More photos here
Amsterdam...it's been a while. Looking back at old exhibition catalogues to get dates, we stayed in the Hague in early 1996 for that marvellous big Vermeer exhibition, and then came back and stayed in Amsterdam towards the end of that year for a Jan Steen exhibition at the Rijksmuseum and to go see the Vermeers in real life in the Mauritshuis. Now we're going back, not for any particular exhibitions but because both the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis have had big rebuildings recently. Travelling by train using Eurostar seemed like a good and eco-friendly idea, until I started looking at timings, connections and journey times.
Getting to Gatwick and through to the lounge presented no problems and only minimal queuing. Something to remember/note is that the lounge used by easyJet and BA, over the long bridge, has it's own Pret, which looked to be a civilisedly unbusy one. Flight time so short at to give one barely enough time to eat one's cheese roll and meal deal free minibox of Pringles, even when one's partner who 'doesn't want anything' helps out. Schipol's corridors are long but spotless, with swiftness of exit spoilt only by an odd unmanned bottleneck through an empty customs area. The train to Amsterdam Centraal is pretty instinctive, but our planned tram seems to have confusedly changed its number, so we caught a cab. A bit of a wait at the check-in at the Mercure to make sure one of our rooms was ready, but they were airey and modern when we got into them, if a bit reeky of air freshener. The only difference between them was Jane's having jazzy new checkerboard carpet, and mine being seen-better-days and stripey.
Out around 4.00 for a stroll. Feeling warmer than London and fuller of young people out for what I believe is known as 'a good time'. We found a recommendable Indian, recommended to us by a helpful chap outside a nearby Argentinian, which he didn't even begin to try to sell us, as we said we were looking for veggie. A slow wander home through streets of tall-pointy- gabbled houses, of course, and an early night.
Monday 25th May
Breakfast report - unusual in our being asked our room number and having to sign in. But the fine bread and pastry selection, including a perfect fruit loaf and that lovely heavy spicy Dutch sponge cake. Add to this the machine that makes your juice freshly from actual oranges and a coffee machine that makes freshly too (two squirts of double espresso topped up with hot water = a passable Americano) and you have a happy fast-breaker.
To the Rijksmuseum, with tickets bought online, passing many oddly closed shops on the way. The place was busy but not oppressive, progress and movement smooth and the visitor experience damn near faultless, following all the recent rebuilding. We loved the building generally. The contrast with my Louvre visit of a couple of weeks back was strong, with regard to everything from the attitude of the staff to the quality and temptation quota of the publications and gifts. A better collection of Dutch art, of course, but the medieval and early stuff in the basement impressed too, making up in quality what it lacked in famous names, although there is a characteristic Criveli and a gorgeous little Fra Angelico (see right). On the idiocy front there were the usual photo-taking drones and the scrum in front of the two Vermeers was utter madness, but what can you do? Bob and weave. The two worst examples of the 'why do I need to look at the paintings, I've taken 14 photos of each one' tendency turned out to be a couple - a pointless activity AND pointless duplication too. We managed a sturdy 4 hours before exhaustion, and the need for lunch, set in, around 2.00. After the buying of many books and postcards, and a bag with a still-life of asparagus on it, we made for the bagel place near our hotel, for cream cheese permutations and a take-away cinnamon muffin. The latter made up for with cinnamon what it utterly lacked in raisins or apple, but I would (and hope to) choose it again.
The evening walk took us up into the old town and through the red light district, which is about as attractive as you'd expect an area full of bars and sex shops to be. Around the Oude Kirk you pass a swanky chocolate shop, a sex shop, a kindergarten and a bar called the Putain-something in quick and bizarre succession. Finding nowhere tempting to eat we ended up back near our hotel and, craving pizza, found an Italian unprepossessing on the outside, but wood-panelled with quirky decor on the inside. You know, the sort of place with models of the leaning tower of Pisa and Michelangelo's Pieta on shelves and a Breughel print next to a still of Marlon Brando in the Godfather. Good pizzas too.
The mystery of the oddly closed shops, and why the restaurants tonight seemed strangely busy, was explained by the fact of today being Whit Monday, a holiday in Holland.
