Big Churches in Little Europe: Sint Nicolaas, Amsterdam

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Sint Nicolaas, Amsterdam

Sometimes you just have to take the good with the bad. The good Oude Kerk is in the middle of the bad, and when Amsterdam is bad, it is wicked!

So naive young thing that I am, I was booked to drop some friends off at the Oude Kerk for them to do a day of singing rehearsing while I got to go and explore and scratch that urban planning itch that I get from time to time. The problem for me was that the rehearsals started at some stupidly early hour of the day and I hadn't had breakfast.

For those of you who know Amsterdam will know that trying to buy coffee in the Coffee Shops near this 14th century church is like trying to buy cannabis at the 24 hour diner and donut shop opposite the police headquarters in New York. But completely reversed. I discovered that they really only sell weed. I did get a coffee in the end (cash only sale, out the back, no receipts) and I had the opportunity to drink it at their tables in the square. As I did so, I got to look in through the many big plate glass windows at the mostly quite naked ladies who were purveying their wares at 8am on a Saturday morning. Yes, the church is in the middle of the famous red light district of Amsterdam.

The juxtaposition is confronting if you are there for a choir school or coffee. The church belongs to one of the most rigidly "upright" sects in Christianity. Booze would be iffy, drugs would be out and dancing a complete no-no. This church is not some off-shoot of a minor or neglected sect of do gooders. It is the second largest church in one of the biggest cities in Europe. It has a large number of people who come to church every Sunday and every person who goes has to walk past the biggest legal display of drugs and prostitutes doing their thing in the western world.

And I think this is good, as maybe do the people who go to this church. They could go elsewhere. They choose not to. The participants support the sex workers by their presence. They actively support the homeless (go to the north western entrance from recollection). The the public art in the church yard is unambiguous in its support of the prostitutes who work in the immediate area and elsewhere in the world.

So what are church services like? My one off experience was a bit weird really. My Dutch isn't up to much but the service I was at, they did English translations of some of the material. Most of the rest I could work out given the hand-outs an a vague familiarity with the tunes, psalms and bible passages.

The church is sufficiently plain to be called "stark". The locals' tolerance of their Spanish imperial overlords' religious practices over the centuries did lead to a couple of populist clean-outs. But then you look at the detail. Each slab in the floor is an intricately carved grave stone. The ceiling which appears simply curved plain timber has delightful detailing at every join. Also the sheer scale of the ceiling lifts it to the extra-ordinary. Out of character at the back is a baroque organ, covered in wooden case that would warm the heart of an Imperial Spanish cherub. The preaching happens right in the middle of the church from a high wooden preacher's box.

This is a place I would definitely return to. I would probably avoid dropping past after dark on a weekend because the tourist trade is mostly large groups of loud young men daring each other to drink too much and to try and buy some skin. 8am on a Saturday is much more my time in that part of the city. You do, as I noted earlier, still get to enjoy the character of the area.

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