As we planned our Summer ‘09 trip to Amsterdam, almost everyone we told that we intended to stay nine days looked at us in amazement and said, "Why?" People told us that 2-4 days was plenty because it is relatively small and compact, it has only a few interesting museums, it is too seedy, it is mostly canals and bridges, it is expensive, etc. Unwavering, we stayed with our plan and our predisposition that we like really getting to know one city at a time and having adequate time in the most interesting cities to walk the streets, explore the nooks and crannies, hit all the key sights and the lesser-visited ones, etc. We had done this in Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Cuzco, London, Reykjavik, Edinburgh, etc. But we also hedged our bets and always replied that we also knew there were also many one-day trips we could take from Amsterdam to other parts of the country and even to Belgium.
Well, after our nine days, we were ready to stay another week; and we already are thinking about when we can go back. I am not sure any city we have visited has quite captured us in the way Amsterdam did. One of the key differences is that we came away meeting many very interesting local and visiting people while there. The city's outdoor cafes and bars and its openness to all cultures and types as well as its predominance of English usage among natives and visitors made it very easy to strike up conversations wherever we went.
So, what were some of our highlights?
First, any one who has been to Amsterdam can attest to its unique beauty. Canals and bridges link the scores of islands that make up the City. Canal houses, largely built in the 17th-19th centuries, command the casual stroller to look up at the unique facades and tops of the buildings and to notice how many of them lean forward, sideways and every other direction possible. Hundreds of houseboats of every description line the canals, and thousands of black bikes are parked and locked in every available space, in every imaginable manner. Church spires mark neighborhoods as do red lights mark districts for prostitution. Coffee shops by the dozens sell legal marijuana and hashish; while cafes by the hundreds line streets for strong coffee and discussion. Cobblestones make walking a bit difficult but very romantic. Ice cream and French fry shops dot the city. History is every where. Fun is totally in the air.
The MUSEUMS: In a word, WOW!
- The Van Gogh Museum: While as crowded as any museum we have ever visited, we never felt rushed or unable to see each painting for the amount of time we wanted. The excellent audio tour talks about each displayed painting, not just the random one here and there. The sequence is well planned along the walls and follows the chronology of Van Gogh's life and changing abodes. The crowds move at a snail's pace, but they move together as they listen and look. We were so impressed with the presentation, the art, and the subsequent learning.
- The Anne Frank House: To ready ourselves, we re-watched two movies about Anne Frank before leaving the USA. We were prepared (we thought), but the impact was even greater than we expected. Again, the officials have figured out how to deal with huge crowds that line up daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. We were moved through the house in a small group at a good pace. Walking into the hiding space through the bookcase door we had seen in the movies, seeing Anne's movie-star pictures still on the wall, hearing her church bells and seeing her chestnut tree through the attic window, and even stepping lightly on the creaking floor boards out of respect for how quiet they had to be those two years of hiding -- The impact of it all was over-whelming.
- The Rijksmuseum: Housing probably the world's best collection of 17th century Dutch Master artists, this museum was amazing. It also was very well-laid out and had a fantastic audio tour. We were both particularly blown away by the Rembrandt paintings. Unlike many we have seen in other museums that always appear dark, these showed much light and color. They had all been restored in the past few years to remove the protective shellac that had sealed them for so many years, bringing them back to their original states. We also were struck by the other artists of the time and their beautiful portraits of local civic leaders and life. (Only 25% of the museum was actually open, due to extensive and multi-year renovations; but even that amount took us several hours and was remarkable. We look forward to returning some day when the entire museum is open.)
- The Amsterdam Historisch Museum: Charting the history of the City and country and especially of its meteoric rise during the Golden Age of the 1600s (when Netherlands ruled the seas and the trading world), the museum was fascinating and very educational. The audio tour was exceptional, and we were particularly interested in the section devoted to the Nazi occupation period. We also saw an authentic re-creation of the first gay bar in Amsterdam. We went to this museum early in our visit in order to set the context for the rest of our stay and explorations.
- The Hermitage Amsterdam: This extension of the world-renown Hermitage from St. Petersburg just opened in what was the 'widest' building in Amsterdam when it was built (as a retirement home). The first exhibit that is housed in the several huge buildings and their two floors is on the 19th century czars, their families, lives, courts, wealth, and achievements. The ball gowns and uniforms alone that were displayed as if at court before the czar were absolutely stunning. The huge paintings of the rulers and their families were testament to what handsome and beautiful people they all were. While some were real despots and while they together certainly brought destruction on themselves and their ways of life, we were struck how family oriented they seemed to be in each generation. We were overall amazed how all the things we saw has survived the 1917 revolution and all the years of Communism.
