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Amsterdam, May 2014
We awake at 3.30 am - before dawn - for a 4.00 am departure for the airport. This morning, Leeds-Bradford Airport (LBA) is frequented largely by holidaymakers. One or two unnecessarily brusque male staff are on duty in the security inspection. They display a lack of the politeness which would be welcome under the circumstances.
Departure for Amsterdam Schiphol is at 6.25. Journey time is approximately 50 minutes - just a hop. The KLM plane is full. At Schiphol our plane joins a queue of incoming flights. Looking across the airfield, it is difficult to believe that this reclaimed land lies four metres below sea level. We catch the train from airport to city centre, but board the wrong train. We have to change mid-way. Our hotel is the SAS Radisson Blu, on Rusland 17, which we are told is adjacent to the Amsterdam red-light district. The taciturn taxi driver 'has no change'. We both suspect this is a lie.
The hotel is situated in the heart of Amsterdam, and is housed in 18th and 19th century buildings. The street name, Rusland, is derived from the original land owner Willern Ruysch. Our fourth-floor room is comfortable and (mostly) quiet, though the hotel's claim that this is a superior room is something of an exaggeration when comparing the room and the price to some of the genuinely superior rooms we have enjoyed around the world. The hotel bar, the Pastorie Bar, is a renovated vicarage from the 18 century.
Staying in the hotel is a party of 20 Japanese tourists from Tokyo, middle-aged, prosperous, and of exemplary behaviour. This time of year is good for viewing the tulip fields, clearly popular with tour companies, several of which begin their European river cruises from here by inviting their guests to stay two days in Amsterdam before sailing.
We take an evening stroll in the vicinity of the hotel, and learn some facts and figures about the city, which owes its existence to seventeenth-century trade. Amsterdam, one of the first ever 'planned' cities, had a population of 799,442 in January 2014, with 881,000 bicycles.
Categories of bikes are:
Carrier Cycles - Bakfiets (roofed or unroofed)
Cargo Cycles - Vrachtfiets (used by the postal service);
Every home has a garage for bikes, though not always a garage for a car! 55,000 bikes are stolen each year, so the advice is not to buy a Rolls-Royce of a bike. Wearing a helmet is not mandatory for cyclists.
On Wednesday we stroll to the Willet-Holthuysen house; Willet is pronounced 'Villette'. The house was built for Jacob Hop, mayor of Amsterdam, around 1685. The last owners gave the house to the city. Large and beautiful, with a generous, secluded, garden, the house gives a good idea of how a prosperous nineteenth-century Amsterdam family lived at that time. In 1739 the outside was redesigned to look as it does today, in the Louis XIV style. The last private owner, Mrs. Willet-Holthuysen, bequeathed the entire house to the city of Amsterdam on condition that it became a museum, in 1895. The curator in that year was Frans Coenen Jr., a writer, composer, and art critic. The house has been a museum ever since.
Three floors are open to the public, the souterrain, with the kitchen and garden (restored in 1972), the first floor (bel-etage with long hallway), and the top floor, with one bedroom on display and rooms for exhibitions.
After pausing at the Grand Cafe L'Opera, to take a light lunch, we walked to the Kattenkabinet, a small museum dedicated to cats, located on the Herengracht (the gentleman's canal), in an area of town where today banks and attorneys have their offices located. Built in 1667, being one of two identical houses standing opposite each other, a draw decided which of the houses belonged to which of the brothers. Among the famous people who in the past stayed here were the mayor of Amsterdam Jan Calkoen, and American president John Adams. Throughout its history the house has been rebuilt and redecorated several times.
Several cats live at the museum premises. Two greeted us at the entrance to the building. They agreed to be stroked, selflessly interrupting their cat-naps.
Afternoon tea is taken back at the Radisson Blu, the tea served on a saucer with an inbuilt plate for the tea-bag.
