Archive for August, 2014

Invergordon, Scotland

     After a day at sea, the morning of August 1 found us sailing up the Cromarty Firth (a firth is an inlet or bay leading to the sea) to Invergordon, Scotland. This is a town in the highlands of northern Scotland not far from Inverness. It is a mostly rural area & Invergordon is a small town that specializes in repairing oil platforms & making whisky (yep, this is Scotland). It was a very foggy & cloudy day, which lent the area an atmosphere right out of Macbeth.

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     There is not a lot to see in Invergordon so the thing to do here was to see the highlands, which we did on a bus excursion. When we disembarked there was a single piper walking back and forth on the pier to welcome us.

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     We drove through the hilly region for a while, along rivers & lakes (lochs) and through several small towns characterized by square stone buildings, lots of chimney pots & flowers. We passed several whisky distilleries and many farms. We stopped in a small town called Beauly (pop. about 1,000), reputedly named by Mary Queen of Scots who remarked in French during a visit that it was a beautiful place (“Beaulieu”). It was very nice, despite the gloomy weather, but it seemed pretty typical of the towns we saw. It was notable for the ruins of a 13th Century priory.

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     Our first destination was Urquhart Castle, a ruin that sits on the shore of Loch Ness. First built in the 13th Century on older foundations, it is one of the largest castles in Scotland. It has been under public control for about 100 years.

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The castle is at a strategic spot on the shore of Loch Ness & had a very bloody and complicated history with control shifting back and forth among a long list of English & Scottish aristocrats.  This was particularly true during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th Century, which involved Robert Bruce and Williams Wallace on the Scottish side countering repeated nvasions by English Kings Edward I, II & III. It was again a point of contention during the Jacobite uprising that began in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution when William of Orange was placed on the English throne to replace the deposed James II of England (who was also James VII of Scotland). The English-sympathizing Grants who held the castle at that time withstood a siege by the Jacobites (who supported the exiled James), then when they left the castle in 1690 they blew up the gatehouse to ensure the Jacobites could not occupy it. There is still masonry lying in front of the gatehouse from that explosion. After that the castle fell into disuse.

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The curtain wall up the hill on the right is the oldest part of the ruins, dating to the 13th Century and probably built by Alan Durward.  The Grant Tower, the most prominent feature on the left, was built by (you guessed it) the Grants.  It once had turrets on each of its four corners.

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As I mentioned, the castle sits on the shore of Loch Ness, a huge lake 23 miles long and up to 750 feet deep where the Loch Ness Monster is said to hang out.  We didn’t see the real monster, although there were lots of stuffed ones in the gift shop at the castle & elsewhere in the area. Loch Ness contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England & Wales combined. There are great views of the Loch from Urquhart Castle.

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So the castle was very interesting to explore, as you could climb up to the top of the tower and wander through the ruins.  But our time was pretty limited so we didn’t get a chance to visit the old part on the hill. We also saw a movie in the visitor’s center about the castle’s history & there was a gift shop selling everything from stuffed Nessie toys to whiskey (I was told later they were giving away free tastes, but we missed that). Altogether well worth visiting.

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     Next we headed for Inverness where we had lunch. But first I should mention the Great Glen, a series of glens (river valleys) lying on a geological fault line running across northern Scotland from Inverness in the east to Fort William in the west. Five Lochs are aligned along this fault: Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, Loch Lochy and Loch Linnhe. There are also rivers connecting the Lochs, including the River Ness, which runs through Inverness. In the early 19th Century the Caledonian Canal was built to connect all of these watery features into a navigable passage all the way through northern Scotland from the east coast to the west coast. The canal is some 60 miles long but only about a third of it is man made. It has a couple of dozen locks (not to be confused with lochs). We rode along the canal & the River Ness on our approach to Inverness.

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After a short drive through Inverness (no stops, so only quick pictures from a moving bus window) we had a very nice lunch at the Kingsmills Hotel.  The lunch included the Scottish favorite haggis. For those who don’t know this is made from sheep’s entrails (heart, liver & lungs), minced with spices, oatmeal and onion, all encased in a sheep’s stomach (today they use sausage casings) and simmered for 3 hours. It looks like a hockey puck on the plate, round and black.  Yes, we tasted it, so now we have done it and never have to do it again.  Some of the people on the tour  really loved it, though, and ate more than one.

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     I mentioned above the Scottish Jacobite resistance that arose when the Scottish house of Stuart was summarily replaced as English monarchs in 1688 by William and Mary (the Dutch William III of Orange & his wife Mary Stuart, daughter of the deposed James II of England).  In 1745 this cause was revived by Charles Stuart, grandson of James II known as “the Young Pretender” (in later years he was often called “Bonnie Prince Charlie”). Charles landed in Scotland from exile in France & raised an army among the highlanders. They took Edinburgh & successfully marched south well into England. But his military leaders decided to retreat rather than continue to London because of little support among the English and a fear of English military strength. The uprising ended at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 when the British crushed the Scotts on an open marshy field, then pursued the remnants of the Scottish forces relentlessly. The battle lasted less than an hour, with close to 2,000 Jacobite casualties against only about 300 for the English. This turned out to be the last battle ever fought on British soil. Charles escaped & was spirited out of Scotland dressed as a lady’s maid after an epic flight, then spent the rest of his life in exile. Sir Walter Scott portrayed this uprising from the Scottish point of view in his first novel, Waverly.

So after lunch we proceeded to visit the battlefield at Culloden. It was, as you might expect from the description above, a large open field. There were flags marking the British lines (red) and the Scottish lines (blue) at the beginning of the battle. But really there wasn’t much else, beyond the usual feeling of being on a spot where history was made. If we had had time to visit the visitor’s center we might have learned a little more about it.

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Prince William, Duke of Cumberland was the English commander at Culloden, and his brutal campaign to find & execute the remnants of the Jacobite army earned him the nickname “the butcher.”  There is a noxious yellow wildflower that seems to grow everywhere along the roadside in this part of Scotland that the Scots call “Stinking Willie” or “Stinking Billy,” reflecting their view of Prince William the Butcher.

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     We proceeded to our last stop, Cawdor Castle. This was the reason we picked this excursion over several others, because at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is made the Thane (lord) of Cawdor, & that is presumably where King Duncan is then murdered.  Unfortunately, this is hogwash (as is much of Shakespeare’s history).  The real Duncan was actually killed in battle, and Macbeth crowned King, in 1040; neither of these events occurred at Cawdor Castle, which wasn’t even built for another 350 years. The real Macbeth was never Thane of Cawdor & he was king of Scotland for some 17 years.  Nonetheless, Duncan’s comment in the play when first reaching the castle (Shakespeare never actually calls it Cawdor castle) is pretty apt (Macbeth Act 1 Scene 5):

                       This Castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
                       Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
                       Unto our gentle senses’

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     Unlike Urquhart, Cawdor Castle is an intact house in which the owners still live. The castle came into the hands of the Campbell family in 1510 when Muriel Calder (the original spelling of Cawdor) married Sir John Campbell. Today, Colin Campbell is the 7th Earl of Cawdor and his stepmother lives in the castle during the off season. The Campbells are actively involved in running the castle; the Earl’s wife was there on the day we visited.  Our bus driver saw her come into the cafeteria & clear the dishes from an abandoned table.  I would say that is pretty hands-on! The central tower dates to the 15th Century, although part of it may date to the late 14th Century.One interesting thing in the castle is the remains of an old holly tree.  Legend has it that the castle was built around a living tree after a donkey, carrying gold, lay down to rest under it. Scientists have determined that the tree in the castle died in the 1370’s, so that may be when the first part of the castle was built.  Unfortunately, no photography is permitted inside the castle so you won’t see any of that here.  But it has extensive and beautiful gardens.

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I guess that, before leaving Cawdor’s gardens, this would be an appropriate place for today’s set of flower pictures. A lot of these are from the gardens at Cawdor Castle.

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    As our bus neared the dock about 5 minutes after the all aboard deadline our guide said “Well we’re right on time.”  I doubt the ship’s officers would have agreed, but fortunately this was a ship-sponsored excursion so they had to wait for us. The day had finally turned sunny & on the way home there were massive clouds shining in the sunlight.

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   On the way to the sea we passed the town of Cromarty (population under 1000) on the opposite shore from Invergordon. It looks like a nice little village with a lot of local character judging from the buildings. There was a small lighthouse there. Cromarty dates back to the 13th Century.

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     And so we sailed out of Cromarty Firth into a dramatic ocean view, and headed for the Shetland Islands.

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Amsterdam, Netherlands (Day 2)

     Wednesday, July 30, turned out to be bright & sunny. But it was a short day, since we had to be on board to sail away by 3:30, so we limited ourselves to two primary objectives: the library (of course) & the Jewish Museum.  The library was only a few minutes walk from the cruise terminal so we went there first. On the way we saw a family of swans that was upset because one of the youngsters had entangled its foot in a vine & couldn’t free itself.  The adult swans mostly swam around it, poking with their beaks & crying; they had no idea how to help. We would have helped but there was no way to get down to the swans from where we were.  Fortunately, when we returned in the afternoon the swans were gone, so hopefully that means someone was able to help them.

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     The Bibliotheek Amsterdam was completed in 2007. It is huge: ten floors, 600 public computer stations & almost 2 million books. It includes an auditorium, a museum & a restaurant. It is located about halfway between the central train station & the cruise port.

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The inside is very spacious.  We only went up to the second floor, from which there was a nice view.  They say the view of the city from the upper floors is unsurpassed, and many of the work stations look out on a panorama of the city, but we didn’t go up that far.

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The children’s area was particularly nice: lots of space, with separate reading areas set off by circular bookcases. There were stuffed animals & bright wall decorations. In the center was a fantastic dollhouse for mice, who were doing everything from hanging out clothes to making shoes. This is called the Muizenhuis (Mouse Mansion) and was made almost entirely by hand. It was difficult to photograph because of the reflections from the glass case, but you will get the idea.

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     Floating on the water just outside the library is a large restaurant shaped like a Chinese pagoda. We were told that when it was first erected the Chinese who built it specified the number of people it could safely hold.  But on the night it opened the restaurant began sinking even though there were only that many people inside. Later they concluded this was because Dutch people are generally a good bit heavier than the Chinese, so the same number of people created quite a bit more weight.

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     We walked on toward the Jewish Museum, passing more interesting buildings on the way.  One of them was Rembrandt’s house, now a museum. He lived here in his later years & it has been restored with furniture reflecting the inventory on his bankruptcy petition.  It also has a collection of Rembrandt’s graphics, but no paintings.  We looked in at the gift shop, but there was a hefty fee & we wanted to maintain our focus on our main objective so we passed up a tour.

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     This is a good place to talk about bicycles, which you have seen in a lot of the pictures here.  Amsterdam is full of them; we had never seen anything like it. The city has separate paths for bikes that are colored sort of pink & pedestrians are warned not to walk on them to avoid being hurt.  The bike paths have their own separate traffic lights. We were told that Amsterdamers often have two bikes: a nice one to keep at home and a cheap one that they park in the city, because bike thefts are rampant. Every year they go through the canals to dredge up all the bikes that irritated residents have thrown into the water. Anyway, throughout the city you will see bikes parked along the canal edges, on the bridges and in huge parking areas near the central station. Its an integral part of Amsterdam culture.

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     The first Jews in Amsterdam were Sephardim who were expelled from Spain in 1492 (along with some Marranos, Jews who had converted to Christianity under duress but practiced Judaism in secret).  Many of them arrived in Amsterdam in the last decade of the 16th Century, after the Dutch Republic won its independence from Spain. Ashkenazi Jews first arrived from central and eastern Europe in the 17th Century & by the end of that Century they represented about two thirds of the city’s 7,500 Jews. In the 1670’s each of these Jewish communities built a large synagogue, which stand almost across the street from each other. Of course, during World War II the Jewish community in Amsterdam was devastated by the Nazis. Of the approximately 80,000 Jews at the beginning of the war, about 10% of the city’s population, only about 15,000 survived. Most people know the Anne Frank story & some 25,000 other Jews also went into hiding (although many of them paid large amounts to those who hid them),. But about a third of those were ultimately discovered and sent to concentration camps, some (like the Franks) having been betrayed by Amsterdam citizens. Today there are about 15,000 in the Amsterdam Jewish community.

     The Jewish Historical Museum encompasses the Great Synagogue of Amsterdam, built by the Ashkenazi, and three smaller newer synagogues. We visited the Great Synagogue, but never found the way to the others (we were a little pressed for time because of the ship’s early scheduled departure).

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On the balcony is a large exhibit tracing Jewish history in Amsterdam. The balcony was restored after World War II, during which it had been broken up and used for fuel.  On the main floor is a vast collection of old and beautiful artifacts, including several colorful old haggadahs and paintings of the Grote Synagogue in use (my pictures of these are not in focus because it was pretty dark & there are reflections on the protective glass, but I will include one here anyway since it is all I have).

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     The museum ticket included admission to the Portuguese Synagogue (or Esnoga in Ladino, the language of Iberian Jews) across the street. The Sephardic Jews all called themselves Portuguese to avoid identification with Spain, which accounts for the name of their synagogue. This is the congregation that famously expelled the liberal philosopher Spinoza. It is very large and beautiful on the inside with lots of polished wood.

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     Perhaps this is a good place for flowers. Since this is a big city (the largest on our cruise, by far) these are not wildflowers.  But the city is really filled with colorful flowers.  Of course, flowers are a Dutch tradition, dating back to the “tulip mania” of the 17th Century when the price of some tulip bulbs rose precipitously until the bubble finally burst.  There is still a bustling tulip market in central Amsterdam.  Anyway, here are some flowers (but no tulips; after all it was almost August).

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     It was pretty crowded all over town on this day.  Of course, it was the end of July, so that is probably high tourist season, and there was also quite a lot of construction, which crowded folks together even more.  But another reason for the crowds was that this was the week of the Amsterdam Gay Pride celebration, which apparently always brings in the crowds. I imagine it would be quite a bit more crowded once the weekend came.

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As we walked back we passed some more miscellaneous interesting stuff.  One interesting thing is that most of the narrow townhouses have large hooks on beams sticking out from their gables.  These are used to move large items of furniture in and out of the upper floors through windows that are easily removed and replaced. These narrow houses tend to have curving staircases too narrow for anything large to pass by so this has become the normal method of moving in and out. I have read that these houses are usually tall and narrow because at one time houses were valued for tax purposes solely by their width, so people tried to build their houses as narrow as possible while making up the space in height & depth. While passing through Dam Square we noticed that on the back of the national monument to war dead there were living pigeons entertainingly posiing on stone pigeons that were part of the monument.

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     So we made it back to the ship in plenty of time. There are a lot of characteristically Amsterdam style buildings near the cruise port, many of which we passed going from & coming to the ship.  Notable among them is the Basilica of St. Nicholas, the city’s main Catholic church. Next to it is the Schreierstoren, a 15th Century tower that was originally part of the city walls. Others seen here, like those included earlier, are just buildings we found interesting and attractive.

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     So we left Amsterdam on time in late afternoon. To reach the ocean you have to sail along a canal and then pass through locks to the sea. They were interesting, but nothing like the locks in the Panama Canal.  Unlike in Panama, it appears that these locks are only to allow shutting out the ocean from the canal and not to change the level of the ship passing through. After passing the locks we headed north to Scotland.

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Amsterdam, Netherlands (Day 1)

     After a sea day, when we opened the curtains on Tuesday, July 29 we were docked in Amsterdam. This city probably needs no introduction.  Its population is something more than 800,000. It is built mostly, if not entirely, on land reclaimed from the sea & it therefore sits below sea level. Like Venice, central Amsterdam is laid out on a series of canals & it is supported by millions of wooden pilings (ie. tree trunks) driven into the soft muddy soil. The canals are arranged four deep in a semicircle around the train station. Last year they celebrated the 400th anniversary of the building of the canal system.

     We were in Amsterdam for an overnight visit.  It is a very enjoyable walking city, so we decided to explore it on foot.  Over the two days we walked about 15 miles. The remarkable thing about this is that just before reaching Amsterdam Mary came down with a nasty cold & cough.  The Veendam was actually something of a plague ship throughout the cruise.  From just about the first day you would constantly hear loud coughing everywhere people were gathered, including in excursion buses where you couldn’t really get away from it. So it wasn’t the notorious Norovirus that you often hear about on cruise ships, but this illness involving headaches, coughing & congestion was most unpleasant, particularly when you are supposed to be on vacation. Worse, just when you thought you were getting better it would heat up for a second round. As I write this (August 20) we are at home but still not entirely over it. So Mary’s walking 15 miles in two days with that illness shows a remarkable fortitude & also just how determined she was to see Amsterdam.

     Everyone from Rick Steves to our excellent onboard travel guide Barbara had warned us that ticket lines at the Rijksmuseum would be impossibly long & that the only way to see it in a reasonable amount of time would be to purchase timed tickets ahead online. It seems that the museum just opened again last summer after being closed for a decade for renovation. Well, we hadn’t bought tickets ahead of time (we are never confident enough in a strange city of being there at the time on the ticket) but the Rijksmuseum was at the top of our list of things to see here. So we decided to go there first & if we missed some other things because of time spent standing in line there, so be it. Thus, after breakfast we set out on foot from the ship.

     From the cruise ship it was about a 15 minute walk to the central train station. It was a cloudy morning so things looked a little gray; I have included a picture of the station taken on the second day which was beautiful & sunny. We were very lucky with the weather; we were told that it rained steadily for three days before our arrival. You will notice that there appear to be redundant clocks, one in each tower.  In fact, the one on the left is part of the weathervane with compass points rather than hour numbers.

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We walked up the Damrak, the central boulevard, to the Dam Square. This was a very busy commercial district & most of the street was dug up for construction. In the Dam Square is the Royal Palace.  It was built in the 17th Century as the town hall and only became a royal palace in 1806 when Napoleon’s brother became king of Holland. That only lasted a few years, but it continued as a royal venue under the dynasty of the house of Orange.

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Walking on in what we mistakenly believed was the direction of the Rijksmuseum, we transited some interesting neighborhoods before coming to Rembrandtplein. This square (plein means square or plaza) is a center of nightlife in Amsterdam, but this was morning so it was pretty deserted. There was a nice statue of Rembrandt himself in the center. One of the interesting things along the way there was a building covered with cloth for renovation, which required a second look before we realized that what looked almost like a building was actually painted on the cloth.

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Discovering that we had wandered away from the route to the Rijksmuseum we walked along some canals & crossed some bridges to get back on track. On one impressive stone bridge were street lamps topped with the Austrian Imperial Crown. We later saw similar street lamps in many places in the central city. The canals are mostly lined with houseboats, many of which are permanently moored in cement bases. We were told that this was a post-war phenomenon, when people lived in boats temporarily while the buildings in the city were restored.  It turned out that many people liked it so much that they wanted to stay permanently, and now the houseboats are an established part of the city.  In addition to its stone and brick bridges Amsterdam has a number of small drawbridges that can be raised for taller boats. 

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     Finally we came to the Rijksmuseum.  It is a beautiful, elaborately decorated 19th Century building that was, as I mentioned, recently restored. There is a broad passageway including a bike path through the middle of the building and, when we walked through it, we could see the bottom floor through large windows.  At one unassuming door was a sign saying that standing in line is part of the Rijksmuseum experience (thanks a lot!), & that this would be the front of the line.  But there was no line there, so we went inside. After walking around the massive Atrium (former interior courtyards now covered with glass) for a few minutes we came to the actual ticket counter, where there was a very short line. We couldn’t believe this was the real entrance after all the warnings abut long lines, but it was, and after about 5 minutes we had our tickets and were in the museum!

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There is a lot in this museum (some 8,000 items from a collection of about a million) but our time was limited so we headed up to the main floor with all the masterpieces. At the top of the stairway is the Great Hall with stained glass windows each dedicated to a different area of art. The walls were covered with paintings designed to be allegorical representations of patriotic virtues . Sadly, the light was pretty low in the museum & a lot of my pictures came out too unclear to use, but I will include a few that aren’t perfectly focused just because I liked the pictures. But you can see much better pictures of these & thousands of other paintings here on the Rijksmuseum’s website:

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   An opening in the back of the Great Hall leads to the Gallery of Honor, a wide hallway lined with side galleries leading to Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” on the wall opposite the Great Hall. The Gallery of Honor is kind of a “greatest hits” collection of 17 Century Dutch painting, which is considered the Dutch Golden Age. Its pretty awesome, a very lively space filled entirely with masterpieces, many of which you have seen in reproduction time and again: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Ruysdael, Steen, etc.

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As you can see from some of the pictures above, group portraits of professional or military or other organizations were a big thing in Holland in the 17th Century.  This reflects, among other things, the growing wealth of the Dutch in this period & the emergence of the middle class in the country at the expense of the aristocracy who had previously been the prime patrons of the arts.  The Dutch painters in this period were turning more to scenes from real life as opposed to religious themes (although those hardly died out), and the museum contains a lot of Dutch paintings of partying in public houses & elsewhere.

     The museum’s centerpiece, of course, is Rembrandt’s massive “Night Watch”, which is in its own hall at the end of the Gallery of Honor. This is a group portrait of a militia company and was later called Night Watch because of its dark tone. It was innovative in a number of ways, most noticeably in the activity of the men in the group (compare the static poses in the group portraits above). There is always a huge crowd around this painting & it is difficult to get an unobstructed view (at least if you are my limited height).  In fact the whole Gallery of Honor was filled with crowds that made it difficult & time consuming to get near the paintings.  Imagine what it must be like on a day when the lines are really out the door!

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     We walked through a number of other galleries containing paintings and other objects of art.  Too much to describe & there are only a few pictures, so these are a few random things I found interesting. We were a little surprised to find some galleries with more modern art, particularly Van Gogh since there is a separate museum dedicated to his work. After viewing a lot of art we had a beer in the cafeteria in the Atrium, a delightful spot to relax.

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We went out the back of the museum where there is a large park surrounded by art museums which was called, logically, Museumplein.  The Rijksmuseum has magnificently colorful gardens & there is a pond in the middle of the park that was surrounded by people. “Iamsterdam” appears to be a municipal slogan, which we saw several places & you can buy an “Iamsterdam” card for instant admittance to several museums. Around this park we saw (but didn’t have time to visit) the Van Gogh museum, the Stedelijk Museum, dedicated to modern art, and the Goncertgebouw, Amsterdam’s famous concert hall.

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     So we headed back toward the center of town, stopping to see the Begijnhof, a courtyard surrounded by Amsterdam-style tall townhouses. Originally built in the 14th Century as a home for Beguines, groups of unmarried religious women who did not take monastic vows. The Begijnhof has a gatehouse above which is a plaque to St. Ursula, one of the group’s patrons.

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In the Begijnhof is the oldest house in Amsterdam, Het Houten Huys, a wooden structure built in 1528. After a series of devastating fires in the 15th Century, which destroyed many of the buildings in Begijnhof, in the 16th Century new wooden buildings were banned, so this is one of only two left in the old city of Amsterdam. The last Beguine here died in 1971 and a couple of years later a statue was erected to their memory.  However even today this courtyard is occupied exclusively by single women.

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The Beguines built a church in the 15th Century, but when Amsterdam suddenly became Protestant in 1578 & public Catholic worship was outlawed this church was confiscated and turned over to the English Presbyterians.  It is now called the English Reform Church (it has been suggested that the Pilgrims may have worshipped here before leaving for Massachusetts). After that the Catholics worshipped secretly in a couple of houses across the way. The tower of the church is still the original.

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     So we walked by some more interesting neighborhoods, past the house on three canals (really, canals on 3 sides of it), then came to the university. At the entry was an elaborately sculpted stone & brick baroque gate to the Agnietenkapel, originally built in 1571 and moved to this location in 1631. The Agnietenkapel was originally the chapel of St. Agnes Convent until the Protestant conversion of Amsterdam, then it served as a school.


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     We walked on past more interesting buildings & bridges & came to the Waag, a 15th Century building with octagonal turrets that was once a gatehouse in the city walls. It later served as the weighing house (from which its name), a firehouse & as the home of the Guild of Surgeons, when Rembrandt’s paintings of anatomy lessons hung here. Today it appears to be a café.

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     We walked on to see the 13th Century Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building. It was getting late & we were pretty tired (especially Mary from being sick) so we didn’t go in. We did walk all the way around it & discovered that we were in the Red Light District. Prostitution has long been legal in notoriously tolerant Amsterdam, and in the Red Light district scantily clad women sit in windows to advertise their wares. There were signs banning photos so you won’t see any here (if you google it you will find a lot). It was an odd thing to find next to a venerable church!

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     After arriving back at the ship we grabbed a bit to eat then set out on what was billed as a candlelight boat tour through the canals, with cheese & wine to enjoy on the way. I think I may have mentioned In an earlier episode that we planned this trip with two couples who were assigned to eat at the same table with us on the South American cruise in 2012. We decided that if we all could stand each other every night for two months on that cruise we probably could make it through 5 weeks together on this one.  This turned out to be a very good decision as we had a very enjoyable reunion.  Anyway, this canal excursion was supposed to be with them, but since only four could sit at one table together we ended up at another table across the aisle. Still, they look like they were doing just fine without us.

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It turned out not to be a candlelight tour because the sun didn’t set until we got back.  But it was enjoyable nonetheless seeing everything from a completely different perspective with a guide who was very good.  It was over too soon (much sooner than the advertising led us to believe), particularly since the Dutch cheeses (four types were served) & the unlimited wine were pretty good.

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We saw several town houses leaning precariously against other houses.  Our guide explained that some of the wooden pilings on which they were built have deteriorated so the weight of the house makes it droop on that side.  If there is no other building there to lean against they could fall, so they would have to be demolished or else new cement pilings would have to be inserted.  It looks pretty bizarre from the canal though.

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We passed several drawbridges & one spot where you could see up to seven bridges in a row down the canal.

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We passed by the Anne Frank house, where the Frank family was hidden from the Nazis for several years (all but the father ended up dying at Auschwitz shortly before the end of the war).  This is one of Amsterdam’s busiest attractions, and because only a handful of people can go in at one time there are always long lines.  It was late evening when we passed and the lines were still there. (I think the picture is of the reception building rather than the actual house which is probably next door.)

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So that was it, at the end of a very long and interesting and tiring day. Just as we got back to the ship we were rewarded with a dramatic sunset. And we went to bed because we knew we had another challenging day ahead.

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Stavanger, Norway

     We arrived on July 27 at Stavanger (sta-VANG-ger, with a soft g), Norway. A fishing town for most of its history, Stavanger is now the third largest city in Norway with more than 100,000 people & the center of Norway’s booming North Sea oil industry. We were told that 1 out of 10 citizens is a millionaire (but a million dollars or a million kroner? It makes a difference with an exchange rate of about 6 to 1).  There is an oil museum here to emphasize this, but we didn’t go there.

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     We signed on for a boat trip to nearby Lysefjorden, a neighboring fjord. We headed out of the harbor, under a bridge. We passed a very large car ferry & a house sitting alone in the water. Lots of folks apparently have summer houses on the many islands in the area, most of which require a boat to reach them.


We passed a number of scenic islands & a bridge on our way to the fjord. Many of these islands had isolated summer or weekend homes.


     As we entered the fjord the landscape became very rocky & the cliffs on either side grew higher. The rocky cliffs were quite beautiful.  We saw a cave in one of the cliffs where some criminals had hidden out for a long time.


    We pulled over to the side to see 3 goats. This was obviously not a random sighting.  The goats knew all about the boat & when they saw us they hauled their little behinds over as fast as they could.  They were not disappointed, as the boat operator gave them some food.  It looked like they have a regular job in the tourist industry.

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     Next we came to the most famous item in this fjord & the reason most visitors come here. Called Pulpit Rock (Prekestolen), this is a flat-topped outcropping of rock at the top of one of the cliff walls, some 2,000 feet up from the water. It looks pretty tiny from the water, but it’s not really.

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Many people come out here to climb to the top of Pulpit Rock.  If you google it you will find pictures showing the unbelievably dramatic view from the top. We didn’t have time to do that, since from Stavanger you would have to take a bus & a boat & then spend 2 hours (at least) climbing to the top, then do the whole journey in reverse. Our ship would have been long gone by the time we got back.  So the boat trip was the best we could do. 

We couldn’t see anyone on Pulpit Rock from the boat & assumed that it was too early in the day for people to have climbed up there. But later I enlarged the edge of the rock in some of the photos above & discovered that there were already a lot of folks on top of the rock even this early in the morning. Below are  a couple of the pictures blown up to the point where you can see some of the people on top.  These are not high quality photos, because they have been enlarged so much, but they are worth seeing anyway.  You will see in the first picture a guy with his feet hanging over the edge, & in the second picture the guy in the middle dressed in stripes appears to have gone over the edge & is standing on some kind of ledge or crevice there.  This is 2,000 feet up & the view down must be dizzying; I would be nowhere near the edge!  These must be the same people who stand up on the roller coaster.  It’s amazing what some people will do for a thrill.

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We came to a lovely waterfall down the side of the fjord wall. The tour operator took a bucket & filled it from the waterfall, then gave everyone a glass full, telling us that this is the purest water in the world.  I believe him, but I must say it tasted like . . . water.  Cool & refreshing though.

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     We stopped at a fjord-side spot for a bite to eat. They served us Norwegian waffles, which were absolutely delicious.  They were accompanied by sour cream & some kind of jam, on which I took a pass. I was glad the jam didn’t appeal to me because there were a lot of bees there, who were thoroughly enamored of the jam.  Several of them died in the jam, but they looked like they died happy. The people who wanted to eat the jam were a lot less happy to find them there.

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And so we returned to Stavanger, accompanied by some stunning views of the fjord.

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     Back in Stavanger we decided to walk around the inner town.  There had apparently been some kind of festival because we saw work crews taking down tents & stages around the harbor.  It seemed odd to us that they were dismantling it on Sunday, since the weekend would normally be the best time for turnout at a festival.

     Anyway, we walked all the way around the harbor to visit Gamle (old) Stavanger. This is a neighborhood of mid 19th Century houses where people still live, so it is kept up in very good shape. We were told it is the best preserved “old town” in Europe, but really I can’t imagine how that would be measured. It was very interesting, though, with lots of white wood frame houses on cobblestone streets surrounded by many colorful flowers.

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     Walking back through the city we passed several kinds of street art. At the head of the harbor was a traditional statue of a man in a top hat & nearby was a more modern sculpture of . . . well, I don’t know what it is of.  There is a lake beyond the harbor that has a number of sculptures around it, including one of a boy with ducks.  On the side of a house was a striking graffiti-like painting of a horse two stories high.

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     The Cathedral of St. Swithun (also called the Domkirken) is the Lutheran cathedral in Stavanger. The first bishop of Stavanger was an Englishman from Winchester, where St. Swithun had been bishop.  He brought with him a relic, Swithun’s arm. With funds from the king he completed the cathedral around 1100 or 1125, about the same time that the town was founded here. This cathedral was built in a Norman Romanesque style. After a fire in 1272 the cathedral was rebuilt with a large extension in the Gothic style. We don’t have a picture of the outside of the church because it was covered with scaffolding and canvas for restoration work, but you can clearly see on the inside the spot where the Romanesque portion ends & the Gothic begins (hint: its at the wall with the crucifix at the top).

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     A few of the columns in the old part of the church have stone carvings at the top and/or bottom.  One of these, in the first picture below, is said to be Odin, the old Norse god.  When the Norse adopted Christianity many of them didn’t entirely give up the old gods for some time. On the base of another pillar (2d picture below) is a sculpture of a fish head with human hands on each side.  The fish head is rather worn down, & one theory is that parishioners would step on it in a ritual to push evil back to the underworld.  There are other sculptures on another pillar, but we don’t know who they are or what they represent.

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     On the cathedral walls are five “epitaphs” or tomb markers.  They are large (about 10 feet tall) carved panels with paintings in the middle of the family being memorialized.  They were made by a Scottish artist named Andrew Smith in the 17th Century.

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Andrew Smith was also the creator of the cathedral’s primary feature, the fantastically carved & painted pulpit (Prekestolen).  It includes carved renditions of scenes from throughout the bible, beginning with Adam & Eve at the bottom and ending with a triumphant Christ at the top of the canopy (in a classic pose of triumph with his fist in the air).  This whole ediface is supported by a column that is Samson looking down at the lion he has just killed.  We were told that at a time when most people couldn’t read, visual representations of the bible were important teaching aids in conveying the bible’s teachings.

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Finally there were various other features that made this church interesting.  A 14th century baptismal font carved from soapstone, a pipe organ (although far from the biggest or best we have seen) and a lot of sculpted stone. Altogether a most interesting church.

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   This is a good time for the flower segment.  We saw quite a few colorful flowers in Stavanger, but most of these are cultivated rather than wild.  A lot were in Gamle Stavanger.

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     So we walked back to the ship.  On the way we saw the Valbergtarnet, a fire lookout tower erected in the mid 19th Century. Today it is a museum, not to mention a landmark.

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     We sailed out through Stavanger harbor & headed toward the Netherlands, our next stop.

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I mentioned earlier that Stavanger is the center of the Norwegian oil industry & we saw evidence of that shortly after leaving the harbor.  It was far from the last oil platform we would see, many out much further into the ocean.

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We will conclude this episode, as we have often, with towel animals.

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Bergen, Norway

     We arrived in Bergen on the morning of July 26. Bergen is almost 1,000 years old and was once the main city in Norway. Today it is Norway’s second largest city, after Oslo.

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     It turned out that our visit was in the middle of a 4 day tall ship race hosted by Bergen this year.  This really was a bonus for us, as the tall ships throughout the harbor provided an extra dimension of interest.  The downside was that there were HUGE crowds around the harbor; we understood that several hundred thousand visitors were expected for these 4 days and we were there on Saturday, the first non-work day for locals during the race. The crowds did lend a carnival atmosphere to the city. Fortunately, once you got a couple of blocks away from the harbor the crowds thinned substantially.


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     The tall ships lining the harbor conveyed something of what it must have looked like in the middle ages when Bergen was an important outpost for the Hanseatic League, a trade conglomerate of northern German cities started by the merchants of Lubeck. The Norse fishermen provided them with large quantities of dried cod fish, which they resold into a thriving market throughout northern Europe. So the harbor must often have been filled with fishing and merchant vessels. As we walked into town from the cruise ship dock on the outskirts of the harbor we came to Bryggen, the area where the rich German Hanseatic merchants once had their homes & warehouses. It is a brightly painted row of buildings across the street from the harbor that today houses museums, restaurants & shops.  Built of wood, this district has burned down a number of times over the centuries, most recently in 1955, after which extensive archaeological  excavations were begun while the buildings were carefully restored to their original condition using period materials & techniques.

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Because of the crowds & limited time we passed on the museums, but we did wander around the buildings and narrow alleys of this complex rife with atmosphere.


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In an inside courtyard we encountered a huge carved wood figure of a dried cod, presumably a tribute to what was once the bulwark of the local economy. Out front by the harbor a group was performing continuously on what appeared to be a temporary stage.  It was all in Norwegian, so we couldn’t tell what it was about, but it appeared to center around comic drinking songs (in the morning!). There were a couple of other stages where there were performances (perhaps a competition) of sea shanties, some of which were in English.

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     We walked up the hill behind Bryggen to see the Marienkirche (St. Mary’s church), which dates to the 11th century.  Unfortunately it was closed for renovation until January so all we could do was walk around the outside.  On the hill coming down we came across a statue of Snorri Sturluson, the author of at least one of the Poetic Edda, appropriately carrying a book under his arm.

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     We passed beyond the end of the harbor, where we saw the fishmarket (which seemed to be a bit curtailed to make room for the ship festival) and several interesting looking buildings, squares & streets branching out, some with sculptures. You can see from the photos that Bergen is built on steep hills rising from the harbor.

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     We walked up an inclined street to a large pedestrian square that seemed to be a gathering place for families with children. There were a number of oversized games here on the street, including scrabble & legos. There was also an apparent chess master playing many opponents at once & a “living statue,” something you see a lot in Barcelona.

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     In the center of this square is a large monument to Norwegian sailors through the ages, with one side of the square monument for each age of sailing. The locals call this the “cube of goat cheese.”  But its really rather striking, with statues as well as a relief on each of the 4 sides. I don’t really know the names of all four of the periods represented, but I will give my best guess in the picture labels (which, for newcomers, can be seen by hovering your mouse over the picture).

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     Further up the road is a large park with a lake in the center.  There is a fountain in the lake & a lot of colorful flowers around it. At one end there is a music pavilion.

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     Just beyond the lake we found . . . the library!  It is an old castle-like building, with stone carving in and out. Very atmospheric. Built in 1917, it is called the “Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek.”

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     On the way back we visited the Domkirchen, the Lutheran Cathedral in Bergen. Originally built in the 12th Century, it has been ravaged by fire and rebuilt and expanded several times since. It is open every weekday afternoon, but it was Saturday so the church was closed all day.  It was a bad luck day for us with churches.

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     There were public sculptures in town of Bergen’s three patron saints of the Arts.  Composer Edvard Grieg lived here & you can visit his house outside of town. Henrik Ibsen was a director at the National Theater here during the 1850’s. And Ole Bull, a violinist, was not only a great patron of the Arts but the Elvis and Beatles of his time: it is said that women fainted when he played the violin.  Imagine what he could have done with an electric guitar!

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     At the top of a wide boulevard with colorful flowers leading up from the lake & the Ole Bull monument is the National Theater, where the statue of Ibsen is located.  It is a rather elaborate 19th Century arte nouveau building, rather attractive in its style. From the dates on its facade it appears that “Den Nacionale Scene,” as it is called, was founded in 1850 & this building erected in 1909.

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     As you can already see, Bergen was vibrant with all kinds of colorful flowers. So here are just a few of the flowers we saw.

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      So by this time we were pretty tired.  It was a long & (surprisingly) hot day fighting crowds with lots of walking.  So we headed back toward the Veendam. Just before we reached it we passed an old fortress called Haakon’s Hall & Rosenkrantz Tower. These were originally part of the defenses of Bergen’s castle during the middle ages & Renaissance (although the Hall served ceremonial purposes). One reminder of the tension that was inevitable between the Germans in Bryggen & the Norwegians is what appear to be cannon holes in the top of the tower, some of which face Bryggen instead of the harbor entrance. As I said, we were tired & there were crowds, so we didn’t go inside.

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     So, with a final look at Bergen harbor, we set out to sea. The evening was eventful. I had my first Mojito ever & it turned out to be a very happy drink. Then there was a gorgeous sunset, the first of this trip (at least on our side of the ship); most evenings up to then had been too foggy. At the end of the sunset was a long period of beautiful pink and light blue, and we even saw whales (although you usually see little more than their backs & tails when they surface).  It was the nicest night at sea so far, & a good way to end a very full & interesting day in Bergen.

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