NETHER­LANDS: IN THE FOOT­STEPS OF REM­BRANDT

Am­s­ter­dam holds court this sea­son with its clus­ter of chic ho­tels, restau­rants and mu­se­ums – places that make you want to linger.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY JENNIFER CAMP­BELL

Am­s­ter­dam holds court this sea­son with its clus­ter of chic ho­tels, restau­rants and mu­se­ums – places that make you want to you linger.

Ial­ways ar­rive in Am­s­ter­dam when it’s rain­ing. Yet I could not en­vis­age this old-world me­trop­o­lis with­out its dark tex­tured skies and ubiq­ui­tous wa­ter­ways that tie quaint, leafy neigh­bour­hoods to the Am­s­tel River – a pic­turesque thor­ough­fare that holds the po­tent spell to the city. Then a mir­a­cle hap­pens on this seem­ingly damp morn­ing. Short, sharp bursts of sun­light pierce through the clouds, bathing Am­s­ter­dam’s canals in a soft glow of light. And out of the blue, her gen­tle beauty is un­veiled, like a mas­ter­piece long­ing to be dis­cov­ered.

The stony si­lence that first greets me on my walk along the Prin­sen­gracht Canal has now been bro­ken by a bee­line of ac­tiv­ity. Pedes­tri­ans surge for­ward like sol­dier ants; some by foot – most on bikes. Cafés now beckon. Boats sound their horns. Ring­neck para­keets screech from the trees. Even the tan­ta­lis­ing whiff of fried bat­ter now wafts through sev­eral home­spun win­dows. I can only sur­mise that this mag­nif­i­cent Dutch city wants to re­mind me that its sub­tle charms should never be ig­nored.

Leav­ing the weather to chance, I hop onto a pri­vate ves­sel owned by my Dutch friend, Corinne Mei­jer, at the curve where the Prin­sen­gracht in­ter­sects with the Reg­uliers­gracht; one of the city’s pret­ti­est cor­ri­dors within Am­s­ter­dam’s Canal Ring. Renowned for its seven arched bridges and el­e­gant 17th­cen­tury gabled houses that trace its roots back to The Dutch Golden Age, the canal is also stud­ded with sto­ried his­tory.

“For too long guide books have fo­cused on the seed­ier as­pects of Am­s­ter­dam; the Red Light Dis­tricts for in­stance, and the no­to­ri­ous cof­fee houses. How­ever, they do not re­flect the city’s spirit or el­e­gance,” says Corinne, a graphic de­signer who ar­rived in Am­s­ter­dam from Utrecht as a fresh-eyed stu­dent, and never left. “To re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate Am­s­ter­dam, you must first recog­nise its im­por­tance to the art world, as well as its cul­tural rev­er­ence to ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign. And when you do, your ro­mance with the city will be­gin.”

Add this to its culi­nary and avant-garde café scene, and you’ve hit upon what makes Am­s­ter­dam tick.

Corinne smiles at this thought. “That’s the best part of the city,” she con­tin­ues, as we glide past a house­boat filled with a fu­sion of bright, spring flow­ers. “You can sit back any­where while sam­pling some of Europe’s finest food, and truly breathe.”

Take this spring day for in­stance. We moor Corinne’s boat and cut loose at Span­jer en van Twist on the Leliegracht, where we take a ringside seat on the ter­race. Un­like the other cafés that strad­dle the canal, this one seems edgier, where lo­cals come to gather. I spot a mid­dle-aged wo­man at a ta­ble near the wa­ter’s edge. She has a folded copy of De Tele­graaf rest­ing be­neath her iPhone. She sips her latte, then an­other, as she qui­etly im­merses her­self in the mid-morn­ing swirl. Noth­ing spe­cial has taken place; she is just con­tent to linger.

A pi­geon sud­denly lands on our ta­ble to peck at a few crumbs. With one “shoo” it quickly as­cends in feath­ery flight. If I fol­low it across the canal and around the cor­ner to Prin­sen­gracht, I will find my­self milling over tulip bulbs and pun­gent Gouda at the Tulip Mu­seum and Cheese Mu­seum, a stone’s throw from the House­boat Mu­seum. As Corinne tells me, it turns out that there are many great guide­book sights to be ex­plored.

We ditch the cheese in favour of art.

