Amsterdam in a nutshell …

John was invited to give a presentation at a conference in Amsterdam.  I thought we could go the weekend before and explore a city I hadn’t been to for maybe fifteen years but had good memories of.  I don’t really like trying to mix business and leisure.  But –  I could see a peep of light twinkling on the horizon – a chance to cross the channel.  My heart sang at the idea of  soon being in a different city, a different language, a different culture.  I am a European – I also feel international, being curious and outgoing to the world in general.

Heathrow – on the way to our gate – quite a long walk!

Up, up and away – as a member of The Cloud Appreciation Society I was lucky to have a window seat!

It is easy and fast to take the train from Schiphol airport to Central Station.  Our hotel was nearby and to my delight our room had a view over the Amstel river.

Amsterdam – view from hotel room

View from hotel room – looking down!

It was mid afternoon  –  enough time to do a bit of exploring before meeting a friend for supper, who is studying at the university here.  I made a start with a traditional scene.

Amsterdam – canal + boats and bikes …

Amsterdam – canal, boats and bikes too …

An example of a still existing ‘pissoir’

I first saw these on my very first visit abroad  –   to Paris, aged sixteen  –   and found them quite curious.  They are mixed up in my mind with the other completely foreign experience  of the time –  that of the heavy smell of garlic in the metro –  which hung thick and glutinous in the stale air and seemed to sink forever into my skin.  We never cooked with garlic at home then  –  but I did afterwards.

There’s another smell that pervades the streets in Amsterdam and many shops selling the seeds and other products  –  all I bought was a pair of socks!  Honest!

Outside the museum …

Unisex sox!

Another relic of times past … the ‘deux chevaux’ isn’t made any more …

It was time to meet up with Faye and we were soon sitting by the Prinsengracht canal, enjoying a ‘wheat’ beer together.  I very rarely drink beer but this ‘wheat’ beer is round and toasty – and relaxing.

Faye suggested a vegetarian restaurant nearby called ‘De  Bolhoed’, Prinsengracht 60-62.  It’s sort of old fashioned with well used wooden tables and chairs and primitive colours and posters on the walls.  Perhaps not the kind of place I would have noticed walking by but the food was plentiful and delicious.  We talked about history and castles and what studying in another country was like.  The majority of young people in Britain feel very European and want to be able to travel and work freely in the EU. It is a pity many of them didn’t get to vote in the referendum.  After all, they are our future.

We walked back to the hotel in the dark – about twenty minutes – and went through Dam Square and a beautifully lit, covered galleria –  illustrating Holland’s strong links with the sea.

Dam Square – Town Hall

Amsterdam – an extraordinary ceiling

‘Fish’ galleria during the day – I had to go back!

Obsessed with fish heads …

This one offers a drink of water should you dare to put a hand in its mouth …

Rabbits of the night …


Next day the sun flowed through the muslin curtains and we were soon up and having breakfast.  There was porridge, scrambled eggs, meaty and cheesy treats.  I chose plain yoghourt with exotic fruits and walnuts, followed by steaming coffee and croissants.  The dining room was shaped like a boat’s prow.  A mix of buzzing humanity therein – Americans, Germans, men looking like mariners with stripey T-shirts and loafers,  tattooed arms, dogs lying under the table looking hopeful but behaving well, and not least, incredibly polite, efficient and hospitable waiters.  I was ready for the day ahead.

Walking along the Amstel towards NEMO

NEMO bathed in early morning sunshine …

Just ten minutes walk and we arrived at NEMO, the Science Museum (a fabulous creation by Renzo Piano), which first and foremost offers children hands-on experiments. This is what I found in the shop.


I’m just aware of how maritime this country is, with water everywhere. And so many boats of every shape and size, new and old.

I wasn’t surprised to find out that the Scheepvaartmuseum, close by, houses the largest collection of boats in the world, including the replica of an 18th century Dutch East Indian ship, which is out on the river and can be explored.  The museum has been renovated over four years and is very beautiful and impressive.  This was our next stop.

The ‘Amsterdam’. Replica of a Dutch – East India company 18c ship – Scheepvaartsmuseum

The ‘Amsterdam’ close-up

The captain’s quarters along with those of the doctor and dining room for the officers are below the flag.

