Amsterdam, then on to southern Netherlands

September 19.  After Harlingen, I headed to Amsterdam.  It was dark, and I was shocked at the sheer number of people on the streets.  On bikes, on foot, on skateboards.  It was almost impossible to drive.  I crept through the jammed streets, praying that I wouldn’t hit anyone and would find a parking place.  As luck would have it, my prayers were answered.  I walked toward what looked like the historical center, and spent the next few hours wandering crowded lanes and admiring the buildings constructed over many centuries.  I was to find out the next day that Amsterdam had not risen to its prominence without arm twisting.  Indeed, they would charge an extra tariff on any ship that stopped in other harbors before embarking in Amsterdam.  In this way, Amsterdam became the premier port in Holland.  Reminds me of a certain president reigning at the moment.

I walked down darkening streets, preferring the less-traveled ones to the very old district where tourists tend to abide.  At night, with the lights twinkling on the canals, Amsterdam has a mystique which hides the scars and pock marks that all cities exhibit by day.  I enjoyed the quiet ambience, and laughed at a group of 20 somethings (men) looking for the red light district.  I ended up coming across it the next day, an interesting mix of prostitutes sitting in windows and head and paraphenalia shops.  It was getting late and I was tired, so I ducked into an elegant mall from the late 1800s before calling it a night.  The city is a conglameration of one-way streets, and getting out is much harder than getting in.  I prayed that I wouldn’t have an accident as I was paying attention to the GPS, and somehow made it to safety.  I decided to camp 20 minutes north in Monnickendam, where I found a nature park.  I found a remote spot in the parking lot and slept in my car.

Sept 20. I awoke to a sea of dog-walkers going to and fro.  I was glad I’d parked away from the main parking lot, as no one saw me asleep in the car.  It was a nice morning, a bit chilly and damp, and I stretched my legs for a nice 15 minute walk before heading into Monnickendam.  It turns out that this sleepy fishing village once gave Amsterdam a run for its money as a competing port.  But as I mentioned, Amsterdam found a solution by levying a heavy tariff on any ship that stopped in Monnickendam or any other port before unloading in Amsterdam.  I was planning to spend 20 minutes walking along the main street before heading back to Amsterdam, but got caught so to speak by a kind artist who volunteers at the local museum.  He convinced me that the exhibit gave an excellent overview of the local history, and I agree.  I’m glad I partook. I ended up spending 2 hours at the museum, and got ideas about other places in the vicinity to visit, namely Marken and Broek in Waterland.

The town had been a major ship building port during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, and later a port of call.  The town was founded by monks, and its name means “monk’s dam”.  Remnants of its former glory days as a port include a seventeenth-century weighing house, once used by merchants and port officials, and a bell tower that dates from 1591. The carillon is unique and to this day is played by hand.  It was not replaced as in other towns because of economic hardship. The fourteenth century church of St. Nicholas, renovated in 1602, is particularly notable. The synagogue was built in 1894. Jewish families named Monnikendam trace their roots to this town.

After the museum, I walked the length of the historic town, found my way through the back streets, had a piece of famous Dutch apple cake while sitting in a beautiful wild garden (complete with apple trees) situated along a canal. Then I headed to Marken, which had been an island until a dike was built connecting it to the mainland in 1941.  Its characteristic wooden houses are a tourist attraction. For some time during the later 19th and early 20th centuries, Marken and its inhabitants were the focus of considerable attention by folklorists, ethnographers and physical anthropologists, who regarded the small fishing town as a relic of the traditional native culture that was destined to disappear as the modernization of the Netherlands gained pace. Among them was Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who examined a skull from the island of humans which he called Batavus genuinus; and was the Belgian painter Xavier Mellery who stayed in Marken and did illustrations at the request of Charles De Coster.  I went to the Marken Museum about the history of the island.  It had a display of traditional costumes and some examples of typical households.

From there I drove to Broek in Waterland. The picturesque nature of the village was known even outside the Netherlands from the 17th century onwards, and it was praised for its cleanliness. Consequently, the town was a popular destination for visitors from nearby Amsterdam, but it received foreign guests as well. The French emperor Napoleon famously came to visit it in 1811 – it is claimed that he burnt his fingers while lifting the lid of a pan in the mayor’s kitchen. In 1781, Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, also visited the village but was refused to enter a farm, allegedly because the lady of the house had no time for him.

