This post comes to you from Hamburg, where I am spending several days visiting friends from my former company and catching up on my writing. Steve has gone back to Amsterdam, the subject of this post, for a few days for some rest and relaxation. On The Grand Tour every so often we separate for a few days to maintain our sanity – try spending 24 hours a day 7 days a week with someone! Since my last post we have spent a week in Munich and three days at Oktoberfest with friends from New York and California. After the beer-induced reverie we traveled to western Germany and the town of Trier situated on the Mosel River and within the Mosel Valley, famous for its beautiful white wine namely from the Riesling grape. Lord knows we needed some down time and a change in palate! Next stop was Cologne, famous as the birthplace of Eau de Cologne, for spritzy kolsch beer and its majestic cathedral which survived repeated carpet bombings by Allied planes in WWII. Amsterdam was a few weeks ago but still vivid in my mind and I wanted to get my thoughts down on this pretty canal city before we push even further into Europe. We wish we’d had more time there, but we have been saying that about so many places!
Amsterdam has quite a reputation. People chuckle when you mention you are going or have been there. Marijuana and prostitution, they think, legal and readily available. They don’t think of the world-class museums, pretty neighborhoods, international vibe or friendly locals who speak English better than I do. It is an exceedingly comfortable city full of European charm with pockets of edge à la San Francisco, and it appears to be succeeding in its experimentation with libertarianism. Besides it’s ensconced in a series of canals so it doesn’t get swallowed by the sea. How many places can say that? We came, we saw, we didn’t stay long enough. Here are some observations we made during our one-week visit:
1. Water water everywhere – Amsterdam started out life as a fishing village, gradually evolving into a grand European port city and then an extended metropolitan area of land reclaimed from the sea. Increased immigration to the city forced planners to devise a way to reclaim land yet maintain waterways, thus we have a bustling city with varying neighborhoods along five concentric canal rings today. The flat we rented was on one of the waterways, the main river, the Amstel, from which the city gets its name. These canals are all around you, but the interesting part of them is that they coexist with the rest of city life without anything separating them from us i.e. there is no guard rail, fence or barrier dividing the pedestrian walkways from the, well, water. And this in a city with a plethora of bars, clubs and coffeeshops selling all sorts of intoxicating substances to render one light of head and uneasy of step. All it would take is one idiot tourist to have a few too many, lose his or her balance and tumble into the murky drink of the Prinsengracht for this to change. Or one of the cars precariously perched where the street and the canal edge meet to fall in. Surely this has happened, no? But then I remember that the Netherlands is not the United States, a litigious society full of whiners and ambulance-chasers where it is always someone else’s fault. In this respect, if you fall into a canal in Amsterdam, you have no one to blame but yourself. Thank goodness this didn’t happen to either of us.
2. Cannibis cannibis everywhere – Yes, it’s true, weed is everywhere here. Well, not exactly everywhere. It, along with hashish, brownies, cookies and cakes made from both substances, are sold and can be consumed in special coffeeshops (not cafés, which are similar to bars) within certain parts of the city. The shops tend to be congregated near De Wallen, which is the famous red light district with the ladies in the window advertising their services, but some do exist in the outlying areas. Bars and other places that serve alcohol cannot sell weed or hash but many of them allow you to smoke “soft drugs” inside their establishments. Amsterdam’s free-and-easy drugs laws are slowly being tightened, however, as the sale of magic mushrooms is now outlawed (but you can still buy and sell magic truffles) and it is rumored that all coffeeshops will soon close their doors to tourists as a law is about to pass which will restrict the sale of marijuana and hashish to residents of the Netherlands who possess a “weed pass,” or membership card only. Needless to say many in the community are very much against this as it will hurt business, plus it runs counter to the libertarian ethos that has been a part of this city for decades. It will be interesting to see what happens.
3. Bicycles bicycles everywhere – Forget the train. Forget the tram. Forget the bus. Forget the car. Forget your own two feet. Vehicles of the two-wheeled non-motorized variety rule this city: if you ride a bicycle you run the show. I have never seen a city where bicycles have the undisputed right of way over pedestrians as I have in Amsterdam (I hear Beijing is a much greater culprit, but I will be the judge when we are there next year). Amsterdam is flat and not conducive to cars, so it makes sense that people from all socio-economic backgrounds own a bike. However these tyrants on two wheels take over the road, their designated bike path, the designated pedestrian path, parks, garages, terraces and any other place you can think of outside. At any given time you can look down the street and see a gaggle of cyclists zooming down thoroughfares, zigzagging around cars, breezing through intersections, fearless in their quest to get somewhere as quickly as possible.
I almost became a victim of one of these tyrants when walking to the Rijksmuseum on the Museumplein. Steve and I approached an intersection where we had the walk light when I noticed a cyclist barreling toward us from the left. Steve continued walking while I stopped in the median to wait for the cyclist to streak past, confusing the poor soul to the point that he slammed on his brakes, skidded through the intersection narrowly missing Steve, lost control of his bike and careened into the sign post next to me. He then yelled something unintelligible, in Dutch I assume, and continued on his unmerry way rattling on towards the Dam. Steve witnessed none of this, and expressed shock (SHOCK!) when I told him what happened, concluding that the flying Dutchman who almost painted me with skid marks was a “dumb ass.” Enough said.
