The Return of the Ships

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the Port of Amsterdam for the city’s development. The city grew around its maritime trade, and shipping was for a few hundred years the heart of its economy. In the Middle Ages, Amsterdam served as an intermediary in trade between Northern and Southern Europe. From the 17th century onward, it added a global dimension, becoming the main port of the Dutch East India Company. Ships from the city sailed to the most remote parts of the planet and created an international trading network that turned Amsterdam into a “warehouse of the world”. The port gradually lost its importance at the end of the 18th century: competition from other European countries and Napoleon’s Continental Blockade dealt a blow to Dutch trade, while the silting up of the Zuiderzee made access to the city more difficult.

Amsterdam still has a port today, but it is in a new location, well outside the center. It is now situated at the entrance of the North Sea Canal (opened in 1876) that connects the city directly with the North Sea. Due to its improved access, it managed to regain its importance becoming the 4th biggest cargo port in Europe. As for the old harbor…its look changed radically at the end of the 19th century. It is now cut in two by the Amsterdam Centraal station and its railway tracks, built on three artificial islands right where the ships used to anchor in the past. Today, only small pleasure boats, barges, ferries or cruise ships cross the water behind the station. Warehouses, shipyards and other elements from the old harbor’s infrastructure have been turned into residential areas, office spaces or artists’ workshops. The modern city said farewell to its maritime past.

Every five years, there is however one moment when the old harbor comes to life: it is the Amsterdam SAIL event, the largest free nautical event in the world. The first edition took place in 1975, as part of celebrations marking Amsterdam’s 700th jubilee. For a few days only, visitors can get an idea of the frantic activity that used to take place in the area hundreds of years ago. The 2015 edition attracted more than two million visitors, around 600 larger ships and up to 8000 boats of various sizes and shapes. It is a unique event, and a celebration of the city’s past, well worth waiting for until the next edition.

See below the event’s site:



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