Tuesday 26th May
I was woken around half seven by carpet being ripped up in the corridor. The breakfast pastries didn't include the colourful doughnuts of yesterday, which struck me as more for afternoon consumption, but featured a small cinnamon turnovery thing that became an instant favourite thing. We caught the tram to the Centraal Station (single journey €2.90 tickets bought from the driver, but they must be swiped over machines at beginning and end) and the train to Den Haag (excellent and instinctive ticket machines). The walk from the station is through relentless but shiny new office blocks. The Mauritius rebuilding is faultlessly handsome with much modern marble, leading to the old rooms hung well. I had my enthusiasm for the van Ruisdaels and Hobbema refired by fine works and an informative audio guide. Being able to commune relatively undisturbed with The Goldfinch, The View of Delft and The Girl with the Pearl Earring was a true treat too, especially as my last experience of the latter was from many feet away, with bullet-proof glass between, in the travelling Mauritshuis exhibition in Bologna last year. There is so much good stuff in one quite small house - I haven't even mentioned the Rembrandts, the superior Rubens or the Memling portrait and the Rogier van der Weyden altarpiece, the last two worth the trip in themselves, for me. A lovely new gallery guide book too.
Latish back to hotel, latish out in evening. Straight to the Italian of last night for pasta this time. My spaghetti with mozzarella was not the spaghetti in a tomato sauce with mozzarella bits I'd had elsewhere, just simply cheesy spaghetti. Disappointing. Discovered that a cat lives in a house opposite my window though.
Wednesday 27th May
Having been smitten by the Beguinage in Bruges we just had to go see the Bejinhof here. No museum, and the chapel and English church were both closed, but the peacefulness, tall handsome houses and masses of plant life were all as expected. Along with a Siamese prowling cat. Then into the red light district again, to visit the Ons'Lieve Heer op Solder, a museum incorporating a merchant's house and the church he built by knocking together three upper floor in two houses. The place has much charm, many windey staircases and nifty and quite poetic audio guiding. There's been a lot of work done getting the church back to it's glory days, and the work continues. It seems the the city is happy to fund a rare project in this part of the city that involves, as the promo film puts it, entrepreneurs that are not criminal. Heading back south we were forced to wonder why so many of the bars (all the sorts of places patronised by people who think that tattoos are a valid alternative to washing) were called The Bulldog. Maybe the guard dog of choice of local 'entrepreneurs'? Back via Village Bagels. Not the warmest most customer-focused bagel shop I've patronised in various European cities these past few months, but their product is very acceptable. None of their more-than-acceptable cinnamon muffins, though, so I made do with the lemon and poppy seed, which also turned out to be mta.
I accompanied Jane to the modern art museum and went myself for a walk up through the Western Canals and Jordaan area. I found a shop selling traditional Dutch sweets, from glass jars, and waiting whilst the woman serving did the traditional negotiations with a small child matching sweets to budget I searched the shelves for cinnamon sweets. Seeing nothing I asked and was rewarded with a choice of three types (sweet, spicy and very spicy) and an informative discussion of the historic introduction of cinnamon into Dutch sweetmaking and English cakes. Result! I chose a mixture of all three types btw.
Getting back to the hotel I was asked if I minded changing my room, tonight or in the morning, so the carpet could be replaced in my room, it being the last one with old carpet. I was bribed with a bag of chocolate canal houses and so readily agreed. I can change tonight or in the morning and can even have both rooms for the night, I'm told, although I'm not sure I see any advantage in this. A party of children has just passed under my window singing a song, but it was Take Me Home Country Roads. Surreal. We went back to the Indian of our first night and I decided to do my room-change this evening. The new room is pretty similar, but with a low slopping ceiling, such that only a very short person can get out of the left side of the bed unendangered. Oh and there's a strong smell of new carpet.
