Awe­some Am­s­ter­dam

Matilda Hick­son spent a long week­end in Am­s­ter­dam ex­plor­ing this won­der­ful city filled with mu­se­ums, gal­leries, history and cake

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

A‘msterdam is the most won­der­ful city’ my friend de­clared, tuck­ing into a rather fab­u­lous look­ing slice of cho­co­late cake. ‘It re­ally has ev­ery­thing: cul­ture, history, amaz­ing cakes and bars, and it is all con­tained within a fairly small perime­ter which means it is easy to walk to most des­ti­na­tions’.

I couldn’t agree more. We were spend­ing a long week­end in the city, and were cur­rently sit­ting in the café at the Ri­jksmu­seum. I had mis­tak­enly as­sumed that the Ri­jksmu­seum was es­sen­tially an art gallery – but it is so much more than that. Granted, it has some of the most fab­u­lous paint­ings (in­clud­ing all those fa­mous Dutch works of art), but the clue is in the name – it is a mu­seum. And as such, is filled with all sorts of trea­sures.

The Ri­jksmu­seum

You could lit­er­ally spend days here. The mu­seum opened in 1885, ap­par­ently to much crit­i­cism from the city’s Protes­tant com­mu­nity for its Catholic NeoRe­nais­sance style. The build­ing was de­signed by Pierre Cuypers and at the time, it stood at the edge of the city and was lo­cated be­tween the old city and a planned new dis­trict. Hence the fact that it had to have a city gate and a pas­sage to con­nect the two dis­tricts. Cuypers had com­bined Gothic and Re­nais­sance el­e­ments, which re­ferred back to the most pros­per­ous era of Dutch art (but ap­par­ently gave it its pa­pal qual­i­ties). The build­ing re­cently un­der­went 10 years of ren­o­va­tion, open­ing again in 2013. To­day it is beau­ti­fully re­stored with all mod­ern ameni­ties and a joy to visit. As the na­tional mu­seum of Dutch Art and History it has 80 gal­leries and 8000 works of art and his­tor­i­cal ob­jects, which date from 1100 CE to the 21st cen­tury. It is renowned for its col­lec­tion of Dutch art – said to be the best in the world – from early re­li­gious paint­ings to the mas­ter­pieces of the Golden Age (17th cen­tury).

The mu­seum is laid out over four floors in chrono­log­i­cal or­der. So if you want to con­cen­trate on a cer­tain time pe­riod, for both paint­ings and ob­jects, then that is easily done. We had started with a cou­ple of tours: one to see the high­lights of the mu­seum, and a sec­ond fo­cus­ing on 17th cen­tury pain­ters and paint­ings.

On the first floor is the Great Hall, which has been re­stored to it orig­i­nal state. It is a large open space with floors of in­laid mo­saics and walls cov­ered with painted tableaux and stained glass win­dows, and spanned, high, co­pi­ously dec­o­rated vaulted ceil­ings. From here, leads the ‘Gallery of Hon­our’ around which the orig­i­nal build­ing was planned. To­day this gallery houses the paint­ings of the Dutch Golden Age – and is prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar area for visi­tors.

Here you will find paint­ings by Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Pi­eter Saenredam, Peter de Hooch, Rem­brandt and my favourite, Joa­hannes Ver­meer. At the end of the Gallery of Hon­our is Rem­brandt’s Night Watch, around which the build­ing was orig­i­nally de­signed. But there are many high­lights in the mu­seum: delft ware (in­clud­ing a vi­o­lin!), cab­i­nets, dolls houses, Meis­sen fig­ures, a Ban­tam aero­plane and even a chess set made by the Nazis with English place names – they had been so cer­tain of vic­tory.

My con­cen­tra­tion span wanes af­ter a cou­ple of hours, so it was good to be able to re­lax in the café and stock up on sugar to keep go­ing for the next cou­ple of hours. We ended up spend­ing most of a whole day there, and went back again for a top up on a sec­ond day. This is pos­si­ble and most cost ef­fec­tive if you buy a mu­seum card – not to be con­fused with an Am­s­ter­dam card. The for­mer lasts for a year, and gives you mul­ti­ple ac­cess to many mu­se­ums and gal­leries across Hol­land. I find this to be an ex­cel­lent thing as it is of­ten hard to take ev­ery­thing in on a first visit, so to be able to re­turn at no ex­tra cost is well worth it.

Van Gogh Mu­seum

Another favourite visit on our week­end was the Van Gogh Mu­seum. Open late on a Fri­day night, this is a fab­u­lous way to spend an evening. With mu­sic and wine, what bet­ter way to en­joy another bril­liant artist?

And again this gallery is or­gan­ised chrono­log­i­cally, which makes it so easy to see how Van Gogh’s style pro­gressed. The early paint­ings are mostly dark with unglam­ourous sub­jects ( The Potato Eaters, Still Life with Cab­bage and Clogs), but this was his early pe­riod when he was learn­ing to paint and draw and his sub­jects were the lo­cal peasants and labour­ers, and he was liv­ing in Nue­nen with his par­ents.

In 1886 Van Gogh went to live with his brother in Paris, and this was where he first en­coun­tered the works of the Im­pres­sion­ists and post-Im­pres­sion­ists. Now his paint­ings have colour and vigour, and he is paint­ing flow­ers, build­ings, land­scapes and de­vel­op­ing his own style. From Paris he moved onto Ar­les, but here he started to be­come ill and it was dur­ing this time that he cut off his left ear­lobe. We are all fa­mil­iar with Van Gogh’s sun­flow­ers or irises – but there is so much more to him than these paint­ings, and this won­der­ful gallery gives you the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover this. What is ter­ri­bly sad though, is the paint­ing thought to be the last one he did, just be­fore killing him­self. You can see that it is a re­flec­tion of a dis­turbed mind. In­deed, af­ter view­ing his paint­ings in this mu­seum, on see­ing them else­where, it is im­me­di­ately pos­si­ble to place which time frame they are from – just be­cause of the con­tent and the colour scheme.

Re­sis­tance Mu­seum & Rem­brandt’s House

Mov­ing on from paint­ings, we also vis­ited the Her­mitage Mu­seum and the Verzetsmu­seum or Re­sis­tance Mu­seum. The State Her­mitage Mu­seum in St Peters­burg de­cided that Am­s­ter­dam was the ideal city to open a branch of this Rus­sian mu­seum, and it holds ro­tat­ing tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions drawn from the Her­mitage’s rich col­lec­tion.

The Verzetsmu­seum (Re­sis­tance Mu­seum) holds a col­lec­tion of mem­o­ra­bilia that records the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Dutch re­sis­tance dur­ing WWII. On dis­play are false doc­u­ments, film clips, pho­to­graphs, and slide shows. By 1945 there were 300,000 peo­ple in hid­ing in the Nether­lands, in­clud­ing Jews and anti-Nazi Dutch. Although this mu­seum is tes­ta­ment to the courage of the many Dutch re­sis­tance fight­ers, and for those of us who did not ex­pe­ri­ence the war, it is good to be re­minded of what went on. What I found up­set­ting were par­tic­u­lar de­tails, such as the way in which the Nazis or­dered ev­ery­one to register at the be­gin­ning of the oc­cu­pa­tion, and as good cit­i­zens, most did. This then gave them all the in­for­ma­tion they needed when the time came to start round­ing up ev­ery­one they wished to get rid of. With hind­sight, you want to cry out ‘why did you com­ply?’ – but I can imag­ine if some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pened to­day, that is what you would do. Leav­ing af­ter a cou­ple of hours here ne­ces­si­tated a pick me up – and what bet­ter way than in the café next door that had... won­der­ful cake.

On a lighter note, a visit to Rem­brandt’s House (Mu­seum Het Rem­brandthuis) is well worth putting on your list. Rem­brandt lived here from 1639 – 1656, in the ground floor rooms with his wife Saskia who died in 1642, leav­ing him with baby son Ti­tus. It is a won­der­ful thing to be in a house where such a fa­mous pain­ter cre­ated some of his most amaz­ing paint­ings in his stu­dios on the first floor. The in­te­ri­ors have been re­stored and there is a fine col­lec­tion of his draw­ings, as well as a room stuffed full of all the eclec­tic things that he col­lected over the years. Print­ing and paint mak­ing demon­stra­tions are also held – which are most fas­ci­nat­ing and well worth see­ing.

Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder

Another place well worth a visit when you have had enough of paint­ings is a house tucked away on the edge of the Red Light Dis­trict. It is a re­stored 17th cen­tury canal house, with two smaller ones to the rear. What makes it spe­cial is that the top floor con­ceals a se­cret Catholic church, known as Our Lord in the At­tic (Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder). In the 16th cen­tury, Am­s­ter­dam was the main power in the province of Hol­land. Trade with the Baltic had pro­vided much wealth to the city and it had grown rapidly. In Spain, the Haps­burg rulers were try­ing to halt the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion which was sweep­ing North­ern Europe. Hol­land was against Spain, but Am­s­ter­dam wasn’t – which re­sulted in 80 years of civil war and re­li­gious strife. In 1578, Am­s­ter­dam switched loy­al­ties (an event known as the Al­ter­ation) to be­come the fiercely Protes­tant cap­i­tal of the in­fant Dutch Re­pub­lic. There­fore when Am­s­ter­dam be­came

It re­ally has ev­ery­thing: cul­ture, history, won­der­ful cakes, bars and it is all con­tained within a fairly small perime­ter which means it is easy to walk to most des­ti­na­tions’

of­fi­cially Protes­tant, many hid­den Catholic churches were built across the city. This par­tic­u­lar house was built in 1663 and be­came a mu­seum in 1888. It has been re­stored to its orig­i­nal state and is well worth a visit to see the hid­den church. The church was ac­tu­ally ex­tended in about 1735 to cre­ate more seat­ing space and it served the Catholic com­mu­nity un­til St Ni­cholaaskir­k was built in 1887.

Nearby in the heart of the Red Light Dis­trict is the Oude Kerk, dat­ing from the 13th cen­tury. It was orig­i­nally a wooden church built in a burial ground on a sand bank, and the present struc­ture is 14th cen­tury Gothic. There are 2500 tomb­stones which con­sti­tute the floor of the church and look out for the in­scrip­tion above the red door which leads into the for­mer sac­risty. It warns those about to en­ter: ‘Marry in haste, re­pent at leisure’.

Cake has been men­tioned regularly so far and there are many in­ter­est­ing, quirky and de­light­ful cafés and restau­rants to be found through­out Am­s­ter­dam. I will just men­tion one res­tau­rant that was rec­om­mended to us. It is found down a lit­tle street near Dam Square, and

you can’t book, just turn up and keep fin­gers crossed. There is no menu ei­ther – it is one of those fab­u­lous places where they just tell you what’s on the menu and give you a choice of a cou­ple of things. It is Café Van Kerk­wijk, and it is small, crowded and de­light­ful. We had a sump­tu­ous meal of meze of pate and sausages to start, steak with goat’s cheese and straw­ber­ries and bread and but­ter pud­ding for dessert. It is run by two sis­ters, Myra and Rhya and I would def­i­nitely seek it out if you are vis­it­ing (www.cafer­estau­rant­vankerk­wijk.nl).

A visit to Am­s­ter­dam wouldn’t be com­plete of course with­out a visit to Anne Frank’s House, nor the Am­s­ter­dam Mu­seum. There’s also the Mar­itime Mu­seum, the St­edelijk Mu­seum, the fig­ures in Rem­brandt Square, and won­der­ful hid­den de­lights such as the Begi­jn­hof. This en­closed square and green is sur­rounded by beau­ti­ful houses (in­clud­ing the old­est sur­viv­ing house in the city at num­ber 34), and is ac­cessed by a small pas­sage. The square was orig­i­nally built in 1346 as a sanc­tu­ary for the Begi­jn­t­jes, a lay Catholic sis­ter­hood who lived like nuns. On the south­ern side of the square is the En­gelse Kerk (English Church), which dates from the 15th cen­tury.

Fi­nally, one of the great plea­sures of vis­it­ing Am­s­ter­dam is pot­ter­ing along the canals. Fol­low­ing the map from Dam Square to the Am­s­tel, there are many gor­geous fa­cades and much history to take in. For ex­am­ple, No. 527 Heren­gracht used to be the home of the Rus­sian am­bas­sador, and it was where Peter the Great stayed af­ter a night of drunken revelry, or No. 453 Keiz­ers­gracht was the bookshop and art deal­er­ship owned by Van Gogh’s un­cle. Don’t for­get to note the height of the steps: the higher they are, the wealth­ier the in­hab­i­tants!

There is so much to see in Am­s­ter­dam, that it will take at least a cou­ple of long week­end vis­its to cover just the main sights. My friend had such an en­joy­able time that she de­cided it was time to leave home and take up res­i­dence in Am­s­ter­dam in­stead. I look for­ward to vis­it­ing.

Flower mar­ket in Am­s­ter­dam

Be on the look­out: gor­geous dog sign, carved door­way, soldier on pa­rade, another beau­ti­ful door­way

Colour­ful shop win­dow in cen­tral Am­s­ter­dam

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