The many canals of Amsterdam radiate out from Central Station like silky blue ribbons that are joined with solid stitches of bridges to the land tapestry of this historic city. Bicycles are omnipresent, mini-cars squeeze through places where regular-sized vehicles cannot go, ubiquitous side-walk cafes resound with chatter – making each of our walks a surge of stimulation. Our kind of city!
With such a wealth of varied sites, we decide unanimously our first visit will be the Anne Frank Huis (House) where this young Jewish girl wrote her diaries. It was haunting to walk through the hidden annex in this building where Anne, her mother, father and sister, plus four others hid in fear for two years during WWII, least they be discovered by the Nazis.
Seeing the bookshelf that secretly opened to the annex, touching a door knob that Anne touched, being in the room where she slept (decorated with magazine pictures in her attempt for some normalcy in her anything but normal teen existence) was a monumentally moving experience. Silence, whispers, blackened windows, and even avoiding floor boards that creaked was paramount to their not being detected. It is not known who betrayed their location – but betrayed they were, and all eight were deported to concentration camps. Anne and her sister Margot died of Typhus in the camp, the only survivor of the eight being Anne’s father Otto, who had Anne’s diaries published and was instrumental in turning this house into a museum – in memory not only of his family and friends, but for the millions of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.
Our Amsterdam Photo Gallery
Art and Amsterdam are synonymous! It is surreal to reflect on what is known about the lives of these renowned artists, while gazing at their great works.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was a self-taught artist who began his artistic career in his late 20’s and within the next ten years created over 800 paintings and 1000 drawings. We enter the Van Gogh Museum thrilled knowing 400 of his paintings and 200 of his drawings are in this museum – the largest collection in the world!
Van Gogh expressed his soul in each of his paintings. We follow his exceptional talent through its stages from his somber depictions of his Netherland homeland, to his brilliance with colour learned in France, his friendship there with Paul Gauguin (the painting by Gauguin capturing Van Gogh working on his famed sunflowers is in this museum). A strain in this friendship is believed to have been a factor in Van Gogh cutting off a part of his ear. Feeling his mental illness gaining momentum, Van Gogh committed himself to a hospital, where he did his most outstanding work. We stand riveted to what is believed to have been the last painting before his demons won out and he sadly died by his own hand – a gunshot wound to his chest. A letter left for his brother Theo bared his feelings of failure.
Another day, upon entering the Rijksmuseum, we steer ourselves up to the second level and straight to the paintings of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Known as master of detail and natural light his paintings uncannily resemble photography, except Vermeer lived 350 years ago, which is 150 years before cameras were invented! Our interest in this artist heightened after seeing a recent documentary, wherein an entrepreneur and inventor from the United States spent 5 years testing his theory of Vermeer using an optical device called a “camera obscura” along with a mirror (wherein an image of its surroundings is projected onto a screen and the exact colouring, shading, detail could possibly be followed by an artist). Critics say this theory is still not proven.
When we finally pull ourselves away, it is onto Rembrandt’s most famous painting “Night Watch”. I could sit forever lost in the nuances of one of the greatest artists of all time; his style of enhancing the most important persons and items in the painting with light. From here we move along to see the work of as many other greats as we can – considering the Rijksmuseum has over 8,000 works of art!
Our next venture is the Rembrandt House Museum (Museum het Rembrandthuis), to see where this renowned artist spent twenty years… before he declared bankruptcy. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was one of the few artists who made a goodly income from his work – his problem was extravagance and mismanagement of funds. Lavish entertaining and obtaining exotic relics from the four corners of the earth were more important than paying his mortgage.
On the main level is the kitchen where his maid slept in a wooden box bed. Up one level a larger box bed where Rembrandt no doubt envisioned his next painting in his dreams. Another even more lavish room is where he entertained guests and potential customers.
But the heart-stopper is the large attic room where he produced many of his masterpieces. A large easel is positioned in the exact place where it was as Rembrandt worked (as seen in his etching of this room). Nearby is a large stone for grinding minerals for his palette of colours, and a table with crock pots of these powdered hues. High windows facing north washes the room in a radiant glow, chosen by Rembrandt for its even light during the day-light hours. On the end wall is a fireplace to ward off the chill of a winter’s day – the overwhelming aura of this great man in this room is almost tangible.
The boat’s built-in audio system relays such things as, “the old buildings alongside the canals are built leaning forward with hooks near the roofline. This was for when the city flooded and goods had to be hoisted by pulley to the upper window, the tilt ensuring the cable rope and product would not hit the facade.” This tilt also gave the houses a larger appearance – a desirable feature. Another learned tidbit, “Amsterdam is largely on reclaimed land.” It was a relaxing and enjoyable cruise.
