Saturday, September 17, 2011

Stop and smell the sunflowers

On our third day in Amsterdam, we finally had some sunshine. Our first sight-seeing stop that morning was the Museumplein (meaning museum square) a large park-like area bordered by some of Amsterdam's finest museums. We headed to the Van Gogh (as the Dutch say, Van Kkkkkokh) museum on the north side where the 200 paintings owned by Vincent Van Gogh's brother, Theo, are housed. As with the Anne Frank House, we had bought advanced tickets and were able to skip the sizable line and go right into the museum.

Here's a little blurb from my Rick Steve's travel guide about Van Gogh and his art: "You could see Vincent Van Gogh's canvases as a series of suicide notes--or as the record of a life full of beauty...perhaps too full of beauty. He attacked life with a passion, experiencing highs and lows more intensely than the average person. The beauty of the world overwhelmed him; its ugliness struck him as only another dimension of beauty. He tried to absorb all of life, good and bad, and channel it into a canvas, and the frustration of this overwhelming task drove him to madness. If all this is a bit overstated--and I guess it is--it's an attempt to show the emotional impact that Van Gogh's works have had on so many people, me included."

The museum is laid out chronologically with Van Gogh's earlier works in the Netherlands first moving into his time in Paris. His first paintings focused on the reality of peasant life and were painted with dark somber colors. The style was crude, but Van Gogh's technique of applying thick paint was still clear. When Van Gogh went to Paris in 1886 he began to experiment more with the impressionist style and began to perfect his own techniques: thicker paint, broad swirling brush-strokes and bright clashing colors that "made his subject pulse with life" (example: Starry Night). Unfortunately, his mental stability also began to fluctuate and after mutilating his own ear with a knife during a fight with Gauguin (whom he shared a studio with briefly), he checked himself into a mental hospital in May 1889. When he left a year later in May 1890 he moved back to Paris, but in July walked into a field and shot himself in the chest. He died several days later.

Walking through the museum left me with a huge sense of sadness. Here was one of the most brilliant artists of all time, but he only sold one painting during his lifetime and eventually became so despondent that he saw no other recourse but to end his own life. How different would our culture be if Van Gogh had lived and painted through a full lifetime? There is no way to know...but wastefulness of any kind makes me sad, especially the waste of such talent.

The Van Gogh Museum

Concert Hall on the Museumplein

After spending the morning at the museum, we grabbed a quick lunch from a hot dog vendor. In case you didn't know, they are mad about hot dogs in nothern europe. In Iceland you couldn't go 3 feet without tripping over someplace selling hot dogs and the trend continued in the Netherlands. I'm not sure what it is about them (the cheap price? the easy portability?) but they sure love them.

Chris and I then decided to follow the self-guided Amsterdam City Walk described by Rick Steve in the guidebook and for the first time in our three days in the city fully immerse ourselves in the history and story of Amsterdam.

Rick Steve will guide us through Amsterdam!

The walk began outside the Centraal Station, which was built in the early 1800s during the city's economic revival. It's of the neo-gothic style and directly ahead lies the Damrak, the main street of the city. The area along the Damrak and in front of Centraal Station is known as the Times Square of Amsterdam, due to its hustle and bustle and also, of course, for the number of tourists and tourist traps.

As you walk along the Damrak, on the left you pass over the Amstel River which is now channeled into canals throughout the city. The next stop is the stock exchange (Beurs). The old building was constructed of nine million bricks (and 5,000 tree trunks hammered into the marshy ground) in 1903. Stocks used to mean anything that could be loaded or unloaded unto a boat, and this was where Amsterdamers always came to trade, even before the building was constructed. The architect who built the stock exchange was a famous socialist, and in a triptych frieze above the door, indicated that capitalists and brokers would lead to disaster in the future. Not exactly the message the stock exchange would want to send out, but whatcha gonna do?

Amstel River (looking towards Centraal Station)

The triptych above the stock exchange; the last panel shows people being crushed by capitalism.

Next down the Damrak, you hit Dam Square the cultural and political center of the city. On one side is the Royal Palace. It was constructed in 1650 and was used as a Town Hall, but got its current name in the 1880s when Holland was invaded by the French and Napoleon named his brother Louis king. The Netherlands currently has a monarchy--but it's in the British style where the King or Queen is the symbolic head of state (and not the head of government). The current queen, Queen Beatrix, uses the Royal Palace as her official residence when in Amsterdam. She normally lives at the Hague. Not too shabby, eh?

In the middle of Dam Square is a National Monument shaped as an obelisk depicting a crucified Christ, men in chains, and howling dogs. It was constructed in 1956 as a WWII memorial and is considered a monument for peace. The Nazis occupied Holland from 1940 to 1945 and deported and murdered over 100,000 Amsterdam Jews (including Anne Frank and most of her family).

The tour then took us down the pedestrian-only street, Kalverstraat, which is loaded with cheesy shops. There are some cool sights though; one of which is the "hidden" Catholic Church. In the late 1500s when the Protestant Reformation took control of the country, Catholicism began illegal and although it is now legalized, the Catholic churches in town keep a low profile. The church is called hidden because it's an unmarked row house between a McDonalds and H&M and you would literally never know it was there unless you were looking for it.

Royal Palace

Dam Square and the memorial

Dam Square looking towards the Royal Palace (the memorial would be at your back)


Another hidden treasure off the Kalverstraat is the Begijnhof, a beautiful courtyard lined with houses and a church that has been used as a woman's shelter since 1346. The Beguines were women who removed themselves from society and dedicated their lives to God--but were not nuns. The church on the side of the courtyard is called the English Reformed Church and is where the Pilgrims on the Mayflower stopped to pray before beginning their overseas voyage to Plymouth Rock. A stained glass window in the middle of the sanctuary commemorates the Pilgrims' visit.

Courtyard of the Reformed Church in the Begijnhof

Homes in the Begijnhof

By this time, our feet were pretty much shot, so we headed back to the houseboat for a little R&R. For dinner, we headed back towards Centraal Station and the Central Library which is located next door. Believe it or not, the library has a great cafeteria-style restaurant at the top terrace and the best view of the city.

Coming up next: we board the ship and enjoy some lazy days at sea! Also, I try not to eat so much that I swell to the size of a beluga whale. Mission somewhat accomplished.

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