The Dutch Golden Age

Just 15 min­utes from historic Dam Square is the Mu­seum Quar­ter where we head to the Ri­jksmu­seum for a ses­sion with the Dutch Mas­ters – most of whom flour­ished dur­ing the Dutch Golden Age.

To de­scribe this boun­ti­ful pe­riod is like view­ing a pass­ing sea­son of tulip fields in full bloom. The abun­dance of money saw over five mil­lion works of art be­ing pro­duced. Delft­ware ce­ram­ics were in the finest houses. Artist Jo­hannes Ver­meer painted the sump­tu­ous, The Milk­maid and Willem van Val­ck­ert cap­tured the Nether­lands’ pro­gres­sive wel­fare sys­tem on his can­vas, Giv­ing the Bread. Last­ing a lit­tle over a cen­tury, the Dutch Golden Age was all over by 1702.

Per­haps the most in­spi­ra­tional was the Baroque artist, Rem­brandt van Rijn, who in­stantly won ac­claim and com­mis­sions when he first came to the city from the univer­sity city of Lei­den to paint. Among his great works at the Ri­jksmu­seum, one in par­tic­u­lar, stops me. I gaze up at his self-por­trait and study his soft eyes; his youth­ful face con­toured by fil­tered shad­ows and tones, and cas­cad­ing curls etched from the tip of his brush. He too, is watch­ing me.

“Rem­brandt was a ge­nius,” Corinne in­tones as she ush­ers me to­wards The Night Watch, his most fa­mous paint­ing. Yet if this splen­did paint­ing could talk, the civic of­fi­cers fea­tured in the back­ground of his can­vas would tell you dif­fer­ently. Com­mis­sioned to cap­ture their im­por­tant stand­ing along­side their cap­tain in a static stance, Rem­brandt redi­rected his vir­tu­oso brush­strokes on sto­ried move­ment through the use of light and colour; a shift that saw the mili­tia play a less prom­i­nent role on can­vas. What’s more sur­pris­ing, the artist never se­cured an im­por­tant com­mis­sion again.

Rem­brandt’s fall from grace is not lost on Corinne. “Here we are, stand­ing here nearly 400 years later, pay­ing homage to his life’s work,” she says as she ges­tures to­wards his body of work. “It’s like poetic jus­tice, isn’t it?” Now, as I rub shoul­ders with Rem­brandt’s ghost, I feel a shiver run­ning down my spine. Even from a dis­tance, his eyes travel the room; to ob­serve and study the move­ment.

A few blocks away, we en­ter the Van Gogh Mu­seum in the same way as Ri­jksmu­seum – as part of a throng. Past a colossal glass struc­tured wing, I make my way to view the artist’s body of work; Sun­flow­ers, Banks of the Seine and The Bed­room – dreamy pal­ettes rep­re­sent­ing the dif­fer­ent places where he lived. And un­der the spell of each theme, I learn of the sto­ries that im­printed Vin­cent’s cor­re­la­tion with na­ture; his un­re­quited loves and leg­endary feuds. Even his in­tense thoughts, which are re­vealed in his poignant let­ters to his brother, Theo.

Stand­ing next to us is a child, no more than eight-years-old. She is star­ing at Wheat­field with Crows, which Vin­cent painted in 1890. Be­lieved to be his last paint­ing be­fore he died by his own hand, there is a road that is fin­gered by swirling stalks of golden wheat. Be­yond the fields is an omi­nous sky where black crows fly.

I won­der if it will live in her mem­ory.

Sto­ried Places

It turns out that I see Am­s­ter­dam very dif­fer­ently by wa­ter, the touch­stone of fa­mil­iar­ity that an­chors ev­ery­day life.

And the places that I keep re­turn­ing to in­clude young di­arist, Anne Frank’s wartime world – one of the many thou­sands of Dutch-Jews who per­ished dur­ing the Holo­caust.

Just 15 min­utes away in Nieuwe Am­s­tel­straat, I start at the Jewish His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum, a for­mer de­por­ta­tion cen­tre for thou­sands of Jews which presents it­self as Am­s­ter­dam’s historic eyes. If I had a look­ing glass, it would be ter­ri­fy­ingly easy to cross into that world; with its graphic de­scrip­tions, doc­u­ments and film footage de­scrib­ing the hor­rors of the

Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion.

