The ride choice down from Groningan was a no-brainer with the train wanting 22 Euros and the bus 7. So we jumped on the FlixBus for a three hour ride down the neck of the Netherlands, across the long bridge that crosses the IJsselmeer and into the capital city. We negotiated the hubbub at the bus station to find the intercity train to Central Station and soon found ourselves in the large plaza in front of the ornate train station flanked by the cathedral and the canals. Amsterdam at last!
Onto the tram to our lodgings a short distance away, a room in a row house on Ijburg, a small island east of city center. A very prim and functional collection of modern buildings, orderly and sensible as only the northern Europeans can be. We let ourselves in with the new gizmo electronic lock and app thingy, met the owner and the house dog (a sweet bulldog named Arthur) and unloaded our gear. Dinner was Thai at a hopping little place that was a beehive of activity, table service, carryout, delivery via van and bike. Everywhere the “Koh” restaurant logo bags were flying every which way towards their hungry recipients.
The next morning we set a plan starting with the Jordaan district since that promised to be the “Greenwich Village of Amsterdam” in our guidebooks. We trammed back to Central Station and jumped on the number 13 which promised to take us there. When it didn’t take a turn west as indicated by my tram guide we jumped off and hoofed it. Back a few blocks we found the tracks torn up on that leg of the tram which might explain the detour. But the walk didn’t disappoint.
Lovely shops and cafes, canals lined with boats and river cruise boats descending, we crossed the Westerkerk church square in front of the church, the one mentioned in Anne Frank’s account of her attic stay as a beacon of hope in her desperation. We walked up the Prinsengracht along a lovely canal and then enter the Jordaan district. We strolled the lanes full of others doing likewise, past restaurants and shops, crossed a canal every two or three blocks, just generally soaking in all the sights of this city.
We became fully engaged with this city’s beauty. Less frenetic than Paris but every bit as full of life and wonder, the classic old merchant’s residences framing the canals. Amsterdam is a gift to those fortunate to visit.
We found one of the old courtyard buildings called Hofjes, this one called Sint Andrieshofje, which appeared to be closed. Then just as we were turning to go a lady exited and bid us enter. Small and formal, but with a communal sensibility we seem to have lost in urban life, the residences all faced a common garden area. We pictured the denizens sharing a morning or evening conversation with their neighbors in this convivial setting.
Our map pointed out another church square which we rounded looking for an entrance. This may be the first church I’ve ever seen that didn’t seem to have a front, back or side. Small locked doors here and there, one tiny private chapel, no stepped portico, mysterious and closed off. Strange place.
Next we looked for a gallery that Stef had identified way back along the Prinsengracht. Stopping halfway at the Westerkerk we shared a hot dog in the church square before entering the church. Westerkerk is just down the street from both Anne Frank’s house and Rembrandt’s.
He was buried in the church floor but since he died a virtual pauper his bones were exhumed and destroyed after twenty years. Just the way things were done.
Back along the canal we found the gallery and the painter/artist/owner, full of her bright swirls of variegated paint daubed tulips. Actually very nice and my description doesn’t do them justice. I told her I’m not a huge fan of flower painting but hers I liked.
We found the tram to the Rijksmuseum. This place was always high on my list and it was a real thrill for me just seeing it. Rembrandt and Vermeer live there. We entered through the arched courtyard and stopped to hear a quintet playing in the great acoustics. Two violins, two accordions and a large triangular bass guitar made some glorious music. Beautiful. Stef picked up their latest CD.
We descended into the very modern museum entrance area (much like the Lourve set up) and made our way into the galleries. We saw the “Night Watch” signs and followed the crowds. Turning into an amazing old, stately ornamented gallery, Rembrandt’s masterwork glowed on the distant wall ahead. I was drawn to it but Stefanie wanted to take in some of the smaller pieces first so we agreed to meet up later.
The painting is so full of action and life, Rembrandt’s well rehearsed penchant for chiaroscuro and the emergent glow of warm humanity rising from in full display.
The Vermeers were tucked in a side gallery and his lovely and sedate image of the milkmaid in yellow and blue pouring out of that pitcher looked every bit as worthy of all the attention that’s been given it. I became attached to another Vermeer just a few paintings away. A street scene, very common and unremarkable as such but lovingly captured in fine detail. Later, I noticed Stefanie lingering in front of it and, as is frequently the case, our compared notes highlighted the same painting. We both agreed it was our favorite.
This art house is one of the wonders of humanity. Beside the stunning masterpieces on display, the setting elevates the viewer’s senses to receive them.
The clean understated design ornamentation, the muted colors in the stonework, in the tile and wall paint, every element is adjusted to enfold the viewer in a calmness and presence and so prepare them for the experience of high art. Its enough to re-establish my faith in the power of culture to redeem us from banality.
We passed several hours in the museum until the voice over the P.A. told us the museum was closing and to make our way to the exits. Back outside the classical quintet was still working the crowds.
