Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Two more museums before flying home

For our last full day in Amsterdam we decided to once again take advantage of our museum passes and head to the Amsterdam Museum, a spectacular building that was the site of the city Orphanage from 1580 until 1960. The orphanage was home to thousands of children. Today the museum showcases the city of Amsterdam through an interactive exhibition called, "Amsterdam DNA," which tells the city's history based on burghers caring for the less fortunate, the Dutch East India company, ships sailing to Asia and America, freedom of conscience, Cruijff and Rembrandt, slavery and war. It was an excellent presentation showing all the good and not so good occurrences in Amsterdam's past.

Our last visit was to the Rembrandthuis museum, the actual house where the great artist lived and worked for 20 years. He bought the house at the height of his fame in 1639 but lost it when he went bankrupt in 1656. When all his goods were auctioned off an exact inventory was kept that has allowed modern curators to accurately recreate the house interior. Wandering through the seventeenth-century rooms it was easy to imagine yourself back in Rembrandt's day, with small beds enclosed in cupboard-like structures and giant walk in fireplaces.

In Rembrandt's printing room we watched children enjoying a hands-on etching demonstration while in the main studio we saw the various stages in the creation of an oil paining. The floors were connected by a single narrow curving staircase, and there was something new to discover at each level.

By now it was late afternoon and time for us to take the bus to the airport. We enjoyed our time in Amsterdam. The public transportation was excellent and it was very easy to get around on foot. However for locals the most popular mode of travel is by bike. It seemed that everyone had one of these sturdy, utilitarian bikes that they rode at great speed along the bike lanes that lined every major road. As pedestrians we had to keep our wits about us! It is interesting to note that we didn't see any obese people probably thanks to the use of the bikes. Generally, people looked healthy. We didn't see many people smoking or leaving restaurants in between meals for a cigarette. Next time we will explore Holland beyond Amsterdam.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Boutiques, brothels and a pie

This was a non museum day. First we headed to the Nine Little Streets. Three major canals, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht divide the Central Canal district into nine little streets that are big on personality. This is a perfect spot for window shopping. There are all kinds of unique boutiques, art galleries and eateries. All the lanes have a Dutch flavour to them. For us it was a pleasure finding some interesting card shops and stocking up on our supply.

Now it was time to visit the red light district. I must admit that Monday lunchtime wasn't the  optimum time to visit but we had already seen the ladies selling their wares in the red-lit windows behind our hotel, which wasn't in the Red Light district. We passed several cannabis seed shops and the air certainly smelled of marijuana in many places. Just wandering around the area it was certainly the seediest part of Amsterdam we visited.

From brothels to sex shops to museums, the Red Light District leaves nothing to the imagination. The Rossebuurt, as the locals know it, is unlike any other place. The Red Light District that everyone knows about is the one where women, of all nationalities, parade their wares in red-fringed window parlours, ready to offer more than a school boy peep-show in a private cabin. We overheard a woman propositioning a group of five but they weren't buying. Brothels are legal in The Netherlands and it keeps the pimps at bay. We'd seen enough. It was lunch time.

We wandered about looking for lunch but not really finding anything that piqued our fancy. Finally, we passed a pie shop. We looked at each other and knew we had hit pay dirt. They had all kinds of pies but who can resist a steak and kidney pie served with mashed potatoes, mushy peas with mint and gravy, and worse, sprinkled with a little cheese? The pie totally lived up to our expectations and we left not a scrap on our plates. So good. Just in case you think we have a bad diet all the time we don't. I would guess that I haven't had gravy in twenty years before this. It was worth the wait.

Late in the afternoon, fortified by a cup of popular mint tea -- hot water full of mint leaves -- we made our way to the cinema to enjoy another movie in English, this time The Monuments Men. Afterwards we went to a very busy local restaurant for dinner. After a long wait, and feeling dwarfed among all the very tall Dutch people, we finally sat down to a salad, penance for our steak and kidney pie!

