Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Amsterdam - what can I say? I love this city, from the time I got off the train at Central Station and started walking, crossing over canal bridges in the evening light. There’s just something about the city, with its 17th century canal houses, bicycles and people, which gives it a certain charm. And even at night, the city feels very much alive. Even though someone told me Amsterdam is the least friendly city in the Netherlands, I still find the people here extremely friendly. (Those who think Amsterdam is not a friendly city should try living in London!) And I love the fact that although most of the city centre is busy and alive at night, you can just walk a few minutes and find quiet streets with sidewalk cafes on one side, and canals with houseboats on the other.

One of the first places I visited along with Kyle and Dylan was the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands’s largest national museum, opened in 1885. The art collection in this museum is truly extensive and the highlight, for me at least, was The Night Watch by Rembrandt painted in 1642. This impressive painting is huge, so big in fact that when it was moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715, they had to crop the painting to fit it into its new display area, resulting in the loss of a few characters from the painting! The current cropped version is approximately 4.37 x 3.63 metres (about 14.3 x 12 feet). Photography is not allowed inside the Rijksmuseum but the picture of The Night Watch below is from their website.

A few minutes walk away from the Rijksmuseum is the Van Gogh Museum. The Van Gogh Museum was opened in 1973 and has the largest collection of paintings by Van Gogh in the world, more than 200 paintings, as well as drawings and letters. Among these paintings is one from the Sunflowers series.

Lunch was sandwiches beside a canal, watching boats go by and occasionally throwing bread crumbs to some ducks swimming past. It was like a picture-postcard day… sitting by the side of a canal in Amsterdam, eating a sandwich with ducks and boats going by, the late afternoon sun shining on our faces and the blue sky above us. All holidays should be like this.

During an evening stroll later, I wanted to test my camera again so I took 2 photos from the same spot on one of the canal bridges at Bloemgracht, one at maximum wide angle and another at maximum zoom. In the photos below, the 28mm wide angle shot showed a canal bridge far away in the distance but the 280mm zoom showed even the small numbering painted on the side of the bridge. Considering this is a pocket camera and not a professional dSLR, I'm impressed!

Apparently, Amsterdam's Red Light District is a favourite tourist destination. Unsurprisingly, this seems to be the busiest part of the city at night, with throngs of tourists walking around, looking at souvenir shops and prostitutes who stand behind glass windows. It wasn't as seedy as I thought it would be... maybe because there were so many tourists about and it was brightly lit on both side of the canal. I didn't wander away from the main streets, though.

The Anne Frank Museum, by contrast, was a sombre experience. Located at 263 Prinsengracht (the museum is actually at 267 Prinsengracht), this is the house where Anne Frank, a Jewish girl, stayed in hiding for 2 years before she and her family were betrayed and taken by the Nazis to concentration camps during World War II. Thirteen year old Anne began keeping a diary in July 1942, and gave an account of her life while in hiding. She made her last entry in August 1944, three days before she and her family were arrested. In March 1945, Anne died while at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, just a few weeks before the camp was liberated by the British Army.

Visitors to the Anne Frank house enter the rear of the house, where the Frank and Van Daan families went into hiding, via a revolving bookcase on the second floor. From there, you can walk through all the rooms, which are now empty except for the film-star pin-ups in Anne’s room. Models of the furnished rooms as they looked during the occupation are on display, built to details provided by Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only one of those in hiding to survive. Letters, photographs and documents are on display; and video clips and interviews are shown. Once again, photography is not allowed inside the museum. The photo below was taken in Warsaw, but I think it probably represents the terror felt by all Jews during this period of time.

Having said all that, the Anne Frank house is not just a museum of past horrors, designed to make people depressed after their visit (at least I hope not) although I did feel sad afterwards, but the museum actually develops educational material on discrimination and human rights.

In order to cheer myself up after that visit, I decided to go in search of a local dish for lunch, and went to Nieuwmarkt, an open, paved square located at the south side of Amsterdam’s Chinatown. Cafes and restaurants circle the square and one of them is an unassuming place called Plein 26, recommended to me by someone at the place I was staying. I had a plate of stamppot, a typical Dutch stew of puréed potatoes, vegetables (I chose carrots and onions) and sausage. It was such a simple dish and did not look like much, but it tasted soooo good. I wanted to try other dishes but I was full by the time I finished and so, could not.

I also wanted to find a place to use the internet so I asked around and was told there is a small library nearby. I found the library at 69 St Antoniesbreestraat.

On the outside, it had a very plain façade but inside, it was beautiful! It had painted murals on the ceiling, designer table lamps, a piano covering what looked like a sealed fireplace, a wall mirror framed by gold-painted carvings… the place was amazing!

The only other place I wanted to visit for the day was Vondelpark, back in the Museum Quarter in the south-west part of the city. This is the largest park in the city and it was huge, although not as big as Hyde Park here in London. I only walked a small section of it and after an entire day of walking (and so many days in a row), I was too tired to explore the entire park.

Here's an interesting bit of information for you. While in Brussels, public urinals are installed for you to pee against the Saint Catherine’s Church, in Amsterdam many places have pee deflectors installed. Yeah, that’s right. Pee deflectors. Just like deflector shields on a Star Trek spaceship that deflects enemy fire, pee deflectors deflect your pee so that it all comes back to you, ending up mostly on your pants and shoes. I didn’t test this out but looking at a pee deflector, I’m inclined to agree with what I was told. But that’s not the best bit. For a period of time in the 1980s, to discourage people even more, these pee deflectors were electrified! No joke. Don’t you just love Amsterdam? :)

Finally, while walking around the city, I saw some work by a street artist who goes by the name C215. His work is amazing! Well, I looked up this person when I came home and found out his real name is Christian Guemy, a French stencil street artist.