Thursday 28th May
Woken by much noisy door closing, later maybe explained by the staff staircase door being opposite my room and the corridor being full of boxes of carpet tiles. Will my life ever be free of carpet-laying-related disturbance?! To the Amsterdam Museum this morning. The usual city history museum experience: maps, paintings of smug-looking citizens, audio-visual experiences, period posters...but not the less interesting for that. A bit confusing in layout, though, and progression, and maybe a bit short on the actual artefacts. Lunch in the museum cafe was open sandwiches - hummus and grilled veggies for Jane, goat's cheese, rocket and honey for me. And a visit to a cheese shop on the way back in which cumin and smoked sorts were bought, rocket and pesto sorts found to be a bit much (they had cubes on sticks to sample) and a small jar of prune and cinnamon jam found too tempting also. The smell of cinnamon was detected strongly along an alley near the Bejinhof and was traced to a bakery/coffee bar called Lanskroon, with a strokable cat and cinnamon croissants to very much recommend it.
After a rest as Jane was off to the Van Gogh Museum (or should have been - it turned out she oversnoozed and didn't go) I headed for the Bijbels Museum in the Cromhouthuizen. The top floor is a display of Bibles, some very old, and related stuff and models depicting places near and far, including some paintings. The floors below have minor paintings, and some painted ceilings, giving an idea of what living here as a rich merchant and collector in the 18th Century might have been like. I feel I've read enough captions and listened to enough audio guide commentaries this past few days to last me for a while. Out to our usual Italian this evening. After eating we followed a small stream of gelato-suppers up the road to a chocolate shop called Van Soest for a mango and vanilla cop of Italian quality. They also sold flavoured truffles in flavours like cinnamon, marzipan and date, and pear. Did I buy some? I give you one guess.
Friday 29th May
A blissfully carpeting-free morning, the last breakfast, a final stroll, taking in a local antiques markets, with much the same old tosh as in other countries, but with more horned heads (and skulls) than usual, I think, for the hanging on your wall. The cab to the station and the train to Schipol presented no problems. easyJet were having systems trouble so the long bagdrop queue took a while to start moving, but then did. Schipol has the bag scanning stage just as you enter your gate area, which was a bit of a hold up, and then the delayed flight left us standing for ages in a snaking queue with no seats at the gate. Cold and rainy when we got back to the UK, tucking into M&S sandwiches on the train. A rainy walk from Balham station, so we arrived home bedraggled, to find that someone had stolen our doormat while we were away. It was a nice one, looking like a large barcode.
The key words of the trip: cinnamon and carpeting.
This is the highlights guide published to coincide with the 2012/14 renovation and expansion. It's unfashionably large in format, but with very trendy use of mixed fonts and the Girl with the Pearl is on the cover, of course. After an intro bigging up the collection and the renovations, and some moody black and white photos of rooms, each highlight painting gets a double-page spread with a full image and some text on one page and a fascinating full-page detail on the other. The texts are a bit basic, though, tending to talk about things any regular gallery-goer would already know, and often telling us how excellent the painting is. This lack of depth was especially noticeable after the enlightening and stimulating excellence of my last read, The Prado Guide. The odd insight surfaces, but this is generally a relaxing read with fab pics.
A very in-your-face fashionably designed case-bound book presenting a selection of 106 highlights from the collection from the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, about evenly divided between painted things and carved things, the latter being an important part of production during this period, especially the early part. I'm not so keen on these carved things so it's good/disappointing that I'm forced to step outside of the old comfort zone. But, and this isn't made plain, these highlights are not THE highlights, but a selection of highlights which provide 'a fascinating glimpse into a lesser-known area of the collections'. This lesser-known area is not obvious to me, as the preceding blurb seems to cover almost all aspects of art production for the period. Solid scholarship, though, with informed full pages devoted to each object, some smart short intro essays at the beginning, and a good index and bibliography at the end. Excellent picture quality too - not glossy with very varied layouts.
Of a piece, design wise, with 1100-1600 this is a chunky compact paperback covering the whole collection, albeit with much smaller illustrations and a bare paragraph devoted to each work. It's divided up into 5 sections - 1100-1600 (with very few works not included in the above catalogue) and one each for the following centuries. Each section has a gimmicky fold-over card cover that opens to show a map. Which all goes to make for an attractive little book to help a basic visit, rather than a trove of art-history enlightenment.
Just a biggish book of photographs. And paintings do not dominate.
Venice // Florence // London // Berlin // Trips