The ‘Amsterdam’ – figurehead

View of NEMO from the ship …

As I was taking this photo, a guide came up, showing a group of people the primitive ‘loo’  –  i.e.  the sailors sat on the side of the ship, holding on to the ropes and just hoped for the best!  Here’s a photo of the captain’s bathroom  –  at least he wouldn’t be lost overboard.

The captain’s less risky private loo …

The shorter you were the better  –  even I bumped my head a couple of times as I explored the mens’ quarters and the kitchen.  The ship is beautifully constructed but seasickness would have definitely laid me low.

Then there was the royal barge, which was housed in its own private building.  Its final voyage was in 1962 for the Silver Wedding anniversary of Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard.  It reminded me of the ‘Gloriana’, our own royal barge, used for Queen Elizabeth’s Thames Diamond Jubilee pageant in 2011.

The Royal Barge – Amsterdam

We were blown away by the inside of the museum, especially by the room housing all the navigational instruments.  Everything there was bathed in ultra blue light and quite magical.

Uplifting entrance to museum

Golden steps …leading to

an elegant liner …

There is something deeply fascinating about ships plying the oceans on voyages of discovery.  Coming upon different lands, making maps, bringing home exotic cargo.  I love the poem by John Masefield called ‘Cargoes’, first read in English literature class at school.  My other favourite poem by him is ‘Sea Fever’.  I recommend you to read them both.


We almost missed the navigational instruments room as they were temporarily housed in the East Wing but luckily because my feet hurt I made my way to a welcoming bench and by chance saw the sign to the galleries.

Amsterdam – navigational instruments

A wall of stars to steer by …

Next door was a room full of ships’ figureheads, some of which I would have preferred not to meet in person  –  but a splendid collection to behold.

Scheepvoortsmuseum – figureheads

Beauty pageant extraordinaire … ?!

An angel rides the wings of the storm …

You can see I was entranced by this place – I hadn’t thought I would be so interested but I didn’t yawn once … We finished up with the maritime paintings.  Many showed fantastic sea battles but these two appealed to me in a different way.

This reminded me of the ‘Titanic’.

The hopes and dreams of so many sailing to the New World. I feel  joyful, like the woman in the hat waving, wishing them well.  The size of the ship is overwhelming.  The knowledge of what tragedy awaits in those icy waters after such a send-off brings tears to my eyes. I saw the ‘Titanic’ exhibition in Melbourne some years ago.  We were each given a ticket with a name on it of one of the actual passengers.  John was the conductor of the orchestra – they all went down with the ship.  I was a maid in steerage class.  I lost my husband but made it to New York. This was an original way of involving visitors personally in the exhibition.

The yellow coat

This painting has a mysterious quality.  A solitary person in a yellow coat on the shoreline gazes at a ghostly white liner.  I like the colours – the atmosphere is expectant, caught in a silent moment in time – the story behind it is unknowable.

We bought a crystal ball in the shop.

This figure came into the museum as we were leaving –  Agatha Christie came to mind.  I like her jaunty outfit a lot.

In the pink. An original character …

‘Do they not eat lunch’? I hear you think.   We were famished, almost too weary to start walking again. But needs must and we found ourselves in a street which shuts cars out at weekends.  Restaurants a-plenty, with tables on the pavement. We plumped for an Italian.  How delicious food is when you are really hungry.  A light Peroni beer went down well as people passed us on bicycles with bunches of flowers, children and dogs.  One of those unexpected happy moments when everything hits just the right spot!

Much revived, we took to roaming the streets in a directionless way. I think this is a good way of getting to know the city in depth, should you have time  –  and fun to come upon things you might not have taken in otherwise.  My camera was very busy!

Bicycles in blossom

Amsterdam – wheels within wheels …

A lesson in crochet!

Ah well – it takes all sorts …

I think they were actually advertising sweets and popcorn.  The marshmallows  in a cone on the right are labelled as ‘sugar free’  –  I can’t imagine what they are made of then!

Which way now?