- Museum Willet- Holthuysen: This is one of several grand canal houses built in the late 1600s, early 1700s that are today open in full display of the grandeur and life of the wealthy at that time and into the 18th centuries. This particular house had a great collection of the owners' ceramics and dishes as well as art.
- Museum Het Rembrandthuis: While standing in Rembrandt's studio, his storage room of collectibles that often appeared in his paintings, and in his bedroom has some exciting aspects, we were overall not that impressed by this experience; but we went since it is on every one's 'must-do' list.
- The Verzetsmuseum: Following the development of the Dutch resistance movement, year-by-year, from the invasion of May 1940 to the liberation in May 1945, this very hands-on, 'in your face' museum was probably our biggest surprise and the most fascinating of all we visited. Hiding nothing, the museum set the stage even before the invasion of the life in Amsterdam, for its Jews and its other inhabitants. Like in other parts of Europe and even in the US, Hitler had him sympathizers in the early days of his reign in Amsterdam. As Amsterdam was finally invaded, life actually did not change that much at first since Hitler saw it as the ideal Aryan site overall. The changes that did occur in the first year or so were mostly for the Jews. The City did react quickly and in a big way through its unions for a general one-day strike after the first set of Jews were deported, but a swift, deadly reaction by the Nazis shut up immediately visible resistance; and most people just watched as the 80000 Jews were rounded up, family by family. The museum chronicles what it took to get a resistance movement really moving and why it took so long. As a visitor, we were given small, hand-held computers that guided us through the museum in a logical order and that added music, sounds, movie clips, and other information beyond what we saw in the exhibits. We were also asked along the way to respond to "What would YOU have done," and then saw our answers compared to past visitors. The entire experience was challenging, educational, and totally thought-provoking.
There were many other museums we did not get to (by choice and by necessity of time); and maybe we'll regret not going to the Erotic, the Hemp, the Torture, the Madame Tussaud's Wax, or the Sex Museums. But overall, we had a full schedule and did about as much museuming as we (and our backs) could tolerate.
We did see one more outstanding museum as part of a day's bike trip we took to the nearby totally charming town of Haarlem. The Frans Hals Museum is considered by many to be one of the best in the country, featuring this Grand Master of the 16th Century as well as his collected paintings and house furnishings of the time. The large museum is unique in that many of the paintings are displayed as they would have been in regular rooms of a house, along with other furnishings of the time.
The JEWISH HISTORY OF AMSTERDAM:
Whenever we visit a European city, we spend as much time as is needed to visit all the Jewish sites that still exist. In Amsterdam, as in many Nazi-occupied cities, the sites are now few; and the history, very sad.
The Jewish Museum (Joods Historisch Museum) is within the buildings of the "Old" and "New" Synagogues of Amsterdam; and on the site where two more synagogues also existed at one time. The restored interior of the Old Synagogue is beautiful, and it is the oldest public synagogue in Europe. The museum, using high technology as well as saved remnants of Jewish life, recounts the proud and important history of a country who welcomed exiled Jews from the Spanish Inquisition and even fleeing Jews from Germany in the early and mid 1930s and where, up until the Nazi invasion, Jews had largely lived safely and in an overall flourishing manner. Of the 80000 Jews in the country prior to WWII, only a fraction survived.
The Portugues-Israelitische Synagogue, built in 1675, was the largest synagogue in Europe when it was built. The bulky, red-brick building and surrounding building miraculously survived the Nazis. The massive, wooden-vaulted ceiling, the huge windows bringing in full light, the huge brass chandeliers, the dark-wood and huge ark area, etc. all make this an impressive and yet very sad (since now mostly empty) sacred place to visit.
The Hollandsche Schouwburg was home to the Jewish operetta and Yiddish theater that thrived in Amsterdam, even after the war started. The Jewish Philharmonic was well-regarded, and even non-Jews sought to play in it. At this site, whose main facade still exists, Jews were rounded up before deportation. Today, a memorial wall with 8000 of the family names of those deported, an eternal flame, and an outdoor monument serve as reminders of the horrible events.
Throughout the City, we walked to sites where statues and plagues were devoted to the Holocaust and its victims. While not as proactive and pervasive as cities like Berlin in owning and telling its awful past, the story is told in Amsterdam in its museums and its streets; and certainly there is much more recognition of 'never again' and 'how we failed' than in a city such as Vienna, e.g.
