Holland: The Hague and Amsterdam

The last leg of my journey: Holland. This is a refrain I keep repeating, but I wish I’d had more time! Two days each in two cities was not nearly enough. I didn’t get to explore the Dutch countryside, or even see all the museums I wanted to see in the cities. I guess I’ll just have to return someday…

The Hague

The Hague seems to be a hugely popular destination for Dutch tourists and a relatively ignored one for international tourists. On one hand, this is a shame, because it means tours of most attractions are only offered in Dutch (with significantly shorter written or audio-guided English summaries). But it means the locals don’t roll their eyes at foreign tourists, so that’s nice! There are a lot of museums in The Hague, and I drove myself a bit crazy trying to get to all the major ones. I failed—in fact, I missed the city’s two biggest sights: the Mauritshuis Museum (home of “Girl with a pearl earring”) and the Peace Palace. But I saw a lot anyway. I arrived in the afternoon on Saturday in time to take a tour of the Hall of Knights, the ceremonial hall where the King delivers his speech from the throne on budget day. The room is impressive without being flashy. Its ceiling is made as an inverted boat, and the walls are lined with handwoven tapestries celebrating The Netherlands’ provinces. Little imps sit on the wooden rafters—a relic of the days when it was a courtroom, and the imps carried defendents’ and witnesses’ words to St. Peter, who would recall their truthfulness (or lack thereof) when he judged them for admission to heaven. In the center of the room is the still-used gold-and-velvet throne.

I started Sunday with Escher in the Palace, a museum I found doubly attractive because it’s the only palace open to the public (and it contains some of the original furnishings and details about the royal family’s life) and because it hosts a permanent exhibition of artwork by Escher. I’ve seen Escher exhibits before, but this one had more of an emphasis on his earlier landscapes and nature drawings, which I found interesting. (You could already see how he was playing with repetition and perspective, but it was subtle.) There was also a kitschy top floor with optical illusions and photo opportunities inspired by Escher prints.

Then I went to the Museum Meermanno, because how could I resist a museum devoted to books? The museum is actually the entire collection of a rich nineteenth-century gentleman, and it includes coins, antique busts, urns, and medieval paintings, as well as lots of books. The coolest exhibit was the miniature library—an entire library of miniture books, with its own shelves (including a hidden shelf for erotica), central statue, and curator/librarian/bookbinder. The museum also held a workshop on illuminating manuscripts using gold-leaf, which was fun but frustrating. (My paper had some of the invisible gold glue stuck to it, which prevented it from taking ink in certain locations. I thought I was going crazy because my quill would suddenly stop writing!)

My last museum was the Panorama Mesdag, a huge, 360-degree immersive painting from 1881. It shows the beach at Scheveningen. Naturally, I then went to Scheveningen for a sunset-lit dinner of Dutch pancakes. It’s very beautiful and peaceful (apparently it gets crowded and touristy, but only a bit closer to summer). But it’s not quite as picturesque as it was in 1881.

Early the next morning, it was time to bid farewell to my three hosts (two are pictured below) and take a train through the lovely, flower-filled Dutch countryside to Amsterdam, the final stop on my journey.

King’s Day

I got to Amsterdam on the morning of April 27, just in time for King’s Day. This is the king’s birthday, and it’s a giant city-wide party. Everyone wears orange, the color of the royal family. Don’t have orange street clothes? Wear a bathrobe, a tiger costume, a sports jersey, a prison jumpsuit… whatever you can scrounge up. The entire city turns into a flea market, with people selling all sorts of old trash. Street musicians take over all the corners, between more formally organized concerts on stages. A traffic gridlock of drunk people dancing on boats forms on the canal. (Remember, everyone has been drinking—and possibly doing marijuana and magic mushrooms—since the previous evening!) Children are encouraged to be entrepreneurial, and they approach you selling old toys, raffle tickets, home-baked goods, lemonade, and the chance to use their home toilet. (It’s Europe, so there are no public toilets.) Some get more creative, inventing carnival games. (There are plenty of variations on bowling or bobbing for oranges. But my favorite was a challenge to cut a carrot dropped through a pipe in half using a pair of scissors.) Restaurants turn into street food vendors for the day; I picked up some delicious and cheap falafel, as well as the absurd invention of a waffle topped with stroopwafel bits and stroop.

(Note: tourists are requested to leave their cameras behind on King’s Day, so I mostly avoided taking photos. Photos not of me are courtesy of the Amsterdam Tourist Info website.)

Fortunately, I happen to own a bright-orange trenchcoat, so I was able to blend right in, clothing-wise. Not so much, behavior-wise—I stayed sober and just observed. I also didn’t party all night, preferring to turn in early and get some sleep before my day of sightseeing.

Amsterdam

On Tuesday, I waited in far too many lines and spent far too much money. I began with the Van Gogh Museum, which is a well-arranged walk through the painter’s life and features a gorgeous collection of his paintings. Worth the hour-and-a-half queue in the cold and the lack of a student discount? Probably, but I don’t even want to imagine what the waiting times look like in August. Then I went to the floating flower markets, where bulbs for all sorts of flowers were being sold alongside kitschy souvenirs. Equally importantly, lots of cheese shops across the way offered free samples of Dutch cheeses. Pro tip: asparagus Gouda is delicious; coconut Gouda, not so much. I also tried the local specialty of raw herring, which was wonderfully salty and fishy. Then I walked to the Anne Frank House, bravely resisting the temptation to make an expensive purchase in an antiquarian bookshop along the way. The line there was also long (and, again, there was no student ticket price), but the experience was very moving. The house is unfurnished—Otto Frank wanted it kept that way—but photos and models show the rooms as they were when the Frank family hid there. Quotes from Anne Frank’s diary help to tell her story, and the museum does a good job of keeping it intensely personal while also offering reminders of the larger-scale of the tragedy of the Holocaust. I especially appreciated the videos with stories told by Otto Frank, some of the people who had helped the family in hiding, and Anne’s childhood best friend. To lighten up after that, I took a canal cruise at sunset, getting a last view of Amsterdam’s beautiful row houses, churches, and waterways.

One other fun thing about Amsterdam: I stayed on a sailing ship! It was a little far from the center and of course the cabin was small, but it was very elegant and fun. It would have been nice if the other guests on the ship had spoken English (I could catch about one word in five of their rapid French), but you can’t have everything! I didn’t see much of them anyway, and I suspect they were more adventurous travellers than I was. Amsterdam is beautiful, but it’s not really a city tailored for me. Most of the young people coming here are excited about coffee houses that serve hashish and legally available “magic mushrooms”—not to mention the city’s history (and present) of legal prostitution. It was easy to avoid those things (well, except for the clouds of marijuana-scented smoke everywhere), but I definitely had the sense that I was missing some of Amsterdam’s distinctive character.

Not that I would have had time for anything else, even if I’d been interested! I woke up at three-thirty this morning to catch my train back to Munich, where I am currently sitting and writing this post. (Blame any typos on my lack of sleep.) I couldn’t delay my return: I have a paper to finish, kids to babysit, and a choir concert to sing! Not to mention another vacation coming up (to Denmark, Sweden, and Estonia) in just over a week. As always, I’ll keep you posted.

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