Michael and Dan do the Low Countries: Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam
Daniel Emberley, October 2007
We’ve got friends who’ve moved to Brussels and Paris that we kept promising we would visit, and this autumn seemed the right time. French cooking is amazing, Belgian is better, and the Dutch combine an incredibly rich culture with horrible manners. We spent two weeks, learned to love beer, and had a blast. Details follow.
17 October, Paris
Our first miracle was Continental getting us to Charles de Gaulle on schedule, with our bags having made it despite a change of planes in Newark. I didn’t think it could be done. Friends from the glass studio, Doris and her husband Gopal, graciously agreed to put us up in Paris at either end of our trip. We caught the Air France bus to l’Etoile (aka, the Arc d’Triomph), where Gopal met us and walked us to their apartment in the Trocadero. The apartment overlooks a private garden; it was like waking up on the set of Gene Kelly’s studio in “An American in Paris”.
We visited Paris on our honeymoon ten years ago (see http://www.emberleysos.com/London_Paris.htm), so this visit was more about catching up with changes than our usual “see everything this city has to offer in case we never make it back” expedition. Our Metro knowledge was almost useless, as the French national railways decided to go on strike for the second of our two days, dragging many of the municipal employees who staff museums with them. Special thanks to Gopal and Doris for their guidance on how to deal and willingness to drive us around the city as needed.
Knowing we had to see the critical stuff on arrival day, we immediately set off by Metro to the Louvre. They’d recently re-opened the wing that houses the separate Musee des Arts Decoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts). Stunning, with a brilliant collection of furniture, fabric, dishes and lighting from the Middle Ages to today. The renovation of the 1850’s wing is brilliant, with funky contemporary lights in a great hall surrounded by the galleries. The display proceeds chronologically on two floors to 1930, then up in a tower with one floor per decade. You get to sit in funky 1960’s plastic bubbles and 1970’s tubular pieces that you always wondered about (the former surprisingly comfortable, none of them really functional). The gallery of today had some of the most brilliant Flor-like carpet we’ve seen. Michael was pleased to find our Rosenthal coffee set in the displays. Too much to see, we never made it to the galleries of costumes or posters.
We walked north on the Rue St. Anne, now a Japan-town catering to Tokyo tourists, then Metro back to the Trocadero plaza. Rest and a delicious Indian dinner cooked by Gopal, then Doris took us out to see the Eiffel Tower at night. They’ve set it up to “sparkle” every hour for five minutes, the twinkling lights making it even more beautiful than usual. Paris was hosting the Rugby World Finals, so the Tower had a giant inflatable rugby ball between its legs, below an enormous television monitor showing games and highlights. A blast. We took our jet-lagged bones back to the apartment and crashed.
18 October, Paris
Strike Day: who would work, what would be open, and for how long? Gopal took me out to a bakery to pick up croissants for breakfast, where we all debriefed on President Sarkozy, his wife, his mistresses, and the strike. The rumor that Sarkozy would announce his divorce to distract the press from the strike turned out to be true; a strategy that did indeed work. Since we expected the Metro and buses to be out, and all cabs taken as a result, Gopal suggested we use the Batobus. This is a boat line that runs along the Seine from Eiffel Tower to the zoo, stopping at major tourist attractions en route. It’s sort of a discount version of the more elaborate Bateaux Mouche. No interpretation, just transport on the river. Was a brilliant idea, as the Eiffel Tower stop was a short walk downhill and across the Seine from the apartment. It was lovely to see the city from the river as we passed the D’Orsay, Louvre, and Notre Dame. We got off at Hotel de Ville (City Hall), where we shopped at the BHV department store. This place has the BEST design stuff, plus inexpensive French foods packed for tourists. Up to Place Stravinsky and the Pompidou Centre, where they sold us full priced tickets and then told us that only the temporary exhibits were open due to the strike. Sadly, these were a dull Giacometti show and another about two video artists, both dull if well displayed. A couple of cool pieces of people in bed projected onto the floor, but overall I don’t think video that acts like a movie belongs in a museum.
We took the Batobus the long way back to Eiffel Tower, so got to see the full route. Checked out Rugby World, a bunch of tents giving Brits an excuse to toss back beers during the tournament, and then climbed back up the Trocadero for Cite. This is a fairly new museum housing shows on French and Parisian architecture. Due to the strike only the main gallery was open, but that was not a sacrifice, as it houses an enormous permanent collection of casts of French architecture’s greatest hits. Makes the cast gallery at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie, the only contender in the States, look lame. They have a nifty little café overlooking the Eiffel where we rested up. Walked over to the Musee Guimet, the major Asian museum, to find it closed, then across the river to the Musee du Quai Branly. This is the former Museum of Man, Paris’s main collection of anthropology. The building is new, by Jean Nouvel, and fabulous: enormous green walls alive with plants, glass partitions masking off street noise, multi-colored blocks housing the galleries. We decided against paying admission, as we’d arrived so late, but checked out the bookstore and gardens. Worth a trip back.