From the 16th century onward, the village became involved in herring fishery and maritime trade. For that reason the church is dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers. In the 17th century, the fishery was replaced by animal husbandry and dairy farming, and many houses were extended with an adjoining stable on the back. The dairy products were transported to Amsterdam by boat. The harbor remained vital for the village, and is still characteristic of Broek in Waterland. In the 17th and 18th century, it was a very wealthy place where many impressive houses were built for local families, but also for rich merchants from Amsterdam.

The church of St Nicholas had a lot of information and an interesting exhibit, including an original stained glass depicting the history of the church.  I admired the lovely wooden homes, and enjoyed the pretty gardens.  I decided to head back to Amsterdam, where spent the rest of the afternoon till evening walking around.  I would have stayed longer, and indeed it deserves days or weeks, but with no place to stay in the city and a tight itinerary, I pressed on to Haarlem.  I parked near train station and walked toward main cathedral, hoping to find some food.  It was around 8pm and most restaurants were closing, so I continued to the main square and got a sense of the town.  I decided to come back the next day, and headed off to Zandvoort, where I found a place to set up my tent near a bike trail on the edge of a nature preserve.

Sept 21. I awoke to the sounds of cyclists and an occasional “Guten morgen”.  I packed and headed to a pretty forested area that I’d seen the night before.  I parked and entered the gatekeeper’s entrance of Landgoed Elswout into a fairy land of wild and manicured gardens, an old wooden stable filled with majestic draft horses, a hedgerow maze, and an orangerie (according to the sign, it was the most important in Holland).  In the middle of the estate is a manor house which replaced the original house (of which nothing remains).  The first house was barely finished in 1635 before being sold to Gabriel Marcelis, an Amsterdam arms merchant for the King of Denmark. He used it as a summer home while shipping the sand by boat to Amsterdam for construction material. He was able to have a French garden built in place of the dunes, which he financed with the profits from the sales. Removing sand was halted in 1948 when the level of the garden was considered dangerously low by the water board.

In the 1700s, the garden was redesigned in the English style and had various owners until being bought by the Borski family in the 19th century. The main building was designed in Italian high renaissance style in 1883 by Muysken for Willem Borski III, but construction stopped in 1884 when Borski died childless.  The house was never completed, remaining a folly until World War II when the German occupying forces put a provisional roof on the building for use as a garrison. The park surrounding the main house contains various elements that are also protected in the heritage register, including the gatekeeper’s entrance, the orangerie, and the stables. They are finally restoring the building according to the original plans.

Needless to say I loved walking around the grounds.  There seemed to have been a kind of outdoor art exhibit, with colorful umbrellas in the river, dream catchers in a grove of trees, and candles in tastefully cut out bags lining the walkway.  I would love to live near a place like this!  I left, feeling like I’d stumbled upon a hidden treasure, and headed to the chic town of Overeen, which looked like an up-scale Woodside.  Then I headed back to Haarlem, where I was excited to see the Museum Haarlem and the Frans Hals Museum.  I waited until 10am, then entered the history museum, which was formed in 1990 by a collaboration of various Haarlem societies, most notably the Haarlem Historical Society, that formed in 1975. The collaboration, called “Historisch Museum Zuid-kennemerland”, represents various historical groups from the region, including Haarlem, Schoten, Spaarndam, Heemstede, Bloemendaal, Santpoort and Zandvoort. The museum hosts a collection of historical paintings and artifacts, including items from the collection of the Coen Cuser Stichting, a former orphanage that has been converted to apartments.  There are artifacts regarding Haarlem’s history from 1245 to modern times, including the siege of Haarlem in 1568-1572, the first railway, and the first flight of the Fokker Spin.

The Frans Hals Museum was a treat.  The museum has an impressive collection of works by 17th century Haarlem artists, and a sizeable collection of paintings by Hals.  In that era, Haarlem was a powerful and prosperous city, not to mention, a center of arts and culture. Considered the Dutch Golden Age, 17th century artists concentrated on everyday subjects: landscapes, genre scenes, portraits, still lifes, and city views.

