Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A-maze-ing Amsterdam

This road was used for two-way traffic, including delivery trucks, bicycles and pedestrians.
Wise pedestrians stayed off the road.
One of the idiosyncrasies of old cities is that they are not constructed on rectilinear grids. This makes them both charming and incredibly disorienting.

Of the two days we spent in Amsterdam, one of my strongest recollections is the feeling that we were always going the wrong way, retracing our steps, or getting lost. That is because Amsterdam looks like this:

From top to bottom, the red pins are: Anne Frank Huis, the Canal House Museum, the Rijksmuseum, and the Van Gogh Museum.

When we walked from one point of interest to another, I continually felt like I had seen that canal before. I honestly thought that Willem was just guessing, and yet we always wound up at our destination. (I'm sorry I ever doubted you, Willem.)

The sensation of driving into Amsterdam, for a North American, is a little bit like heading into a bricks-and-mortar jungle. Everything is close -- so close! -- and there is so much beauty and novelty to see. I was agog.

The architecture is distinctive -- tall, skinny buildings with ornate fronts.

At the peak, you will notice horizontal bars protruding: those are the winch supports that are used to move large pieces of furniture into the upper rooms. Dutch homes typically have very narrow, steep staircases; moving a couch to the fourth level would require a breech in the space-time continuum such as Dirk Gently has never conceived.

But every time I looked at them, I pictured a piano falling on a passerby.

Meanwhile, the movement of pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars was mesmerizing.

Bicycles and cars seemed to move in fluid motion. I've never seen such nonchalant cyclists in traffic.

Clearly, drivers of cars must adopt a different attitude. It is possible that they resort to shops like this just to, you know, keep their anxiety low.

Or, perhaps, to purveyors of fine chocolate, like Puccini Bomboni.

Everyone has heard of the canals, especially anyone who has read or seen The Fault in Our Stars. The reality may not be quite as romantic as you were led to believe.

People pay mooring rents and live in the houseboats along some of the canals. Most of them looked like those above, though some were quite charming. In either case, they must be nervous because at least one car winds up in the canal each week.

You'll be pleased to know that (unlike Victoria, B.C.) Amsterdam no longer allows its effluent to go directly into the canals. We were told you could swim in them, but only a lunatic would try to swim amongst all that traffic.

On our first visit to the city, we visited the Van Gogh Museum (pronounced fa' khokh museum; the "kh" is a soft gutteral sound) in the morning and the Anne Frank Huis (pronounced AHnuh fraunk house) in the afternoon. Both are, in my mind, must-sees in Amsterdam.

While photography is permitted at the Van Gogh museum, I feel that my photographs of paintings just never do them justice. So I opt for high quality prints or post cards if I'm going to keep any pictorial souvenir. There are two things I liked best about the gallery:

  1. Seeing the texture and luminosity of the paintings -- the way the light plays on the individual brush strokes.
  2. Seeing the development of Van Gogh as an artist, from his early, almost caricaturist painting of the Potato Eaters to the colours and liveliness of the almond blossom painting for his nephew's birth.  
Almond Tree in Blossom, from Wikipedia
If you look very carefully at this photograph, you can make out the brush strokes. In person, each of those brush strokes catches the light depending on your movements around it, so that the blue sky almost sparkles. It truly glows and, in person, is captivating. (You can purchase giclée copies of this painting, but the brush strokes are much coarser and less lively.)

Photography is not permitted at the Anne Frank House and, again, I'm not sure anything I photographed would have really captured the emotional impact of this place. Before leaving Canada, I had decided to re-read Anne Frank's diary, and I'm glad I did.

I have to say, it was surreal taking this picture. I felt guilty and inappropriate, but was also
happy to be with Willem and Els, and to have the opportunity to bear some kind of witness to the atrocity. 
It turned out that the version of the diary that I read as a young girl was rather severely edited by Anne's father -- the only member of the family to have survived the Holocaust. He redacted anything that reflected poorly on Anne's mother or that touched on Anne's sexuality. The current version of the book is a rather more intimate and (for lack of a better word) frank testimony to a young woman who is ripening at a horrific time in world history. 

Anne's father also decided that the house would not be a shrine; the furnishings and "decor" (such as it was) were not preserved in the space. This makes it a little difficult to imagine how cramped it was (Anne slept on a sofa with a chair to extend it to full length, for example) and how their daily lives continued, but there is enough remaining, including the bookcase that served as a secret door, to give you a sense that you are touching something momentous. 

My aunt had seen the museum many years ago, but found the new videos and galleries that have been added were very moving. Interviews with the helpers and with Mr. Frank were poignant. His feelings about the diary, in particular, would touch any parent's heart: No matter how much you think you know your child, you never really do.

The next day we spent in Amsterdam began with a visit to the Rijksmuseum -- a world-renowned art gallery which had been closed for restoration for nearly a decade. To really do the museum justice, you would have to visit it for a couple of hours a day over several weeks. There is simply too much to see. 

The building itself is exquisite.

I do love a good library. This was several stories tall.
Winkie and I rented an audioguide while Willem went his way to take care of some business. We opted for the 90-minute tour, but went at our own pace and ultimately abandoned the guide altogether and agreed on a meeting time and place. 

One of the surprises (for me) in the gallery were the doll houses. Apparently, this was an extremely popular hobby for well-to-do women of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and these were certainly not intended for children to play with! The furniture and ceramics in the miniature houses were made by the finest cabinetmakers and potters in the land, the ornaments made by fine silversmiths. These replicas would often cost as much as an actual house of the time would cost. Because of their accuracy, and the way they portrayed many behind-the-scenes details of women's lives (in particular), the are a valuable bit of history. 

Possibly a "lying-in" chamber, with a mother and her newborn.
(I apologize for the poor photo quality, my hand is not steady enough to take this kind of picture without a tripod.)
One of the other pleasures of an art gallery is discovering the works of "unknown" or less popular artists. I had never heard of Jacobus Van Looy, but fell in love with his painting Summer Luxuriance

I purposely took this picture at a slightly oblique angle, to try to capture the texture of the paint. 

Likewise, in this close-up, I've tried to show the detail and intensity of the colour. I wish you could see how the picture just glows. Because this is a lesser-known piece, it is not available as prints, cards, mugs, and scarves in the gift shop.

Are you overwhelmed yet? We were almost exhausted, but there was so much to see! We didn't want to miss a thing. So we ate a delicious lunch in the museum cafe, then visited the gift shop before meeting Willem for a walk (march!) to the Het Grachtenhuis, a small museum about Amsterdam's canals. Again, no photography allowed, but there were several informative displays about how the houses were built in this waterlogged land. 

Then it was time for our canal boat tour, but first, Willem ducked into a nondescript doorway.

UPDATE: here's a further-away picture of the inconspicuous entrance.

Very easy to miss!
And, lo and behold! -- a courtyard!

Can you even believe how charming that is? Apparently, all the housing blocks in Amsterdam originally had these courtyards in behind them. (They may still do, for all I know.) It was part of the development plan for the city. If you open the "satellite" view of the Google map I've posted above, you will see that many of them still have these courtyards. I assume tat most of them are private, but this one is open to the public. 

I took several pictures, including this one (which, clearly, I did not read until I got home).

Oh, the irony. I'm very sorry, Begijnhof!

You cannot visit Amsterdam without taking a canal boat tour. Well, you could, but it would be a shame. Riding the canals gives you a unique perspective of the architecture and the city. Plus, you get to sit down while you're enjoying the view. 

One of the things you notice more from the canal is the number of buildings that seem to be leaning into each other. 

Look at the building with the red window on the top level.
This is because the pilings that the houses are built on are every so gradually rotting. Replacement and restoration are extremely expensive, so very few people can afford to live in the old areas; more often, the houses are now used for businesses. 

And with that, we returned home for another relaxing evening of dinner chez Willem and Els.

Little bird on the windowsill by my bed.


  1. Thanks for your gorgeous photos and descriptions. They make me want to get on a plane and visit all these places. it's funny, a relative just got back from Amsterdam and her only comment was how dirty it was ("there were cigarette butts everywhere!").

    1. That makes me sad for your relative. I honestly did not notice the cigarette butts. I did notice the smoking, but had expected as much. The good definitely outweighed the bad.

  2. those painting are gorgeous. And I love the doll houses!! We had one made for our daughters in Victorian style and I cannot wait to decorate it as they get older. Right now the cat is sleeping in it though. :)

  3. Sandra McKinley, I'm so sorry I accidentally deleted your comment (my fat fingers!). I tried to retrieve, but it is gone; the electrons have gone to create more kittens for the Internet. But thank you for stopping by. It would've been funny if we had met each other in Holland!

  4. LOL! That's okay! Stuff happens! And yes, it would have. Who knows? Maybe another time. I go over at least twice and sometimes three times every year. And I'm there for about three weeks, each time. In fact, I'm off again in June and am looking forward to seeing leaves on the trees and flowers in the parks and window boxes.


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