for both system and space. As of July 1st, the Dutch text libretto by authors Jessica Durlacher and Leon de Winter will no longer pose a problem to international visitors as this sound system also provides for simultaneous translations into English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and even Russian.

Anne Frank at her desk
Anne Frank at her desk
It is quite a walk from Anne Frank museum to Anne theatre Amsterdam, but it's a marvellous, scenic journey which takes you through the majority of the historic Jewish quarter as well as the artistic Haarlemmerbuurt full of unexpected shops and cafés. A perfect place to refresh halfway is Prinseneiland where a lovely lunch or dinner can be had at De Gouden Reaal, an award-winning bistro in a 17th century Dutch house. The cuisine is French yet the ambiance is authentic Amsterdam.

Domestic and political secret hiding places like Anne Frank’s are not the only mysterious doors to be found in Holland’s history. For a nation now known for its tolerance, religious freedom was not allowed for many centuries. Perhaps the flip side of a liberal, free-thinking people, Holland has an extraordinary number of secretive Protestant denominations and Catholic offshoots who all hid behind seemingly normal doors and walls throughout eras of persecution. One of the most spectacular of their churches (schuilkerken) is Museum Ons' lieve heer op solder (Our Lord in the Attic), now the second oldest museum in the city. The church will host festival concerts daily. Truly downtown in Amsterdam’s famous – and booming – red light district, it makes marvellous destination for another walk through winding streets along canals both wide and narrow. A good nearby place for a meal or a Dutch beer on their sunny terrace is De Waag, housed in a 16th city fortress portal, in the middle of the now bustling district that not only hosts the secret histories of the world’s oldest profession but also those of many migrant groups now firmly settled into the multicultural urban scene. Just around the corner from both museum and De Waag, tiny, wonderful Chinese and Indonesian restaurants await. Nam Kee on the Zeedijk, for example, was voted Holland’s best Chinese restaurant in 2013; a recent Dutch language thriller has made it famous for its oysters.

They are famous for their beer and their cheese but please do not dismiss the incredible Dutch chocolate! As early as the 17th century, East Indian traders brought back the precious substance that many of us cannot live without. For music lovers, a great place in Amsterdam for the dark brown gold is aptly named Puccini. It originally opened next to the Opera House; now, thankfully, there are three shops where you can buy and enjoy chocolates that have frequently been voted as some of the best in the world. So big and luxurious, they are meals in themselves! The canal side shop at Singel 184 is in the heart of the Grachtenfestival Amsterdam’s grid of historic, unexpected and hidden concert locations.

Westerkerk
Westerkerk
One of these, the monumental Westerkerk on the Prinsengracht, hosts both music and secrets. Look down while walking around: Rembrandt is buried there, as is the renowned 17th century cartographer Joan Blaeu, who was instrumental in guiding the East India Company to and from its far flung treasures. Departing from the church, other recommended canal walks encompass the “9 little streets”, the heart of the canals. Depending on how often you pop into a shop or café, these can eventually lead to Leidseplein, home of Amsterdam’s newly expanded and refurbished city theatre, de Stadschouwburg. Four performances of Cosi fan tutte, Mozart’s homage to the secret histories and hidden treasures of Cupid, are the highlight of the Grachtenfestival Amsterdam’s 2014 edition. Stage director talent Lotte de Beer and her New Netherlands Opera Front are quickly becoming world known for reinventing the opera game for their own generation: not to be missed!

The festival also programs with the most imaginative of modern architectural gems that is situated harbour side: EYE, the Film Institute. A free and frequent pedestrian ferry leaves from Central Station and provides a wonderful, windswept ride as well as a magnificent view of the newest of artistic neighbourhoods. Enjoy the ride, have a coffee at Café De Pont upon arrival – a laid-back location where a cat guards the premises from her lookout next to the wood burning stove – then stroll to EYE. Films, concerts, interactive games and a terrific, terraced restaurant await.

For arts lovers Amsterdam is a superbly rich city, one certainly worth a good long visit. Pack some comfortable walking shoes and a hefty appetite for luxuries both cultural and culinary. Hidden treasures and secret histories can be found there in abundance, all awaiting discovery.

Eye © Iwan Baan
Eye
© Iwan Baan