It’s off the boat and onto a tram to Central Station where we catch a bus for the 45 minute ride to Zaanse Schans… as Rick reasons, “You can’t visit Holland without seeing the old windmills!”
Arriving at the village setting of 18th and 19th century traditional houses, workshops, small factories and wooden windmills, we are swept back to yesteryear.
The scent of chocolate lays heavy in the air from the many chocolate factories in the area – and right inside the Zaanse Museum is one that has been operating for 100 years. Willy Wonka has nothing over the Verkade chocolate and biscuit factory! We watch the process from cocoa beans to thick bars rolling down the line on one side, and round biscuits from dough to crispy delights on the other side.
Then it is out to the sizable grounds of the complex to check out the wooden windmills that provide power to the factory below – working saw mills, oil mills, a paint mill, and a spice mill. We investigate the latter, where we watch grinders pulverizing spices (which can be purchased).
Another small factory we visit is turning out wooden shoes (klompen) (now mostly for sale to tourists) and to see the historic display of styles through the ages, ones for work and ones for Sunday best. I quickly change my opinion of them being clumsy to wear – seeing all the staff walking with quick ease, a soft klomp with each step. We are told they are still used by local farmers in the marshy rural areas.
Another mini-factory churns out cheese, and then there is the irresistible smell of fresh baked bread from the bakery, a clock museum, antique shops, and more.
Amsterdam has always been known as a liberal place, but on our many walks the scent of cannabis wafting out of brown cafes (so named for the smoky walls) and even from folks sitting on a park bench is an oddity to us, and first-hand reminders that it is legal – as is seeing it sold in many forms (beer or cookies) in some shops.
One morning we are close to the Red Light District (a.k.a. de Wallen) and decide to mosey (or I should say nosey) around to see what all the hoopla is about. Long narrow back-alley-type streets have widow after window, with prostitutes so scantily dressed it would make a Las Vegas show girl blush – the oldest profession on earth will always exist, and in 2000 it was legalized for regulatory, safety issues (and taxes for city coffers).
Now to test your adeptness at switching topics …
Dutch Cuisine dating back to olden times.
I will always remember “Erwtensoep” as the pea soup that saved our marriage. I know my need to push on to yet another site is past Rick’s regular feeding time when he abruptly stops in the middle of a street and growl’s, “Irene, I don’t care where we go next, as long as it serves food!” Luckily we are just a few steps to a small eatery – Rembrandt Corner. I hastily order two bowls of this traditional soup with peas reduced to a flavourful substantial base, and rich with carrots, onions, sausage and bacon; so thick your spoon stands upright while you munch on a piece of bacon topped black bread. Post this super-delicious hardy fare, plus a few caffeine-fixes of cappuccino – once again all is right with the world!
Dutch-ness is pannenkoeken (pancakes) – and Hans en Grietje (Hansel and Gretel) is the place. The atmosphere resembles a fairy tale house and the pancake selection goes on-and-on like a woodland path. We choose one cheese and one banana to share – a good thing as they are platter sized. The cheese is a savoury delight and the banana is a fine sweet treat finish, especially smothered with dark molasses syrup. Yum!
We found Amsterdam to be a superb mix of art, history and culture, with warm friendly locals, all in the magical setting of its many waterways, and lovely surrounding countryside. The Netherlands, with its numerous and varied offerings has been called “a very big small country”, and we agree!
It is off by train to our next bivouac – Brussels Belgium.
Oh yes, my Finance Minister Rick’s report: Amsterdam and around (for accommodations, food, entertainment, travel) came to $291 CDN a day.
A great $-saver (and for convenience) is the I amsterdam city card. It provides free entry into most museums and attractions, and to sites surrounding Amsterdam, unlimited public transportation within the city… and more!
Photo Credit: Bookshelf of Hidden Annex– courtesy of Anne Frank House, photographer Cris Toala Olivares.
The Bridge hotel does it right! Staff go out of their way to make your stay enjoyable, clean comfy rooms, great breakfast…as well as being right on the canal, and within walking distance to most sites and the museum district.
How to get to the Bridge Hotel from the Central Train Station – take Metro train #51 (which is in front of the Information Center) and get off at the 3rd stop, which is “Weesperplein”, then walk one block west to Amstel, turn right and the hotel is in the 2nd block.