Flowers and fruit

Dutch houses are adorned with flowers …

As I was musing about this, we happened to pass the Tulip museum. I have never been to the Keukenhof where all the fields of tulips are grown for export but there were bulbs for sale in the museum.  It is small and somewhat touristy but gives you an idea of the astonishing variety of tulips on offer.

At the Tulip Museum – bulbs for sale

Tulip bulbs were imported from the Ottoman Empire and first sent by the Sultan of Turkey to Vienna in 1554.  They made their way to Amsterdam and Antwerp and the Dutch became obsessed with them.  There’s a book by Deborah Moggach called ‘Tulip Fever’, which is a story about how the tulip ‘bubble’ grew and grew – fortunes were made and then lost when the ‘bubble’ finally burst. It’s a good read – fiction based on fact.  Tulips recovered in time and are still a valuable export product along with big round, yellow cheeses, for example, Gouda, Edam and Maasdam.

Take your pick …

Besides windmills, another icon of Dutch culture are clogs and there is also a Clog Museum.

The Dutch clog

Clogs were worn from medieval times and were made of wood, usually willow or poplar.  They are still used by farmers and gardeners although now they are often made in every shape and size as souvenirs for tourists.

Outside a small art and photography gallery …

‘Art’ and architecture …

We were loosley homeward bound to the hotel.  My feet were complaining bitterly but I began recognising street names and it wasn’t long before we were passing Central Station.  I was looking forward to a hot shower and a little doze before evening set in.

Just picturesque!

Outside Central Station

Everyone, it seems, rides bicycles  –  old and young, children, dogs and shopping are transported with ease. But you must pay attention –  bikes are both a joy and a menace, coming from every whichway, often very fast.  There are lanes for bicycles alongside the road – so don’t breathe easy when you’ve escaped the traffic – you still have the bikes to contend with!  It’s a great way to get around though …

We noticed earlier that there was a roof terrace on top of NEMO with a small bar.  It was only ten minutes away – so – making the most of our long weekend, off we set once again, this time to watch the sunset.

Wide steps lead up a shallow incline to the top of NEMO.  It’s like walking up the hypotenuse of a not quite right angled triangle. But the small bar at the top was certainly alright and we sat outside with our glasses, commanding a bird’s eye view of the city.  A perfect end  to the day.

Sunset in Amsterdam

NEMO at night/

Who are you?

This reminds me of the film E.T., directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Melissa Mathison, which came out in 1982. He’s a great film maker and this is one to remember.  However, I’m not quite sure why this ‘alien’ looking creature has landed here…

We meandered back over the bridges and some of my photos came out as ‘impressionist’ images.


Are we lost – or just looking romantic in the twilight?

We were certainly not lost but we were hungry.  Passing an Albert Hein grocery store which was open late, I suggested we bought something to eat and took it back to the hotel room.  Quite a sumptuous repast was had –  all told!

I did notice a mysteriously large number of full size. empty vodka bottles outside bedroom doors on the way to our room.  However, the inhabitants were as quiet as mice  –  not a squeak to be heard.

Goede Nacht, Amsterdam

Sunday.  The weather is holding. We decide to visit the ‘Hermitage’ museum, which has links with the one in St. Petersburg in Russia.

Morning view from the bridge …this is just how I feel!

There are several exhibitions on and we started with ‘The Romanovs’.  This period in Russian history is fascinating but the tragedies that are scattered through it are devastating. Haemophilia was one of the maladies that struck down the Tsar’s family.  And what happened to them all in the end is horrific.  Simon Sebag Montefiore has written a book called ‘The Romanovs’, which has had umpteen brilliant reviews. Much recommended to those who like history.

Monster at the ‘Hermitage’ museum

We moved on to ‘Paintings of the Golden Age’ and finally an exhibition of art by mentally troubled people. A wide variety to take in.

Popping into the shop on the way out, already thinking of lunch, the sun’s rays were lighting up the most beautiful, sparkling crystal ball in a glass case.  Reflections and refractions showed a floor to ceiling window with people walking upside down and I was mesmerized.  I expected it would cost a great deal  –  at least 200 euros – but when I looked closer it was less than 100.  I showed it to John and it left the museum with us!  It was very heavy.

