Amsterdam (Part I) - Aug 2-6
Aug 6, 2010
|August 2, 2010
Today was another of those not doing very much days, as from around 10am until 6pm we were travelling between one hostel in Berlin and our next in Amsterdam. We left Berlin after a short stop at a bakery for breakfast and boarded the train for the next 7 hours or so. We were able to get the train from the Ostbahnhof near to our hostel rather than the main train station so it was much easier for us to have time to get on and get ourselves comfortable before the big rush to board at the main station. The journey was long and slow and the scenery was pretty bland and flat, as you expect when you head into the Netherlands! We had to change trains in a place called Hilversum as our original train was heading to Schiphol Airport rather than Amsterdam Centraal but that was an easy connection and we were soon in the large Amsterdam station. Outside, the construction work made crossing the various tram lines difficult but we managed to find the tram we needed to get to our hotel here. We got checked into our dorm room and lazed around for a bit before we headed out for dinner. We’d picked up some discount cards for some restaurants and so we headed to Wagamamas for some decent Asian food complete with a complimentary beer. It wasn’t Dutch food and it was certainly more expensive than we’d usually spend on dinner but it was a nice change, even if the wait staff were pretty rude to begin with.
On the way home we got our first real view of the sultry, sexual side of Amsterdam. As we crossed the canal nearest to our hotel, a large man rode past on his bicycle with his arse crack on full view. Lovely.
August 3, 2010
Today started off slowly as we lumbered down for breakfast pretty late on and then used the free internet at the hotel to try and decide what we wanted to do in Amsterdam. We had a list of museums we wanted to visit and many of them were expensive but included on one museum pass or another. Given the choices of passes, we had to decide which pass was best for us. We eventually decided for the cheaper pass which excluded transport, deciding that we could and should walk around the city as much as possible. This pass is also valid throughout the entire year rather than some others which are only for 2 or 3 days. This also means we have more time to do the things we want to so walking around is not a problem. We needed to go to one of the museums to get the card so we decided we’d have a walk around and see which ones we came across and could queue to get it.
Our hotel is really close to the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum so we checked those two out. The queue at the Van Gogh Museum was really long so we decided to try the Rijksmuseum instead. The queue there took about 30 minutes or so to go down but we got our cards easily enough and were able to get straight into the museum as we were there. The Rijksmuseum is the largest museum in Amsterdam but is currently undergoing renovations so it has a collection of Dutch historical items on the lower floor of one wing and a collection of Dutch masterpieces on the upper floor. We started upstairs and were not surprised to see how busy it was considering the confined spaces. However, the museum had set itself up well for the smaller display and some of the pictures had excellent explanations with them. They had a number of Rembrandt’s here and it was really interesting to see his pictures as well as those of his mentor and then his students. The lighting effect used by Rembrandt and his students was really obvious and I wondered why he always seemed to light his images from the left hand side. The main attraction here was his painting called The Nightwatch, his most famous and largest painting. Once again the lighting was evident with much of the background in darker colours whilst the two men in the foreground are shown more clearly, along with a young girl in the middle. It isn’t clear why she was so well lit and painted so brightly – maybe one of the men depicted in the picture asked for her to be included in return for payment!
There was also a room containing some works by Joan Miro who had visited the Rijksmuseum in 1928, taken some postcards away and painted his own “modern” interpretations. The original pictures by Jan Steen and those by Miro were hung in the same room and there were brief explanations showing how and where Miro had depicted certain items, along with Miro’s sketches from his train ride back to Spain where he first thought of the idea to recreate the masterpieces in his own style. Miro’s pictures are quite surreal and sometimes hard to see where the actual original fits in but compared to some “comparison exhibits” we’ve seen, at least this one went into detail explaining the ideas, concepts and results from the comparative pictures.
Downstairs in the museum was the collection of Dutch treasures, ceramics, earthenware and a short history of the Dutch empire, as well as a couple of massive doll houses. These houses were made by a rich woman to be a copy of her home so that she could show it off to her friends. It is estimated that the larger of the two cost more than a regular canal-side property and that many of the pieces were exact replicas of the originals in the house, some shipped directly from Asia. Talk about over-extravagant!
After that we walked around some of the small alleyways and canals of the city. It is such a lovely city to walk around and it was a shame the streets were so busy and it was difficult to find a quiet place. The combination of trams, buses, cars, bikes and tourists doesn’t make for easy walking along the major streets so we tried to avoid those. We headed to the Centraal station where the tourist office was so that we could get Elizabeth a ticket for the Anne Frank House, thus meaning she could at least avoid queuing for too long when she got there. Trouble was, we “queued” for half an hour at the tourist office!
