Up not too early to investigate the options for breakfast, not too keen on the offerings at the Holiday Inn. Soon found Holland runs on sugary offerings and little by way of fresh fruit or vegetables. Plenty of cafes but all offering substantially the same menu of pancakes, waffles, ham, baguettes all skewed heavily to a high meat diet. Good coffee also seems unreasonably hard to find. Stroll through the narrow and many directional lanes of the area across from the Centraal Station square, where already at ten am people are off their faces on either alcohol or other things. Sitting at tables on the street with big glasses of beer. The interesting thing to us was the indifference that the locals displayed to all the goings on of the mainly US and British and Spanish youth, as though normal life continues unaffected, the attitude being ‘let them have their fun, they will be buying some munchies in my shop any minute now.’
Anyway, the profusion of bad taste shops selling t-shirts, hippie paraphernalia, pseudo-rastafarian hats and so on soon becomes so boring that one decides quickly to seek out the fine artworks that have brought us to this town. Now as you start to try to go somewhere with a purpose, you discover that the streets run in odd directions, basically the main streets are like spokes on a wheel ( a wheel that a drunk has jumped on and bent at angles here and there) and between the spokes canals of various widths run between the mainly 17th century houses. These houses, the legacy of the wealthy merchant class who made their pile of gold during Holland’s golden age of trade, tend to be about four storeys high, with high peaked gable roofs, and some are so old that their foundations have sagged to one side so their walls are no longer straight. Some of these are so bent (like some of the visitors to the town) that they lean on their neighbours for support, and their floors are visibly out of square.
The Tourist Info office, which had been closed tight when we arrived in the darkness of the previous evening, sold me two Holland Passes, which promised prepaid entry to a number of the usual tourist attractions and discounts to others. Being keen to avoid wasting time in queues, I had taken up this offer, which cost 25 euros for each of us. Eventually with the constant guide of my trusty map, our tram stormed its way to the Rijksmuseum. This is indeed a monument to what must have been the peak of Dutch success in world trade and a resultant pride in celebrating their achievements. At the entrance sits a model ship, based on a design that was never made in the real world, but nevertheless shows the key means by which the Dutch traders ventured out into the East Indies and returned with riches based on any trade they could profitably participate in – never mind if the natives were subjugated and the trade included items like guns and opium.
Today those traders have a strange immortality as they gaze out, with all their facial oddities and blemishes captured by master artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. For we who have only known these works in art book reproductions, it was stunning to see the artistry of these great masters of the past, and in this museum it is possible to be very close to the works and study their brushwork at close quarters. Many of the works on view are stunningly detailed, and with their smooth, thickly varnished finish some have a more real effect than a modern colour photograph – because of the artists selection of what details to include, and the effect of the composition. Brilliant works, with Rembrandt probably the master to be revered above the others for consistently outstanding execution.
Apart from the paintings, the museum also had endless displays of fine silverware, Delft porcelain items, furniture with intricate inlays of exquisite timber, all the material goods that rich merchants could possibly use to show off their wealth to each other and to history. Too much to appreciate in a visit, or perhaps ever. All in all, a strange irony that in creating these works that will be retained and savoured as examples of the highest achievements of art, the finest works contain an implicit criticism of the smug self belief of those who have been portayed (having paid their subscription to be included in the group picture, such as “The Night Watch”). You didn’t just have to be part of the group in reality, you had to have the money to chip in or the artist would leave you out of the picture, or leave you for eternity with only a portion of your face showing, obscured by a pike or something.
By the time we had left the museum, the day was almost done and after scouting for half edible food we headed back to the hotel, with art works playing on our minds far into the night.
This morning we ventured on to the train system, as the RAI station was co-located with the tram terminus near our hotel. We soon found that the railways were faster and threw you around less than the tram, and it became our preferred means of getting in to Amsterdam central. We had already found that the Van Gogh museum was close to the Rijksmuseum so no time was wasted in getting there. Whereas with the Rijksmuseum our Holland Passes allowed us to skip the queue and go straight in (although I had to convince a guard-woman-bulldog-creature of the legitimacy of the scheme, it being only in place for a few days at this stage), with Van Gogh some patient waiting was required. Once inside, this was without doubt a highlight of the journey. To see the totality of Van Gogh’s life experience and his work from its early, self taught but undeniably unique first canvases, through his interaction with other artists and dabbling with their ideas of what painting is about, to the flowering of his genius and its tragic last few outpourings in his final canvases. By the time we reached “Wheatfield with crows” I was a blubbering emotional wreck. I have never been so moved by paintings in my life. For anyone who has suffered – and I guess that means anyone who has lived in this world – you must go to see the legacy of soul filled communication Vincent has left to us all. It will affect you. It touched me in ways I can’t even begin to describe.
