TRAVEL with pat and lew

* Amsterdam 2008

Posted by Lew Weinstein on August 14, 2008

Thalys is something special

We arrived in Amsterdam at 7:30 pm after leaving Collioure at 6:28 am. The train to Paris was, as always, comfortable and pleasant. In Paris, we took the Metro (actually the RER) between Gare Lyon and Gare Nord. We could do this only because we had succeeded in reducing our luggage. Last month, for two weeks in Paris, we came with two large suitcases, two carry-ons, plus a camera bag. This time, also for two weeks, we got down to one large suitcase, plus the two carry-ons and camera bag. We found escalators to get onto the RER and had no difficulty.

There was some difficulty in actually finding the train station after we exited the RER at the Gare Nord station, caused by the fact that there were no up escalators. Our fruitless search led us outside the station to the bus terminal, and even after re-entering, we did not immediately find the right part of the trains station. But, we had ample time between trains, time enough for me to stand in a slow-moving line and purchase our Paris to Collioure tickets for September. Our Carte Senior entitles us to 50% off, but only so long as the limited tickets are still available, so we have learned by prior disappointment to buy early.

The train from Paris to Amsterdam is called Thalys, a joint venture of France, Belgium and Holland. It passes through Brussels, Antwerp and Rotterdam on the four hour trip to Amsterdam. We were hardly seated when a young man came down the aisle asking if we would have lunch. Lunch! At no extra charge! We had small sandwiches, fruit, a pastry dessert, and a small bottle of red wine. An hour later, after leaving Rotterdam, a young lady came down the aisle to offer a duck entre for dinner.

“But we just ate,” I said.

“That was just a snack,” she answered.

We were stuffed and declined, but imagine, two excellent meals on a four hour train trip.

More about Thalys …

We took a cab from Amsterdam’s Central Station to our home exchange apartment near Vondelpark in the Museum district just south of the main city center. About 10 minutes, 18 euros (at 1.6 dollars per euro, that’s $28.00). Nadja’s friend is waiting for us at the apartment, which is on the 3rd floor (we would call it the 4th), reached by a very narrow circular staircase, but since we only had one large bag, we were able to manage (barely) with just one trip.

The apartment itself is large and quite attractive. The sofa is comfortable, there are two TVs, with quite a few English stations (Dutch captioned). The bedroom is up an even tighter wrought iron circular staircase. We took the clothes up in several trips, but the suitcase would have been impossible. There is a spectacular bathroom at the upper level, with a large ceramic line tub, and a second water closet on the lower level.

It was still light, and the rain which had started when we arrived had abated, so we took a short walk. We are less than ten minutes from the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt, Vermeer) and the adjacent Van Gogh museum. We were told there was a supermarket along the route, but could not find it until a helpful passerby (anyone passing by in Amsterdam is helpful) told us it was under the green roof, which itself is under the grass at the edge of the museum plaza. Even as we stood next to it, we could not tell it was a supermarket. We buy our essentials; they do not take credit cards!

 

a drizzly Sunday

Our plan for Sunday, as it is for most days in a new city (we had been to Amsterdam once before, but only for three days), was exploration. We walked past the museum area heading toward Vondelpark, where Pat planned to run. When it started to drizzle, we backtracked a few blocks to the Bagel and Beans Nadja had recommended. Good coffee, good bagels, free wi-fi. It rained harder while we had our breakfast, but stopped when we were done.

We found Mac-Bike, near the casino, and rented two bikes. If we keep them for 6 days, as we plan, the cost is 60 euros each, including the almost mandatory theft insurance which adds 50% more to the price. One hundred thousand bicycles are stolen each year in Amsterdam. We are instructed in the use of the two locks that come with each bike.

We adjust the seats and set off. First, to get used to the bikes, we go back into the Vondelpark, which is very pretty (of course, we’re New Yorkers, and there is nothing to compare with Central Park). We exit into the city, drive through the Old West section heavy with mosques and find the more familiar Central district built along the many semi-circular canals. We pass the hotel we stayed in, drive through the mainly empty streets on a quiet Sunday morning. After an hour or so, when the dark clouds gather again, we head back and just make it to the apartment when the downpour begins.