After a short walk around again we decided to try and find somewhere for a beer and I suggested the Grasshopper bar seeing as I remembered it from my previous visit here and it was really central. Inside, we found that a beer was over 6 Euros (nearly $8) so we decided to skip it! Just two minutes away though we found a little Irish bar with a happy hour and 2 for 1 beer so we were able to get two beers for just 5 Euros! Much, MUCH better! We zig-zagged our way back through the alleyways after that back towards our hotel. We stopped at a couple of shops, including one where we got a magnet and some yummy peanut chocolate chunks and then finally at the supermarket to pick up some dinner stuff. We decided that it would be better to have a quiet, cheap night and try and save our budget for nights when we are going to be out and about in the centre. One or two nights in the hotel in exchange for a couple of later nights is certainly a good way to go about things, especially somewhere like Amsterdam where the city is so lively around the weekends.
Our dinner of bread, a couple of dips and some ham and cheese accompanied by a bottle of wine were just perfect and saved us some money into the bargain, too. We had planned to go for a walk around later on but by the time it had actually got dark we were both tired and couldn’t be bothered walking all the way into the centre, deciding that we’d have plenty of other opportunities later in the week to see the Red Light District lit up!
August 4, 2010
After waking up to some early morning rain we changed our plans for the day a little and started it by lazing around staring out of the window! When the rain finally let up a little bit we headed for a museum called Huis Marseille, a small photography museum. The museum had exhibits around a central theme of “Summer” and had informative texts around the pictures talking about the likeness of many of the pictures to some of the old paintings stating how many photographs are merely contemporaries of the painters using such themes as portraits, landscapes and still lives to show their skills with a camera. The pictures were really interesting and some of the techniques used to enhance some of the photos were amazing. One still life picture of a fruit bowl had been touched up to really show the purpleness around the seeds in a kiwi fruit and made the red of the strawberries so bright. One Japanese woman had photographed the cherry blossoms in Japan and, even in black and white, the pictures were stunning and showed one of the most amazing natural occurrences on the planet. Another picture of the reflection of a tree had been printed onto a mirrored surface. From looking directly at the picture it was hard to concentrate on the actual subject as you kept catching the image of yourself instead. Standing to one side though you could see that the photo was actually upside down with the base of the tree at the bottom and the reflection being what you were looking at. It was really clever. The portraits were quite amusing and it was great to see them of normal, regular people. We see enough of famous people so it is refreshing for the subjects to be unknown to the majority of the viewers. I couldn’t help but laugh at the family portrait with the three children wearing identical bright white socks while the father wore a pair of comedy socks the kind you buy your father for Christmas. Without saying a word, the picture was able to tell you so much.
One of the exhibits though did make me think and wonder about whether anyone can really make a go of photography and whether the reality is about being in the right place at the right time or just knowing the right people. The artist in question here was originally a painter and her late husband was a photographer as well as being curator of one of the local museums. After his death she decided to take up the camera and on display here were some of her travel pictures from Bolivia, Petra and Machu Picchu (taken after his death) as well as some of her earlier snapshots. Looking at these pictures, particularly the two places we had been to, it made me think that many of my pictures were as good if not better than that which were displayed here. If only I could just happen to bump into a museum curator or a famous photographer on my travels I might just strike lucky!
Our next stop was lunch, or at least part of it. We wanted to try one of the famous shops in the city serving fries and so we found the little café we wanted and both tucked into some yummy fries with curry sauce! Unfortunately for us our eating coincided with the rain returning and our walk back to the hostel, about 30 minutes of it, was accompanied by very heavy rain testing our waterproof jackets to the fullest extent! Back at the hostel we mopped ourselves up and wringed ourselves out and again resorted to staring out of the window.
Eventually the rain stopped and it looked like the sun might even re-appear so we reverted back to Plan A! We were going to do a canal tour but I wanted to wait a little bit until the sun had gone down a bit and so we decided to stop first at the Sexmuseum which was close to the main station where the canal boats left. The Sexmuseum was really funny and had some interesting pictures and items in it dating from way back into the 19th Century. However, it was hard to get past the entrance way where you were greeted by mannequins dressed up in S&M outfits but that was merely the beginning! The amount of phallic shaped objects was overwhelming and humourous all at once and the depictions of what a vagina is supposed to look like made you wonder if the artists had actually ever seen one. Some of the Japanese pictures showed the men looking like aged Samurai warriors with massive, er, swords. It was just so unrealistic and hilarious. There were no holds barred either with video screens around the museum showing old porn films and plenty of “normal” sex scenes depicted everywhere as well as the range of pornographic photos from eighteen hundred and something right through to the present day. But even that was topped by one room which warned of the explicit nature of the content and warned that no-one should complain as they entered at their own risk! Inside here were some hardcore S&M photos including tattoos and piercings that make you cringe, watersports, one woman with ridiculously enhanced breasts and photos of a black man with a penis down past his knees – the ultimate in third leg jokes, I suppose. It wasn’t so much an eye-opening experience here as much as a good laugh and a bit of distasteful fun, which can never be underestimated!
We headed down to the canal after that for our boat tour and we were able to just join the queue, buy a ticket and board immediately without much of a wait. The canal boat tour was being run in four languages starting with Dutch, German, then English and finally Spanish. Within about 10 minutes of the tour starting I had lost interest in the recorded commentary and was just staring out of the window watching the lovely houses and scenery go by. Amsterdam is such a pretty city and you get a different perspective from the water even though the canals aren’t exactly wide. We got to travel around the Amstel River, a handful of canals and into the channel which leads to the North Sea, passing many houses, museums and houseboats along the way. It was interesting seeing all the houses which have a winch hook at the top of the building. These were used when the buildings were first built as lack of space meant narrow staircases and meant removal men needed another way to get furniture upstairs. In fact, new buildings are built in the same style and these winch lifts are still used today if you need to move!
Our tour ended just before 8 and we raced to the Irish pub from yesterday just in time to order some half price, happy hour beers! Whilst there we tucked into some traditional Dutch food – I had shepherd’s pie and Elizabeth had bangers and mash! Suitably filled to the brim and having let the sun go down, we walked around the neighbouring red light district to give Elizabeth a first proper taster of the girls in the windows. I think she was surprised by the variety of them from all creeds and colours, all ages and all shapes and sizes! At one point we saw a collection of people around a window and when we got around the corner we saw the police had pulled a guy out of one of the rooms and were intently questioning him. This was all very interesting but I couldn’t help but notice the black “lady” coming out of her window to have a look who seemed to have a problem adjusting “her” penis in her bikini bottoms… We worked our way around some of the small alleyways and back towards our hostel to get some well earned rest.
August 5, 2010
Sleep was at a premium last night as we were joined in our dorm room by two obnoxious people. They were a couple but returned to the room at different times. The first, the girl, returned around 1am and turned the bathroom light on while she sat right by my bed rifling through her suitcase for about half an hour. When she finally actually got into bed, she left her stinking shoes by me, dumped her small bag on top of our food in the cupboard and made plenty of noise getting changed. She was actually worse when she fell asleep as her snoring shook the room. A while later, nearer 2am, her companion returned and took up just about the same routine – turning the bathroom light on and sitting on the floor for half an hour going through his stuff. At least his stinky shoes weren’t left right by me and he didn’t snore!
When we both awoke after little sleep, we grabbed breakfast and then walked out to the Verzetsmuseum. This museum highlights the Dutch resistance to the German occupation during WWII. The museum was really well laid out and the exhibits were interesting. I found it quite intriguing how the people who went into “hiding” were expected to pay for the room they hid in and in many cases even expected to do chores, almost being treated as slaves. These people often had no choice as their hosts would threaten to hand them over to the Germans if they didn’t comply. Equally though, one story told of a Jewish boy who was stealing the family silver where he was hiding. When they confronted him he told them he would tell the Germans they were hiding Jews if they reported him. Seems the bribery often worked both ways. It was also interesting to note that the Dutch were the first to have mass protests and strikes when the Jews were deported. Their reactions to the deportations got many of them into trouble with the Germans but they still stuck together and this included a huge rail strike which lasted for a considerable time to try and stop the deportations during early 1945 and lasted until the end of the war. It was also interesting to see the reactions in Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies as it was then known. Despite both Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies undergoing wartime occupation, it seemed the Dutch still expected the Indonesians to accept their rule even after the war. It struck me as surprising that the Dutch hadn’t learnt anything about being a territory occupied by force and still wanted to inflict similar occupation on the Indonesians. Granted, the Dutch reasons were far different to those of Nazi Germany but you would’ve thought they’d have showed a bit more compassion and common sense.
For lunch we stopped at a little café serving lovely burgers. I had a spicy lamb burger and Elizabeth had a beef one with grilled vegetables. They were both really tasty and they were really big too which made them an ideal base for our visit to a bar called the Bierbrouwerij. Here we tasted five of their homemade beers and they were all pretty good except for the first glass of pilsner which was really bitter. The more tasty beers were a white beer, spicy amber, “dubbel” and a special edition which was similar to the amber. It was quite a walk back into the centre from this area just east of the city but it was a really nice day and it was good to feel like we were getting some exercise.
Our next stop was the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam. Here there was a special exhibit on so we had to pay 2 Euros to get in. Usually it would’ve been free under our Museumkaarts. The exhibit focused on two photographers called Van Lamsweerde and Matadin who are famous for their works for advertising campaigns and magazines such as Vogue. The pictures displayed here were merely copies of previously published pictures and this was really disappointing as I felt it didn’t really showcase any talents which couldn’t be seen elsewhere. Compared to the other museum of photography the other day, which dealt with less famous and more interesting subjects, this exhibit focused on pictures of Kate Moss which you can see in a million places without requiring a museum visit. Why pay to see an exhibit full of adverts you see for free? These pictures were taken by someone who was paid for the privilege, of someone who was paid for the privilege and previously printed or used by someone for their own gains. I felt slightly cheated and wished I’d spent our 2 Euros each on buying Vogue as at least I’d have got to read the articles! This was definitely the most disappointing museum we’ve been to here and certainly one of the worst photography displays I’ve seen in terms of content.
We decided to have a cheap dinner at the hostel tonight to save money and provide us with more funds for a decent night out on either Friday or Saturday when there will be more people around and the city will be busier. We went to the nearby supermarket where I got some bread and pate and Elizabeth got a salad. It wasn’t exactly cordon bleu cuisine but it was good enough for us!
August 6, 2010
I didn’t seem to get much sleep last night either but we didn’t have the luxury today of a lie in. We were starting the day early at the Van Gogh Museum and we wanted to get there for opening time given the queues we had seen each day when we have walked past. When we arrived half an hour before opening time the queue was already quite long but at least we knew at 10 the queue would get moving. Just before 10 a guy from the museum came along and said anyone with tickets could join a different, shorter queue and get immediately inside. Our museumkaarts were good for this and we were able to skip the queue and get right on in!
We headed straight for the top floor, as we generally do in museum, although this meant we really saw the exhibit backwards! The top floor was a variety of different paintings of which a couple were by Van Gogh himself but most interesting was a painting done by Gauguin. It was a portrait of Van Gogh showing him at a window whilst painting a vase of, you guessed it, sunflowers. The detail with the portrait seemed to assume that it was Gauguin’s way of making fun of Van Gogh’s obsession with the flower. This floor also contained pictures of night, street scenes which depicted women walking alone in the streets. The common thought here is that these women were prostitutes as in that era women rarely walked alone around the darkened streets. One however labeled the woman as “probably a lesbian” although I’m not sure how anyone reached that conclusion.
The next floor down had a variety of other prints including works by Monet, Manet, Gauguin. The Monet pictures were interesting as there were many different styles. One such painting of the Japanese Bridge looked like the typical Monet style but others of boat and harbour scenes looked much different and more representative of other artists at the time.
The next floor down contained a history of Van Gogh paintings and as we’d started from the top rather than bottom floor we ended up starting in 1890, the year of his death. He had only been a painter for the final ten years of his life but in that time had produced over 800 paintings and 1,000 drawings, not to mention other sketches and such like included in letters he sent to his brother Theo. Thanks to Theo’s enthusiasm and support for his brother, much of the items had been kept and remain today, albeit not on display due to the fragile nature of most of the letters. Given how prolific Van Gogh was in such a short space of time, he rarely sold anything during his lifetime, a fact which played on his mind a lot and let to him committing himself to a hospital and mental institute before taking his own life. He felt an obligation towards Theo, too, as his brother had encouraged him throughout the decade and financially supported him most of that time, too. As well of the frustrations of not succeeding, Vincent felt he had let his brother down. Van Gogh even went out of his way to paint pictures of things he thought people would want to buy and even still he only sold a couple of pictures during his lifetime. In fact, it was his brother’s wife who pushed his work. After Vincent’s death, Theo died just 6 months later and his widow took it upon herself to collect and promote as much of Vincent’s work as she could. She even arranged the for the body of her husband to be moved to be next to Vincent – Theo had been buried near his home in the Netherlands and Vincent was in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris.
The range of Van Gogh paintings in the museum though was brilliant and really started with his painting called The Potato Eaters from 1885 which didn’t display any of the colour for which he in now known. The picture of his yellow house in Arles entitled “The Street” from 1888 and the famous picture of his bedroom from the same house and same year were shown and very popular with the building crowd inside the museum. There was one of the famous sunflower pictures here, too, of which there are apparently 5 remaining. There was also a comment here about how Gauguin loved the paintings of the sunflowers so much despite having previously mocked Van Gogh for continuing to use them as a subject matter. One of my favourite pictures was a painting called Wheatfield with Crows which he painted in 1890 not long before he died. The sky in the painting is much darker than some of his other landscapes and the crows also indicate some signs of depression and unhappiness during his final weeks in Auvers.
The museum was really well done and told the story of Van Gogh’s life as an artist brilliantly and even with the larger crowds entering as we neared the end, the large open areas made it easy enough to view and move between the paintings easily. For me this was probably the best thing we’d seen in Amsterdam so far.
After lunch back at the hostel we went to the Heineken Experience. One flyer said that it wasn’t a museum, it was a complete experience! The Experience went through the history of the Heineken family the growth of this company, which is still privately owned. It told the story of the different generations who took over the running of the company and building of the brand right up to “Freddy” Heineken, the chief honcho in charge at the time Heineken adopted their current branding complete with red star and slightly up-turned, smiling “e”s! The next few rooms went through the brewing process and having seen that in the past we skipped through fairly quickly. This building was the original purchased by the family when they setup the brewery and still housed some of the old features including the brew room with the bronze vats still in place. They even had shire horses still in the stables although I doubt these are used to transport beer around the city nowadays!
The next exhibit was the “Brew U”. This is a 4-D experience with shaking floors and water splashes combined with a video where you are made into a beer! From there you enter the first tasting room where you get a small beer to sample while a barman tells you what to look for. I was lucky enough to be stood right by a couple of extra beers the barman poured so got an additional freebie! After that, the next few exhibits were interactive where you could practice pouring a beer, laze and watch Heineken commercials through the ages and also create your own bottle! We decided to create our own labels and be real tourists for once! There was a short display on some wank-fest top level football competition which Heineken sponsors (the UEFA Champions League, for those of you that care, is one of the most lucrative sporting events in world sport and is a symbol of all that is wrong with the beautiful game in the 21st Century and one that even Sky can’t be blamed for “inventing”. Just to provide clarity as well, the requirement now for entering the CHAMPIONS League is finishing anywhere from fourth upwards in some countries. The ironic and, frankly, incorrect use of the word “Champions” is ready for an EU legal case, surely…)
Anyway, with that digression out of the way, we headed to the bar where we were able to taste two beers. We both opted for the Heineken Extra Cold as it is much nicer than the regular beer they make. The Experience was pretty good fun and a different way to spend an afternoon and although it was expensive (12 Euros each as we had a discount voucher, usually 15 Euros) it did provide a couple of beers at the end! After a trip to the shop to collect our personalized beer bottles we headed out to try and find some dinner. We didn’t find anything which looked very good for food and anything we did find seemed expensive. The area around the Heineken Experience is also another red light area of the city and nothing looked very good there, either!
After heading back to the hostel and leaving our beer purchases behind, we went for a walk around. The intent was to get some traditional Dutch food but everything we saw was either not Dutch, bloody expensive or both! We’d eaten in the hostel last night and had a couple of cheap lunches with the main purpose of having money to spend tonight on a decent meal but when it came down to it, neither of us felt we could justify a main course which cost around 20 Euros, or over $25. Increasingly frustrated, we gave up the search for Dutch food and started looking at anything we could find. We eventually found an Indian restaurant which had decent priced dishes and pints of beer for just 3 Euros – half the price we’d seen most places. We decided to substitute Indian for Dutch and we weren’t disappointed. It was still quite pricey at the end but we felt like we had actually gotten what we wanted which was a couple of poppadums, Chicken Madras (for Elizabeth, really hot!), Lamb Rogan Josh (for me, spicy but not too much), a garlic naan, onion bhajis and a couple of beers. It came out to cost 36 Euros which for us was a major splurge on one meal but we both left stuffed to the brim with good curry and glad we’d made the right choice. I’m sorry to talk about food and money but we are reaching a point in the trip where things are getting quite expensive and we know food is one way where we might be able to control it – the trouble is, we don’t want to eat sandwiches made from ingredients we stole from the buffet breakfast or whatever we can grab at the supermarket all of the time as we’d soon get bored of seeing the inside of the hotel/hostel we were at. We have to eat out sometimes!