After that, we were emotionally drained and in need of a coffee. In my usual frugal style, I thought I would take up the offer on the stubs of the Rijksmuseum tickets, for a discount at the Cobra café located in the Museum Square. Here, the offhanded manner in which our waitress declared there was no menu, you could have mushroom soup or a baguette and coffee, was followed by twenty five minutes of watching other patrons whose orders were filled while we sat with increasing hunger and decreasing patience. Coffee came eventually, but in the end I fronted the counter and told them I would pay for the coffee but wouldn’t wait any longer for service. The business was clearly about selling booze to the tourists, as I commented to Miriam, the danger with a cobra is that one bite can be so costly.
That night it was again difficult to sleep, our minds swirling with the hundreds of images, so many familiar but yet so much more powerful in their true appearance. The room unbearably stuffy and no possibility of fresh air except by travelling seven floors down and walking on the streets with the resident schizo who constantly approached passers-by soliciting money. I went for a long walk in search of milk to make some coffee in our room, and felt like I had walked half way across Holland before finding a shop still open at 9.30pm. Be advised: out of the city centre everything shuts early. Find the local supermarket and stock up on what you will need for the night, or feel like a prisoner in your poky little hotel room.
This morning we concluded we had had quite enough of Amsterdam and would have been happy to move on, but the room had been booked already so no escape possible. We found that walking was a good way to get to see more of the city and make sense of its layout, so set off on what we knew would be a fairly length stroll, towards the Hortus, the botanical gardens. Surely we made a comical sight, me with my head in a map half the time, straining to find the street signs or recognisable landmarks, Miriam constantly rescuing me from dangerous traffic or from bumping pedestrians with my backpack as I turned this way and that. At last we rounded a corner and glimpsed some greenery, and after completely circumnavigating the perimeter, found the entrance to the gardens.
This long established garden, originally the place where medicinal plants were grown and doctors taught in their usage – and we are talking about powerful plants that can kill if the dosage and use is not well understood – was somewhat of a curiosity. An ambitious greenhouse arrangement provided three different climatic conditions, one of which provided a suitable environment for a number of Australian plants, such as the Eucalyptus Ficifolia, Ericas, Grevilleas, Queensland Bottle Trees (with no bottle formation likely in the next twenty years by the look of it) as well as such Ozzie cottage favourites as Pelargonium and Geraniums! Elsewhere, we searched in vain for a Gingko Biloba, but among the conifers section, pride of place was given to a small Wollemi Pine protected by a steel fence, one of the small original release to botanists worldwide of the rare Australian tree. All in all, I must say that our front yard contains a plant collection that is broader and in better condition than this pride of Dutch horticulture, and we don’t charge 6 euros for admission to the public!
Again, this was a case of having to explain the Holland Pass system to the guy on the desk, but he didn’t seem at all fussed about it.
It was a different story in the afternoon, when we decided to get one last scrap of value from our passes by visiting, of all things, the Bible Museum. As a recovering lapsed Catholic, Miriam has an interest in the historical aspects of biblical times, and I was also keen to see some of the antiquities there. Already tired from the day’s walk so far, we became somewhat lost, being far from the areas to which we had become accustomed around Centraal Station. As we pondered our maps, a classic Dutchman, complete with broad smile, funny hat and bicycle, appeared before us and obviously wanted to help us. Even more so when we mentioned we were looking for the Bible museum, he clearly took us as pilgrims earnestly seeking a holy site. He proceeded to give a fifteen minute or more exposition in an amalgam of Dutch and something that might have been English, or perhaps not. We were to go “oder da bridge and oder da bridge and oder the bridge” (that cross the little canals) one doo drei and dat way (waving to the left). Then to make sure we understood, he repeated the performance with more hand signals and heavy stress on the number of bridges and which way NOT to turn. And perhaps he was some kind of Dutch angel after all, because we followed his directions as best we could and on the edge of exhaustion, found ourselves outside the Bible Museum after all.
This museum had some interesting Egyptian artefacts that the original owner of the house had collected, his model of the Tabernacle, and displays of models various loonies had made over the centuries of the Temple of Solomon based on measurement derived from the Bible. It was a convincing demonstration of how a list of specifications can be interpreted in absolutely different ways by people, depending on their own mind set. The best part of the house, I thought, was the oval shaped staircase that runs down through the house, and off which the various rooms of the museum are reached through doors of different colours. As the steps widen towards the base, the levels go a little crazy and you are advised to hold the railings to not lose your footing.
Retracing our steps oder der bridge and oder the bridge et cetera, we found our way back to Central Station, and emboldened by our Biblical adventures, and unable to find where to buy tickets, we rode the train freely as the street urchins of Amsterdam back to the transatlantic blandness of our Holiday Inn.