Doris and Gopal took us to a neighborhood restaurant for dinner; Doris ended up using Metro trains, rent-a-bikes, and running in heels to get there. They served excellent classic French food. Michael made management happy by ordering the marrow bones and lamb, I got rabbit confit and the best haddock I have ever tasted, and we closed with cherries and plums preserved in spirits. Delicious.
19 October, Brussels
We were booked on the 9:30 Thalys, the luxury high speed train to Brussels. Would there be a train at all? Taking no chances, Gopal drove us to Gare du Nord, and made sure trains were moving before letting us go. Train boarded on schedule, no hassles, and the stewardesses brought around breakfast and baskets of chocolates. I knew the 1st Class Eurorail Pass upgrade would be worth it. Countryside was sort of dull, lots of dairy farms, but we were zipped to Brussels Gare du Midi in just an hour and a half.
First impression of Brussels was that the city could use a good power wash. The area around the station is gritty, lots of Arab immigrants, but didn’t feel unsafe as we schlepped our bags north. We should have taken the trams, which travel underground parallel to the tunnels that connect Brussels’ three major rail stations, but didn’t learn that until later.
We were booked into the Hotel Metropole on the Place de Brouckere. The Metropole is sort of the Willard Hotel of Brussels. Since the Eurocrats flee the city on weekends, it is surprisingly affordable, and deliciously grand. The gentleman at the desk informed us that our friend Catie had already arrived, and arranged for us to get together while we were on our way to our room via the funkiest open-ironwork elevator of the trip.
We got our first Belgian meal at Drug Opera, an established but touristy brasserie downtown: waterzooi (stew) with seafood, mussels and French fries. We’d been afraid that all we would be able to afford was French fries and beer, but ended up eating excellent meals for not too much more than we would have paid in the States. We made sure to get a different beer with every meal, and were psyched to discover that we like good beer. There are so many options, and each comes with its own glass and traditions.
We worked off the carbs with an orientation walk downtown. The Theatre Royal de la Monnaie is the opera house where Belgian independence began in 1830. Church of St. Nicholas is relatively bare, following the religious wars’ iconoclasm, but with a funky bent nave to accommodate the lot.
The Grand Place is the major tourist destination in Brussels. Despite being full of chocolate, t-shirt and lace shops geared to us outsiders; it is also surprisingly still the center of a downtown used by all the Bruxellois. Fantastic Flemish architecture, with more details than could be absorbed in a lifetime of café sitting. It’s anchored by the Hotel de Ville, which didn’t seem to be open for tours, but we were able to walk around the inner courtyard. Across the Place is the Musee Municipale, with exhibits on the history and geography of the city, and also the collection of costumes worn by the Mannequin Pis. The symbol of Brussels is a Renaissance fountain of a boy peeing. The citizens deck the statue in a variety of outfits over the course of the year. Fun, if juvenile.
Having seen the clothes, we trekked through the Lower Town in quest of the Mannequin himself, easily found by following Chinese tour groups. Nicer in real life than in reproduction. We walked through the Galeries St-Hubert, a Victorian glass-roofed arcade of what were once fancy stores, but are now tourist-oriented. There are several arcade shopping areas around downtown, all worth dipping into for the architecture, if not the retail.
Tons of nasty 1950’s-1980’s modern architecture forms a college campus along the edge of the Lower Town, which we crossed on our way to the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (Comic Strip Museum). This is a former department store designed by Victor Horta, the king of Belgian Art Nouveau. The Belgians love comics, and have many series you’ve never heard of. The ones we recognized were Herge’s Tintin and the Smurfs, but the Museum does an excellent job introducing you to the characters via actual strips, demonstrations of how the art is made, and installations where you can photograph yourself in a scene from your favorite strip. Interesting to see how much you could do with comics as art without the violence present in American and Japanese work. Fun, but TOO MUCH STUFF to absorb.
We decompressed at the Cathedral of St. Michel and Ste. Gudule, the patron saints of Brussels. Great stained glass and an impressive lectern representing Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise in relief so high it was statuary. We got dinner at a kebab place near the hotel, topping it with a chocolate Belgian waffle that we ate on the steps of the Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place. A quintessential Brussels moment. We shopped our way up the Rue Neuve, a street of department stores for regular Bruxellois, on our way back to the Metropole. We were thrilled to discover that we had a view of the neon Coca-Cola sign that dominates the Place Brouckere, and that they shut it off early enough that we weren’t kept awake.
20 October, Brussels
We picked up the tram to the Marolles, a working class district at the southern end of the Lower Town, for the market at Place du Jeu de Baille (bocce). Major market, mainly junk; interesting to see how American retro stuff like old Dean Martin LP’s is popular. The slope here between the Lower and Upper Towns is severe enough that there’s an elevator built into the side of the hill; we took it up to the Palace of Justice. This monster is one of the biggest buildings in Europe; it dominates the city. It houses regular courts as well as the Belgian equivalent of the Supreme Court. Very grand, very cool, slightly forbidding. Brilliant view of the Lower Town from the Place Poelaert at its base, you can see out to the Atomium in Heysel (see below).
Today was to be an Upper Town day. Brussels is built on the edge of an escarpment that separates the North Sea coastal plain from highlands that run into the Ardennes and, eventually, the Alps. The Lower Town is at the base of this cliff, where the medieval city grew, historically the more working section of the city. The Upper Town is where the nobility first built their castles, where the middle classes followed once trolleys conquered the slopes. Mainly Victorian and modern. We walked down the Rue de la Regence to the Place du Petit Sablon, a charming triangular park whose wrought iron fence posts are topped with statues representing trades of the Middle Ages. At the top is the Egmont Palace, at the base the Church of Notre Dame du Sablon. The Church has outstanding glass. Also some supposedly great chapels, including that of the Counts of Turn and Taxis, inventors of postal service; unfortunately closed off for renovation.
Our destination was the art museum. Getting there, at the crest of the hill, we passed Old England, an Art Nouveau department store converted into a museum of musical instruments. We walked into the lobby and debated trying to crash the top floor restaurant for a look around, but they’d obviously seen our non-paying kind before, and scared us away.
The Musee Royaux des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) is divided into two collections, the Musee d’Art Ancien, up to about 1850, in the original Beaux Arts building, and the Musee d’Art Moderne, in an underground wing. Entrance to both is from the same door. We started with Modern, down an escalator and under the Place Royale. They are renovating a section to be a Magritte museum, but for now the Magrittes are still with the rest of the modern collection. Great to see Marcel Broodthaers, a Surrealist I’d heard of but not seen. Famous for his use of mussel shells. We broke for lunch in the excellent museum café, where they were showing slides of the special Rubens show going on that we were too cheap to pay extra for. On to the permanent collection of Flemish masters, including an entire room of breathtaking Brueghels. David’s great last major canvas, “Mars Disarmed by Venus”, dominated the entry courtyard. The museum has absorbed an Art Nouveau building, a former insurance company, as gift shop and exit, a fitting and lovely parting gift.
Through the Parc du Bruxelles to decompress from all that canvas. The Parc is lovely, like the Tuilleries in Paris, framed by royal palaces and Belgian government buildings. At one corner is the Musee BELvue, which offers four different museums in one. The Palais des Charles de Lorraine was the main draw, but we missed the time to get in, so just got to walk around the outside. The Coudenburg Palace is an archaeological site under the Place Royale. There is a 500 year history of palaces on the slope here, and the level of the Place Royale itself has been raised several times. They’ve opened the excavations up to the public. Very cool to descend into Belgian history. Back at street level is the Musee de la Dynastie. This had been a tired museum telling the story of the Belgian royal family. What they’ve done is moved the story of the royals to the corridors, and used the galleries to tell the story of Belgium itself. Fascinating to go back and forth between cultural history and the royals. They do a brilliant job tackling difficult topics like abuses in the Congo and Flemish Nazi collaboration. The former queen (her husband fell off a mountain childless, so her brother-in-law is the current king; it gets complicated) adopted the Marlo Thomas “That Girl” flip in 1965 and has never let it go. She single-handedly supports sales of AquaNet on the Continent.
We passed Victor Horta’s Palais des Beaux Arts, a performing space, on our way downhill to Witamer. Catie had asked the concierge at the Metropole for a recommendation on chocolate stores, and he had strongly approved this one. Wisely. I went into insulin shock while we were shopping there; it was the most expensive and delicious medical emergency I’ve ever eaten.
Our friends Richard and Judy had dinner reservations for us at Restaurant Bruneau, a Michelin two-star west of downtown. The concierge had told us to get off the subway at Simonis, walk behind the Basilique Nationale du Sacre Coeur, and it would be on the right. It wasn’t. We walked up a commercial street, but felt we were way off track. People in a bar told us we were in the wrong neighborhood, that it was downtown. We finally called the restaurant, which refused to give us directions due to my lack of French, but did tell us they were on Rue Boston. We found a Chinese carry-out where Michael tried to talk to the owner in Cantonese, but he only spoke Mandarin. He did look up Rue Boston in his neighborhood atlas (they delivered), and announced there was no such street. After much pleading he let us look at the maps ourselves. We needed Rue Broustin, and figured out how to get there. Met up with Richard and Judy, who treated us to one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten. We all ordered the chef’s choice, and got five courses of seafood and hare with matching wines, then three courses of dessert.
21 October, Brussels & Waterloo
We had breakfast in the India Room at the Metropole: an elaborate buffet, in a room with fancy south Asian decor. We checked out and got Catie checked in to her next hotel, La Legende.
Brussels has not been well served by urban renewal, and a lot of the worst examples have been built for the European Community. We completely ignored this EuroZone, emerging from Metro at Merode for the Parc du Cinquantenaire. The park was originally built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Belgian monarchy in 1880, but has been rebuilt several times since. A large Beaux Arts complex in the center looks like the Brandenburg Gate, and houses the Musee Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire. This offers in depth what the BELvue could only hint at: art of the Middle Ages, religious icons, retables (portable altars that were a main Flemish export), decorative arts from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the royal carriage collection complete with sets of livery. Again, great but exhausting, we relaxed over croque monsieur and kriek (cherry-infused beer) at a neighborhood brasserie.
