Monday, October 22, 2012

While the river-bank weeps to the old willow tree*

After a leisurely breakfast on our third day the itinerary was to go caching in mainland Europe for the first time. It was a bit drizzly so it took some time for the GPS to pick up satellites:

(Doesn't the picture make the bridge look high?)

We'd only taken the details of one cache, and it was a straightforward find, but not an easy retrieve. The office workers having a cigarette break on the overlooking balcony might have thought we were a bit strange lying down on the wet road, so we lurked around the corner till they'd gone in. Then it was a quick grab and sign (no travel bugs, unfortunately) then on to the Hermitage museum to see the Van Gogh exhibition. Sadly they didn't allow photography because there was a gorgeous version of 'Irises' which I could have stood and looked at for ages. In fact I could sit in my own sitting room for hours and gaze at it hanging on the wall and never tire of it.

It was wonderful to be able to get really close (but keep your hands behind your back so it's clear you're not going to touch it or the gallery guards get touchy!). At art college we were taught that when painting watercolours you paint the foreground before the background because the paint is transparent, but that with gouache and oils and other opaque colours you do the background first then overpaint the detailed foreground. This 'Irises' is done the other way; the subject was painted first (the flowers were originally more purple, apparently, but the red has faded away just leaving the blue) then the yellow background swirled on afterwards.

When we were paintinged out  we went for lunch at the Luxembourg, where the waiter offered to take a photo of us together "as long as you're partners and it's all right being seen together!"

 (I don't remember being quite so out-of-focus at the time!)

Then we took a canal tour, first going past the multi-storey bike park (where there are spaces for about 2500 cycles)

and then the most extraordinary pink-wrapped building

before being shown the best unemployment scheme I've ever come across; the creation of the 'Amsterdam'. It would have been nice to have gone round it and see what they'd done inside.

 There were interesting views when you peeped under the bridges

When the tour finished it was time to get to the restaurant for dinner, although it was early; but there was still time to admire the scenery on the way.

This everning we'd booked to eat at the Bouchon du centre, a quirky little place we'd read about, so decided to try it. It seats a maximum of 24 people, and the whole shebang is a one-woman enterprise. She's front-of-house, cook and waitress all in one, and it all functions in the one room; she serves diners whilst cooking more meals. You need to get there early - she starts serving at 6 and likes to be done by 8 so she can have a quiet evening. There's a limited menu and just a choice of three wines, house red, white or rosé. Oh, and cash only. We had a really good meal: the welcome is warm and natural, and the food delicious. The wine was more than adequate and the atmosphere was relaxed and comfortable.

The stroll back afterwards gave more images of this watery city;

It's a slightly crazy place! Do I want to go back? Yes, I think so. It's offbeat and very intriguing. And why do the Dutch lishp when they shpeak English but not when they speak Dutch (which seems to involve a lot of throat-clearing)?

*And I've even provided a link to the title!

She sang every morning, "How lucky I am"

So, on our second day in Amsterdam, after a breakfast of fresh orange juice, oatmeal cookie (nearly cereal) and a coffee, we decided to visit the Rijksmuseum. We were surprised and pleased to see that they didn't mind people taking photographs. There were some terrific paintings: these two were obviously planned to be Christmas cards from the outset;

 'The Night Watch' is a huge painting; the main figures are pretty much lifesize. Though I must admit I couldn't help looking for Discworld characters in it!

 This Vermeer just took our breath away. It's stunning. It's only a little painting but the quality is superb. Just by  looking you know exactly what the fabric of her clothing felt like and you can almost hear the pouring of the milk. A real joy to see it 'in the real', and realise that even the best reproduction just doesn't do it justice.

I should really have taken a picture of the portrait of the obese young man who looked so spoilt and arrogant and sneery that I just itched to slap his fat face. He looked as though he was his parents' pride and joy and had been over-indulged in everything for his entire life. Edit: Hurrah! I've just found a copy on Google:

After a few hours in the museum we browsed in the flower market. I could have spent a fortune on some of the more exotic plants and corms and bulbs.