An el­derly man dressed in a dark gray suit and black felt hat files past me. An old jour­nal is clutched in his hand; his en­tire body is trem­bling with raw emo­tion. The man has come to the mu­seum on a per­sonal odyssey. A photo of Am­s­ter­dam’s Jews

“it was here where Anne‛s leg­endary di­ary gave the 300,000 Dutch Jews who per­ished, an ever­last­ing voice”

be­ing rounded up by Nazi sol­diers is vis­i­ble to my right. I don’t need to ask him any ques­tions. When he turns and faces me for a few sec­onds, he tells me his story through haunted eyes.

A map with a walk­ing trail mark­ing places of sig­nif­i­cance; build­ings where the Dutch Re­sis­tance op­er­ated with the sole in­tent to lib­er­ate the coun­try, also takes me to the Prin­sen­gracht, where Anne’s fa­ther, Otto, ran his suc­cess­ful busi­ness. As with all of the 17th-cen­tury houses along the canals, the Frank home was built nar­row and deep, with im­pos­si­bly steep stairs; a de­sign to counter hefty taxes im­posed by the width of the house. And it was here where Anne’s leg­endary di­ary gave the 300,000 Dutch Jews who per­ished, an ever­last­ing voice.

Sev­eral flights up and I am stand­ing in the An­nexe Room, with its se­cret en­trance hid­den be­hind a re­volv­ing book­case. For more than two years, Anne, her par­ents and sis­ter lived with four other peo­ple in sev­eral nar­row rooms and a com­pact at­tic; a tiny room used for sup­plies and a glimpse of the out­side world. I take a look at the same view. The serene chest­nut trees that frame the canal. Be­neath their shy spring leaves, rows of bikes are stacked neatly with chains. And on the canal, a glass-en­cased tour boat drifts past. In­cred­i­bly, life goes on.

As twi­light ap­proaches, we step out­side the house and into the rain. The mer­cury has dropped yet none of the lo­cals seem fazed by the driz­zle. Be­yond the canal are the siren calls and scar­let neon of the Red Light Dis­trict and the multi-cul­tural eater­ies of De Pijp, just south of the mu­seum dis­trict. A man play­ing the sax­o­phone on his boat ser­e­nades strangers. Any­thing goes.

The mood soon shifts as we walk from Jor­daan to the el­e­gant Nine Streets neigh­bour­hood, a labyrinth of nine el­e­gant streets that link to the western canals. More than any­where else in the city, Nine Streets re­sists change, and I roam amid sin­gu­lar show­stop­pers – cafes, gal­leries and bou­tique stores – with an as­sured sense of ex­pec­ta­tion.

Yet Am­s­ter­dam is not known for big-scale shop­ping. Rather, the city is a bright spot of dif­fer­ent vibes; places that at­tract vis­i­tors to ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery­day life in in­ven­tive ways.

“Ev­ery time I meet some­one new to the city, they tell me how sur­prised they are by Am­s­ter­dam’s in­her­ent charm,” says Michiel Reijn, an ar­chi­tect we strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with at Ti­mothy Oul­ton’s flag­ship store. We stay for a while, and I learn snip­pets of Am­s­ter­dam on a hu­man scale. “But be­hind the ar­chi­tec­tural fa­cades lies a con­tem­po­rary at­ti­tude, and it is rev­el­ling in a pro­gres­sive beat. Am­s­ter­dam is def­i­nitely chang­ing.”

I think about Michiel's words as I walk a quiet block that leads me to Vinke­les on the Keiz­ers­gracht. On the way, we peer through large glass win­dows where chan­de­liers gleam and Delft crock­ery im­presses upon beau­ti­ful din­ner ta­bles. And over a dish of wild lob­ster, I revel in a room of soft lights and old world am­biance.

It seems that in this pocket cor­ner of Am­s­ter­dam, life has not caught up with mod­ern sen­ti­ments. •

Open­ing im­age: The Brow­ers­gracht and Prin­sen­gracht, which form Am­s­ter­dam’s beau­ti­ful canal ring.

Clock­wise from above: Clas­sic ar­chi­tec­ture from the Dutch golden age; Front door scenery along the Keiz­ers­gracht Canal © The Dy­lan Am­s­ter­dam; Rem­brandt’s iconic The Night Watch on per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ri­jksmu­seum.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Shutterstock, The Dy­lan, Shirli Jade Car­swell and Jennifer Camp­bell.

Left: Fine din­ing at Vinke­les, helmed by Miche­lin-star chef Den­nis Kuipers.

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