Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Milling About

Tuesday, August 25

Today we took the train to visit a working windmill in the countryside on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The train ride was about 45 minutes through the less touristy parts of the city out to the "suburbs" of Holland.

When we stepped off the train, we got a little turned around and ended up walking through a small village full of the most adorable houses with the most beautiful gardens. A quite acceptable detour, really.

The windmill we chose to visit was Molen van Sloten. This mill is actually a water mill (as opposed to a grain mill) meaning it's sole purpose is to pull water from the lower lying areas so Amsterdam doesn't flood. Much of Holland is below sea level, which is why windmills are so prevalent in The Netherlands.

Our tour guide knew everything about windmills, and was enthusiastic about sharing. We were the only people in our tour group, so we had the opportunity to ask lots of questions. Apparently, windmills can be turned so that the vanes face into the wind for maximum efficiency. While that makes perfectly logical sense, we had never considered that wind changes, and were therefore utterly enthralled by this. Some entire windmills turn, on Molen van Sloten the cap of the windmill rotates when the miller turns a giant wheel. In keeping with our supreme ignorance regarding aerodynamics, we were equally surprised to learn that the entire cap of the mill can be ripped off by the wind if the miller doesn't pay careful attention to the changing weather conditions.

After our tour, we walked across the street to a small cafe (with a view of the windmill) for lunch. I told our waitress that I wanted the most traditional Dutch meal they offered. She returned with kroketten, which is basically deep fried minced meat. Now if that sounds gross then think of it as pre-chewed chicken fried steak with the mashed potatoes already mixed in. That's exactly what it tasted like. Plus, it was deep fried! That's the Southern stamp of approval!

After lunch, we took the train back into town and walked to the Bloemenmarkt - the world's only floating flower market. It was simply beautiful. The shops offered a huge variety of not only fresh cut flowers, but of seeds and tulip bulbs as well. Thousands of bulbs in every color and every species. We bought some bulbs (with the necessary health certificate for the US) to take home and plant all around our house.

We visited a few more souvenir shops on the way back to our hotel and finally saw some wooden shoes. We'd been on the lookout since our arrival, and had only seen a few pairs here and there. This particular shop was obviously designed to lure in tourists. It totally worked.

We also saw a brand of fast food particular to Europe; the wall of hamburgers. Though we were not brave enough to try it, the idea of a hot meal from an almost-vending-machine was interesting. Apparently, I draw the line somewhere between pre-chewed chicken fried steak and wall-burgers.

I couldn't resist just a few more shots of the beautiful canals and row houses on our way to dinner. Today was our last day in this beautiful city. We have had an amazing vacation and we will miss the weather, the history and the adventure when we return home. But, we take with us fond memories and some wooden shoes!

Tomorrow: Heading Home to Houston

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dutch Masters

Monday, August 24

Our mission for the day was to enjoy as much art as we possibly could, then get drunk. It was the perfect balance of the most archetypal features of the European and American cultures.

I've mentioned before that I don't really understand art. I'd like to clarify that this statement only applies to modern art. A squirrel skull mounted on a photograph of an ice cream cone covered in paint splatters doesn't make much sense to me. I'm uncultured. Master works by master artists, now that's some art I can get behind.

We started our day by visiting the Van Gogh Museum. The first two floors of the museum featured exhibits of 19th century art by friends of Van Gogh and by artists inspired by Van Gogh. The main attraction was the third floor exhibit of largest collection of Vincent van Gogh paintings in the world.

The collection was arranged chronologically which made the experience especially enjoyable because it was so easy to discern the different "periods" of Van Gogh's career. We were fascinated by the clear distinction between the muted colors of his early work (under the influence of art dealers who thought dark colors would sell) and the bright, cheerful colors in his later work (when he was more influenced by his surroundings). I was surprised to learn that Van Gogh actually painted five versions of his more famous painting "Sunflowers" to decorate his own home. It was surreal to be standing so close to something so well known, so classic and so old. I could have reached out and felt the bumps in the oil paint. I could have, but I didn't, because I wanted to keep all of my fingers and the conspicuously placed security guards looked rather menacing. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside.

After spending most of the morning at the Van Gogh museum, we ate lunch at a small British themed cafe in the museum district. The Brits aren't known for having the most delectable cuisine (mincemeat pies and figgy pudding? No thanks.) However, Dutch fare isn't much better. Except for their pancakes.