  The amaryllis bulbs were the biggest I've ever seen.

Gosh! I don't think Customs would be terribly happy if we tried bringing one of these back.

On the other side of the road to the flower stalls there were other shops. If you want cheese this is the place to come.

The cheese shop
"Cheeeeeeeese, Gromit!"
Green cheese. Really?
 And then we wandered some more, passing some cafés that smelt very strange. We didn't like to go in because we thought there might not be enough oxygen in there to sustain life; the smell hung like a solid curtain by the open doorways.

While making our way back to the hotel we saw the perfect bike for Tammy!

A bike for Tammy
 There are so many amazing narrow little houses; some plots are as little as 2 metres wide but the houses are four or five storeys high, but with the ground floor below street level. They all have hoists at the roof for getting furniture in and out of the windows, because the stairs are far too steep and narrow to get anything but the smallest of belongings in that way!

Sweet little house on the corner
 Very few of the houses have their floors on the same level as their neighbour.

Inconsistent floor levels!
We saw this odd little clog-boat; I doubt it's very stable!

For dinner in the evening we asked the receptionist if she knew of anywhere that did traditional Dutch food; she couldn't think of anywhere like that but said we'd get a good meal at a reasonable price at the Eetkamer in the Jordaan district. We managed to get a tram most of the way there (you NEARLY DIE when you try to catch a tram; the tram stops are in the middle of the road, so you need to get through the cavalcades of mad cyclists with no lights and the cars to get to the island in the middle), and she was right; the food was indeed very good. We decided to walk back although it was quite a long way, because houses looked like dolls' houses from across the canals, with their lights on so you could see inside.

The camera setting makes it look as though Amsterdam was on fire; it didn't look like that really!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mark well what I do say

For our anniversary this year we decided to push the boat out and have a city-break abroad, and decided on Amsterdam, because of the number of great museums and art galleries. Ned had been there many years ago but it was all new to me. After a minor heart attack at the cost of leaving the car at the airport (they cleverly only tell you the price once you're committed) an uneventful flight saw us at Schipol, trying to find the best way to get to the city.

That done, and the hotel found successfully after our initiation with the trams, we set out to explore. One of the first things we learned is that not only are there more bicycles in Amsterdam than in the whole of the rest of the universe, they seem to obey no rules of the road that we could see. This gave sightseeing an added frisson of fear because you never knew when you were likely to be run down. Like the outsiders we were we thought that staying on the pavement would be sensible, but when that's blocked with parked bikes you have no option but to risk almost certain death. They're generally very sturdy old-fashioned 'sit-up-and-beg' type contraptions, but we did see some wooden ones for hire!

Eventually we decided that a little 'Dutch courage' (d'you see what I did there?) was called for, and found a very nice old-fashioned bar, with leather curtains at the doorway and sand on the floor. And no, it wasn't one of those 'perfumed' bars for which the city is famed, either!

They have an odd way of pouring a beer; sloosh it into the glass, and when the head gets too high they slice it off with a knife and hand it over.Apparently there's an official measure but it still looked awfully random. However it girded our loins nicely for the next foray into the streets.

As it was latish afternoon by this time we didn't have a lot of time in the Amsterdam Museum but it gave us a broad overview of the history of the city. There was a strange area where they'd set up the front half of a suit of armour, with a ruff above it, so that you could stand behind it and have your photo taken 'dressed up', with the photos published on Flickr. We thought this rather jolly so dutifully stood there ... but the camera seems to be set too high and the only image is of your face and the ruff, and none of the armour at all, so that's a bit disappointing. However on the way out there was a strange corridor of mirrors which called for a photograph/

For dinner that night we went to an Indonesian restaurant (not as strange as it might seem when you realise that Indonesia was a Dutch colony for 300 years) near our hotel and had a very pleasant meal, then were thrilled to discover, back in our hotel room, that the BBC channels are shown on Dutch TV and with the hour time difference it meant we could watch the final of the Great British Bake Off; a very satisfactory end to the first day.