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