The Hermitage, maritime museum and a movie make for another busy day

By now we had mastered the tram service making it very easy to travel around the city. It was as easy as buying a pass and remembering to scan it entering and exiting the tram. The frequent service was excellent. Buying a museum pass enabled us to visit many museums at a big saving. Not only that but the pass is good for a year and gains admission to 400 museums in Holland. What a deal if you lived there year-round! Today we took the tram to the Hermitage Museum, the largest satellite of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. This simple symmetrical building is located on a beautiful setting right on the Amstel River.

The museum houses two permanent exhibitions, the first of which describes Netherlands–Russia relations. There were close ties between the Dutch and Russian Royal families over the centuries. However, we can thank Catherine the Great for starting the huge Hermitage collection.

The other exhibition details the very interesting history of the building. Located in the former Amstelhof, it is a classical style building that opened in 1682 as a retirement home for elderly women. It was called the Deanery Home for Old Women. If you were aged 50 or older and had lived in Amsterdam for the previous 15 years and a member of the church for 10 years you were eligible to live here.

The ladies ate three times a day in the magnificent church hall at long tables with assigned seating. Much of the food was donated. Apparently the women ate lots of grain, vegetables and fruit, with meat only once every two weeks. It sounds like a healthy diet.

The kitchen beside the church hall soon proved too small and around 1725 a new kitchen was set up in a cellar. It was fascinating to see how meals were cooked for the hundreds of residents each day in huge brick-lined pots. The cooks had to stand on wooden steps and stir with gigantic wooden spoons.

In 1817 the facility opened to elderly men. If you were able you did some work. Central heating was installed in the 1860s. There were changes to accommodate couples and the sick and eventually the building was used as a nursing home. In fact the last inhabitants left in 2007. The building was offered to the city and in June 2009 the museum was opened by Dutch Queen Beatrix and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Every six months an exhibition comes from Russia. We were fortunate to see two art exhibits, one focusing on Gauguin and another highlighting the Russians taste for French Art.

Making the most of our museum pass we made our way in the chilly air, walking alongside canals, to the Maritime museum. The museum building dates from 1656. At the time it was an architectural wonder, built on an artificial island made by driving 1800 wooden piles deep into the muddy ground. It was here that the war ships of the Dutch Republic were equipped. During the recent renovation the building's vast inner courtyard was covered by a glass roof.

Moored at the quay directly outside the museum is the “Amsterdam” a replica of a three masted vessel of the Dutch East India Company. The original sank in a storm in the English Channel in winter of 1749 on its maiden journey to Batavia. The wreck of the ship was discovered off the English coast in 1969, and the museum replica was completed in 1990. Visiting the ship, you see the small and primitive spaces that were home to 350 people during the ship’s journey, with more comfortable but equally minute quarters for the ship’s captain and officers. I don't know how they stood it, as I was doubled over walking very carefully about the ship.

It took hours to see all the exhibits. We wandered about inside a life-sized whale, where we could feel it's heartbeat and touch it's skin. There was a huge interactive model of the port, where you could go on a virtual tour of warehouses and transportation networks. We particularly liked all the paintings of ancient sea battles, many between the Dutch and Spanish navies.

It had been another day full of museums but now we headed off to enjoy a movie, Philomena,  on a big screen and in English, a treat for us. Our day ended with a late dinner of a lovely piece of cod in a light tarragon sauce and once back at the hotel, a piece of the Battenburg cake.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Concertgebouw is perfect setting for evening of Mozart

We had an early dinner in a bistro across from the hotel. For starters we shared a really tasty tallegio fondue with cauliflower, asparagus and bread for dipping. It was really delicious. Always ready to try something different I ordered the pigeon. I've had pigeon before and enjoyed it but this was pigeon breast that was quite rare. It was quite tender but I think I enjoyed the parsnip mash that came with it slightly better than the pigeon.  Seamus was a little more conservative with his lentil salad with feta cheese, pumpkin, pumpkin seeds and lettuce. It was very tasty.

After a short walk we arrived at the Concertgebouw, literally the concert building. Because of its highly regarded acoustics, the Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls in the world. We were fortunate to obtain wonderful seats at the side of the hall to hear Mozart's, "Requiem" performed by the Bach choir and Orchestra of the Netherlands under the direction of the flamboyant Dutch conductor, Pieter Jan Leusink. The concert was most enjoyable, the acoustics, perfect.