Time to get the hell out of this city ringed by water, dirty water befouled by take away containers, scraps of plastic, pigeons and Canal Cruising Captains raking in 11 euro a head for a brief tour of key localities you can walk between within an hour anyway. Training in to Centraal Station for one last time, I ventured to the ticket counter to have our Eurail Select passes endorsed for validity, the necessary step before you can use them out on the rails. Tickets were issued to get us to Brussels, where we would have to change trains to continue on via the Thalys Fast Train to Paris. There is always a time of anxiety when travelling in a land where you don’t have a scrap of the language, is this the right platform, is this the right station, can we go in this carriage….. But once on board, all was well, though the inspector glared at me as I hadn’t written today’s date in the Eurail pass, a big no-no. The second leg, the smooth sleek thalys high speed train, zipped by almost like travelling on a plane, but at ground level. The scenery zips by with a dream like quality, by the time you point something out you are way passed it and there is something else briefly coming into view. Arriving in Paris in the late afternoon, it was necessary to use the Metro to find our way to the hotel, and we found that quite smelly, dirty and intimidating, the air filled with the stench of Parisien Pissing. Steep steps, me cursing the weight of Miriams suitcase and wondering why she has brought so many bricks with her. While I pondered the map after coming up from the Metro she looked around and pointed out the hotel just behind me. The Campanile Hotel…. Tiny room, plastic cups, the electic jug permanently mounted on the wall, lots of street noise suppressed by double glazing. A room for sleeping not one you want to stay in.
Here I pass authorial control to Miriam who will provide some commentary on the delights of Paris, by special request of her sister Esther. She will also give a few comments on England and elsewhere, perhaps. Here goes:
To quote Paul Simon, there are angels in the architecture, and it’s the first time I’ve understood the statement. Not sure if he was referring to Paris but there are angels in the architecture there. The city is humbling, beautiful and so historic. On ground level the stench of urine is everywhere not limited to the gaffers who sleep around the churches and riverbanks in little cardboard shelters, and small tents provided by Doctors Without Limits. The contrast is the smell of some beautiful perfumes of women walking passed. The women are tastefully dressed but not expensively – they are not overdone, just tasteful. None of them have big bums. I conclude I have no French blood. The children are happy and black children seem to have equality here that was not evident in London and Amsterdam and especially Ireland. In France the races are irrelevant, the only crime is to have milk in your coffee.
It truly is a country where democracy rules but contradictions are everywhere. A lot of crazies on the streets but a charitable attitude is shown to them by society. Even to go into the churches you have step across foul puddles and fumes of human and animal excrement. You can’t take your eyes off the architecture; it’s wonderful with gold leaf renewed on public buildings and statues shining in the sun, lots of pigeons. Outside our hotel a heating vent gave out warm air from the Metro beneath, where a crowd of pigeons would warm themselves before nesting for the night. In the morning, we found a crowd of Algerian looking youth rolling around with the pigeons on their dung and happily feeding crumbs to the pigeons like some ritual.
The highlights for me of Paris and Amsterdam was seeing in 3d the pictorial icons of my youth, the Eiffel Tower good but disappointing. In my childhood it was a marvel of engineering but has been outdone by many other projects since. After viewing the world from the plane the Eiffel Tower seems not so high at all. More quaint, yet to contrast Notre Dame breathes history and makes one feel insignificant in history. An archaeological dig beneath Notre Dame explains and puts in context the Celts who first inhabited the site around 300-500 BC only to be driven out by the Gauls who were driven out by the Romans. The island on which the cathedral stands was the site of the original settlement, chosen for its defensive qualities. And the people are still eating the same things that were found in archaeological evidence… beef, mutton, fowl pork and oysters a favourite. Don’t know about snails. Can’t come at them. Even after wine.
The church magnificent, stained glass windows dead bishops organ music permeating the air, Shane went to try to climb the bell tower but too late to get in, I went around relighting peoples prayer candles that had gone out. Couldn’t resist it. On this very site the real St Vincent started his charity in about 1623, still going strong. Part of the archaeology, not part of the church PR machine.
The wealth of art in this city between the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay astonishing, and there were dozen of other museums we couldn’t get to see…just arted out, brain full, couldn’t take in another image, and it’s true that the Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you around the room no matter where you stand, I tested it and it is absolutely true!
I even squatted on the ground, the guards thought I was nutty, but I had to test it. The guards spent their whole time saying “PAS DE PHOTOS!” but arrogant tourists seem to think their endless flashlights have no effect on the precious artworks, both in Paris and Amsterdam. More Van Gogh in Paris, mainly from the psychotic phase, very powerful…. More sunflowers in London but didn’t get to see them there. Hoping to get back there. We saw a Cezanne and Pisarro exhibition, tit for tat, both painting the same scene side by side as painting buddies and influencing each other. Fantastic art.
Also walking along beside the Seine, passed the bridge where Resistance clandestine meetings were held during the war, leading to many shootings by the Nazis, moving memorial plaque there.
Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was a very emotional day and his works are truly inspired though flawed in part, probably by his mental state. The museum claimed his condition was epilepsy but I would dispute that. The canals though filthy were just as Bill Berkelmans, Antoinette’s father, described to me as a child. The youth of Amsterdam made me feel old. The old people my age and older hanging around with the youth just looked pathetic. Didn’t see anyone with a finger in a dyke.
But lots of the old lift up bridges you see in some of Van Gogh’s paintings across the canals.
Back to Ireland for a minute….. the Ring of Kerry is as good as if not better than the Great Ocean Road but the weather was too rainy to see it at its best. Ireland full of familes with at least four girls and sometimes one boy at the end, often no male progeny, very attentive fathers. People of Ireland on the streets very helpful but service in commerce quite shockingly bad. Indifferent, rude, do as little as they can get away with. Filth in the streets of Dublin, can’t understand. Non Irish treated as second class citizens. Hothouse atmosphere of a union meeting, everyone on the verge of being in a bad temper in the media. Sinn Fein up in arms about the sale of the Irish National Anthem words and treasured documents coinciding with the anniversary of the 1916 uprising but not offering to put up the money to buy them. Just whingeing that someone should do something.
And as for England……where I got sick, struck down by the cold of the place. And detoxing from cigarettes, I admit. It was like visiting Grandpa’s birthplace. The place where he decided to come to Australia (Lyme Regis, they just call it Lyme ) full of history but the cliff he walked on has slid into the sea in the last few years. Fossils are the big business of Charmouth not to mention our encounter with Sybil Fawlty. I think Shane described her.
Moving on to our visit to Iris at Braunston, near Northampton, she was just lovely. Shane couldn’t get over the resemblance in the way she sat at a table and the fall of her hair, the family traits of the Whites were definitely there. Iris claims I am very “White” and look very much like one of her aunts. She did discuss Jessie’s bargepole delicacy, describing her and Peter just appearing stepping over the building rubble without notice while she was busy with renovations. Some interesting family stuff but more of that on our return. The canal was where I got really sick, couldn’t get warm and kind of lost three days. Fortunately Shane bonded really well with Iris. Anyhow, Esther, this is my input for now, more later hopefully and sorry to hear you have been ill, don’t blame me I wasn’t there to give it to you. Love from Miriam. PS Please keep an eye on Sean after Liam’s departure just till we’re back.
Back to Shane now……
By day three I had grown fed up with Paris, the daily grind of searching for something to eat that didn’t contain ox tongue, or pate, or cow’s head or other bizarre things, where is the fresh salad and vegetables , what’s so hard about turning on a bit of that?
We had seriously overdosed on the best art in the world, possibly. A full day in the Louvre, with works ranging from Egyption antiquities through Greece, Rome and all the best of Europe upto the mid nineteenth century. Then the following day an even more determined visit to the Museum D’Orsay, full to the brim with every great impressionist work you have ever seen in an art book, topped off with an excellent Cezanne and Pisarro exhibition. And then when I complained that I hadn’t seen any Delacroix, Miriam found some for me within minutes. It was a feast that made the brain hurt and the heart ache. To see the peak of achievement of so many different approaches to art was really something, and at the heart of what I wanted to get out of this trip.
We discussed what to do next, with a room booked for the town of Perpignan for tomorrow (Saturday), where to go, what to do…. I plumped for a quick dash down to Avignon, for no better reason than that I like the sound of the town, and couldn’t get the childrens song out of my head. “sur le pont d’avignon, la la la la, la la la la”. Again a fast train, the TGV that cris cross France very efficiently, gorgeous scenery straight out of Cezanne’s canvasses, sweet villages with ruined medieval towers perched on green distant hills. Avignon was a Rome away from Rome for Popes seven hundred years ago who didn’t want to leave France, so they moved the papacy here for a while. Things are just so old here, the clock tower was last restored during the reign of Napoleon the Third; I think that’s about 1830 or so. And it’s still ticking away….
It is actually a walled city; the medieval stone wall is visible through the bathroom window (which also has the first bidet we have seen, don’t think I’ll be experimenting with that). The streets are in parts so narrow you can almost stretch out and touch either side, cars squeeze by and still there are homeless drinkers in the streets. You could easily make a computer game out of this town, it’s just like a Hero’s Quest kind of town. We enjoyed a pleasant meal at the Pi 3.14 Brasserie, where my French seems to be improving enough to almost hold a conversation with the proprietor. They certainly appreciate it when you make the effort. Man, don’t know how I’ll do in Barcelona, don’t have any idea of how Spanish grammar and syntax work.
OK, gotta get ready for bed now, as tomorrow has come all too soon. It takes as long to write about what you have seen as to see it, it seems….. good night to all. Even if you are just waking up for the day, as the sun rises in your part of the globe.