4. Cats cats everywhere – This one is hard to explain. Amsterdam is full of felines and I don’t know why. Are the Dutch passionate cat lovers? Do cats just naturally gravitate to the canals? Perhaps it is because of one Henriette van Weelde, who began taking in stray cats in the late 1960s to the point where she purchased a houseboat to keep them all, that we have a cat city today. While Henriette is no longer with us the houseboat still exists on the Singel canal and is run by volunteers and relies on donations to keep afloat (no pun intended.) While we didn’t visit the houseboat we did visit another cat inspired place, the Katten Kabinet, or Cat Museum, which I learned about from my friend Abby whose parents had gone to the museum many years ago and loved it.
The Katten Kabinet is not so much a museum but a private collection of paintings (two by Picasso and Rembrandt), posters, statues, figurines, books and real live cats all set up in a late 17th-century house which boasts an interesting history as it used to be the residence of one of Amsterdam’s former mayors and played host to US President John Adams. William Meijer established the Katten Kabinet in 1990 on the first floor of his home and continues to live on the upper two floors. His home brings the concept of “crazy cat lady” to new heights as you can’t swing a cat (pun intended) without hitting something cat themed. Or a cat. While the collection is impressive for a small collector the entrance fee of 6 euro per person for essentially one floor of cat stuff (complete with cat fragrance – ick) is a rip-off unless you are obsessed with cats. Or you are a crazy cat lady. Despite the price tag to enter it, I quite enjoyed the excursion to this cat microcosmos. Steve, however, was not impressed and deemed the Katten Kabinet to be “the stupidest museum I have even been to.” So if you are in Amsterdam only go to the Katten Kabinet if you are into cats. I mean REALLY into cats. Otherwise you can get your feline fix from one of the many friendly kitties strolling along the canals, lurking through alleyways or sunning themselves on doorsteps.
5. Museums museums everywhere – For a compact city Amsterdam is rich in museums. The “big three” are the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. Netherlands’ native sons Rembrandt and Van Gogh feature prominently throughout the city (just look around and you see sunflowers in homes, restaurants, cafes…) and the museums but there are also museums devoted to such things as modern art (Stedelijk Museum), art of the tropics (Tropenmuseum), Dutch Resistance during WWII (Verzetsmuseum) and, as previously mentioned, cats.
We managed to visit two of the big three, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, and were immediately dismayed by the entrance price: 12,50 euro each for the Rijksmuseum, 14 euro each for the Van Gogh. The Rijksmuseum price was especially disturbing since most of the building is being refurbished and only one wing is open. Amsterdam was our first foray onto the continent after having spent several months in the UK where most museums are free of charge, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us to experience some sort of sticker shock. (What with no income and subsisting on a budget on The Grand Tour we have to be selective!) But these were two museums I really wanted to see, plus the money was going to support art, a worthy cause, so our fears were quickly allayed as we ventured forth.
The highlight of the Rijksmuseum is Rembrandt’s Night Watch which hangs in a space with another painting that is summarily ignored in a room that should be large enough to accommodate the visitors who come to see it yet somehow seems stifling. The full title of the painting is The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, yet some wise curator realized that this is too much of a mouthful to say and opted for the shorter and cooler sounding Night Watch. This painting is considered Rembrandt’s masterpiece and is the pièce de resistance of the museum, so it is no wonder that the room is crowded with people jostling to get a look at the rather dark scene depicted (color, not mood.) Masterpieces attract the crazies, too. If you look closely in the right light you can see the repaired slash marks made by a deranged butter knife-wielding man in 1975. About 15 years later another deranged man sprayed acid onto the canvas but was stopped before he could do much damage and what he sprayed ate through some of the varnish but not the paint.
I loved the Van Gogh Museum – the paintings displayed, the layout of the building, the descriptive audio guide – and am glad we spent a full afternoon there. I saw his sunflowers, his irises, his self portraits and his famous Potato Eaters, but nothing impressed me more than seeing the exhibition on The Bedroom, a painting that was recently restored and displayed next to a full life-sized replica of the actual bedroom that he painted when staying in the Yellow House in France. Familiar everyday objects – bed, chair, painting, window – represented in a composition of pure colors that are vibrant but suggest unrest. Beautiful. Van Gogh painted two other version of this scene, the second is in the Art Institute of Chicago and the third, of copy of which I own in miniature, is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Regrettably we did not make it to the Anne Frank House. I was put off by the remarkably long line that snaked around the building and across to the other block and bristled at the idea of elbowing my way through the hoards in tiny rooms trying to get a glimpse of Anne’s life during those two years in hiding, but I will endeavor to visit it the next time I am in Amsterdam. I feel as though I should, as have millions of others around the world, despite that crazy long line.
The rest I leave to the photos: