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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/rijksstudio.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
We passed several drawbridges & one spot where you could see up to seven bridges in a row down the canal.
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.)
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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