We took the Metro back to Louise and shopped the Avenue Louise, an elite shopping stretch of the Upper Town. Our destination was the Musee Horta, Victor Horta’s restored home. Along the way through Ixelles are many other great Nouveau commercial buildings and residences, by Horta and his contemporaries. There was a line at the museum, but we were blown away by the Arts and Crafts practicality merged with the sinuous Art Nouveau lines.
We walked back through the Marolles to the hotels to get our bags, said goodbye to Catie and headed to the Gare Centrale for the commuter train to Waterloo. Judy and Richard were the prime motivators of this trip: they were at law school with Michael, and moved to Brussels when Richard’s firm relocated him. We’ve been saying we would visit ever since. They have a beautiful house in a suburb unique in its own history and just a half-hour train ride into the city. Their teenage daughter Sarah recommended dinner at Boston Steakhouse, which didn’t look much like Boston to Richard’s and my Massachusetts eyes, but did serve good beer and burgers.
22 October, Waterloo
Yes, it’s that Waterloo, the one with Napoleón and the Abba song. Judy drove us out to the battlefield, where we got our photo taken with a life-size statue of the Emperor. He’s on a pedestal, we’re not, and we still tower over him. Walked around the Butte de Lion, an artificial mound built to give British tourists a view of their victory. Then into the Panorama de la Bataille, one of the few remaining cyclorama paintings, where you emerge in the center of a canvas portraying the battle. Cool.
Judy and we caught the train back into town, Catie met us at the Gare Centrale, then onto Metro out to Heysel. The art in the subway stations is terrific; there’s an especially nice one toward the end of the Roi Baudouin line with ceramic sculptures of the royal family. Heysel is the site of the 1958 World’s Fair. Most of the Fair is gone, but its signature building, the Atomium, has recently been restored. This was designed as a giant steel atom. The spheres hold cafés and exhibit halls, the connections between stairs, elevators, and escalators. Top floor is a viewing deck. Very retro-World-of-Tomorrow.
At the base of the Atomium is Bruparck, Mini Europe. Every member of the European Community is represented here by a scale model of at least one of its signature buildings. Since the scale is consistent across the park, you can compare the size of the Parthenon to the Pompidou to San Marco to a Channel Ferry (surprisingly bigger than all of them). Each country has a button you can push to hear their national anthem. Hokey, and a blast. Judy can’t get people to come out here with her, but we all loved it.
23 October, Bruges
We joined Richard on his morning commute into town, picked up Catie, and caught the train up to Bruges. Bruges was one of the biggest trading centers in Europe, specializing in wool, tapestries, lace and altarpieces. Their harbor silted up and the Hapsburgs, successors to the Burgundians, refused to let them dredge it out, shutting the city down for 350 years. The Brits recreated it in the 1800’s as a tourist destination. Today it’s a little like a medieval Williamsburg, only with real buildings instead of restorations.
We found the Hotel DePauw, where we got a great view of St. Gilles Church across the street. Lunch at Bistro Forestiere, where we got a great 12 euro prix fixe with zucchini soup, pasta carbonara, quiche, and a Courvoissier pastry. I think the beer here was a lambic, but they’re starting to blur.
Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) has a Michelangelo Madonna, the mausoleum of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy, and a Baroque interior that the iconoclasts either didn’t damage too badly or that got well restored. The Groeninge Museum had great Bosch, van der Weyden, and van Eyck paintings up, and one each by Magritte and Paul Delvaux. The building itself is small, but the collection rich, so they rotate what is shown. Boring traveling shows of 19th Century Neoclassicism and works from the museum in Leuven. The other big museum in Bruges is the Gruuthuse, closed, likewise the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Will have to save that miracle for a future trip <smile>. We walked around the Markt, the town square, and climbed the Belfort, 366 stairs to one of the best views in Flanders. Michael was worried about my making the climb after my surgery, but heck, there were OLD PEOPLE doing it ahead of us. We took a break at the room where the bells are, and made it up and down in good health.
Cruises on the canals snaking through Bruges are well worth the reasonable price. We shared our boat with a Flemish family that was so blonde and adolescent that Catie said it was like riding with the boy band Hanson. We shopped, we wandered, and we rested back at the hotel. Dinner at Den Hussar, which despite the name serves Flemish cuisine, not Russian. A pork stew with cherries and beer slow cooked in an individual casserole sealed with puff pastry, coq au vin, and mushroom ravioli. Much of the town is lit up at night, so we walked off dinner around the Markt and canals.
24 October, Ghent
There’s much more to do in Bruges, it deserved least another day, but we didn’t have it. Instead we caught the train back inland to Ghent. Ghent suffered the same economic collapse as Bruges, but in the 1800’s they stole cotton spinning technology from England and launched a new Industrial Revolution career. Rather than being a time capsule, Ghent has medieval buildings housing Starbucks next to Art Nouveau stores and contemporary office buildings. Dan’s favorite city of the trip, very design-conscious and alive.