Canal cruise best way to see Amsterdam

We started our day sharing a laugh with the server at the coffee shop, when she said what a nice day it was. It was five degrees celsius. Well at least it wasn't raining or blowing for our walk to the canal boat tour. We were fortunate that we could do this since the canals have been frozen during the last three winters.

Amsterdam has more than 100 kilometres of canals, about 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. The three main canals dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, form concentric belts around the city, known as the Grachtengordel. Before we arrived here I had no idea just how many canals there were.

We passed under the most interesting bridges, one called the Blue Bridge, which hasn't been blue for a long time. Another bridge the Skinny Bridge connected two sisters, who lived on either side of it.

There are several locks along the canals and until the 1980s some were still operated by hand. These locks serve a good purpose since they are opened to flush out the canals four times a week in the summer and twice a week in winter making the canal water clean and more importantly not smelly.

Amsterdam was a centre of trade for coffee, tea, spices, slaves, gold, sugar and ivory. The harbour was filled with many trading ships. Our canal boat passed the Flower Market, which lies on floating barges. Tulips originally came from Ottoman Turkey, another rich trading country. Today the Dutch are one of the most important flower growing countries in the world. Trade in petroleum is huge making the Netherlands the world's largest petroleum exporter. Since Amsterdam is connected to the North Sea by the North Holland Canal and the Rhine River by the 72 kilometre Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, it is easy to see why Amsterdam is such an important port today.

The canals are lined with the oddest shaped houses. Many were built so that they pointed out at the top. One of the reasons for this was that it made your house look bigger. And other was that it was easier to haul up furniture or to keep dry goods safe from floods. Some of the four- or five-story houses were built to line up with houses that were built on wooden pilings that were now rotting. There were some very narrow houses, including one only three metres wide, built that way to cheat the taxman.

Lining the canals were thousands of houseboats all built after World War II to combat a housing shortage. Some were built on old canal boats, others were on concrete barges and others were purpose built. They ranged from wrecks in need of some TLC and other very elegant homes. No more are being built so they have become expensive and much in demand.

We passed many interesting buildings such as the very modern NUMA science museum, which mirrors the subway tunnel underneath, the Hermitage and the Nieuw Kirk containing Rembrandt's grave. The old Jordan district, which was built on the outskirts of town because of it's tanneries, is now a very desirable area to live. The Flea Market originally run by Sephardic Jews from Spain is still in business today.

By the time our cruise came to an end I had a much better understanding off the city's history. I wonder what it would be like to live in one of those narrow houses or perhaps a canal boat.

Back on land we had to dodge a brass band playing some upbeat Dutch music. It was the Heineken Brewery Band playing right across the street from the Heineken Brewery and their much touted Heineken Experience. We decided to visit. It was a bonus for us, since it was the brewery's birthday and admission was free.

Well, the museum part of the show was interesting – the architecture of the 19th century Heineken brewery buildings, authentic interiors, old photographs and state decorations the Heineken family received, a famous gold medal from The Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889, which you may see reproduced on each can of Heineken, the impressive copper beer tanks and a quiet horse stable with the well groomed draft horses. By the old copper vats we had a taste of the heated barley combined with water. Lots of people didn't like it but I thought it was great with its distinctive Horlick's flavour.

Part of the "experience" is more hands on and it has a bit of an amusement part that may have been arranged by people who had too much beer themselves - parts of it are simply irritating like screenings of very old beer commercials, parts are just plain silly like a quasi-3D movie, where an actor swims in a pool of beer and spectators are asked to feel like they were beer while being brewed,  shaken, sprayed with water and bubbles and finally placed on a conveyer belt and bottled. We sampled the beer and were told to drink from under the foam to keep the bubbles in the beer. You could make your own music video and make graphics moving your hand and activating your wrist bracelet. At this point the brewery part was lost. We were glad that it was time to move on.