But first, we must lock the bikes. There are bike racks all over, all filled. We find two empty spots. The first lock is built into the bike, and it engages a bar across the spokes of the back wheel. The second lock is a very heavy chain which we wind through the front wheel, around the handle post and around the bike rack. Do this again for the other bike, head across the street and out of the rain to our apartment.

Sunday afternoon we crash, read and watch TV (Moonstruck). Then we go out looking for a light dinner. Most of the nearby restaurants which had looked so attractive when we walked past offer more food than we want, but we find a tapas place which is perfect: brochette, meat balls, spicy chicken, gambas (shrimp), potatoes, and a good red wine, all for less than 30 euros.

A nearby church bell peals (but not loudly) every half hour, and a bird (a nightingale?) sings all night, but nothing keeps me awake and even Pat has a good night’s sleep. The bird stops on schedule at 6:30 am.

 

Lonely Planet

Maybe it’s lonely because no one can find anyone.

We check the Lonely Planet Guidebook for museum hours.  The guidebook is disappointing. For the Rijksmuseum, it gives hours but not days. Does this mean it’s open 7 days? For the Van Gogh, it gives hours for Sun-Thur and Fri. Does this mean it’s closed on Saturday?

There are many listings without addresses or map coordinates. You have to find the map, find the table of listings for the map, which may be on a different page, then go back to the map to find the location. But still there is no street address, on the map or on the listing, so even if you have a more detailed street map, you still may not know where you want to go.

Another complaint: there is a three block long designed shopping street near Vondelpark, but not mentioned in Lonely Planet, which says there is no good shopping in Amsterdam.

All of these problems, it seems to me, are a direct function of what Lonely Planet claims as its strength. Individual authors, reflecting their own experiences, and apparently not backed by a strong editing group to assure complete attention to essential details.

I’ll never buy one again.

 

Monday; more rain

It’s Monday morning in Amsterdam and it’s raining again. Which is not news. Apparently, it’s been raining for a month. Fortunately we did not come here to go to the beach.

Pat runs in the rain; I walk to the Bagel and Beans for breakfast and internet connection. The small travel computer fits perfectly in my camera bag, with the power cord. There’s an electric outlet in the closet near one of the tables. By the time I check emails and headlines, and the Yankee score, Pat arrives. We walk home in a light rain.

The rain never lets up, all day. We read and I work on my novel, a scene where there is a rather contentious interaction between my main characters, Benjamin and Esther Catalán, and the Florentine Jewish community. In the late afternoon, we walk a few blocks to a deli we had seen before. We each had pasta and a glass of wine. Surprisingly good, or maybe we were just hungry.

 

the magnificent Rijksmuseum

Everyone knows the Dutch masters in the Golden Age made great paintings. But our art interests have always focused on different time frames, mine earlier in the Renaissance, Pat’s later with the Impressionists. Amsterdam’s magnificent Rijksmuseum was an awakening experience for both of us.

We bike to the museum, at the end of a long grassy area, next to the Van Gogh (see Thursday).  I got the audio device and also a small guidebook. The descriptions of the paintings were the best I’ve ever heard, exquisite detail of the subject and how the artist had approached his or her (there’s one woman, Judith Leyster) painting.

The first floor is a series of depictions of Dutch 17th century history: the eighty year (from 1568 to 1648) struggle for liberty from Spain, celebration of treaties, naval battles, a town hall so magnificent it is now the royal palace, a model ship perhaps 20 feet long with every detail perfect. This was also a time of fierce conflict between Protestants (Calvinists) and Catholics; one large painting, title Fishing for Souls, show Protestant fisherman on one side, Catholic on the other (including the Pope in the background, with hapless souls floundering in water between them. The artist shows where his sympathies lie; on the Protestant side, the trees have leaves, on the other bank they are withering.

The detail in these paintings is astounding: a party at an inn features 15 individuals, drinking, eating, talking, with tables, chairs, pots and pans carefully depicted; a meeting of the Assembly of the States General; a horse fair with hundreds of people.

There is a somber portrait of two brothers, one of them the recently resigned head of government, hanging upside down, bodies cut open and disemboweled. The guidebook says severed limbs were offered for sale. Ugh!

There are three dolls’ houses, each the size of a large armoire, fully furnished, with each object made of the same material as the life-size object it reproduces.

The Dutch are quite frank in their descriptions. One painting was thought to be a pleasant tete-a-tete  between a young man and woman and a chaperone. However, when cleaned, the gold coin now visible in the man’s hand suggests rather a business conversation between a prostitute, a client, and the procuress.

The 2nd floor begins with several Dutch masters, Dirck Hals, Frans Hals and Judith Leyster among them, and a series of spontaneous-looking portraits of happy people.

Then there is Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). His individual portraits, of himself and others, are moving depictions, the moment of emotion perfectly captured. Many of the faces are simply haunting. The group portraits – the draper’s guild and the famous Night Watch – show several or many people in motion, distinguishing Rembrandt from his contemporaries.

Did I mention Vermeer? The Girl with the Pearl Earring is not here, but The Kitchen Maid is a stunning portrait of everyday life in the 17th century.

After the museum, we ride our bikes to the edge of the shopping district, where we find a tree to which we lock them both. We lunch in an Irish pub. Guinness on tap is good anywhere.

Due to the rain yesterday, I need another book. In the regular bookstores, paperbacks are 18 euros ($28.00). However, there are several American Bookstores with closeout copies of popular American and British writers. I buy three for a total of 16 euros. We walk the tourist streets, which we enjoy, for awhile.

Virtually every building in Amsterdam is an architectural delight. Many are 18th century or older. The gables which top most of them are testimony to Dutch pride and competitive spirit.

After a full day, and the climb to our apartment, we stay in and have wine and cheese for dinner.

 

Haarlem

Our first trip on an Amsterdam tram. At the end of our side street, there are several lines marked ‘Centraal Station.’ We take the #5 line to the train station. They do not take credit cards, although there is a credit card machine right on the counter. There is a growing disparity between American credit cards and European practice, which U.S. credit card companies, if they want tourist business, ought to address. The train to Haarlem takes 15 minutes.

The town is focused around a large square, with a huge church anchoring one side and old buildings throughout. We lunch outdoors on the square, then explore the church. It was a Catholic church. Then the Protestants stole it. They tore down all the statues and decorations, and almost took down the incredible organ which takes up an entire wall. Mozart played it as a 10 year old. Just as we stand there wishing we could hear it, someone begins playing. It wasn’t Mozart, and the playing wasn’t very good, probably a practice session or maybe a lesson, but the sound was powerful.

Did you ever hear of Foucault’s pendulum? It was a scientific experiment to prove the earth actually rotated, and also the title of a book by Umberto Eco. We are in the church where Leon Foucault did his experiment in 1851. The pendulum stretches to the high ceiling and there’s a board on the floor with lines drawn to show the changing path of the swinging pendulum as the earth rotates.

Before we went to the Rijksmuseum, I had never heard of Jan Hals. I found several of his paintings delightful, and quite different, common people enjoying themselves. There is an entire museum in Haarlem devoted to Hals and his associates, and some other Dutch masters. This museum, unlike the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh, allows you to take photos.

The shopping in Haarlem is excellent. Many small shops. I buy a shirt – an American shirt on 50% sale – and we have a long conversation with the proprietress, a former stewardess who has been to Miami and Key West. She tells us about a great shopping street in Amsterdam, only a few blocks from our apartment. There is a kitchen store, maybe the best I’ve ever seen. Great gadgets, small appliances, table linens. Pat buys two wine bottle cozies, maybe for gifts, maybe not.

There are more bikes in Amsterdam than cars. On any street at any time, you can look around and count 20-30-50 bikes. And they are parked everywhere by the hundreds. Lonely Planet says there are 600,000 in all. Many are fitted with bicycle caps and panniers, sometimes in matching designs. Pat has been looking to buy one all week, and we find a bike store in Haarlem that has them; she buys two, one for her and another as a gift.