We also visited Museum Van Loon, a house built in 1672, which was rented out to Ferdinand Bol, Rembrandt's famous pupil. In 1884 the house was bought as a wedding present for for Willem van Loon and his wife Thora, who, as Dame du Pails to the Dutch Queen, received Amsterdam's upper class in the salon.
Amsterdam is the second-largest harbour of the Netherlands, and the fifth-largest in Europe. Eye is the film museum in the harbour. Cruise ships arrive and depart from the outer harbour, north of the railway station. The station roof has the name 'Amsterdam' built into the roof tiles.
The harbour is connected to the North Sea by the North Sea Canal, 30 km long, constructed between 1865 and 1876, to enable seafaring vessels to reach Amsterdam. In turn, this connects to the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. The harbour water is fresh. There are no tides.
Amsterdam has 100 km of canals, and 1250 bridges. Most houses stand on wooden piles 15 metres long. The canals are three metres deep, said to be one metre each of water, mud and bicycles!
Rembrandt painted The Night Watch in 1642. One of his most famous paintings, it is also one his most controversial. The captain of the civic militia guards and 17 of its members are thought to have commissioned the painting and paid Rembrandt 1,600 guilders, considered a great deal of money in that era. Thirty-four figures appear in The Night Watch.
At the time of the painting of The Night Watch it was common for militia units to commission painters for their portraits. The 30 Years' War (1618-1648) was halfway through, when the Netherlands sought independence from Spain.
The Night Watch painting is displayed in the Rijksmuseum, and considered to be the most famous painting displayed there. As part of the celebration of the artist's 400th birthday in 2006, a bronze-cast representation of The Night Watch by Russian artists Mikhail Dronov and Alexander Taratynov was displayed in front of the statue of Amsterdam's most famous painter, at Rembrandtplein. This bronze-cast representation was on display for three years, before traveling to New York City, Moscow and Oranienbaum, Russia. In 2012, the bronze Nightwatch sculptures returned to the redesigned square (shown here) where they now serve as a magnet for visitors. In January 2013, the Rembrandtplein Entrepreneurs Foundation began a fundraising campaign to keep the sculptures in the square throughout the year.
The Rijksmuseum (pronounced 'Reiksmuseum')
In April 2013, after a ten-year renovation which cost €375 million, the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix. Dedicated to the Dutchness of Dutchness, last year (2013) it was the most visited museum in the Netherlands with 2.2 million visitors, and famous for owning probably the best collection of Dutch art in the world. The collection of the Rijksmuseum consists of one million objects and is dedicated to arts, crafts, and history from the years 1200 to 2000. Around 8,000 objects are currently on display in the museum.
The collection contains more than 2,000 paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, by painters such as Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, Rembrandt, and Rembrandt's pupils. The museum has taken the unusual step of making some 125,000 high-resolution images available for download via its Rijks Studio software, with plans to add another 40,000 images per year until the entire collection of one million works is available, according to Taco Dibbits, director of collections.
The Milkmaid, sometimes called The Kitchen Maid, is an oil-on-canvas painting of a domestic kitchen maid by Johannes Vermeer (1632 - December 1675).
The exact year of the painting's completion is unknown, with estimates varying by source. The Rijksmuseum estimates it as circa 1658. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, it was painted in about 1657 or 1658. The painting is strikingly illusionistic, conveying not just details but a sense of the weight of the woman and the table. "The light, though bright, doesn't wash out the rough texture of the bread crusts or flatten the volumes of the maid's thick waist and rounded shoulders", wrote Karen Rosenberg, art critic for The New York Times. Yet with half of the woman's face in shadow, it is "impossible to tell whether her downcast eyes and pursed lips express wistfulness or concentration," she wrote.
Amsterdam is not solely a city of canals and museums. Some of the city's shops are excellent. Worth mentioning is the building shown here (left), Magna Plaza, a shopping centre behind the Royal Palace. It is located inside a historical building that was formerly a post office from 1899, and converted into a shopping mall in 1990. The building has a Neo-Gothic style. The atmosphere is festive, with live music often being played on weekends, featuring the grand piano that is situated in the centre of the ground level.