When temperatures drop below zero and the water starts to freeze, the Dutch get nervous: when is the ice strong enough to hold for skating? As soon as it is possible, (and for some even before that!), they flock on small canals and lakes outside the city to skate; this is possible at least for a few days in most winters. But when winters get really cold, and last for more than a week, the canals in the cities freeze as well. Every 10 or 15 years, it is possible to skate on the canals in the cities. Whenever it happens, they invariably draw lots of people: to skate, walk, or just watch the spectacle. Think away the cars, and the spectacle is not much different from what Amsterdam looked like in winters several centuries ago. There are plenty of old paintings to tell the winter stories.
People of all ages enjoying the ice in one way or another, people pushing their young child, teaching it the marvels of gliding on ice, others walking their dog, sitting on the edge of one of the living boats stuck in the ice, or even cycling on the ice. Others selling hot drinks and snacks with tables and chairs on the ice. Then, there were the tourists, marveling at all those crazy Dutch people getting out on the ice instead of staying inside their warm houses. We convinced an oriental couple who were looking at the scenes on the canals clearly impressed, to actually overcome their fear and step on the canal. We toured the canals, soon finding out that the quality of the ice was quite bad; for once, I decided to go very slowly, just gliding past the tall, tilting houses in the historic city centre of Amsterdam. I have been to the city so many times, but never seen it this way: the new perspective gives the attractive city a whole new look.
As always, you have to be careful passing under bridges; while the arched bridges offered great views of the ice spectacle with a backdrop of towers and houses, the ice under them had water and some treacherous parts. Passing quickly on the right track was the secret; under some bridges, it was impossible not to get wet feet. In one case, a girl cycled under a bridge when her bike fell through the ice; she could just barely jump off and drag the bicycle out of the hole in the ice she just created. With the sun going down, the joy of this special kind of winter sports, slowly gliding through the age-old canals of the Dutch capital turned out to be a great experience. Now, it was time to go to the Keizersgracht (Emperors Canal), to join the crowd watching a race only organized whenever the ice is thick enough; the last time was 15 years before. Skaters race on a straight stretch between two bridges in the canal, and the winners proceed to the next heat. An event lasting the entire evening, it was great fun to watch; and the crowd enjoyed it, too: singing, drinking schnapps, and cheering the skaters. The winners get dubbed Emperor or Empress. It was a great end to a fantastic afternoon on the ice of the canals of Amsterdam.
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