We found a nice Indian restaurant via our handy mobile wi-fi and once again took the tram, this time north towards city center to find it. We were now on a 72 hour tram pass since our first 24 hour pass was up. We got off at the nearest stop and walked towards Rembrandtplein where we found a great meal of curry stew and tandoori. After dinner we enter the square named after the great artist and they had a sculptural rendition of his most famous painting, “The Night Watch”. People posed for pictures with the main figure head honcho guy. But Stef found the only female character in the work, and posed greeting her with a curtsy.
That ended our first day in Amsterdam. We returned to our lodgings and restored for the second day.
Our first stop on day two was the Catholic Cathedral, Nicolaaaskerk, that dominates the central square, just adjacent to the train station. The church’s existence is an amazing thing in itself since Catholicism was forbidden in Amsterdam by William of Orange after the peaceful Protestant coup which appropriated Catholic property and drove all religions except the state-sanctioned Dutch Reformed Church underground.
The church is dark and somber inside, no doubt mirroring this period of history which turned one Christian faction against another. Another model for what not to do when the founders of our country built on the ideas of John Locke and others by instituting strict separation of church and state.
We continued our walking tour by taking in the tower called the Schreierstoren that dominate the old harbor. It was from here that Henry Hudson set off to found New Amsterdam in the U.S. and the city of New York (which it later became) has a plaque attached to the structure commemorating that event. We poked our heads inside to see the great little restaurant that takes up the space today. Walls lined with cool oval ceramic flasks, each with the name of a different fine liquor.
Stefanie used her guide book to direct us towards the next destination, the “hidden church” called Museum Lieve Heer op Solder. The guide book showed a general location but we got off track and wound up wandering through the Red Light District. We first became aware of our location when Stefanie noticed some decidedly erotic wrought iron fence work depicting two different varieties of hetero sex acts. At first I thought that this was just a remnant from bygone days as a randy seaport until the next store front window presented a woman in lingerie pantomiming a none too subtle suggestion of available pleasures.
I guess 10 am is as good a time as any. We laughed and acknowledged that we had indeed crossed over into Amsterdam’s own “Storyville”.
We finally found the church museum tucked away in this land of the purveyors of carnality at a price. This place was in stark contrast to that section of our visit. As mentioned. Bill the Orange drove Catholics into private worship and the result was the construction of a number of these “house churches” which served the faithful of the Church of Rome for several hundred years. The structure is a maze of winding halls and staircases, leading up from the living quarters into an amazing clere-story vestibule that looks just like a tiny church but built into the upper floors of an Amsterdam house.
This is the only remaining example of this phenomena of religious persecution. At one time there were dozens in Amsterdam. This one has been lovingly preserved. I recommend it highly to any visitor.
The next stop on Stefanie’s wonder tour was the Beginjhof which necessitated another tram ride. Finding it was tricky since the entrance is not well marked. We actually walked around a large city block and that included a stroll through part of the Amsterdam Museum. We viewed a great exhibition of the city’s history there, purely by an accident of unintentional wander.
Discovering that our destination was closer to the area back where we started (another “swerve”!) we took a break at a small cafe for coffee. Stefanie wanted to visit an antique shop so she lovingly allowed me to stay at the cafe. She found a beautiful round silver box which she snapped right up.
Coming back around the block our GPS finally locked us into the small door entrance. The Beginjhof is an active convent but the main feature is a simple frame structure that gives the place its name. Possibly the oldest building in Amsterdam, having survived fire and decay. The courtyard was a lovely stroll and we enjoyed the quiet respite from the urban bustle.
It was getting on towards dinner so we looked for a restaurant that served Indonesian Rifstaffel. The one that looked inviting was a bit of a distant tram ride south but it was near a park so we jumped on then off and walked there.
The park was full of people walking the paths and lounging on the grass. Ducks and geese swimming in the pond. We snapped some shots of an unusual looking pair of geese for later identification.
Back on the tram we found the Indonesian restaurant was now the former Indonesian restaurant, no longer in operation. So, back on to our plan B site, this one back on Rembrandtplein. We crossed the now familiar square to enjoy a full Indonesian/Dutch Rijstaffel dinner. Maybe twenty dishes layed out because apparently, not making up your mind about what’s for dinner can work to your advantage. Really tasty though, great chicken/pork/beef curries and chutneys and spicy vegetables and rice. Amazing what excess can bring.
Our last excursion was to be the Eastern Docklands, what used to be the main commercial shipping area before the main action shifted to the west side. We got off at the end of the line and walked to a bench overlooking a huge sea access, just in time to see a giant black barge leaving the harbor.
On the way back we transferred to another tram by walking past an enormous windmill as the evening came on. This one now houses a hot after work spot for young Amsterdam professionals as the crowd spilled out all around al fresco. I took some nice sunset pictures of Stef with that classic Dutch landmark in the background.
The darkening Amsterdam windmill provided the fitting final image to our memorable stay in this most engaging city.