Sunday, August 18, 2013

Amsterdam, the Dutch Masters and Cheese

Driving in the Netherlands is pretty straightforward - km after km of flat, straight roads with a wide bicycle path on one side and a canal on the other, interrupted every now and then by a "rotary" where you have the opportunity to change direction - easy and predictable.

Approaching the city of Amsterdam, the tempo accelerates - more cars, more bikes and more canals. After about 5 minutes of driving into the center of the city with its narrow cobblestone streets, dodging cyclists right and left, endlessly circling to find our hotel since GPSally is not hip to one-ways, we discovered the First Truth of big city exploration in Europe : Never Drive.

Here's why:

After what seemed like an hour of driving in circles, feeling intensely inadequate for not having eyes in the backs of our heads, we land on the sidewalk in front of the Albus Center City.

The Albus is very purple plexi-modern, with stylish "urban micro" rooms  - ours had a 2-person rainfall shower!  The price was reasonable, we thought, for center city.  That is, until we discovered that there is no "free" parking associated with this hotel (Be advised!), and that parking anywhere on the streets in this neighborhood is 5 Euros per hour, at all hours of day or night, if you can find a spot!  We finally located an overnight parking garage a few blocks away and were able to negotiate in a mixture of English, German and Dutch, a price of 40 Euros per night and we were happy. Lesson:  Remember Truth 1.

With that taken care of, we headed out to explore and find an evening bite.  There are hundreds of restaurants of all kinds within walking distance of center city:  Italian, Turkish, French, Indonesian, Japanese, Spanish, Subway?  We tried the Dutch specialty stew "mashpot" at a cozy little gem of a restaurant nearby called Tomaz.  Mashpot is nothing to write home about, but hearty enough to get you through a cool evening.

Took the long way back to the hotel afterwards and managed to stay out of the famous "Red Light" district, but some of the revelry always overflows.  Saw a few "very well dressed girls" in 5-inch heels (a bitch! on cobblestones) and had a passing whif of burning cannabis but all in all felt very safe on the streets.

In the morning, we headed out early for coffee and fresh pastry at Lanskroon a corner bakery we located the night before - ain't nothing like steaming cafe au lait and  a warm cinnamon croissant - Breakfast candy!! Got these images of the morning commute.

Daddy Duty:  How's that for a baby seat?

Imagine taking the kids to school like this!

On to the Rijksmuseum!

The Rijksmuseum (Gothic and Renaissance Architecture) is the national (state) museum of Amsterdam and the Netherlands which houses major works by the Dutch Masters:  Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Johannes Vermeer among others.  Originally opened in 1885, the museum was closed from 2003 to 2013 for renovation.  Our timing was just right for an opportunity to see the updated version and of course, get a look at it's most famous painting, Rembrandt's "Night Watch." 

As we got closer, we were greeting by Henry Moore, whose sculpture currently occupies the garden spaces as part of the Rijksmuseum annual International sculpture display:

There is probably always a line to enter to the Rijksmuseum, so it is probably advisable to get your tickets online in advance, though a violin duet entertained us with Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" while we waited and it took about 30 minutes to get inside.

Once inside, the building is a work of art in itself with its vaulting and glass, but the collection is absolutely breathtaking.   Most works are from the time known as the Dutch Golden Age, the period during and after the Eight Years War.  After gaining independence from Spain in 1648, the new Dutch Republic was the most prosperous nation in Europe and led European trade, science and art.

The sheer volume of paintings produced (over 1.3 million) during the period from 1640 to 1660 kept prices low and even common folk could afford original art.  The technical quality of Dutch artists was very high. The detailed realism and subject matter tells a very accurate story of Dutch culture from the time including portraiture, scenes from everyday life, landscapes, still life and  to a lesser extent Biblical works like this, Ter Brugghen's powerful "Doubting Thomas," since Dutch Calvinism specifically forbade religious painting in churches (but it was okay for private collections).

The most important painting in the Rijksmuseum collection is Rembrandt's "The Night Watch," shown here to give you an idea of it's actual size.  One of the most famous paintings in the world, "The Night Watch"is renowned for it's large size (about 12 ft x 14 ft), the perception of motion, and the effective use of light and shadow (chiaroscuro).

The painting that I most wanted to see, on the other hand, was Johannes Vermeer's (barely 16 X 20 in) "Milkmaid."  Painted around 1660 when the artist was in his 20s, the balance of realism, light, color and composition make it a classic favorite.  The many symbolic elements contained in the painting (milkmaid, wide-mouthed jug, footwarmer, Delft tiles with cupid) create a fascinating narrative of the sexual and romantic themes of the day.

The Rijksmuseum also has a substantial collection of Delftware, the traditional tin-glazed pottery from the region, depicting classic Dutch themes.

With more than 8,000 objects of art and history on display, the collection of the Rijksmuseum is definitely a "must-see" in Amsterdam.  Cross another one off my bucket list - it was time to relax and have dinner.

What is Indonesia today was a Dutch colony for more than 300 years.  One of the results of that is a tasty one:  plenty of delicious Indonesian restaurants throughout Amsterdam and the Netherlands.  Our choice for dinner that evening was Kantjil & de Tijger (Rabbit & Tiger) within walking distance of The Albus.  It's a popular favorite for tourists and locals alike so reservations are recommended.  The Rijsttafel (rice table) for 2 was a delicious way to sample about a dozen Indonesian dishes at 25 Euros per person.

The next morning, after visiting our now favorite bakery for coffee and fresh croissants, we headed over to the Amsterdam Bulb market, which is a series of greenhouses along the canal with GIGANTIC specimens of Holland bulbs for sale in every variety imaginable.  Very good quality bulbs and they claim "We Ship Everywhere."

Not only bulbs, but other horticultural "goodies" for the hobbyist.  And yes, it's legal here:

...and more than anyone's fair share of Dutch shoes refrigerator magnets:

We finished the morning by taking in an exhibition, Edward Steichen:  In High Fashion, the Conde Nast Years 1923 - 1937, at a cool modern photo gallery near center city called Foam.  

With more than 200 unique vintage photos, this exhibition represents a high point in Steichen's photographic career when he created images that have been considered some of the most impressive photographs of the twentieth century. 

Our appetite for art sufficiently sated, it was time to get back on the road for Rotterdam.  En route, we passed through the 13th century town of Gouda and, of course, decided to have lunch.  

We easily found the city market square with its beautiful 15th century Gothic City Hall (and watched a steady stream of newlyweds emerge on a Friday afternoon) while having a light lunch at De Zalm.

Saw this frieze above on the Waag (weigh house), which depicts a typical scene from the centuries old Cheese Market, which still takes place every Thursday in the summer.

This is a typical cheese shop in Gouda, which offers plenty of free samples as well as vacuum packaging for the long trip home.

Cheese in hand, we journeyed on to our next stop, the North Sea Jazz Festival, enjoying the Dutch landscape all the way.  Until next time - Thanks for reading!

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