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Amsterdam walking tour and book both explore one of world's most liberal cities

A new book and walking tour explore Amsterdam as one of the world's most liberal, tolerant cities.

Russell Shorto, author of "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City" (Doubleday), discussed it recently at The Netherlands Embassy in Washington.
Courtesy of Doubleday

The book is "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City" (Doubleday) by Russell Shorto.

And the walking tour, "Amsterdam, Model City", was just launched by Philadelphia-based Context Travel.

Both the tour and the book make connections between the Golden Age of Dutch Enlightenment, centered in Amsterdam, and the Dutch capital's liberalism.

"The city today is infamous for its permissiveness. But the sex-and-drugs sense of liberalism relates back to the wider, grander sense of the word," Shorto says. "There is a connection between the city that spawned (17th century philosopher Baruch) Spinoza and the city where John and Yoko came to hold their Bed-In for Peace."

The author, whose best-sellers include "The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America" (Doubleday), discussed "Amsterdam" last November at The Netherlands Embassy in Washington. "Amsterdam" made the prestigious "Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013" list.

Context's "walking seminar", led by local historians and scholars, encompasses Amsterdam's drug area; (in)famous red light district; thriving LGBT scene; and flagships of urban renewal on its islands reclaimed from the sea in the 19th century.

The tour begins at the Hotel Prins Hendrik, where legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker fell from his room to his death at age 58 a quarter-century ago.

The brilliant musician, who had a long history of using heroin and cocaine, is honored with a plaque at the hotel near the drug-dealing area on Zeedijk.

(The Amsterdam Hilton Hotel, where newlyweds John and Yoko held their 1969 "Bed-In", is not in the tour. So much for "Don't Pass Me By," by the Beatles.)

Java Island and KNSM land reclamation neighborhoods are visited on the tour. They had epitomized urban blight for much of the late-20th century, but now are models of urban renewal. They have various styles of canal houses, art galleries, bike and pedestrian bridges, and other structures designed by major Dutch, Swiss, Belgian, and German architects.

Tour participants visit the Plantage Dok, a hub of the islands' influential squatters movement in the 1980s and 90s.

The daily, three-hour walking tour costs 70 Euros (about $95 at time of posting) per person in a group, and private tours cost 305 Euros (about $415) per party. All Context groups are limited to six people maximum.

But even if you don't visit Amsterdam, do read "Amsterdam". (The book and tour are not connected in any way but overlap in subject matter and focus.)

Here are some fascinating facts, liberal or not, from Shorto's intriguing book:

  • Rembrandt had "a bothersome ex-lover committed to a workhouse..." where she spent five years. She was finally released "despite Rembrandt's objections". In deep debt, Rembrandt sold his wife's grave. Her remains had to be removed to make way for the new corpse. ("Rembrandt's Amsterdam" and "Dutch Masters of the Rijksmuseum" are two of Context's four other tours in the city.)
  • One of the world's first women doctors was 25-year-old Amsterdam native, Aletta Jacobs. And in the 1870s, she became one of the first advocates for contraception. That earned what Jacobs termed "'the wrath of the entire medical establishment.'" Her office became what some historians term the world's first birth control clinic. (Jacobs and Spinoza are included in Context's "Jews in Amsterdam" tour -- Jews have lived in the city at least as far back as the 14th century, and participated actively in the Dutch Golden Age.)
  • A tragic exception to liberalism and tolerance was in the Holocaust. "Jews in the Netherlands had far and away the lowest survival rate of Jews in Europe...only 27 percent of Dutch Jews survived," Shorto writes. "Of approximately 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam at the start of the war, an estimated 58,000 were dead by the time it was over, most of them in concentration camps." Anne Frank is one of the few names we know.
  • Dutch gays in 1946 formed the world's first organization to advance gay rights. It's now known as COC.
  • In 2000, a governing coalition of political parties with different philosophies passed a slate of laws legalizing gay marriage, prostitution, and euthanasia.
  • Amsterdam's well-known leniency toward smoking dope does not extend to smoking cigarettes. It banned cigarette smoking in public places in 2008. Some coffee shops have no-smoking signs epitomizing this split: "'Pure marijuana joints can still be smoked indoors, as can pipes and bongs that do not contain any tobacco.'"

The tours probably walk on by those coffee shops.

For more info: "Amsterdam, Model City",, 2216 South Street, Philadelphia, Penn., 800-691-6036, Context organizes critically acclaimed walking tours in 24 U.S. and international cities. It launched a Rome literary tour in December. "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City" (Doubleday) by Russell Shorto, who also wrote "The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America" (Doubleday).

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