Near the museum

This drawbridge over the canal reminded me of the wooden one Vincent van Gogh painted in Arles.  This is a modern version in concrete but still attractive.  See a watercolour van Gogh made of the Langlois bridge at Arles in 1888.

And here’s a van Gogh bicycle to go with!

Faye had recommended that we visit the ‘Hortus Botanicus’.  It is small compared with Kew Gardens but very beautiful and tranquil. There is a greenhouse full of exotic butterflies, flitting amongst the plants they love.  None of my photos came out because it was so hot in there that the lens of my camera steamed up.  I just found I had taken pictures of mist! The butterflies flew on, oblivious.

The Hortus Botanicus, Amsterdam

At the Hortus Botanicus, Amsterdam

This place is a delightful refuge, especially as we now found a table on the terrace to have lunch.  Maybe it would be our last lunch outdoors this year as Autumn was drawing in.  Today, summer still reigned supreme and  I luxuriated in the underlying warmth.

A fabulous ‘botanical’ lunch has been had …

The ‘botanical’ cat looks for leftovers –  in vain …

John would be working from now on so I would be exploring alone. Being somewhat of a flâneur (euse), I set off in good heart.

An original, if uncomfortable, bench …

Music men

Magic mushrooms

Intriguing – but maybe defunct?

Another way of being…

… and yet another

Pause for thought …

Sign of the times …?

In the evening I was invited to the conference dinner in a restaurant which looked out over the water.  It was a little difficult to find.  Then I could see it but needed to swim across the river to get there!  I finally found a way up some stairs, crossed the railway, went through a barrier that said ‘no admittance’ and arrived in plenty of time.

The restaurant is the glass building on the far left. So near and yet so far!

I appreciated meeting with some of John’s colleagues in the Netherlands, who were very welcoming.  We had some great conversations.  They are fluent in English of course!

Last day. John went to Eindhoven with a colleague on the train and I found a tram to the Rijksmuseum.  No 2 or No 5 from Central Station. The Van Gogh museum is nearby. If you like art, it’s a great way to spend a day.  I very much enjoyed standing in front of ‘The Nightwatch’ (Rembrandt van Rijn, (1642), along with many others.  It’s a powerful and atmospheric painting. Some paintings bring tears to my eyes because I am in some way completely overwhelmed.

Jonathan Jones in ‘The Guardian’ wrote about ‘The Nightwatch’ on the 6 May 2013, as the Rijksmuseum re-opened after a ten year renovation. ‘It is an icon of tolerance, diversity and the magic, golden light that makes society work’.  This article is well worth reading in toto before you visit the museum.

Afterwards, I sat in the garden for a while.  The man in the panama was sitting on his own too. A denizen of the Rijksmuseum perhaps, a tourist, maybe even a John le Carré ‘Smiley’ character …

At the Rijksmuseum

It was time to retrace my steps to the hotel.  I slipped into Albert Hein for a few more little treats, which I ate sitting by the river, watching the boats plying up and down.

Note the paddleboarder midway  …

The Dutch have succeeded in making a satisfying marriage between the old and the new.  Our location was a great place to see this working.

I had to pack and left our cases in the lobby.  When I returned to collect them, the young man in charge found me a seat, and brought me a drink and a biscuit while I waited for John to return. He was so thoughtful. As we left I waved goodbye but really I wanted to give him a big hug. This had been a great stay.

Back at the airport there were huge queues to get through – almost a kilometre long.  We shuffled and huffled and some people complained loudly. Everyone looked bored and/or cross.

The crystal ball was seen to be suspect and had to be unpacked and inspected minutely.  I hoped they wouldn’t drop it.  They asked us why we needed a crystal ball.  I said ‘Did they not think it was a thing of beauty, and a joy for ever? ‘ ( from the poem ‘Endymion’ by John Keats (1795-1821)). Not the right answer to give here.  Just as well I wasn’t wearing a bandana and gold bangles! It passed the test.

Long weekend = short blog.  You would think!  I had not been abroad for a long time.  I love seeing how different cities work and being part of them for a while.  I love exploring other cultures. Europe is my home.  And so perhaps that’s why it became such a long blog! Anyway, if you’re still here, thanks for reading …

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