I had never even heard of stencil street art before but having looked it up online, I must say I’m mighty impressed. This guy has held exhibitions and his work can be seen in many parts of the world. He has a blog at
Videos of him and his work can also be seen on YouTube. Personally, I think his work is amazing.

All in all, it has been a great holiday and I've met some really nice people. I’m looking forward to future visits to this city in order to explore the east side of the city, which I more or less neglected during this visit… if the opportunity arises, I’ll be back!

Brussels, Belgium

I went to Brussels on the 15th September and spent a few days there. From Brussels, I then took the train to Amsterdam. This was probably one of my best holidays... I had a great time. Brussels is a nice city, and the city centre is not very big so most of the sights are within walking distance. The first place I went to was the Museum of Comic Strip Art, or as I like to call it... the Tintin Museum. There is a nice collection of comic art here, including covers and panels from Tintin and the Smurfs. As I entered the place, the red and white rocket from Tintin's Journey to the Moon and Explorers on the Moon greeted me next to a central staircase. The museum covers three floors although I think the ground floor is mainly the merchandise store (where I bought my Tintin keychain).

My next stop was Place Sainte-Catherine, apparently in Brussels’s seafood district.

I didn’t come here for the seafood, though. I came here because I wanted to see Saint Catherine’s Church.

Why, you ask? Well, let me explain. In some countries such as Italy, if you were to walk up against a church building, unzip your pants and pee against the church, you would probably be arrested. But here in Place Sainte-Catherine, public open-air urinals have been installed so that you may do just that! I, of course, had to see that for myself and so I went looking for the urinal, and found it… right by the church. How do you like that?

From Place Sainte-Catherine, I walked towards the Grand Place, the heart of Brussels. The Grand Place is a cobblestone square with some amazing 17th century architecture. On the way there, I spotted a Chinese supermarket and went in to buy myself a mooncake, a traditional Chinese pastry eaten during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. So yes, I had Chinese pastry in Belgium. (And it was good too!) But back to the Grand Place… the main attraction here is probably the Hotel de Ville, a town hall that began construction in 1401 and was completed in 1459. It was the only building left standing after cannon fire by the French destroyed the other buildings in the square in 1695. It is a truly impressive building, with carved statues and intricate details all round the façade.

The Grand Place is also where you will find Le Pigeon, home to exiled French novelist Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misérables who lived here in 1852 when he fled France. Le Pigeon is the building on the extreme right in the photo below, with the darkened windows.

Not far away from the Grand Place is Manneken Pis, the famous statue of a boy pissing that has become the symbol of Brussels. The actual statue itself is not very big, less than half a metre tall. The original bronze statue was put in place in 1619. Several attempts to steal it were made in the 18th century by the French and British armies. But they were all surpassed by Antoine Licas, a convict who stole the statue in 1817 and then… smashed it. Yep, he stole it and then destroyed it. Why didn’t he just destroy it there? I don’t know, go figure. Anyway, a replica of that statue was made in 1818 and that’s the statue that is in place today.

As with any landmark of any country, the Manneken Pis can be found on a million items of merchandise. Manneken Pis postcards, Manneken Pis keychains, Manneken Pis bottle openers, Manneken Pis T-shirts, Manneken Pis thermometers, Manneken Pis chocolate… you name it, they have it.

And of course, I had to try some Belgian waffles while I was there and if you look, you will find many places selling waffles in the city. Some of the waffles looked fantastically mouth-watering.

In the end, I opted for a plain waffle with Belgian chocolate topping. Having had my waffle, I then walked around, did a little shopping and went back to the Grand Place to take some night photos.

But if you think Brussels is all old buildings, you’ll have to take a look at Dexia Tower, the third tallest building in the city, located a short walk from where I stayed. This building lights up at night, and I mean really lights up! The building has 38 floors with a total of 6000 windows. Out of these, 4200 windows have been fitted with a special LED lighting installation of red, green and blue lights which can be combined to give off any colour in the colour palette. And the result of this is? An animated light show towering 38 floors high!

The light shows centre around different themes and during the time I was in Brussels, the theme was ‘Weather’ where the lights change to display the temperature, cloudiness, precipitations and wind by using different colours and geometrical patterns to visualize these data. Apparently, the lighting system is also energy-saving and the energy consumption of the tower is one-seventh that of a football stadium and one-third that of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. More information on the Dexia Tower can be found here:

One of the last places I visited before I left Brussels was the Kruidtuin Jardin Botanique, the botanical gardens. This was the perfect place to push the limits of my new Lumix TZ4 digital camera and I must say I’m extremely pleased with the results. I bought it for my trip, to replace my old (but faithful) 4 MP Kodak. It isn’t perfect but for a pocket camera, it’s pretty close. I took the usual pictures of the gardens but the pictures that clinched it were the macro ones I took of bees and butterflies. Most of my friends know I love photography but if you’ve ever tried taking pictures of bees, you’d know how frustrating it can be. Those darn bees just won’t stay still to pose for a photo. The pictures below are scaled down from 8 MP images.

To show you what the images are like without scaling them down, I have included a cropped image below at 100% of the original 8 MP image.

You can see why I love this camera! :) Next stop - Amsterdam!