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!


matthew said...

I went there. Check the images on my facebook account. Not as seedy as some people imagine...

Chris in the UK said...

Hey Mat.
I saw your pics when you posted them... and yeah, i agree.