Ghent’s main station houses a stunning 1930’s Deco mural. We should have caught the tram uptown, but instead rolled our bags over the cobbles to the Hotel Erasmus. This was the best hotel of our trip, a restored 1500’s residence with a private garden near the Design Museum. Catie got a beautiful Victorian fireplace, we got the gable room under the rafters, with four beds, kitchen, and dining area. We walked downtown to the Korenmarkt where we had lunch in a department store cafeteria with great views. Very reasonable and delicious, I got blood sausage.
Jan van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, aka the Ghent Altarpiece, makes the rest of the stunning art of Sint Baaf’s Kathedral take second place. Never thought I’d see a Rubens canvas defer to anyone. Much of the interior got redone in the 1880’s, in a pre-Raphaelite-Symbolist tribute to an imagined Middle Ages. The lectern is a brilliant over-life sized sculpture of “Truth Defeating Error”, dubbed by Catie “Gather Your Requirements First”.
The Museum voor Sierkunst (Design Museum) was showing a fantastic collection of Christopher Dresser, Ettore Sottsass and other Memphis. Horta and Paul Hankar Art Nouveau interiors are installed in glass cubes. Curators had hidden children’s toys in the collection, to keep kids (and adults) searching and rewarded in the galleries.
At the Stadthuis, a Flemish separatist guide tried to convince us that Flanders should separate from Belgium so that Ghent could again lead the world. Then he showed us how reverently they’d saved the coronation throne and chamber pot of Joseph II. The maze in the floor of the Pacification Hall is tres cool.
Ghent got away from me: I’m left with impressions that I can’t put into order. There were blonde kids running around everywhere, amongst buildings that respected the old while welcoming contemporary insertions. Flocks of birds and clanging trams, church towers on canals, alleys that function as streets, modern buildings in medieval gardens. Black and white stone floors, tombs, engravings, cutting edge fashion in the shops. Chocolate and bakeries and sweet shops and corner stores. Cars moving, but deferring to pedestrians. Flemish food too good to absorb, making us repeat the phrase “Fat, full and happy”. Overhearing bands and musicians rehearsing as we walked the streets. The Vismarkt, fish market, with a Baroque street façade and wooden halls on the canal, currently empty but covered with banners asking “How do you want to use me?”
We had dinner at the Brasserie‘t Klokhuys, appropriately decorated with clocks: roebuck pate, waterzooi with chicken, pasta with leeks and beets, potatoes with sorrel and bacon, pork steak and sausage, local beer on tap. A night walk around the canals, Friday Market and monuments helped us settle before a peaceful sleep overlooking the gardens with church towers above.
25 October, Ghent, Amsterdam
There is a whole southern section of Ghent that we hadn’t been able to see, with 1920’s architecture and a museum complex in the former Citadel. We took the tram to Sint Pieters Station, put our bags in storage, and decided to postpone our departure for Amsterdam to see a little more. Citadelpark is dominated by an unattractive 1960’s exposition building. One corner houses the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (SMAK)(Contemporary Art Museum). SMAK is rumored to have a great collection of art from the last 30 years. Sadly, the entire museum was given over to a new installation, “Pirate Project”, by Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy. Trash, mascot costumes, packing boxes, and violent pornography masquerading as video art. Absolutely dreadful. For the first time in my life I was sickened by an art installation, and had to avert my eyes and leave. We should have gone to the more staid Museum of Fine Arts across the street. We rewarded ourselves with the botanic gardens of the University of Ghent, which we had to ourselves. Therapeutic. We bought sandwiches and pastry near the station and enjoyed them on the train to Antwerp.
Antwerp has recently renovated their 1890’s station, an epiphany of wrought and cast iron that make you feel like you’ve wandered into a Manet painting. You have to change in Antwerp to catch the train for Amsterdam, on a new coolly modern lower level that is a little like a platform inserted into a shopping mall. Unfortunately, Belgian Railways lost the train. They scrounged up some tobacco-stained rolling stock that, from the upholstery, had last been updated in 1973. We left late, and at Roosendaal, the first stop in the Netherlands, the Dutch stopped the train and made us all get off. We suspect it offended their sensibilities. No announcement was made, we were stranded with the other passengers on the platform, most of who jammed onto a train for the Hague. We went into the station to find out what was going on, where we discovered that not only had we been dumped in nowhereville, but that stations in Holland replace all the lovely chocolate we’d gotten used to in Belgium with … licorice. The horror.
Fortunately, an Amsterdam-bound relief train arrived 40 minutes later, back to the 1st Class standard we’d come to expect. Leiden, Rotterdam, and the Hague flashed by, teasing us with Amsterdam School architecture. In the first decade of the 1900’s the Germans published a portfolio of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. This revolutionized architecture in Europe. In Holland, H.P. Berlage and others came together in the Amsterdam School: sweeping horizontals and Arts and Crafts trim all executed in red brick. There’s nothing like it in the States, sort of a bridge between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and gorgeous, even when used for housing projects, warehouses, and train stations.
