It’s no mystery why the grachtengordel, or canal belt, is one of the most coveted areas to live in Amsterdam. With over one hundred kilometres of intersecting waterways and islands flanked by picturesque houses, connected by 2143 bridges, this area has preserved it’s historical beauty and charm. For one dutch couple, living on the canal in their 17th century gabled house is intrinsic to the close connection they feel with their city.
Fashion designer, Catta Donkersloot and DJ/Producer, David Labeij, together with their daughter, are living in the proverbial heart of Amsterdam, with views of the famous Seven Bridges and next door to one of the most crooked and photographed houses in the city. It means they’re never short of house guests and friends dropping by and even tourists frequently stopping to ask if they can “come inside for a look”. For work, David simply heads downstairs to his basement studio and Catta has a short bike ride to her studio-shop located on another canal, just up the road. But Catta is quick to mention that living here is not for the faint hearted and requires a healthy level of tolerance.
When your front door is arm’s length from the sidewalk, you learn not to leave your valuables on the kitchen table. Sunday morning sleep-ins can be cut short by the sounds of inebriated tourists stumbling in circles trying to find their hotels or worse, relieving themselves by the front door. But when the city springs to life in the warmer months a plethora of entertainment can be had without ever having to step from your front door. There’s the musical boat man who travels up and down the canal every summer and can be heard from a block away. Street parties, festivals, the annual Gay Parade and Queen’s Day can all be enjoyed from the comfort of their living room. Even the dredging boat pulling hundreds of bikes from a watery grave provides mild entertainment. In 2010, when Holland played Spain in the World Cup football finals, Catta and David put their tv on the window sill facing the street and served beer and bitterballen (dutch savoury treats) to a swollen, anonymous crowd gathered in front of their house to watch the game.
Canal houses in this historic area are on the UNESCO heritage list and consequently, all renovations adhere to strict regulations. Double-glazed windows are a definite no. A decision designed to preserve the integrity of these monumental structures. Keeping out street noise and bitter winter winds therefore becomes a challenge. “You need good insulation” says Catta.
Scared of heights? Living in a canal house may not be for you. Amsterdam has some of the steepest and most precarious staircases in the world, best attempted when sober. Unsurprisingly, the couple chose to install a vertical floor-to-ceiling safety rail (like a fireman’s pole) next to the main staircase when Catta was pregnant. They’ve installed trapdoors to shut off the staircase, giving the added bonus of extra soundproofing but primarily keeping their daughter safe. These obstacles aside, you can’t deny the romantic character of a dutch canal house with its oddly-shaped rooms and cake-frosting gables.
Where else in the world would you see a hijsbalk still in action? Catta and David’s household furniture was hoisted in through the windows, hauled up by a pulley rope attached to a hijsbalk. That’s the large hook you see hanging just below the gabling of many dutch houses. Some, like Catta and David’s, literally lean forward – an ingenious method devised during Amsterdam’s Golden Age as a merchant city – to prevent, for example, the family piano from smashing into the front of the house.
When the house was built is anybody’s guess. Searching city archives, the earliest photo of it was taken in 1867 but records indicate occupancy as far back as 1680. Certainly the facade and gables are characteristic of other 17th century houses on the same street. In the 1960’s it was used as a store house, but no-one really knows what it housed. This house won’t give up its secrets easily.
With plans to increase their family, it makes sense for Catta and David to move to a more practical living space and out of the city centre, but living here is too much a part of their lives. It’s not just that they have a home in the heart of Amsterdam, in their heart their home is Amsterdam. They’ve lived in other places. They’re avid, regular travellers and yet they remain utterly enamoured with their city. For Catta, “The city is sincere. You can bike around the old centre for years and still find new surprises amongst the old. Take the ferry and stroll around NDSM Island, grab a rooftop drink at Canvas or just walk along the canals as the sun comes up and before the city is awake”. Sound advice for anyone looking for a true Amsterdam experience.