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Amsterdam: A city of contrasts

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Arrive in some cities and they quickly seem alluring, almost batting their eyes. Other cities show the faded face of wealth earned and spent long ago. Still others have a stark countenance that dismisses visitor and resident alike.

And then there is Amsterdam.

Depending on which canal bridge you cross, which turn you take up which narrow street, Amsterdam is alternately boisterous, lustful, cultured, reserved.

Its streets teem with people young and old, dressed casually or in businesswear, hurrying about on foot or on bicycle. Faces are white, black, brown, yellow.

Prostitutes sitting at large windows wear only lingerie and a half-smile, and they hurry to the front door if a passer-by even nods.

You can peruse the history of marijuana in a tacky little museum, then step next door and buy pot or its seeds; you can even smoke it in public.

Yet despite this sleaze factor, Amsterdam is also the city of fabled art collections, centuries-old churches and the poignant tale told by Anne Frank, too soon gone from a world she trusted.

Because Amsterdam's wonderfully efficient Schiphol Airport is a major transit point for North Americans heading elsewhere in Europe, you may find yourself with a long layover there. Once

you have prowled one of the world's great duty-free shopping areas, take the escalator down to Schiphol's train station, and for about three euros (roughly $3), you can make the 20-minute ride into the city to enjoy some of its diversions.

Better yet, make Amsterdam your destination and view all of its many faces.

The part of Amsterdam most appealing to visitors is defined by a series of roughly concentric, U-shaped canals that spread out from the Centraal Station. This busy train station backs onto the IJ River, and a few miles off is the North Sea Canal.

Amsterdam's 45 miles of canals twist past about 90 islands. The easy way to get a feel for the city is to pay for a narrated tour on one of the numerous glass-topped canal boats. Typically they stop at major tourist destinations, and a one-day ticket allows you to get on and off at each.

The best deal is the Museumboat; its one-day ticket also provides 50 percent discounts on admission to major museums. Other boat tours cost about 14 euros and complete their circuit in 60 to 90 minutes. Make sure the boat's engine does not drown out the narration.

From the boat, you'll pass below many of the city's 6,800 buildings dating to the 16th century; about one-fourth of them are deemed to be of such historic note that they cannot be remodeled without government permission. The stepped-gable rooftops are a landmark of Amsterdam, though the style originated with Spanish architects when that nation ruled this land.

Often fronting the old buildings are live-aboard boaters, part of Amsterdam's bohemian nature. There are about 2,500 houseboats, many of them converted from narrow cargo barges that once plied the canals. The boats are personalized by everything from potted plants and flower boxes — tulips in season, of course — to kids' fingerpaintings covering the windows to a clothing mannequin fixed in place of a boat's wooden figurehead.

As befits a great city, Amsterdam boasts museums with unrivaled collections, though things are a little egocentric.

The famed Rijksmuseum (RYKS-museum) is large but easily navigable with a guidebook. The building resembles a French chateau as well as the Centraal Station, because one architect designed both.

The red brick museum, three floors in three contiguous buildings, sits on tree-shaded lawns. Its ground floor is pierced by a pedestrian and two-way car tunnel — a shortcut from the nearby canal to the Van Gogh Museum, a block away, and fancy old apartment buildings.

The Rijksmuseum houses the national art collection of the Netherlands. Here are porcelains, ceramics, tapestries, stained glass, gilded wall panels, furniture with exquisite inlays, even four-poster beds and dollhouses.

The Dutch collection dates from the 15th through the 19th centuries. There also are large displays of Spanish, Italian and Asian works. But to the casual, or hurried, museum visitor, just a few paintings by Dutch masters are the chief attractions:

The museum curators have made their centerpiece the wall-sized "The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq," which most of the world knows as "The Night Watch." It is the masterwork of the man acclaimed the leader of Holland's Golden Age, Rembrandt van Rijn. It is a busy scene of one of the privately financed civic militias. Grime accumulated since Rembrandt finished the work in 1642 led art observers to believe it was a view of the group at night, hence the nickname.

But what once was dark now fairly glows, and the faces of the men appear lively, after a careful cleansing about 10 years ago.

All around this mural are galleries with other Rembrandts such as "The Jewish Bride" (one of his favorites) and "The Syndics of the Drapers Guild." Here, too, are religious scenes by Rubens and Van Dyck, renditions of naval battles, and Frans Hals' charming 1622 "Wedding Portrait."

Gallery 227 holds one of those brooding self-portraits by the most famous of the 19th-century Dutch painters, Vincent van Gogh. But you need only step out the back door of the Rijksmuseum and walk one block to enter the museum dedicated to that troubled soul.

During one visit to the Van Gogh, I asked one of the guards if I had missed "Starry Night." "No, it is on loan now," he answered, adding, "Thank heavens! It draws such big crowds around it."

Before you leave the museum district to head back toward the Centraal Station, walk over to the former Heineken Brewery. Even if you are not a beer drinker, the tour through this facility is cleverly done and informative.

The buildings were in use for about 120 years until 1988, when beer production was moved to a distant suburb. Since May 2001, the big facility has been home to The Heineken Experience. The multimedia show recounts the 139-year Heineken family history and explains how a brewery operates, cleverly using videoscreens, motion simulators and original equipment ranging from scales to the giant copper brewing kettles.

Make time to do nothing, either amid the sprawling greenery and footpaths that make up the 118-acre Vondelpark or at a table by one of the cafes in the popular squares. I found a warm Sunday afternoon in the Leidseplein so entertaining that I put off visiting the Rijksmuseum to another day.

Like several of the city squares surrounded by restaurants and bars, Leidseplein (LAY-tse-plane) draws patrons from the walkers, cyclists and inline skaters who move through the central city's maze of streets.

Motorists almost seem to be in the minority in Amsterdam's central city, probably because the efficient system of streetcars (here called trams) and bicycles (the city estimates there are 400,000 of them in use) combine with the often-narrow streets to make driving and parking more trouble than it's worth.