Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Netherlands

Going Dutch

Never has a trip to the Netherlands been so appealing.

Apart from the ease of travelling, beautiful scenery, great restaurants, the strength of sterling and the dollar against the euro, Holland’s enormous investment in the arts makes a visit to this low country almost obligatory.   
The galleries and museums of Amsterdam and The Hague provide a wonderful excuse to indulge in cultural tourism.

My wife and I visited both cities on a four day trip in mid-September.  
I admit that the summery weather may have biased our opinion, as temperatures made sightseeing easy and pleasurable.  There was no rain and most days were warm enough to wear shorts and tee-shirts.


For us there were three big draws, a symphony orchestra and two art galleries - the Royal Concertgebouw, the Rijksmuseum, and the Mauritshuis.  We booked entrance and travel tickets in advance on-line for all venues, saving us money as well as queueing time.

The Royal Concertgebouw

The Royal Concertgebouw is one of the world’s leading symphony orchestras, (and even described as such on their own website)[1].  
Quality aside, quantity follows as key facts about this orchestra involve large numbers.

Last year it celebrated its 125th anniversary.  
It performs 80 concerts a year at the Concertgebouw concert hall in Amsterdam and a further 40 abroad.  It has released more than 1,100 LPs, CDs and DVDs.  
Without taking account of television and radio broadcasts, it reaches 250,000 concert goers a year.   
Its biggest number involves a world record, music air miles.  It has fairly recently become the first orchestra to complete a global tour which included the 6 continents, all in a single year.

The magnificent concert hall seats almost 2,000 people.   
The orchestra’s chief conductor since September 2004 is the legendary Mariss Jansons, now in his tenth and final season in charge.   
A sign of the permanence and stability of the Concertgebouw is that he is only its sixth chief conductor.

His presence was as good a reason as any to attend on this occasion.  
The programme was another.  
It began with the well-known 15 minute overture by Rossini “The Thieving Magpie.”  
This was followed by Shostakovich’s concerto for piano, string orchestra and trumpet, with Prokofiev’s fifth symphony after the interval.

Our seats cost about £26 each, the cheapest in the hall, but well worth it and in a good position.   
As this was the first of four sold-out performances of the programme, my rapid mathematical calculation estimated that takings for the total set might be not far off half a million Euro.

Arriving early to collect tickets, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that our admission price included drinks not just before the concert, but again at the interval.   
This would be a popular perk in Belfast.

We sat about two rows from the front, underneath the stage with a clear view.  
The soloist for the Shostakovich concerto was the beautiful young Chinese virtuoso Yuja Wang[2].  
A musicians’ agent told me a week later that, aside from her pianistic brilliance, she is known to wear contemporary and eye-catching outfits.  
On this occasion, she wore a dazzling long dress.  Both sides of the skirt had a lengthy slit which (I admit) distracted my musical attention slightly from time to time.

The Concertgebouw’s performance was likewise a thing of artistic beauty, tantalizing, and deserving of the standing ovations from an enthusiastic audience.  
The experience was indeed something to blog home about.

The Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam’s other main attraction was described by a leading travel writer[3] thus:- 

“The miraculously resurrected Rijksmuseum with its formidable collection of art and which took one third of a billion pounds and 10 years” to complete...

It opened in 1885 and now contains 8000 works of art (including sculptures, giant dolls houses, ceramics) in over 80 rooms and over four floors.  

Its most celebrated work, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, is the only painting returned to its original position.

The Night Watch

As well as Rembrandt masterpieces, there are also works by Vermeer, Goya, Van Gogh, Mondrian and many more.  
The handout floor plan is a mini art-work and a perfect souvenir.

A London journalist describes[4] the place as

“a truly beautiful building free from the white-walled hauteur that characterises so many galleries...”  It includes Delft ceramics and other art forms “gradually revealing 800 years of the history of Holland told through myriad forms of art...”

As Simon Calder put it, the Rijksmuseum is the hottest ticket in Europe.   

The good news that I bear is that it’s not expensive.  Our entry fee worked out as approximately £6 per person.

The Mauritshuis

It was the same travel writer who persuaded me to visit the Mauritshuis.  
He commented[5]:-

“Two years of reconstruction have opened up the Mauritshuis impressively...marvel at the collection of Golden Age paintings hung in the home of a merchant who made his money in Brazil.  Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp is back from loan; Carel Fabritius’s Goldfinch has had its perch moved to a more prominent position befitting of Rembrandt’s pupil.  Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring is the star of the show...”

Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The journey on a double-decker train from Amsterdam to the Hague took less than 50 minutes.  
It offered pleasing views over the pan-flat Dutch countryside, featuring more canals, occasional windmills, and neatly groomed fields where flowers bloom.  Some were still thriving in the latter half of September.

When we arrived in Den Hague Centraal Station at 11 a.m, we were surprised at the substantial crowds walking alongside us to the city centre and the Mauritshuis.  
About five minutes walking and we could see the gallery.  
At this point the volume of people was becoming larger.  
The sight of some middle-aged ladies dressed in bright orange summer hats and a few elderly men wearing veterans war medals aroused my curiosity.

Then we spotted a cordon manned by police.  Our entry to the gallery was blocked.  
A lady police officer advised us that the building was closed.   
She informed us that the King was visiting to make a speech and that the gallery would open again at 4 p.m.  
Everything was chaotically orderly and there was a distinct atmosphere of jollity.

Time for a coffee.  Our waiter explained that on this day every year the annual budget is presented, the King speaks, and there is a lot of royal ceremonial.  
At last an explanation for the crowds, the dressing up and long line of diplomatic limousines carrying their nations' flags.  
I suspect that we were the only people in Holland who didn't know about this important annual event.

