I was on a short work trip to Amsterdam and found a few hours free on a weekend morning. Deciding not to plan anything in particular for the day, I decided to walk around the canals of Amsterdam with a rough map in my head. Little did I know that the Old Church of Amsterdam would wonderfully take up so much of my time that morning.
There are great ways to get around the canal districts in Amsterdam. You can choose to take a boat through the maze of canals, cycle like everyone else does or just walk. While Amsterdam is perfectly suited to let you do any of these, I preferred walking. Walking is perhaps the best way to catch little things that most people miss. A little tiny turn that seems abandoned can lead to some really interesting graffiti. A smile that’s sometimes returned with an interesting chat about the street you’re walking through. Some of our favourite discoveries have been made while on foot. So on that morning, with beautiful weather, lots of sunshine and so many beautiful sights waiting to be discovered, I set out on my walk through Amsterdam with no fixed plans in my head.
Like most people on their first trip to Amsterdam, I was eager to see the canals. So I started weaving my way through the little bridges over the canals and soon found myself in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s famous red-light district, that was supposed to have some of the loveliest bridges. I wasn’t interested in walking through these streets at night with the crowds so it was it was perfect in the morning, with very few people around. Soon, I found myself standing at the rear of Oude Kerk, or the Old Church.
The Oude Kerk is Amsterdam’s oldest building and in the shape it was, it didn’t seem obvious at all. I was lucky enough to step in with just a handful of people inside. The old church was actually established in 1306 when Amsterdam was far different from the bustling city it is today. It was originally a Catholic Church until it became a Protestant Church in 1578 when Amsterdam joined the revolt against Spain and switched from Papist to Puritan.
Generations of locals (over 15, I’m told) have painstakingly built, restored and preserved the church and it is indeed a reflection of the history of this beautiful city itself.
There are four organs in the Oude Kerk. The most prominent of them all, and the one first visible to visitors, is the great, or Vater Muller organ built in 1724 by Christian Vater. In 1738, it was reconstructed by Johan Caspar Muller and has since carried both their names.
I paused mid-step when I discovered the Oude Kerk was actually home to about 12,000 graves. One famous grave belongs to Saskia Uylenburg, who was married to the great local artist Rembrandt van Rijn. While the Dutch Governement banned burial in churches, deeming the act unhealthy, the church continued with what was then seen as a good (and regular!) source of income until 1886 when the Oude Kerk adopted the ban.
Jacob van Heemskerck’s story echoes through the Oude Kerk and even those oblivious to it (like me) can’t escape it. Walking through the Oude Kerk, you wonder what a beautiful model of a ship seems to be doing hanging in mid-air inside a Church. That’s when I discovered his story. van Heemskerck had an illustrious career in the Dutch Admiralty and is credited with the defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1607 at the cost of his own life, which led to a twelve-year truce in the war between the Spaniards and the Dutch Republic. He’s honoured here with a mausoleum celebrating his accomplishments and a model of the Aeolus, his ship at Gibraltar, hanging above his grave in the choir aisle (picture below and on top of this page).
The roof of the Old Church is the largest medieval vault of Europe built with Estonian planks that date back to 1390. I couldn’t help but wonder what the famed acoustics would actually sound like with the sound of the organ but inspite of sitting around for a while trying my luck, my only taste of the acoustics were the whispers and footsteps around me.
Walking through the Church for a few hours, I was almost ready to exit until an unfamiliar sight caught my eye. A sign leading to a cafe. A Cafe? Inside a church? And it really was a little beautiful cafe that opened out to the street alongside. It was a welcome breather from all the hours of walking through history in the Oude Kerk.
As I left I couldn’t help feeling sad. When you talk to people of their visit to Amsterdam, you hear about the canals, the coffeeshops, the red-light district, the live music, the wonderful food, the designer stores and much more. But I haven’t heard of the Old Church ever. It was sad that so many have visited this city and have missed out on meeting its oldest resident. We’re pretty sure we’ll be back to Amsterdam soon. And we’re also pretty sure we’ll drop by and meet this old resident when we do. That’s definitely one of the many reasons we’ll be back to this beautiful city.