Amsterdam is a city of bikes like probably no other European city. 800,000 residents; and we heard estimates of at least 600,000 bikes -- all of which seem to be moving all the time. Bikes rule the narrow streets and bridges. Pedestrians, beware. Woe also to the person who believes it is possible to drive through the City. (It is admissible by law to stop your car on a one-way, narrow street up to 20 minutes to take 'care of business’ -- whatever that means.)
We took advantage of the biking tradition and did a wonderful bike tour of the City and one of the countryside with Mike's Bikes (with whom we had already done tours in Berlin and Munich). We also rented bikes on our own from them and followed the bike lanes out of the City to Haarlem, as I mentioned above, which is about a 60-75 minute ride out of the City. Every town and city in the country is connected by bike trails, by excellent signage, and even by special bike-only traffic lights.
We, like everyone, had to go to the Heineken brewery for a tour and the 'free' 3 beers your admissions gets you. Given we also were given 2 more each by some folks we met who did not want their drink tokens; we had a VERY good time.
The GAY LIFE:
As probably the Gay capital of Europe and maybe of the world, Amsterdam is gay everywhere, not just in one or two districts. GLBT folks are every where; and they are totally integrated and accepted in all Dutch life, from what we could see. Estimates are that 300K of the 800K residents are in fact GLB or T. Amsterdam is very accepting of all races, cultures, and people; it is the nearest place we have been to our own San Francisco Bay Area. We heard all the many languages and saw all the many colors of skin we see in downtown Palo Alto or SF on a typical day.
Amsterdam was one of the first cities, if not the first, to memorialize in a very moving and public way the persecution of gays by the Nazis. The three-part Homomonument juts out in one piece into one of the main canals, sits in the shadow and grounds of a major church and is next door to the Anne Frank House.
We found one gay-frequented (but not exclusively gay by any means) street (Regulierdwarsstraat) where we tended to spend every night from 5-7 or so in an outdoor bar having a cold Amstel and then moving on to one of the several outdoor restaurants (particularly the several Italian and Caribbean ones) on the street. We particularly loved lounging on the outdoor couches of SOHO where we met some fascinating men from around the globe. We also like a bar called April, a very trendy and high-style gay bar. We danced at the 3-floor Exit night club nearby and made our way up and down the street each night. We certainly explored many other of the 100+ gay bars and venues in the City (including a fun club called "Church") within gay Amsterdam, but we kept coming back to this area as the one where we felt at home.
Our hotel was also a real winner. As we tend to do all over the US and the world, we stayed at a gay-owned, boutique-style hotel. The Amistad was warm, friendly and very comfortable (and overall affordable). We met very interesting, new friends from Australia and Germany; and our hosts (Danny, Mike and Elioje) were the best.
Finally, a real highlight of our time in Amsterdam was a private, 2-hour canal trip offered arranged by our hotel. Our hosts (Gary and Steve) are from the US and have recently moved to Amsterdam to set up a laundry business. They provided wine and snacks for our late afternoon journey through the beautiful water streets and alleys of the city. Their stories were wonderful; and their knowledge of their relatively new home, impressive. The Saturday evening we went happened to be a record-breaking warm day, so the canals were packed with boats and parties.
All in all, what a City! Lots of people come to our home area and leave their hearts here. Well, we did the same in Amsterdam.
A Few Notes on Our Time in Geneva and Nice
While we did not stay as long in either city as we did in Amsterdam, we did enjoy the time we were there. In Geneva only for 24 hours, we mostly visited with a former aupair of Eddie's family (Peterson) who lives near Bern in Switzerland. We did together take a boat tour of Lake Geneva and had a lovely, long dinner on the lake that evening.
Our three days in Nice at the end of our trip (after our two weeks of hiking in the French Alps) did entail much more serious touring. We walked the hilly city by the hour, exploring in particular its beautiful seashore of a dozen-plus major beaches as well as its Old Town of incredibly narrow and beautiful streets from centuries past. We went to the Matisse and National Biblical Message Marc Chagall museums (both, outstanding) as well as the Archaeology Museum in the Cimiez neighborhood of Nice with its Roman ruins site and to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (in which the building itself -- much like the DeYoung in San Francisco -- is interesting as the excellent exhibits. We also found time for a day at the beach on our last day in Europe as we contemplated a month of much fun and joy.