Our next stop was completely different, the Van Gogh Museum, one of the busiest museums in the world. The museum maintains the world’s largest collection of the works of the world’s most popular artist - Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), his paintings, drawings and letters, completed with the art of his contemporaries. The museum was very busy making it difficult to appreciate the paintings, dodging between so many visitors.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Famous artworks and floating flower stalls

Our first full day in Amsterdam began in a wonderful patisserie near the hotel, where we had our morning cappuccino and croissant. It was Valentine's day and the bakery had a huge selection of cakes and pastries on display. They gave us part of a shortcrust pastry raspberry valentine's cookie with our coffee. Mmmmm.

Fortified, we walked a little further down the street to the Albert Cuyp outdoor market that stretched for over a kilometre along a pedestrian street. The market had lots of fruits and vegetable stalls, beautiful wheels of Dutch cheeses, fresh fish including beautiful halibut and sole, clothing and household wares. We stopped to buy some almonds for our breakfast from a huge stall selling nuts and dried fruit. One thing we did notice, the prices were certainly higher than we were used to paying.

After another cold walk we arrived at the Rijksmuseum, the premier art museum in Holland, which has been recently renovated. As you approach the building it looks like a fairytale castle. There are many masterpieces in the collection with perhaps the most famous being Rembrandt's Night Watch. Another masterpiece I enjoyed seeing was Vermeer's The Milkmaid. I felt I knew her really well since my mother had a print on the wall as you entered her house. Too bad it wasn't the real thing.

My favourite painting was the massive canvas, The Battle of Waterloo by Jan Willem Pieneman. It is not actually a depiction of the battle itself, but rather a group portrait centred around the Duke of Wellington on horseback, with the wounded prince of Orange on a stretcher off to the left. I loved  the detail of the picture. The prince was so proud of his part in the battle that he continued to sleep on an iron camp bed for many years. He received this painting as a present from his father, King William I.

Many of the Dutch pictures portrayed quite happy, smiling people. I later found out that the water at that time wasn't too good so everyone drank watered down beer. Perhaps that accounts for all the cheerfulness.

By now it was time for lunch in the museum restaurant, where I had some lovely green pea soup with mint and some little pieces of smoked haddock and creme fraiche. We also had a tasty salad of chopped borage, potatoes and carrots.

If you visit the entire collection you will walk for 1.8 kilometres. Eventually, we felt that we had nearly accomplished this. It was time to take our leave. We boarded a tram and arrived at the flower market. This is the only floating flower market in the world, and one of the most fragrant places of interest in Amsterdam - even in this weather. The flower stalls stand on the houseboats. Here we saw all sorts of tulips, narcissus and roses. There were some giant amaryllis bulbs. The bulbs are ready for export, so we could have taken some home if it wasn't for that pesky carry-on baggage we had taken with us.

As we wandered about we discovered Marks and Spencer's Food Hall. To some of you this may mean nothing but I was quite excited. There were lots of things to buy but we left with a package of "luxury hot cross buns" and a Battenburg cake. Items definitely not available to us. We were a little disappointed in the hot cross buns but the Battenburg cake was a find. Needless to say it didn't make it into our homeward bound luggage.

As we window shopped our way down the streets, it had become even colder and was threatening rain. It was time to stop for a coffee to warm us up. As we were enjoying our drink a very thin, very tall platinum blonde transvestite dressed in a little short dress came into the coffee shop and started making the rounds. We chatted with her only to find out that his brother lived in Sarnia. What a small world. I took a picture for posterity but unfortunately it was the exact time that the camera battery died. So no posterity.

By now the rain had really started coming down. Instead of waiting for a tram we kept walking, to keep warm. By the time we reached the hotel we were soaked. Never mind. It was soon time for our Valentine's dinner. This time we ventured out under the cover of umbrellas. Happy with some prosecco and half a lobster for me and a really nice piece of butterfish for Seamus we felt much better. It was a good ending to our first full day in Amsterdam.

Five days in chilly Amsterdam

Although the weather in the Port has been quite warm, things were very quiet. It was time for a city break and this time we decided to visit Amsterdam, a city we knew only from trips through Schipol airport. It was almost sad to leave the 20-degree celsius weather only to arrive in the almost freezing temperatures of our destination.

After a short ride on the train and a quick cab ride, we arrived at our hotel in the Museum district. After a welcoming glass of prosecco and a discussion about some of the sights we could visit, and more importantly where we were going to eat, we unpacked.

