Amsterdam in April

OK. I’m taking the liberty to share below travelogue in which I was mentioned. My thourghts about this beautiful European city is brewing. . . . Stay tuned.


Of all the many splendid attractions of Amsterdam, among the most impressive are the youth of the crowds in the narrow streets, staggeringly beautiful museums and speedy trams and the joyousness throughout that ordinarily grey old city. Of course, we were there for the King’s Birthday on 27 April, when the streets, canal sides and bridges were jammed with the frisky young and old dressed in orange, carrying pints of beer and liter bottles of wine and bouncily dancing to loud, metallic music blaring from loudspeakers outside pubs. Many were tourists, of course, but most were undeniably Dutch.

See a few of Karen’s photos, including a view from our airplane of colorful fields of tulips. More photos, still being processed, are to come.

We saw joy in the great Dutch art hung in museums. Subjects smile and outright laugh in the works of Franz Hals, Johannes Vermeer and Jan Steen. Even gloomily lit Rembrandt cracks the occasional smile. They are all having a good time, bolstered by still life representations of lobsters and fat, ripe vegetables.

That tradition of joy remains, as we saw in a less-than-five-days visit to the Dutch capital that sensibly stations its parliamentarians 35 miles away in The Hague. Accompanied by Frank Clark, Karen’s American godfather on his first visit to Europe, we arrived early in the morning of a day that welcomed us as we rode from the airport with a rainbow. Before the end of that first day, we experienced blinding sunshine, pouring rain, rain with sunshine and noisy hail. Our taxi driver from the airport complained that our hotel, the west side inn, in a quiet residential neighborhood split by a canal, was much too far from center city. But we learned soon that the number 2 tram (7.50 euros for a 24-hour ticket) was our lifeline to all that a tourists wanted to see.

And what we most wanted to see was the Van Gogh Museum, where long lines awaited entry. We had booked timed tickets online days before. While hundreds waited, we swept almost immediately on our first morning into a blazingly colorful world created by the abused mind of a genius. See:

We had seen Van Gogh’s work before, even a Sunflowers supposedly worth $39 million in Tokyo. After four hours with Van Gogh’s painting, his family letters carefully posted, absorbing legends about the artist all over the museum, we staggered besotted into the sunshine of the Museumplein, a large, former marsh transformed into a public green ringed by two other great museums, the Rijksmueum and the Stedelijk and the grand concert hall, Concertgebouw.

We recovered quickly and spent the rest of the day serenely sailing along the Amsterdam canal on a hop-on, hop-off tour. We hopped off only once, to pass the Anne Frank House, for which all timed tickets during our Amsterdam visit had been sold. After 3.30 p.m. daily, the doors open for day tickets but, as we discovered, so many people line up, the wait can be two or three hours. We passed on seeing the house although later in our visit was passed along Anne Frank Straat.

Dogged by jet lag, we returned to our hotel, discovering the one place nearby to eat was a Chinese restaurant around the corner. We managed to get our noodles, spring rolls and veggies, although the stocky, very Chinese-looking manager taking our order responded to Karen’s Mandarin by saying, “I don’t understand Chinese.” By then, we were joined by a courageous friend, Leu Siew Ying, who had traveled from Bourdeaux. She is our friend from Guangzhou, where her reporting for the South China Morning Post earned her a $15,000 European Union prize for human rights reporting and helped her to a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard. In Bourdeaux she is taking a wine course for accreditation as a sommelier.

She also joined us the next day — the king’s birthday — for six hours at the Rijksmuseum. See: It is stuffed with the grand masters of Dutch art. See:

The pride of position is Rembrandt’s night watch. but the museum offers so much more of what we were reminded continually throughout our stay was the 17th century golden age of the Netherlands, when it may have been the world’s richest. Six hours of great Dutch art was overwhelming.

We left the museum in time to walk through one of the many flea markets that characterize the King’s Birthday and along a canal until we came to a thick mass of people blocking a canal bridge by hopping and swirling to music roaring from a pub. I pushed my way through the beer-sotted throng, not realizing how dangerous the crowd was until I reached safety on the other side of a canal bridge.

“I lost frank,” cried Karen. Sure enough, the pulsating crowd had lifted him off his heels and deposited him a 100 yards back on the other side of the bridge. Karen plunged back into the crowd and finally located him safely.

By then, daughter Jenny had arrived by train from Paris to join us at our hotel for the evening. Because many roads had been closed and tram and bus lines diverted because of the king’s birthday, we walked, took two trams and finally a taxi to return to the hotel. We headed off in a rented car with Jenny driving for what we hoped would be a non-Chinese, Dutch-style supper. We got stuck in narrow roads, once by a crowd too thick to pass. Many restaurants were closed. We aimed for a place called George Bistro Bistro but ended up in San Gordo, a Spanish restaurant where we enjoyed a nine-course tapas supper washed down with fruity sangria. Ola!

The next day was Keukenhof, the fantastic tulip garden a half hour from Amsterdam by a rented red Toyota hybrid Yaris.  See:

You can see a couple of Karen’s photos, including the windmill, with a lot more to come. The tulips were as glorious and multi-colored as advertised, supported by daffodils and hyacinth. We did the gardens in four hours, including a snack lunch from stands in the gardens that included, for me and Karen, maatjes herring sandwiches and fresh strawberries that melted in your mouth.

We returned to Amsterdam in time for Jenny to drive us toward the old town. But after an hour or so of driving along the canals and running into detours, jenny the driver gave up, dropped us at Rembrandt Square and headed back to the rail station to return the car and train back to Paris.

From Rembrandt Square, we made our way, at my insistence, to the so-called Red Light District along the canal behind the Ould Kerke, or old church, one of Amsterdam’s oldest house of worship. I told Karen and Frank the visit was necessary because once we got home, everybody would ask if we visited the Red Light District. I had been there more than 15 years ago. Well, the visit, at 6 p.m., was a bust, no pun intended. We passed the coffee shops that offer weed not caffeine, sex shops and the live sex show theaters. But the windows where live hookers sat to entice patrons were either shaded or empty, except for one voluptuous creature. All much tamer than my past visit.

We finally found our Dutch meal in a typical Amsterdam brown bar in an alley close to the dam, the grand central square where Amsterdam supposedly started in the 14th century. Karen asked for any local beer that was not Heinekens or Golsch and got a sweet tasting brew called Witte. I had the pea soup with sausage and veal spare ribs, Karen had the roasted eel and a well-cooked Dutch steak. Frank settled for lasagna that he said was delicious.

To save the energy of the octogenarians in the party, we took the hop-on-hop-off bus tour on our final day, hopping off only to visit the 17th century Rembrandt House and Museum where the old master lived for 19 years before going bankrupt. The museum offers an informative film about Rembrandt narrated by British hstorian Simon Schama, who teaches at Columbia in New York and makes every subject he touches be about him. Karen and Frank walked up the narrow staircase of the old house to the master’s studio while I took the elevator to the workshop he kept for his students on the floor above his studio. No climbing involved. Next to the students’ studio is a lovely collection of Rembrandt engravings.

We lunched decadently in a little waffle shop on chocolate covered waffles with ice cream (strawberry for me).

We ended the day triumphantly. We found George Bistro Bistro, a friendly neighborhood place, for a final Amsterdam supper: grilled lobster for Karen, lobster and corn chowder and lobster roll for me, Dutch steak for Frank.

We’ve returned to Centreville, bellies full, memories overstuffed but willing to return to Amsterdam because there was so much we did not see.