Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dutch Treat

We thought the train ride from Karlsruhe to Amsterdam was a treat!  The track wound along the Rhine, giving us views of old half-timbered German towns on one side, and castles perched on precipices above the river on the other.  

But that was just the beginning!  In Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague, we absorbed every Vermeer and Rembrandt to be seen, and studied dozens of other great Dutch Masters.  In the Keukenhof Garden, we saw hundreds of thousands of flowers, mainly tulips, but also daffodils and hyacinths in stunning sweeps of color.  

And in our last 24 hours in Amsterdam, we witnessed the ordinarily very sociable Dutch putting on their best party possible to celebrate their beloved Queen.

I have put off writing about our trip to the Netherlands far too long.  When we arrived back in Karlsruhe, we suddenly realized it was time to think about packing up, and at the same time I was invited to share my blog on my hometown online community newspaper.  Those were both things I had to throw myself into, or they wouldn’t get done at all!  That’s my feeble excuse.

Our trip to the Netherlands lasted five nights.  We spent the first night in Amsterdam (at the worst room in a terrible hotel), and visited the Rembrandt House and the Rijksmuseum the next day.  Ordinarily, it would take an entire day to see the Rijksmuseum but it is under major reconstruction right now, and so just the very cream of the collection is on view.  We hugely enjoyed the progression of the Dutch mastery of realism by so many 16th and 17th century artists.  When we found ourselves in front of Vermeer’s The Kitchen Maid, eternally pouring milk, time stopped.  I have no idea how long we gazed at that painting, but eventually we turned away, full.

We took the train (an hour) to Rotterdam, which is entirely modern.  The city was leveled by the Nazis, even though the Dutch had already surrendered.  We found it a fun and lively city.  We spent the day at the Boijmans Museum near our nice little hotel.  On display was “The Collection Enriched”: the Museum had borrowed from several other Dutch museums (such as the Rijksmuseum) and the exhibit swept us from Medieval Europe up to 20th Century, showing us how the Italian and the Dutch painters of the Golden Age urged one another on to greater achievements.  We were so sated by all this beauty that we never strolled across town to see the famous Cubic Houses.  We just didn’t need to!  Our most memorable meal was in Rotterdam where we had different species of smoked fish with a creamy horseradish accent; our favorites were butterfish and, to our surprise, eel. 

We took the train to The Hague the next day.  The Mauritshuis Museum is home to more Vermeers but proved to have been closed for renovations just days before.  The best of its collection, except the luminous Girl with Pearl Earring (which we were told had gone on tour), had moved over to the Municipal Museum (don’t ask for the Dutch name, it’s mostly vowels).  This temporary home was an undistinguished building, strongly reminiscent of high schools built in the late 1950s.  

Once more, just the cream of the collection was on display, but it was wonderful.  Breughel, Hans Holbein, Jan Steen, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, and other great Dutch painters—and then, there she was, gazing at us! We gazed back at the Girl with the Pearl Earring, drinking in every brush stroke, each suggestion placed exactly so, and then drew back, only to be drawn in once again by the open gaze of the Girl.  Sated, silenced, we made our way back to the Central Train Station and headed back to Amsterdam.

Nothing was silent when we got to our hotel at the edge of central Amsterdam.  Queen’s Day apparently begins  at sundown the evening before, and ends by nightfall 24 hours later.  And what a party!  Rock bands, beer and gin dispensers, and outlandish costumes featuring bright orange, in honor of the Royal House of Orange. 

Scary rides and a ferris wheel, as well as food and beer sellers, were set up in Dam Square.  At night, it made a beautiful sight.

The Dutch are the most accepting culture I have encountered anywhere.  They’ve been tolerant of differences in language and religion for centuries, perhaps because of the persecution they suffered under the Spanish when accidents of royal marriage in the 15th and 16th centuries brought Catholic rule to this Protestant land.  The Dutch played host for ten years to English Pilgrims including two of my Pilgrim ancestors, Isaac Allerton and Thomas Blossom, who eventually left for Plymouth partially because they rejected the influence of the Dutch on their children.  Today the Dutch include refugees from many nations, have legalized (and thereby cleaned up and collected taxes from) prostitution and marijuana, and provide equal rights for the LGBT community.  We sat in at an outdoor cafe that evening, enjoying a Heineken, and the endless variety of people who are really glad to be Dutch.

We missed a lot of Queen’s Day the next morning, arising early for our tour of the Keukenhof Garden.  It’s only open for two months each year, but still attracts more tourists than any other single Dutch site.  Rightly so!  It’s breathtaking.  My Dear Husband claims that we only went because it’s nearly our anniversary (32nd!) and my birthday (just 39 again), but really, he loves it about as much as I do.

Amsterdam was still partying strong when we returned in mid-afternoon.  Groups danced to bands in the street, boats blasting music and loaded with party-people cruised the canals, and there was trash, everywhere.  

By sundown (which is pretty late on April 30 since Amsterdam is so far north) those who’d partied hardest had collapsed someplace.  When we went out at dawn for our train, the streets had been miraculously swept clean, with just some half-full beers stashed in corners remaining to tell the tale.