Saturday, August 4, 2012

Going Dutch ~ The Amsterdam Adventures

I shiver in the morning chill that greets me as I first land on Dutch soil. Overcast grey skies with a constant drizzle of icy rain certainly try but fail to disappoint me. I am after all in the Netherlands’ capital, the city I’ve longed to visit. Rain or shine, I will waste no time to kick start my Dutch adventures.  

Any effort to explore Amsterdam should begin with a boat ride in its famous canals. Over one hundred kilometer stretch of waterways, 1500 bridges and 90 islands are where the city's nickname, Venice of the north comes from. Three main canals, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht were dug up in the early 17th century for residential purpose and Singelgracht, the fourth outer canal, for water management and defense. I have always been fond of cities bounded by water. Be it river, stream, channel, ocean or bay, they are alluring and inviting as water, with its calming effect, provides comfortable and tranquil atmosphere.

No standing there!” yells a grumpy Old Dutch man, our beloved boat driver because I am blocking his side view mirror. As the sky starts clearing up to reveal long-awaited spring time weather after twenty minutes on the boat, I simply cannot sit still. With this fine weather on my side, I must put my Canon hard at work and seize this rare photo opportunity. Both sides of the canal are crammed with earthy-hued Dutch renaissance style houses, showboating under a momentarily bright blue sky, while their blurred reflection in the water glows with the help of spring sunshine, how can I not get carried away? These buildings with iconic crow-stepped gable facades, many of them once belonged to the richest merchants of the Dutch Golden Age stand rigidly side by side as though they were at a beauty pageant providing admirers a glimpse of their glorious past.

NEMO Science Centre fom a distance
Amsterdam magnetizes visitors with its varied architectural styles. The stunning Tuschinski movie theater, with its marble floors, stained glass windows and Art Deco motifs, Oude Kerk or the old church, the city’s oldest building dating back to 1306, Westerkurk (Western Church) which has the gorgeous Renaissance-style church tower and the 350 years old Royal Palace which is still used by Queen Beatrix, not for the residential purpose but to receive important guests, are a few historic architectural highlights not to be missed. The science centre with such cute name, Nemo is an odd-shaped green building situated outside of city central, annually visited by 500,000 science and technology enthusiasts making it the fourth most-visited museum in the Dutch land. From a distance, the structure looks as though a giant sperm whale doing a head lunge, leaping out of water. Many modern buildings like ING house, a futuristic structure which almost resembles a Star War space ship can be found in Zuidas, the business district, not far from the city central.
The Royal Palace at Dam Square
Dam square is the city’s ultimate tourist zone where visitors from all over the world unite. They come here in hope of learning a piece of Dutch history, to feed pigeons or to watch street-artists perform and of course to bear with annoying fellow tourists. While nearby Madam Tussaud wax museum, National Monument, the Royal Palace and the beautiful rectangular-shaped train station, Amsterdam Centraal, keep tourists busy; I enjoy window-shopping in the narrow streets behind the square. (Clogs, Dutch traditional wooden shoes, are adorable!)

Each morning, I wake up to observe locals on bikes passing through the street in front of my hotel. Many on their way to work in their office attire, some to drop off their small children, also on their own little wheels, at the elementary school nearby. There are approximately 1,000,000 bicycles in Amsterdam and the government supports initiatives to reduce the use of private cars. What I admire most about their bicycle culture is that they have always kept this as a tradition rather than a cool retro stunt that has just made a comeback or as part of going green project. Amsterdam has long been a centre of bicycle society and also one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world with most main streets equipped with bike paths.

“You have got to try Herrings!” a Facebook friend suggests. Herrings, a type of forage fish found in the shallow temperate waters of the North Atlantic, are a Dutch delicacy. Traditionally, the fish is grabbed by its tail lowered down slowly into the mouth and eaten in entirety (usually without the head). Many of the roadside herring shops serve it as sandwich with pickles and onions as well. Herring is supposedly very healthy as it lowers cholesterol and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D.  But I guess I will seek these nutrients elsewhere perhaps from a more appetizing thirst-quencher, Heineken, one Dutch specialty that I won’t ever hold back.

Every time, I think of visiting Anne Frank’s house, a museum dedicated to a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, the long queue in front of it shoos me back out. Anne with her family hid from the Nazi prosecution during World War II in the Netherlands and documented a stirring account of her traumatizing experience in her diary which later was published posthumously as “The Diary of a Young Girl”. A big softie that I am and knowing how I usually respond to this dark tragic period of our human history, I head out to a much more cheerful, the museum of Van Gogh, one of my all-time favorite post-impressionists whose name has become synonymous with the country he was born. The most visited museum in the country houses the largest collection of Van Gogh’s drawings and paintings including his famous “Sunflowers”, “The Potato Eaters” and “The Yellow House”. Waiting a good 45 minutes in the queue to enter the museum, it is hard to imagine that the artist died poor, deranged and relatively unknown; if only he could see how his works are being celebrated and treasured today.
Rijks Museum at Museum Square
My next stop is Rijksmuseum where I receive my crash course in Dutch history, arts and culture. The elegant museum exhibits timeless art works by the Dutch masters such as Jan Steen, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer but my mission today is, upon a suggestion of a dear Dutch friend, to view Rembrandt, according to him and quite possibly, the greatest Dutch painter that ever lived. One of Rembrandt’s most well-known paintings is “The Night Watch”, a ginormous goosebumps-maker, prominent for the impeccable use of light, shadow and tiny technical details. This military portrait, also known as “The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch” is the main attraction of the museum just like the way Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. However, my personal favorite is a much smaller, “A Landscape with a Stone Bridge”, a portrayal of light breaking through dark clouds and reflecting on a stone bridge. A magical depiction of a simple nature scene but what striking here is its exquisite composition and the use of monotonous colors to allow the light take centre stage. Always a fan of the less obvious, this lesser-known Rembrandt indeed captures my heart. And then there are more; his powerful portraits of the rich and famous from the 17th century. Lame and cliché as I may sound, this is why people go to museums; I am provoked, stirred, charmed and humbled by the experience.

Why would you want to see the windmills?” “There’s really nothing to see!” says a local I am having a chat with at this bar called “Taboo” in the city. Just like the way I desperately search for Tulips to photograph at every possible chance, I would truly be regretful if I did not attempt to see the windmills. After all, they are one of the most omnipresent images of The Netherlands. The windmill technology was developed by the Dutch to aid water shortages and in farming. In the olden days, there were as many as 10,000 mills in the country but only 1000 survive today. It is true that they are indeed eye-catching structures yet they are not museums; apart from photographing them, there’s not much interaction. But I have this beautiful Dutch memory to take home with and of course a bunch of cool shots for Facebook.

Stroll around cobblestone streets, bike around town like locals, chill out in its leafy green parks, buy fresh produce like fish, flowers and fruits at the street markets or park yourself endlessly at its famous coffee shops along the canals, Amsterdam offers countless options to get busy. Monumental buildings are masterfully preserved unlike many Asia’s capitals where heritage buildings have sadly succumbed to modernization and have been replaced by skyscrapers. No destination is far away in Amsterdam; the outcome of vigilant city planning has benefitted this city and its residents for centuries unlike, for example, Jakarta of Indonesia, the capital of former Dutch colony where unfortunate town planning paralyses the city, the traffic issue being residents’ main daily struggle.

Amsterdam has all the advantages of a big city but it has not lost its small town charm. Visitors  can still imagine the city as it once was; a 12th century tiny fishing village which sprang into a prosperous European powerhouse during Golden Age and now, one of the most important financial hubs of Europe, not to mention a compelling destination for travelers of all stripes.

No comments: