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“Amsterdam wouldn’t make sense without its canals.” It sounds like a phrase from a tourist guide, but these are the words of Violeta Gago, a Spanish architect resident in the Dutch capital for the past two years. The city, which now has almost a million inhabitants, in fact was once a reservoir.

To grow in size, escape attack or, from the very beginnings, simply as a means of transport, this city has always required the artificial waterways that criss-cross its geography from end to end. “That’s why they call it the Venice of the north, although some argue it should be the opposite way around. Venice should be the Amsterdam of the south, because it has less water. The thing is that, in Venice, there’s more of it in the centre,” underlines Gago.

Canals provide a context to understand many of the customs associated with Amsterdam’s residents. We’re not talking about travelling by boat or taking a bike ride along the banks, but much more serious matters. Like locking people up in underground cells. That was centuries ago, mind you.

Nowadays it’s the stuff of legend, a topic of conversation over a tasty brunch. How come? Let’s get to the point: Torensluis, the longest bridge in Amsterdam, housed a space that, in its day, was used as a temporary dungeon. It was beneath the tower which stood at one end of the bridge when it opened, now no longer in existence.       

That was back in 1648, then this 42m-long structure spanning three arches was finished. Its location, across the Singel (the canal that encircles the city centre), turned this bridge into an entrance gate. And the famous tower, called Jan Roodepoortstoren (or the Clock Tower) served as a landmark until it was demolished in 1829.

During this brief period of time, the belly of that pillar which marked the time of day held all the criminals captured nearby. What use was made of these sparsely decorated rooms is unknown. Rumor has it that there was a passageway leading to the Royal Palace so that, given the circumstances, a speedy escape could be organised. Little written evidence remains, however, on these few square metres of brick and rock.

Now, they can be visited as a curiosity. The spotless, mysterious feel of these spaces provides an ideal finishing touch to a stroll around this buzzing district by Dam Square. “The tower’s foundations are still part of the bridge and evidence of them is visible to this day in the ground paving, where there’s a square of bricks in a different colour,” says Dana Marin, creator of the website Amsterdamian.com.

This Rumanian writer and photographer has been living in the city since 2010 and explains that, from the surface, you can also observe, “the entrance and windows of the dungeon with iron bars.” “For many years, the base of the tower was used for a variety of purposes. From a warehouse and prison for petty criminals to a secret listening post during the Cold War,” she adds.

Photo: Dana Marin — https://amsterdamian.com

Everything’s now changed and instead of a lock-up, the place provides a starting point for casual conversation. Torensluis isn’t known by the name of its clock tower but by its number (Brug 9) or as Multatuli, nickname of the writer Eduard Douwes Dekker, whose statue stands on the bridge. And the hunger we might imagine its helpless inmates suffered contrasts sharply with people’s experience today.

“Now, Brug 9 has become a venue for concerts, exhibitions, night-time documentaries, debates and even fashion shows,” says Marin. A jazz club and tables belonging to the many different restaurants packed into this area top off a location that has become one of Amsterdam’s most popular with tourists and visitors alike, according to Dana Marin.

From bandits’ abode to social network snapshot. “Foodie” has sneaked in as one of the most regularly used tags in relation to this spot, despite its past and importance to the city’s progress. “The Singel encircled Amsterdam in the 17th century,” underlines Violeta Gago.

“And in any case, canals were never separations. They’re waterways and even visual connectors. They make up the city’s urban network, providing space and light too.” “This doesn’t just have an impact on the architecture, but on also on character. People here dive into the water whenever it’s hot or they get the chance, which isn’t very often at these latitudes,” she laughs.

At Torensluis Bridge there’s a former prison waiting for you and, most of all, street cafes to enjoy a coffee. Should you wish, it can all be revealed to the world via your mobile.