Amsterdam’s original settlement was a dam on the Amstel; that area is now the Red Light District. They surrounded that core with islands on rings of canals dug out of the muck. By the 1500’s those rings had become the parabolas that make a map of Amsterdam so distinctive, forming the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht (Noble’s, Emperor’s, and Prince’s Canals). By the 1800’s they had started making islands for docks and warehouses out in the harbor, the Ij (pronounced “eye”) River, including one where Central Station and the train tracks top off downtown. The historic stuff, gabled houses with roof hooks to move furniture and goods, is mainly in the Canal Ring. Major museums, parks, and Victorian mansions flow south from there. The port was replaced by Rotterdam after World War II, and the old docks and warehouses have been retrofitted into cool modern residential districts since. They’re building a subway, part of which is in use, and part is visible in construction sites all over town. The tram network is extensive, rapid, and inexpensive. Almost no one drives, but the Dutch have channeled their road rage onto bicycles. Picture every D.C. commuter shifted from their cars onto bikes, then block the narrow sidewalks with parked bikes, so the only place to walk is on the street or in the bike lane. One is constantly getting “belled” by bikes behind that don’t want to slow or pass politely. I almost hip checked a grandmother into a canal; she insisted on riding on the sidewalk despite the empty bike lane to our left. Physically, an amazingly beautiful city. After the friendliness of the Belgians, however, the Dutch were pinched, nasty and rude.
We got into Amsterdam at 4:30 and joined the rush-hour crowds south on the Damrak and Rokin. The Hotel Mozart was our least satisfying; however, given the prices in the city, we were fortunate to have as convenient a place to stay. We walked in to a haze of cigarette smoke from a group of Israelis who colonized the lobby every afternoon. We dubbed it “The Tobacco Barn”. Michael and I had a noisy, small but decent room with a great view of the Prinsengracht, but Catie got a noisier room with a tiny window onto an airshaft. If you go, bring earplugs to get you through the sounds of plumbing in the night.
On the plus side, the location was terrific, steps from the Leidesplein, a sort of Adams Morgan of night clubs and restaurants. We had dinner at an Indonesian place there, and then walked south to the Museumplein and back. Living up to its low expectations, a fire alarm woke the Mozart at 1:45 a.m. We and Catie independently decided it was some moron smoking in bed and went back to sleep.
26 October, Amsterdam
This is not the best time to see art in Amsterdam: the Stedelijk was closed for renovation, as was most of the Rijksmuseum. On the other hand, this is an excellent time to see art on a limited schedule. The Rijksmuseum is a monster, close to the Louvre or Vatican in scale, and requiring an entire day. They’ve culled 400 of their best bits into one wing in a show called “The Masterpieces”. That alone took a morning to see: two Vermeers, Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch”, decorative arts, ship models, and goodies from the former colonies. Just enough Dutch landscape and still life to remind us why we didn’t want to see more. From there we cut across Museumplein to the Albert Cuyp Markt, a daily food and tschotchke market. Great fun, reminded us of the weekly market in Astoria, New York, but with the regular stores better integrated into the street stalls. Amazing spice store, tea, inexpensive fabric, and slippers in the shape of wooden shoes (I figure they’ll wear out, unlike wooden ones which will sit around forever). Had lunch at Bazar, a Middle Eastern place in what we guessed was a former market hall or church, with great Turkish tiles. Labneh, falafel, seafood soup, and the best Armenian lamejun I’ve tasted outside of Watertown, Massachusetts.
We backtracked to get an apple donut at a stand we saw on the way to the market, then across the Canal Ring to the Amsterdams Historischmuseum. This is built alongside and in a former city orphanage, and gives an overview of the city from founding to today. The only city museum we’ve seen that’s better is London’s: a brilliant interpretation of how the Dutch created their greatest city. A little sparse on the abuses they brought on their colonies, the refinement of the slave trade, and collaboration during Nazi occupation. They won us back in the galleries dedicated to recent decades, where they’ve preserved a gay bar from the 1960’s.
The Historical Museum gave us the run down on “the Miracle of Amsterdam”. We’d seen this referenced in some gallery wall text, but didn’t know what it was all about. In the Gothic period a guy on his death bed was given last rites, including communion. He then puked it up (can’t make this stuff up), and the slop was thrown into the fire for disposal. Miraculously, the host did not burn. It was taken to a church that then suffered a fire and again, miraculously, did not burn. The holy wafer became a relic, as would you if you’d been regurgitated and fired twice. Some miracle story, huh? We think the host is now in the Oude Kerk, but can’t swear to same.
The Nine Streets are an area of funky shopping: black Christmas trees, monastery gift shops, shoes, clothes, games, an entire store dedicated to designer hassocks. We missed the Anne Frank House (sorry, Shelly Winters), but checked out the Homo-monument nearby, the first memorial to gay persecution ever built. At first it looked lame, a stone triangle in a plaza, until we realized that was only one third of the whole monument, and that it connected with two other triangles nearby, one with great canal frontage. Through the Jordaan for more trendy shopping, then back to the Leidesplein for Dutch dinner at an Eat-Café: mussels and sole. Not Belgian, but worthy, and not terribly expensive despite our poor dollar-Euro exchange.
27 October, Amsterdam
We took the #10 tram up to the Noorderkerk and adjacent Noordermarkt. This was billed as a Saturday crafts market, but it looked like much of the same stuff we had seen at Cuyp Markt, and a little more expensive. We walked into the center of the city, figuring Saturday morning was the best time for us to see the historic center without the johns and hookers. Amsterdam made me feel like a prude. I like sex, and appreciate the tolerance Amsterdammers have for recreational drugs. The way they’ve turned it into a tourist attraction, however, is juvenile and repulsive. One head shop is fine; a neighborhood of them excessive. Unfortunately, the most historic parts of the city are those where the drug and sex industry are most prominent. We found the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city, and were solicited by an old working girl dressed only in beads. A vision I’ll not soon forget, despite my deepest wishes.
We fled to the Museum Amstelkring. The Dutch banned Catholic churches, but then turned a blind eye to conversion of homes into “secret” ones. One suspects a burgher got paid off. One of the best of these secret churches is the Amstelkring: three row houses downstairs, with the upper floors combined into a church and accommodations for a priest. In addition to the building itself, they told the story of “spiritual sisters”, lay women who served the priests. Contemporary Dutch women artists had installed pieces throughout the museum. Interesting, layered, and complex.
We walked south on the Zeedijk through Chinatown, then over to the Dam, the site of the original dam on the Amstel. The Koninklijk Paleis is a Baroque town hall turned royal palace. A sign reported that it was “Closed Due to Conditions”, which when we stepped back and saw the scaffolding seemed to mean that it was being renovated. Have you noticed a theme? Went in search of an inexpensive place for lunch. Were kicked out of the old Bourse, designed by H.P. Berlage, as it was being set up for a private function. Ended up at a café in a department store, De Bijenkorf. Lunch was unsatisfying, but when we started exploring the store we were pleased. It has many departments we’ve eliminated in our own stores. Books, art, Christmas, food, all were well stocked and well displayed, with the top floor given over to a teenager hang-out/boutique space.
Over a few blocks to the Rembrandthuis, near Waterlooplein. Rembrandt lived in, sold art from, and ran a school in this building. The house has been restored, and the studio and art sales rooms were great to see. They have a complete collection of Rembrandt’s etchings, but that display was less intriguing.
We got lost in the University of Amsterdam, walking north to the Ij and the Amsterdam Center for Architecture, ARCAM. A very contemporary building, like a beautiful pustule erupting on the waterfront. This is their version of our American Institute of Architects. A boring show was up, and they had no shop to speak of. The old dockyards are booming with redevelopment projects. The islands farther out are mainly residential, but the ones closer to Central Station and downtown are getting institutions and office buildings. NEMO is a science museum in a building that looks like a beached blue ship, with the top deck accessible as a public performance space. We could see the condo and apartment towers filling in Javaeiland & KNSM-eiland, islands that were once docks of the Dutch East India Company.
Our destination was the Stedelijk Museum CS (for Central Station). The Stedelijk is one of the world’s great museums of modern and contemporary art. It seems to have a collection as good at MoMA’s, but shows more cutting edge stuff, like the Whitney or New Museum. Since their building on the Museumplein is being recreated, they’ve set up a temporary home on a couple floors of a 1950’s office block. Due to space constraints, they are only showing work since 1970. Alas, no Mondrian on this trip. The space is well designed, but none of the shows up especially memorable. Most of the galleries were given over to an Andy Warhol retrospective. None of the paintings, but tons of film, video, sculpture, and wallpaper. We’ve seen it all done better in Pittsburgh, right down to the Mylar balloon room and we saw the screen tests in Buenos Aires two years ago. What saved the day was a room dedicated to a television show Andy had on NYC public access in the 1980’s. Debby Harry and Fran Liebowitz raving about fashion were hysterical, and worth the cost of admission.
Walked by the new public library on our way to the #5 tram at Central Station. When we thought about dinner we couldn’t leave the Leidesplein, this time eating at a Dutch place called The Pantry: three types of stoempf (potatoes with leeks, kale, or something mashed in), sausage, mushrooms, beef stew and red cabbage. I ordered jenniver, the local and better tasting version of gin, and we shared mini pancakes for dessert. Invested in Dutch confectionary at a local candy store. They do amazing things with sugar, all of which taste great, even the licorice, which has a surprisingly pleasant saltiness. In Holland Santa Claus has a black slave named Piet. He drives the sleigh and carries the bag of toys. In some of the graphics he’s portrayed in an incredibly racist Minstrel way, but more recent graphics show him as more of a school kid of African descent. Piet shows up on a lot of delicious cinnamon-flavored cookies.
28 October, Amsterdam
A note on the elevator let us know that we had an extra hour, as the Continent had turned its clocks back that night. We invested that gift in a walk around Vondelpark, an English garden park northwest of the Museumplein developed about the same time as Central Park in New York. From there we took in the Oude Suid (Old South), a neighborhood that reminded us of Chevy Chase. Clearly affluent, developed between 1880-1920, these were the first stand-alone houses we had seen in Amsterdam. Many of these are now consulates and attorney’s offices.
There was a line at the Van Gogh Museum, but it moved quickly, and we were able to cover the gamut. Vincent died without having sold a painting, leaving it all to his brother Theo, who died six months later. Theo’s widow is the woman we need to credit with creating Vincent’s reputation. She wisely presented, sold, and held on to the work until van Gogh was known. Her son sold what was left to the state. This museum has probably two-thirds of all the work van Gogh created. They show a chronology of the paintings on the second floor, prints on three, and work by contemporaries on one and four. The basement gallery had a show on Barcelona in 1900: mainly photos but some nice furniture and fixtures. Lunch in the café was not bad, and not unreasonable.
The #10 tram eastbound leads to the Troppenmuseum. The former Dutch Colonial Institute has been turned into a museum of non-Western civilizations. Major emphasis on Indonesia, Guiana, and former Dutch colonies in Africa, but decent displays of North and Central American native cultures, India, and the Far East as well. Well displayed, with great interactive programs for kids.
Walking back downtown past the zoo we were able to see flamingos and ostriches. We cut across town between the Keizers- and Prinsengrachts to cross over some of the funkier bridges we’d seen. We ended at a shop near the hotel that specialized in Delft ware. The owner was a hoot, letting us know that the real Delft was up front, the Royal Delft on the main floor, and the “souvenirs” in back. Catie and Michael invested in Royal, and I settled for a souvenir Vermeer “Girl with a Pearl Earring” tile.
As our trip wound down, we realized that we had eaten pretty well, and had never had the chance to eat cheap. We made up for it with a progressive meal through the fast food joints of the Leidesplein: fries in a paper cone, an “Angry Whopper” at Burger King (i.e., with jalapenos), and the best of all, Wok To Walk. Pick a protein from Column A, rice/noodle from B, and sauce from C, supplement with vegetables of choice. It gets stir fried, slid into a Chinese carryout container, and handed to you to walk out with a dinky fork. None of this was fast, actually; waits running from ten minutes for the fries to twenty at Wok, but all was tasty.
29 October, Amsterdam, Paris
We took the tram to Central Station, checked our bags, and saw Catie off on her train to Schiphol. It was great traveling with her; she shares my love for engineering, can speak Michael, kept up with our pace and saw and shared things we would have missed.
I wanted to ride the subway, amazed that they can even build one in a city that’s at sea level. It’s essentially a high speed tram in a tunnel, like Boston’s Green Line. We rode two stations down to Waterlooplein, and walked through Rembrandtplein. They’ve installed statues of the figures from “The Night Watch” in front of the statue Rembrandt there.
The Willet-Holthuysen Museum is cool, rich, but not our style. It’s the preserved home of a fashionable couple from the 1860’s, lots of reproduction Louis XVI. A terrific collection of Meissen porcelain, and we liked the overall use of space, light, and the gardens. We walked up the Amstel, Michael really got into the houseboats there. Up the Rokin back to Central Station, where we picked up more fast food from the snack places in front. For substance we got kabob and lamejun with salad, but the highlight for me was buying food from an automat. They have a few of these around Amsterdam, mainly selling fried croquette things. Tasted salty and horrible, but was fun to try.
We took the Thalys back to Paris. No rail strikes, no stopping at borders, just a lovely ride through the fields where we got to say goodbye to the cows, crows, Dutch and Belgians. It was hard to leave 1st Class. We picked up the 30 Trocadero bus from Gare du Nord, and were zipped through Montmartre, Pigalle, and Parc Monceau to Doris and Gopal’s.
Doris had suggested we catch the show at the Grand Palais, “Design Against Design”, which we’d missed due to the strike. Gopal was game, and got us there and in the right door (the Grand Palais is huge, and each door leads to different exhibits). Premise was to show great design objects thematically, across history. So, an entire room of furniture, lights, wallpapers, and dishes, all with sinuous lines, or evoking the human body, or using recycled materials. Michael thought it was okay, I thought it was great. I jotted ideas for lights I want to make.
Our friends have a favorite restaurant off the Place de Breteuil, behind the Invalides, that serves a great prix fixe. Pate, artichokes with crab, scallops, profiteroles, and an apple pie flamed with Calvados. I love the fact that scallops are “noisette de St. Jacques”, St. John’s nuts; they make me think of pilgrims to Santiago de Campostella. Michael and Doris fought over the check, and Doris won. We can’t think of better hosts in Paris; thank you, guys.
French food is outstanding, except when it is convenient.
Belgian food is outstanding, period. The people are charming and friendly. They don’t appreciate how great and unique the culture they’ve built is: efficient but laid back, pleasant and dynamic all at once. We hope they can hold it together.
Dutch food is better than expected. I’ve heard people apologize for the Dutch character by saying Amsterdam is really like New York, but no. New Yorkers are abrupt and direct, but I’ve rarely seen them be rude, and often had them help me. People in Amsterdam seemed xenophobic, taking money from English-speaking tourists while holding something authentic back. Groups of teens were obnoxious and possibly dangerous. There’s a lack of acknowledgement that their “Golden Age” was built on slaves, and collaboration with the Germans in World War II. Go once, but we’re not sure we’ll be back.