Our next stop was the Rijksmuseum, which was undergoing a major renovation. Because of the construction, only a small portion of the museum's permanent collection was on display. Fortunately, the Masterpieces available for viewing were the highlights of the collection. We were able to view many works by Rembrandt including The Night Watch. This giant painting was fascinating in its detail and sheer size. What really astounded us was that the painting was originally even larger. At some point, all four sides were cut down so that the painting would fit between two doors in the town hall. My other favorite exhibit was that of two 17th century doll's houses. The workmanship and detail were exquisite and the materials used were all high end and plush. I could have looked at the tiny details for hours, absorbing the minutiae. Pictures were not allowed inside this museum either.

After soaking up as much culture as we possibly could, we headed to the Heineken Brewery. We needed to make sure we didn't remember anything we might have accidentally learned during our morning museum tour. The Heineken Experience was definitely "touristy," but it was fun. The coolest part was seeing the huge copper vats that were used to brew the beer until 1988 when Heineken production was moved out of the city. Having attended "beer school" at Busch Gardens owned Sea World on more than one occasion (read: free beer in air conditioning at a hot theme park) it was interesting to see a different company's perspective on brewing and branding. That, and since Heineken is a famous Dutch brewed beer we felt it was our duty as visitors to The Netherlands to experience their culture and sample their wares. When in Rome, never refuse a free beer (or three).

After a dinner of leftovers from our feast the night before, we walked down to the "The Skinny Bridge" over the Amstel river. It is solely for the use of pedestrians and bicyclists and it is beautifully lit at night. According to our travel book, it is the most photographed bridge in Amsterdam. We gladly contributed to that title. It was wonderfully peaceful as we strolled along the canals and the twinkling reflections on the water were beautiful. Romantic even.

Tomorrow: A Windmill and The Bloomenmarket

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dutch Pancakes

Sunday, August 23

We started our day by visiting the most amazing pancake house I have ever had the privilege of dining in. The choices were simply overwhelming! We had heard that the Dutch enjoy pancakes, I believe the direct quote was, "You name it, stick it in a pancake, and they'll eat it", but we had no idea that the choices would be so exotic. The menu at Pancakes! Amsterdam contains no fewer than 33 different pancake options, not including extra options to create your own pancake. One pancake choice was an Indian spiced pancake made with chickpea flour, chicken curry and mango chutney. Why wouldn't that be good?

The Husband chose the Dutch special, an apple pancake with strawberries and ice cream on top, while I had an apple pancake baked with mixed nuts, calvados and cinnamon. They were both divine. The pancakes were also gigantic. As big as our plate, but more similar to a crepe than the kind of pancake one might get at IHOP. I will be searching for Dutch pancake recipes to make at home. I believe the secret is that they are cooked in the oven.

After our huge breakfast, we visited the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. Since we weren't able to visit the famous Keukenhof gardens (they are only open during the spring tulip season), we opted to learn about Holland's tulip industry at the museum. At the peak of Tulip Mania in the 1600s, a single tulip bulb could be sold for as much as 4500 florins. The average yearly salary at the same time was about 300 florins. The Dutch like their tulips! We weren't able to see any live tulips, but the frenzy surrounding the flower market and sheer number of bulbs available, enticed us into learning what we could.

We visited a few shops, including a shop selling only Holland's famous Delftware, and we stopped to take more pictures of gorgeous canals and canal houses. Truly, every new street revealed another tranquil view of this beautiful city. I had to restrain myself from stopping every 5 steps to snap another picture. Even still, we can't remember the names of most of the canals we chose to capture. I'll just call them all "lovely".

While walking the streets of Amsterdam, we happened upon a floating concert. Out in the middle of a canal, a stage had been set up for an outdoor performance. People lined both sides of the canal, and some boaters had docked along side the stage to listen. It was so cute on a Sunday afternoon.

Also on the streets, we saw the Amsterdam version of throwing a beer can into the bed of your pickup truck. The Dutch and us Texans have more in common than we originally thought.

Our last stop of the day was at the Anne Frank House. To walk through the spaces where eight people hid in fear for two years was very emotional. The space that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer was about the size of our master bathroom, which helps me put the size into perspective. It was less than 17 feet long and 7 feet wide, and still, the Franks felt lucky to have a place to hide. Many of the items displayed in the house showed how the families tried to make the best of their situation; they celebrated birthdays and anniversaries by pulling together parties with their meager means, the children continued their lessons, and Anne pasted pictures from note cards and magazines on the walls of her room to make it more "cheerful". Pictures were not allowed in the museum, but I don't think it is something we will soon forget. It was an incredibly moving experience, and we left with tears in our eyes.

We were emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of the day, so we opted to take a meal back to our hotel for dinner. If only we had such delicious take-out at home. We also enjoyed some fabulous European cheese. The only thing better than European bread is European cheese. What I wouldn't give to have a bread and cheese shop in my house.

Tomorrow: The Van Gogh Museum, The Rijksmuseum and The Heineken Experience

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Oldest Bell in Amsterdam

Saturday, August 22

Well our second day in Amsterdam started out no different than any other Saturday morning, slept a little late, had a little breakfast, and drank some coffee. No different than any other Saturday, except we were in Amsterdam! As we headed out for our first full day of vacation and seeing the sights, we could not help but stop and take pictures everywhere we went. It really is amazing that almost every street, every bridge, every canal has some attribute that makes you stop and say, "Wow!"

As we made our way through town, we crossed over the Amstel river, and found several row houses with picturesque vines and flowers adorning their facades. They don't have the big yards or flower gardens like we have back home, but it seems that everyone does a little something to liven up the brick and stone lining each side of the street.

Our first stop of the day was at the Rembrandthuis, the canal house where Rembrandt lived and worked as a painter, creating etchings, and teaching other artists. He was lucky, his work was popular while he was still alive, mostly because of his well-to-do wife's connections. Tragically, once she died, so did most of the interest in Rembrandt's work. He ended up going bankrupt, resulting in the seizure and sale of the house and all its furnishings.

The basement kitchen was something to behold. The water had to be pumped in by hand, and even then it wasn't safe to drink. Most people drank a weak form of beer that was safer to drink since the water was boiled in the brewing process. The fire in the hearth was never allowed to run out, and Rembrandt's house had one of the first stoves installed in the kitchen. It's amazing that in today's world of refrigerators, microwaves, and ovens that heat up at the push of a button, to remember that people used to cook everyday in such a kitchen.

The anteroom of the house was filled with paintings, a very large ornate cabinet, and a few pieces of delftware pottery. Turns out none of the paintings here were actually Rembrandt's, but from other artists of the time that he represented. Rembrandt was not only an artist, but an art dealer as well, and this room was used to greet his guests and display the artwork that was for sale. One of the other unique details of the room was the marble trim around the doors. Except, it isn't really marble at all, it is wood that has been painted to look like marble, one of the earliest faux finishes. It was so well done, it really had us fooled until it was pointed out to us in the tour. In the next room we also saw the box bed Rembrandt slept in. You may be wondering, why is it so small, and wouldn't that be uncomfortable? It seems that people at the time had a fear that if they slept on their backs, they might stop breathing and die in their sleep, so they slept semi-upright instead. It also had some faux finish touches as well, with the black sections painted to look like pieces of ebony that had been inlaid in the wood.

We next found ourselves walking into a demonstration of the etching process used to create the many etched printings that Rembrandt designed. A tool is used to engrave lines into a plate of copper, which is then covered in ink. As the plate and a piece of paper are run through a press, the ink is transferred to the paper, giving a mirror image of the engraving on the plate. Rembrandt created approximately 300 unique etching plates, one of which was displayed next to an original etching that was made from that plate. It was really amazing to such detailed depictions of people, nature, and different views of Amsterdam created by scratching lines on a piece of metal.

So what does one do after waking up, having breakfast, and touring a museum? Why you eat again, that's what! We found a great little sandwich shop down the road from the Rembrandthuis where everything was fresh and made from scratch. The wife was excited because her salami sandwich came with slices of hard-boiled egg. I was excited because I got a chocolate covered waffle for dessert!

Other than wandering the streets and peeking into different shops here and there, our last major excursion for the day was a trip to the Zuiderkerk. It was built in 1614 as Amsterdam's first Protestant church, and has one of the tallest and most amazing towers in Amsterdam. We read you could take a tour to the top of the tower, what we didn't realize was that we had to climb stairs the 200+ feet to the top of the tower! But it was well worth it, as the view from the top was spectacular. It was really one of the best ways to see all of Amsterdam on a nice sunny day. To top it all off, we each got to take turns ringing the largest bell in the church, which was also the oldest bell in Amsterdam.

We rounded out the day with dinner at a small Italian restaurant just down the street from our hotel, and were treated to not only a magnificent meal, but a wonderful view of the sunset at the opposite end of the canal. Really just a perfect end to a perfect day.

Tomorrow, the Anne Frank house and Pancakes!