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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.