Hals (1582 – 1666), the most famous painter of the Golden Age to work in Haarlem, specialized in painting people. Many wealthy citizens of Haarlem, and even one or two from Amsterdam, commissioned him to paint their portraits. In the market place, he would paint colorful locals: the village idiot, drunkards, laughing fishermen, and children playing the flute or smoking. He was a master in conveying vitality and movement. He painted people in action and was audacious enough to show them smiling in formal portraits. He is renowned for his magnificent use of color and virtuoso brushwork. As Vincent van Gogh, one of Hals’s greatest admirers, famously wrote, ‘Frans Hals must have had twenty-seven blacks’.

I spent the whole day in the two museums.  At 5pm I left Frans Hals and headed to Utrecht, which had been recommended to me by Roel.  I found a lovely walled city bisected by two canals.  It was raining and I picked my way among the wet streets, explored the perimeter of the old city walls, and resolved to return to the museum the next day.

Sept 22 – I returned to Utrecht, where I proceeded directly to the Centraal Museum, which was founded in 1838. It has a wide-ranging collection, mainly of works produced locally. The collection of the paintings by the Northern Mannerist Joachim Wtewael is the largest in the world. Other highlights are many significant paintings by the Utrecht Caravaggisti, such as Gerard van Honthorst and Hendrick ter Brugghen, who traveled to Rome in the early 17th century to study the works of the Italian master Caravaggio. Initially, the museum collection was limited to art related to the city of Utrecht. In 1921 it  merged with various private collections into a centralized museum in the former medieval monastery at the Nicolaaskerkhof. As a result, the collection comprises pre-1850 art, modern art, applied art, fashion and the city history of Utrecht. Among the highlights is a one-thousand-year-old wooden boat. It was found in 1930 during excavations and was placed in the cellar of the 16th-century part of the museum building.

I wandered to the gothic cathedral of Saint Martin of Tours, Holland’s only pre-Reformation cathedral, which has been a Protestant church since 1580. It was once the Netherlands’ largest church, but the nave collapsed in a storm in 1674 and has never been rebuilt, leaving the tower isolated from the east end. The building is the one church in the Netherlands that closely resembles the style of classic Gothic architecture as developed in France. All other Gothic churches in the Netherlands belong to one of the many regional variants. Unlike most of its French predecessors, the building has only one tower, the 112-metre-high (367 ft) Dom Tower, which is the hallmark of the city. From there I wandered along the main shopping street, which follows the canal, enjoying the bustle of students.

I decided to head to the Hague, where I arrived at sunset and wandered through its historic center, taking in the Binnenhof and Mauritshuis, as well as the main square and shopping streets.  I decided to camp near Delftse near a tree-lined dike which doubled as a bike path.   Just as I was settling down to sleep in the back seat (my ExPed air mattress has been a lifesaver), I heard a gunshot.  I’d noticed some dodgy looking character near the lake and for that reason decided to park away from the fray.  I was glad I did.

Sept 23. I had heard Delft was nice.  Sure enough, I fell in love with it.  The canals, the ambience, the old town.  They even have a centuries-old functional windmill, and a proper town gate (actually a number of them).  It was Saturday, and a big market day. Several of the squares were full of merchants selling their wares: one was a produce and cheese market, the other an antique market.  The sky was blue, and the canals wordlessly reflected the lovely architecture and fall colors.  I walked around the old town, going to all the churches and reading the historical signs.  I was impressed by the former wealth reflected in the stately architecture of the public buildings, and made a note to return one day. I wanted to visit the Royal Delft Porcelain museum, the only remaining Delft manufacturer of Delft Blue which began in the 17th century. Delft Blue is still hand painted according to centuries-old tradition.

I decided not to do the tour, but instead admire the art nouveau ceramics produced by the factory that adorn their garden. Unknowingly, I ended up inside the museum and took in a part of the collection, which was extensive. They have been making plates for the Dutch royal family since their inception, as well as a hand-painted Christmas plate starting in the early 1900s. I have made pottery using a potter’s wheel, and have an appreciation for the complexity of ceramic production. Needless to say, the museum has an impressive collection of beautiful porcelain, and the factory is interesting to walk through. From there I headed to Rotterdam. As it was Saturday, the city was abuzz with activity. Someone recommended a local Moroccan festival, a 20 minute walk toward the waterfront. The festival had a very warm glow about it, and I basked in the kindness and warmth of the attendees. I got the chance to taste a special flat bread, and watch two young men do some startling balancing tricks on a see-saw. After a while I headed to the waterfront, admiring the marina and port and watching the large modern ships motoring up and down the estuary. The skyline was filled with ultramodern sky scrapers. I walked toward a park, the former grounds of a villa. The villa was being used for a wedding celebration, and I walked along the streams and ponds that laced the grounds, then headed back toward the historic center. The town hall is a stately historic building, while much of the surrounding buildings are modern.

