A ‘crap’-tastic visit to Amsterdam

I wanted to call the stuff that looked like pigeon crap hanging from the undersides of many of Amsterdam’s bridges “shit-lactites.” But Declan had an even better word: “stalact-shites.” Declan is quickly becoming a better wordsmith than his dad.

In retrospect, they’re probably salt deposits or the byproduct of the rusting process, but I’m not going to stand in the way of a good lede.

A boat tour proved a fitting end to a fine first day in Amsterdam—so much better than the getting to Amsterdam from Berlin part. The train from Berlin almost made the border, when the conductor announced the train could go no further and was returning to Berlin. We were dumped out in the middle of nowhere, at a train station that was closed for renovation. It was cold and would be at least an hour until busses could be arranged to take us beyond the track difficulty, which apparently was someone getting hit on the tracks.

As we all stood in the cold and watched the train depart, Declan wondered aloud why we couldn’t just have waited on the warm train with the working toilets. Good point, son. But that delay meant we didn’t get into Amsterdam until after 5 p.m., so there was little left to do but find dinner and scrounge supplies for tomorrow’s breakfast. We only had 48 hours in Amsterdam, and we wanted to make the most of them.

A fitting building for masterworks

Our first stop was the Rijks Museum, the Dutch national museum of art and history. The museum is best-known for its Rembrandt paintings, in particular The Night Watch. The Dutch painting style is much more to my taste than earlier periods during which it was all large ladies, fuzzy details and painting after painting of Mary and baby Jesus. Rembrandt’s use of light to highlight certain details shows up best when you can see it in person. The museum also has an impressive collection of Vermeer, three Van Goghs and a ton of other items that easily could fill a day’s time.

Equally impressive, especially when contrasted with our experience later in the Van Gogh Museum, was the scale of the building, constructed in the late 19th century and extensively renovated a few years ago. Despite the high season crowds (it’s tulip season in the Netherlands), everyone was spread out and you could stand in front of even the most popular masterpieces after a moment or so.

And then a building that didn’t work

After lunch, we visited the Van Gogh Museum, where our experience was quite different. The place was packed—and felt it. But I’m fond of Impressionist art, and this is the world’s largest collection of his work—200 paintings, 400 drawings and 700 letters, supplemented with works by such contemporaries as Gaugin and Rodin.

Like Rembrandt, Van Gogh needs to be seen in person to fully grasp the bold use of color, the layers of paint and the brushstrokes. His work while in an asylum was particularly good, I thought. What I didn’t think was particularly good were the maddening crowds, armed either with cell phones or multimedia guides walking around oblivious to everyone else. You don’t need to stand in front of a painting while you’re looking at a screen. We gave a quick pass to anything that wasn’t painted by Van Gogh so we could maximize our time and escape the crowds. Still worth it, but a more leisurely viewing experience would have improved the visit greatly.

We ended our day with that 90-minute boat tour, exploring several canals and learning more about the city’s rich history. I was happy to hear that printers once had their own canal where they plied their trade. Once it was pointed out, you couldn’t help but notice that the buildings are canted ever so slightly forward. The buildings are vertical, making it difficult to bring in large furniture, so most houses had hooks or pulleys installed over the eave. The forward cant was to stop furniture hitting the house on the way up.

Until more recently than you’d imagine, houses in Amsterdam didn’t have house numbers. Instead, they were identified by the gable tiles that often alluded to the origin or profession of the owner. And if what we saw under most bridges was consistent, you could also identify the canal you’re in from the stalact-shites.

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