Back to Amsterdam, where Centraal Station is close to one of the city’s prime attractions. You shouldn’t visit Amsterdam without walking along the red light district. Everyone will ask if you’ve been there, and it is a rather unique experience. There are porn shops and device shops, but the primary attractions are the women in the windows. Scantily dressed, mostly quite pretty, they seek eye contact as you walk by, and invite you to enter their domain. Lonely Planet says the going rate is 50 euros for 15 minutes, and they will pull the curtains. We did not see any customers enter, but there were some drawn curtains.

The first time we came to Amsterdam (the only other time, for 3 days), we had breakfast one morning at the Luxembourg café on a wonderful square at the end of Spui street. It’s always nice to return to places you liked, so we trace a route on our map and find it again. Just delightful, facing out, watching the walkers, bikes, and trams roll by. We have dinner down the street.

 

So that’s what those hooks are for

Our breakfast entertainment, viewed from our window, is the arrival of a new mattress and bed frame to the apartment of two girls living across the street. It is physically impossible to fit large furniture, or even small furniture, up the very narrow circular staircases in these 18th century or older buildings. There is a unique Dutch solution. At the top of each building, protruding out 5-6 stories up, is a hook. To which is attached a pulley and a rope. The furniture is raised to the proper height, the third floor in the case of our neighbors, and, swinging precariously, grabbed in through the window. But it doesn’t quite fit. The girls struggle unsuccessfully to create the angle that will work. The delivery man below ties his end of the rope to a tree and mounts the stairs. He appears at the window and loosens the ropes holding the mattress. One corner slips off! But now it can be turned and in it goes. This is repeated for the frame. Then, there is a chair coming out of the apartment. The girls attaché the straps and timidly push the chair out the window. It falls; they scream. The rope holds and the chair is lowered to the ground.

We have accumulated a small bag of trash. But where to dispose of it. I ask the beautician in the small shop on the corner. She, like all those we met in Amsterdam, is more than helpful, going outside to point to two red containers on the opposite corner. When I put our little bag in, I see they are not small containers at all, but merely the external protrusion of huge underground containers. Later, we see the collection truck. A powerful magnet pulls on the visible portion and the huge container rises, rotates over the truck, and dumps its load.

 

Van Gogh’s earphones

We bike to the Van Gogh. In ten years, Van Gogh produced over 800 paintings and more than 1000 drawings, as well as extensive letters to his brother Theo which chronicle his life and his paintings. A remarkable record, cut short by suicide in 1890 at the age of 37.

I get off to a rocky start. My audio device doesn’t work properly, starting and stopping. I exchange it for another, with the same result. Two times up and down the steps to the viewing area and I have yet to see a single painting. I ask for my money back, and am very pleasantly advised that this is against policy.

“I think that’s terrible,” I say, “but it’s not your fault.” 

“Well, actually it is,” the nice lady says. “I made the policy.”

Given no other choice, I took the 3rd device and this time, new earphones as well. Perhaps the earphones were the problem all along, since this time it works perfectly.

While I was enjoying the description of the most detailed and mature of Van Gogh’s self portraits, the lady from the audio booth arrives, just to check if everything was now ok. This is very impressive. Later, as we leave, I thank her for not refunding my money, since I enjoyed the audio program so much. This, by the way, is true. The descriptions and background provided in the three Dutch museums we visited is the best we’ve ever heard, by far. Get the audio. Smile to the nice lady.

We take a brief bike trip to the shopping area, buy nothing, and come back to the Netherlands Film Museum in Vondelpark. They are in the midst of a several month Cary Grant festival, including almost every film he ever made, and an interesting photo and film exhibition. We seeIndiscrete, with Cary and Ingrid Bergmann, in the original English with Dutch subtitles. The audience laughs when Ingrid complains about a lengthy and boring speech by the Dutch ambassador. 

We never have an exquisite meal in Amsterdam, but we never have a bad one either. Tonight, we stay in our neighborhood. We each order fish. Mine is overcooked, Pat’s undercooked (for her). Simple solution, we switch.