I arrived back at the car and decided to head back to Delftse, as I planned to return to the Hague on Sunday to see the exceptional exhibit of Dutch masters at the Maurithuis museum. I hadn’t planned on it, but my mom reminded me that it is one of the best art exhibits in Holland, aside from a few in Amsterdam, which I hadn’t had time to see.

Sept 24.  I was awoken with a start at 5am. A park ranger was tapping on the window, and told me that I had to move. I almost fell back asleep, then unwillingly got up in the freezing wet cold (a blanket of thick moisture obscured the moor), and moved the car. I found a place outside the park that seemed to be a parking place for the local farm, and finished my sleep in peace. I woke at 10:30 and headed back to the Hague, where I went directly to the Maurithuis museum. It was a great exhibit, and I also took in a temporary exhibit of the Flemish masters. I read every placard and listened to the entire audio guide. My mom laughingly said that I am one of the most informed people regarding art appreciation. Perhaps, though it doesn’t always stick.

I ended up spending much of the day and left about 3:30pm. I wanted to explore Antwerp, just across the Dutch border into Belgium. It seemed that Belgium was not as clean as Holland, but that was only based on limited information. Much of the roads into the center were closed due to construction, so I parked near the harbor and headed toward the old town on foot. Passing one of the many marinas, I was excited to see a large fleet of tall ships, complete with rigging and cloth sails, from all over Europe. There had been a tall ships festival that weekend, and I had sadly just missed it. I was reminded of my trip with my Aunt Eugenia, Uncle Art, and cousins Kevin and Sean to New York City in July, 1976 for the tall ships race. I remember my excitement at seeing the proud galleons from all over the world sailing into the harbor. As a sailor, I appreciated their sheer size and complexity. What I wouldn’t give to learn how to sail such a ship.

I walked further along the river to discover Het Steen, a medieval fortress in the old city center of Antwerp, Belgium, one of Europe’s biggest ports. Built after the Viking incursions in the early Middle Ages as the first stone fortress of Antwerp, Het Steen is Antwerp’s oldest building and used to be its oldest urban center. The fortress made it possible to control the access to the Scheldt, the river on whose bank it stands. It was used as a prison between 1303 and 1827. The largest part of the fortress, including dozens of historic houses and the oldest church of the city, was demolished in the 19th century when the quays were straightened to stop the silting up of the Scheldt. The remaining building, heavily changed, contains a shipping museum, with some old canal barges displayed on the quay outside.

At the entrance to Het Steen is a bas-relief of Semini, above the archway, from around the 2nd century. Semini is the Scandinavian God of youth and fertility (with symbolic phallus). A historical plaque near Het Steen explains that women of the town appealed to Semini when they desired children; the god was reviled by later religious clergy – the Jesuits defaced the statue, removing its sizeable penis. Inhabitants of Antwerp continued to be very fond of the god despite the church, and referred to themselves as “children of Semini”.  At the entrance bridge to the castle is a statue of a giant and two humans. It depicts the giant Lange Wapper who used to terrorise the inhabitants of the city in medieval times.

The fortress is on the edge of the old city.  From there I passed the butcher’s guild hall, toward the city hall and main square.  Although I’d arrived at night, it was well lit, and there was a BMX competition underway, with contestants jumping onto huge boulders and trees with their small seatless bikes. I walked through the main streets, admiring the old buildings, and did several loops, exploring the town thoroughly. I discovered an old botanical garden, the only green patch in an otherwise urban environment, formerly the monastery medicinal garden. When I reached a behemoth statue marking the nexus of four large avenues, I decided to head back to my car. In search of a good camping spot, I drove back over the Dutch border where I went to sleep to the sound of falling chestnuts, which rained down all night long. Strange cries like peacock’s screams filled the night, and I wondered whether I hadn’t been transported to Maurice Sendak’s fantastical illustrations from “Where the Wild Things Are.”




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