Dressed in our warmest clothes, we set off to find a local restaurant. Although lots of restaurants were busy we were in luck and found a lovely bistro where we had a Thai beef salad and a goat's cheese salad accompanied by the ubiquitous frites and mayonnaise. Lovely. We thought we would have strained yoghurt, -- whatever that is -- and rhubarb for dessert but they had run out. It was time to return to the hotel.

By now the wind was howling and it was threatening rain. We finally made it back to the road opposite the hotel only to see lots of windows outlined in red lights with a scantily clad woman in each. We were in a residential district right behind our hotel not the red light district. Here were two floors of two separate apartment blocks with hookers selling their wares. Of course I had to take a closer look. We walked past the windows with scantily clad women preening themselves and posing in positions that their mothers would not be proud of. Some of the the red curtains were drawn. Business was brisk.

By now we were freezing but continued around the block dodging cyclists. We could now confidently check one thing off our sightseeing list.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

In Banyuls we learn sad truth regarding elusive artist

Every time we visit the French village of Banyuls, we visit the galleries by the marina. Each time we peer through the window of a gallery owned by a Scot from Edinburgh, admire the prints and decide to come back on the weekend, when the shop is open. We decided to make the drive today.

The trip up the coast road was really beautiful with the bright yellow mimosas in full colour. The hillside was covered with yellow broom and purple rosemary. We even saw someone foraging successfully for wild asparagus.

Since we were in France, it was important to have lunch before two, when everyone stops serving right on the dot if not before. We stopped at the Sebastien Winery, where we both had huge salads. Mine was a lovely green salad with fresh shrimps. Seamus' was more exotic with squid, small crevettes, thinly sliced local cheese, sobrassada, which is ground pork, paprika, salt and spices and tapenade toasts. Since we were so good having salad, we rewarded ourselves by sharing a tasty grand marnier soufflé and finished off with a robust espresso.

Now it was time to visit the elusive gallery. It looked open with lights on, but of course the door was locked. Seamus called the phone number and left a message. Then a lady dressed in a tartan-looking coat came along. This looked promising. She was the wife of the artist who, it transpired, was "Mort." Oh dear! But not to worry, she was continuing to run the gallery since his quick demise a year ago. This was a bit sad, since we were hoping to meet him. It was a pleasure to view the prints of local scenes in the gallery. We eventually chose two to put in our spare room.

While they were being framed, we went for a walk around the town. Banyuls never ceases to amaze me. Almost every time we come here we visit something different. Today we walked along the promenade, then into the town and climbed up and up some well worn steps. Here we looked back on picturesque narrow laneways. We continued along stone covered streets looking into the backyards of old mansions with pink camellias in full bloom and orange and lemon trees that needed to be picked.

Finally, back at the gallery we admired our framed prints. What good choices we made. It was time to return home after yet another lovely trip to Banyuls.

Castel Quermanco ruins hold many stories

The weather has been quite strange this week with a lot of southerly winds bringing warm air. We are so used to tramontana winds from the north, which bring clear skies and a feeling of everything being well scrubbed, a feeling you don't get with winds from the south. These winds can whip the cover off the barbecue and set it sailing into the neighbour's yard, and they wreak havoc with the washing, which ends up all over the ground.

Not to be deterred we did go on a short walk to the Quermanco Castle, situated on top of a remote hill and accessible only by foot. We pass this ruin every time we go to Figueres but we never have time to stop. Wednesday was the day. The view over the surrounding land was quite spectacular. All the rosemary bushes were full of purple blooms, small yellow flowers lined the pathway along with some other wild plants that had a lovely smell.

The castle dates back to 1078. It was owned by Counts in the Empúries region. In 1472, during the Catalonian Civil War, the castle was occupied by forces loyal to John II. In 1808, the castle was captured by Napoleonic troops, occupied for several years, and was even fortified as a keep for armaments. Despite the additional fortifications, an explosion ordered by Marshal Suchet during the French withdrawal in 1814 left the castle in ruins, and it remains in that state today. We were somewhat disappointed that we couldn't go inside the ruin, which lies on private land, but apparently it is locked against vandals.

