Sunday, February 23, 2014

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.

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