We got to see the Girl with the Pearl Earring and the Goldfinch later having spent the day watching the impressive pageantry of the royal parade and walking round the wide streets of the city’s ambassadorial district. 

Mauritshuis information plaques

Apart from Vermeer and Fabritius, we also saw works by artists including Breugel, Peter Paul Reubens, Holbein, Rembrandt, and Frans Hals.  
What a privilege to stand a foot away from such celebrated art, and worth the £11.50 entry fee per person.
Girl With The Pearl Earring

I spoke to a personable local man.  After listing by rote the all-female roll-call of Dutch monarchs for the last 120 years up to Queen Beatrix, he informed me that the new King Willem-Alexander is the Netherland's first King since 1890.

We went to the capital and seat of the Dutch Government to see the Girl with the Pearl Earring and the Goldfinch and we ended up with a free bonus, witnessing the annual event known as Princes Day[6].   
The royal procession is the climax of four days of national partying.  
The event featured cavalry and military bands in full dress uniforms, followed by with King Willem and his Argentinean wife Queen Máxima in their golden carriage.
A dazzling riot of colourful regal splendour.
Crowds watch King Willem-Alexander of Orange in the golden carriage

Anne Frank and Our Lord in the Attic

On our final day back in Amsterdam, we visited two museums which powerfully recount episodes from significant periods of Dutch history.   
They share a vital theme - the human impact of religious intolerance.

The Anne Frank House explains and illustrates the German occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War.  
The story is based on the diary of the Jewish business-owner Otto Frank’s daughter, begun when she was only 13 years old.  Eight people hid in an annexe of the building at Prinsengracht 263 for almost two years.

This is a museum which presents an example of shameful world history that burns the emotional heartstrings, even if you are already aware of the story.  It is still relevant and resonates strongly with contemporary events in other places.  
The value of a place like the Anne Frank House[7] is that thanks to the efforts of a heroic teenager, this museum reminds us of the awful impact of extreme intolerance.
Anne Frank House museum - ticket queue

Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder[8] (Our Lord in the Attic) may, at the moment, be a less well-known museum outside the Netherlands.  
It is, however, Amsterdam’s second oldest (after the Rijksmuseum) having opened in 1887.  I am grateful to a friend in Suffolk, England and another in Belfast for suggesting it.   

The property is located in the bustling city centre at Oudezijds Voorburgwal.   
Telling the story of religious prejudice from an earlier period of Dutch history, this museum presents a message from Holland’s Golden Age.

At that time it was forbidden to celebrate mass in public.   
The top floor of this seventeenth century canal house is the best-surviving example in the city of a building which was converted into a Roman Catholic Church.   
The elaborate and beautiful conversion was undetectable from the outside.  This was to ensure that there could be no appearance of its housing of a Catholic place of worship inside.
Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic)

With visitor numbers rising substantially, architectural plans are presented on-site with the proposals to conserve the exhibits and develop the museum.  This will include the re-opening of a tunnel to the building across the street.

Hotel and Restaurants

Our choice of accommodation was dictated by convenience to The Concertgebouw concert hall and the Rijksmuseum.  
Following one of Simon Calder’s recommendations, we chose The Owl hotel at Roemer Visscherstraat 1[9].  From Schipol airport, the best route is the197 bus to the nearby Leidseplein at a cost of five euro.

Whereas the room-rate for this friendly and comfortable 3-star hotel exceeded his figure, proximity to Amsterdam’s two main attractions won out.  
I understand that the hotel uses what it terms as dynamic pricing.  The occurrence of some kind of conference led to rates being hiked up during our stay, unfortunately for us.

Our hotel was less than 5 minutes walk from both venues and also close to the city’s largest park, the Vondelpark.  
This is an ideal place to observe Amsterdammers cycling to work.  
There are so many cyclists and many types of bicycles, some featuring bathtub-like contraptions which can transport children and/or shopping.  

In the pleasant sunshine, as I walked and stretched each morning before breakfast, the sight of the local citizens exercising their way into each new day left me with the abiding impression that these are happy and healthy people.  
A joyful experience.

Two restaurants stand out.   
On our first night, we dined in an Indonesian restaurant called Kartika[10] at Overtoom 68.  At the waiter’s suggestion we tried a menu which was an equivalent of Spanish tapas – small plates of more than a dozen different delicious house specialities.  
It occurred to me that the presence of Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands reflects its colonial exploits in the Dutch East Indies.  
Whatever about the history, this was great food.

On our final night, en route to hear the orchestra, and quite by chance, we found a restaurant called The Seafood Bar[11] at Van Baerlestraat 5.   
This contemporary establishment offered an enormous array of fish dishes, which looked modern and stylish, and they tasted superb. 
A bowl of crustacean glory, in the words of one diner.

Highs and lows

Reflecting on our short break, people’s pre-conceptions of the Netherlands are of drugs cafes and sex parlours, like going for a high in a low country.   
But as Annabelle Thorpe[12] put it:-

“Amsterdam has two very different faces...the red light district and the sophisticated city that’s all about history and art and beauty and style.  The two can co-exist.   But if it’s a contest, right now the art lovers are beating the stoners hands down and the city is enjoying a renaissance because of it.”

A trip in modern Holland does indeed justify the use of the H-word, high - as in culture.

©Michael McSorley 2014

[3] Simon Calder Belfast Telegraph magazine travel “48 Hours in Amsterdam” 29 June 2013
[4] Annabelle Thorpe The Times Weekend Travel “A Weekend in Amsterdam 20 April 2013
[5] Simon Calder Belfast Telegraph magazine travel “48 Hours in The Hague.” 28 June 2014
[12] The Times Weekend Travel “A Weekend in Amsterdam 20 April 2013