 

rivers and canals

There’s actually only one river in Amsterdam, the Amstel. We set out not quite as bright and early as we had planned, rode through city streets to the river, and then along the river for perhaps 3 miles. The first point of interest was the houseboats which line the river. Some are elegant, most not, and Pat, who at one time proposed we rent one for a week, changed her mind.

We reached a windmill and an adjacent statue of Rembrandt at the same time as a tour group from a bus, continued for another mile or so, then returned for a cool drink at a riverside bar.

When we got back to Amsterdam, we continued into the city to a pancake house we had seen before and marked for return. Pat had crepes and I had the best fritters you can imagine, covered in sugar.

We left our bikes securely locked near the pancake house and walked to a nearby ticket office for the ON-OFF canal boat. Tickets are good until noon the next day. The ride was pleasant, once someone got up and we got forward facing seats. The architecture along the canals is beautiful, one gabled house exceeding  the next. When we got to the Centraal Station stop, we stayed on the boat, expecting it to continue the loop back to the starting point. Much to our surprise, the Green Line we were on turned into a Red Line, and we had a much longer trip back than we had expected. I guess I’m not the only one who’s color blind.

We biked home, rested up, and took the tram to town for dinner at an Italian restaurant.

 

Saturday

Across from our apartment, a couple was moving out. Instead of a hook, they had rented an extension ladder which reached up to the top floor room. A very complex box arrangement was intended to bring down all the furniture and boxes they had packed. But there were tree branches in the way. No matter. The fellow from the apartment came out with a hand saw, put himself in the ladder box, and was raised up to the branches, which he proceeded to saw off. Quite a few of them actually.

We returned our bikes and received an unexpected 10% discount. Then we boarded the ON-OFF boat for a short ride to the Anne Frank House, which we had seen on our prior visit. Our goal was the Jordan area of Amsterdam, described to us as a yuppie enclave. It was beautiful, with homes, small cafes, and shopping intermixed. There was also a market. We had breakfast in an outdoor café, watching the passing people and vehicles.

It was now past noon, our boat tickets expired, so we took the tram back. A tram driver took us one stop (for free) to a place where we could catch the tram we wanted. The people in Amsterdam could not have been friendlier or more helpful. Even when we didn’t ask, they supplied information. Several times, when Pat and I were talking to each other, on the street, in a tram, wherever, a friendly voice would offer unsolicited advice. Just join right in the conversation without any preamble. It was fun.

When we were in Haarlem, a shopkeeper had told us about what she said was the best designer shopping street in Amsterdam. It was near our apartment, and we had passed it every day, but would never have seen it without the tip. It was excellent shopping, although we didn’t buy anything.

We went home to clean the apartment and pack. Across the street, presumably waiting for the small moving truck to return, was a line of furniture and household goods. Moving in Amsterdam is a very difficult process.

A strange thing happened. All of a sudden, for no obvious reason, we had a wireless internet connect in the apartment. I had checked before, and there were several, but all required a key. The connection stayed up for about 30 minutes then disappeared. It returned once again for a few minutes, then was gone for good.

The rain Saturday afternoon was unusual until I recognized where I had seen it before, in one of Van Gogh’s paintings, thin straight lines falling gently down. 

 

Sunday

It was a clear morning, which was good because we had decided to take the tram to the train station, and the tram was 2-3 blocks from our apartment. We expected that getting our luggage down the narrow circular stairs from the third floor would be a chore, but it was easier than feared. Pat is the daughter of a bellhop, and she can carry more luggage than you might imagine.

We took the Thalys back to Paris Nord, with another fine meal en route.

 

Amsterdam tips

1.   carry cash. Many places, including the supermarket, don’t take credit cards.

2.   The huge trams run in the narrow streets, and there are no guard rails; be careful.

3.   biking, walking and crossing streets requires intense attention; there are often 8 lanes, each moving to its own rhythm: pedestrian, bike, car, tram, tram, car, bike, pedestrian; the 7th lane is easy to forget, you’ve crossed both car and tram lanes, the pedestrian lane is right there, and wham, here comes a bike, silent and fast! Several times we stepped back just in time.

 

  


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