The surrealist painter Salvador Dalí had a deep affection for the castle and was very familiar with it as it is positioned on the road nearly halfway between his home town of Figueres and his coastal home in Cadaqués. He had several ideas for the castle including creating a natural pipe organ in the castle which would have been 'played' by the tramontana wind that constantly blows in the area. Another was to house a rhinoceros in the basement purely for tourists to come and view, and the other was to acquire the ruins and turn them into a residence for his wife, Gala.

Some work has been done on the castle but basically it is a ruin. Perhaps it would have been better if Dali did buy it. However, it was a lovely walk and now we won't have to wonder what it is like up there every time we pass by.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Exhibit highlights civil war bombing in Catalunya

Our morning started off like most days with a cortado -- espresso with a drop of milk -- at the Nautica. We had admired the home-made empanadas, pastry around a filling, sitting on the counter. We usually see empanadas made with tuna or sometimes with vegetable but never Serrano ham and cheese. Of course we asked about them and the next thing we knew, we had one tuna and one ham and cheese to accompany our coffee. You may think of this as unusual but the Spanish eat breakfast at around 11, which usually consists of sandwiches. These empanadas were delicious and very filling. The ladies at the Nautica love trying new recipes on us. Of course we reciprocate by loving the food and praising it.

Now it was time to visit the new Civil War exhibit in the ballroom. This is very significant to the people of the Port since it was 75 years ago on February 22 that El Port de la Selva was bombed by an Italian plane killing one person and injuring three others. Sixteen homes were totally demolished and another fifty damaged. The Port was bombed because it was a deep water port, and therefore a potential supply point for the Republicans, loyal to the Spanish government. Cataluyna was the last bastion for the Republicans but suffered severely with bombing from Barcelona to nearby Figueres. An unexploded bomb was found in the water just off a local swimming beach this past summer. A naval bomb disposal unit had to be called in to destroy it. 

There was a very interesting film accompanying the exhibit, where a local lady who had survived the bombing was talking about it and the times back then. Unfortunately, she was speaking in Catalan. From the documents on display we could see that five villagers had been killed during one bombing raid and it appears that a militia unit killed five supporters of the Nationalist cause in reprisal two days later. We know that there was an army encampment just down the street from us.

Quest for vinegar good excuse for trip along Côte Vermeille

Yesterday we took a trip up the coast road to France. There were lots of signs of spring on the way with the mimosas almost in full bloom and the broom starting to cover the hillsides.

Our first stop was Banyuls sur Mer where we hoped to buy some red wine vinegar from the local shop that sells all the vinegars made not far from town, up in the hills. Of course the shop is shut until April. Even the local shop that sells all the local products was shut until next weekend.

By now it was almost 1:45 and we hadn't had lunch. Not that we were terribly hungry, but we knew that by 2 pm we wouldn't find anywhere open for lunch. Luckily, we found a place right on the beach, where we had some champignon omelets and a glass of wonderful pale pink French rose. Satisfied, we returned to the car and drove farther north to Collioure.

When we arrived at the front, lots of people were just sitting sunning themselves. What a beautiful day. We decided not to visit the fortress but just to have a walk along the promenade and around the town. Unfortunately, we could not see any commando training going on today. That is always entertaining. A few restaurants and shops were open on the front. In the narrow, winding streets of the town just about everything was shut. We did pass some demijohns stacked high on the terrace of a building. A sign said that this was special home-made wine made just as the grandfather made it. These demijohns stand outside year round in all weather for four years before the wine is bottled. This is really unusual, since most wine is protected inside. I wonder what it tastes like?

Our next stop was the big fishing port of Port Vendres, where several boats had just arrived. We stopped at the wonderful fish market, where the local fish is beautifully presented. Part of the market is for shellfish and a huge local food section. Here we found the red wine vinegar we were looking for. The market also has a sizable take-away section. We succumbed and bought some Coquilles Sant Jacques in a puff pastry and some fideua, a dish typical of the Valencian region. It originated in the 1920s in the city of Gandia when thin noodles like vermicelli were used instead of rice in the popular dish paella. This one had scallops, shrimps, clams, squid, mussels and fish with some saffron. Delicious.