Friday, August 7, 2015

Around Amsterdam

One of the canals
Two of us arrived in Amsterdam after a not so positive adventure transferring from American Airlines to British Airlines through Heathrow. Although the airlines tell you that you can make your flight if you have at least 90 minutes, this is not actually the case during high season. We did make our plane, but our luggage did not. It showed up at our hotel a few hours later, in good repair, so we were able to continue our adventures on a more positive note. The lesson from this, plan for a two, or better yet, three hour lay-over in Heathrow rather than sprinting through the airport and sweating through internal security that does nothing in a hurry. You’ll arrive at your destination a bit later, but without the anxiety of trying to make a connection that could depend on the whim of a security person, bus driver, or gate clerk.

Amsterdam, and the area surrounding the mouth of the Amstel River, has had a record of human habitation since about 2600 BCE. In that long time inhabitants have used the river as
a fishing area, a place of commerce and a fruitful abode. However, it wasn’t until the 1300s that fishermen built a bridge across the river. This bridge had locks that turned the bridge into a dam that protected the villagers from floods. With this more stable environment, the culture flourished giving rise to the arts including poetry and drama; museums for the fine arts were built and painters flourished. Visitors brought other forms of art and theaters were created to house operas, ballets and finally musicals and vaudeville. By the 20th century, Amsterdam had a strong entertainment culture that survived World War II and has remained productive through today.

We’d chosen the Park Hotel because it was very close to the two museums we had planned
Different types of gables
to visit before we left Amsterdam for Maastricht. Happily, it was also across the street from one of the several groups that take tourists on guided canal tours. This was a great way to learn more about the traditional architecture and orient ourselves to the geography of the city. The canals are arranged in concentric half-circles with the original canals making up the Canal Ring, a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. The area has some of the city’s most beautiful mansions, draw bridges and lots of tour boats, ours included. All along the canals, the houses are multi-storied, tall and skinny; evidently this is due to the fact that houses are taxed by the amount of street frontage they require. The older houses also have one of the six types of traditional gables that hide the actual roof line. These include the ‘point’ (a simple triangular gable), the ‘cornice’ (a ledge running under the gable), the ‘step’ (a series of steps that make up the sides of a point gable), the ‘bell’ (yes, it looks like a bell), the ‘spout’ (a rectangle at the top of the gable replacing the point), and the ‘neck’ (a rectangular piece with rounded sides at the bottom called shoulders). Many of these gables have a pulley system at their apex with a hook attached to the rope. Since the buildings were so narrow, so were their staircases. This prevented moving furniture from the street level to one of the upstairs rooms; whatever the owners wanted moved had to be lifted by the pulley and brought in through a window. There are also a lot of people living in house boats along the canals. Our guide told us that this used to be an economical way to live in Amsterdam; now the areas where you tie your boat
Top L to R: Canal, decorated boat
Bottom: House boat
can cost as much as €100,000 and are handed down through families just as the houses are! Our trip on the canals took us out into the mouth of the river and past the Amsterdam Central Train Station with its Neo-Renaissance architecture.  Each of the canals has its own story to add to the history of the city and it would take quite a while to explore each of the districts that these canals serve. We decided to spend most of our visit in the Museum Quarter. The area contains the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, plus the Vondelpark.

The Van Gogh Museum, created by the nephew of the celebrated artist, was
Landscape with Rabbits
from the Van Gogh Museum
both smaller and more complex than I had imagined. The paintings I was most familiar with, The Church at Auvers, Irises and Starry Night are not housed in this museum. However, the museum is full of paintings, sketches, and drawings that I (a science major with not one art course to my credit) had never heard about, but was delighted to see.  I found Van Gogh's self-portraits fascinating and the information about his mental issues touching. This information raised the question that if 
Van Gogh was around today and took the medication that is now available, would he be as amazing an artist or would the drugs dull that ability. And if they did, which would he choose: his sanity or his art. One of my favorite paintings displayed at the museum was his Blossoming Almond Tree that he painted for his brother’s new baby; the boy who would grow up to establish the Van Gogh Museum. Of course, I also like Landscape with Rabbits.

After spending time with Van Gogh, we went to the Rijksmuseum for a commune with Rembrandt. The museum began as a part of The Hague in 1800 but moved to the Royal
Top L to R: Rembrandt, Rembrandt's son
Bottom L to R: Rembrandt, Work by Bruegel
Palace in Amsterdam eight years later, then finally to the Trippenhuis. In the late 19th Century, the collection was moved into its current Neo-Gothic building. However, while the collection has remained in the building, the structure underwent a ten-year renovation in 2003, reopening the main building only a couple of years ago. This building is magnificent, if confusing. Even with a map, we ended up outside and had to rely on the kindness of a guard to let us back in and walk us to the area we were trying to find. The collection includes many of Rembrandt’s works including his painting of his son as a monk and several self-portraits. His jaw-dropping piece, The Night Watch, fills an entire wall and is every bit as impressive up close as it is from the end of the hallway. There are some 8000 pieces in the Rijksmuseum, so seeing the entire museum in one day was more than we could do. However, we did take a look at some Flemish Primitive paintings that were very interesting because of their attention to detail but their almost flat look. My favorite painters were Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch; Barb really liked Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work.

Miffy by various artists
In the park that links the Rijksmuseum with the Van Gogh Museum are all sorts of places to sit and look at yet more art. I was thoroughly delighted that the display when we were there was celebrating the 60 years of Miffy with the Nijntje Art Parade. I loved these giant statues of Miffy and the manner in which the artists had chosen to decorate them. I’d bring them all home to my backyard if I could.

We wandered through other areas of the city more frequented by tourists and quickly found that it is dirty and bicycles are a major hazard. Literally thousands of bicyclists travel to and
Statue of Atlas on building
from work each day, not to mention those few hundred who are running errands or taking the dog for a ride. The bike lanes are on the sidewalk rather than in the street which makes walking a bit dangerous if you happen to step into the lane. We did make it over to the Amsterdam Royal Palace, but were sorely disappointed. With a beach volleyball tournament taking up the entire front mall of the Palace, it and the area were ghastly: cigarette butts were ground into the cobblestones and the trash had not been collected in days if not weeks. There is a mega-mall in an historic building near the Palace, but it adds nothing to the appeal of the area. It appears as if there are either no funds to restore the historic buildings and clean up around them or that those with the money don’t care to do so. My advice is to go to the museums and the canals, then head for other cities.

Amsterdam Train Station

For information on What we did, Where we stayed and What we ate, go to ‘Review of Traveling through the Netherlands’.

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