45 Hours in Amsterdam
I'd never been to Amsterdam before, but I knew there were a lot of bicycles there. Still, upon arriving in the Dutch capital, I was shocked when I walked out of the Centraal Station and caught my first glimpse at a bike "parking lot." I would later learn that there are approximately 900,000 bicycles in Amsterdam--four times as many bikes as cars and more bikes than people! A Google search reveals that this parking lot outside of the train station has over 8,000 bikes in it and, no surprise, is one of the most photographed places in the world.
I was visiting Amsterdam with my husband, Ken, who had joined me for the final two weeks of my Paris sabbatical. The morning after he arrived, we hopped a train out of the City of Lights, hurtling northward to the Netherlands and arriving at Centraal Station before lunchtime. And with less than 48 hours to spend in the city, we wasted no time in getting checked into our B&B and heading out to explore.
First stop: the Modern Contemporary Museum, known as MOCO, a "boutique" museum that has a large collection of Banksy in addition to works by Warhol and Lichtenstein. During our visit, there was also a fabulous special exhibition of Icy and Sot, two brothers known as the "Iranian Banksy." Housed in a converted townhouse in the Museumplein area, this museum offered quite a unique experience in its intimacy, not to mention the impressive collection. It seems the museum is not well-known (our B&B host had never heard of it), but I would highly recommend it, especially to those who appreciate street art.
Emerging from the overly warm museum into the cold, gray late afternoon, we were delighted to come across a pancake house where we shared a plate of a local delicacy called poffertjes, scrumptious mini pancakes brushed with butter and dusted with powder sugar. The poffertjes were a first for us, as was the Indonesian food we had for dinner several hours later. There are several fine Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam; as our B&B host put it, "We have a special relationship with Indonesia." We naturally couldn't let the opportunity slip by and we did enjoy the food, though the "mild" dishes we ordered were quite spicy!
That first afternoon and evening in Amsterdam were wonderful, but I had been looking forward to our visit to the Van Gogh Museum for weeks, and I woke up feeling quite excited about it. We had a few things we wanted to do that day (i.e., rent a boat and/or a bike), but the Van Gogh was first on the list as we had tickets with a 10 am entry time. As it turned out, we would never get around to the other activities...because we spent a luxurious seven hours at the Van Gogh.
"...find things beautiful as much as you can, most people find too little beautiful."
-- Vincent Van Gogh
I have never spent an entire day in a museum before, but then I've never had such an immersive experience in one before either. We rented the multimedia guide, which we expected to be the typical audio narration, but it was more than that; the screen provided more visual information about the paintings and there were always options to go deeper into biographical details of Van Gogh's life and really connect the dots in terms of what he was trying to achieve. I came away with a strong understanding of how radical and revolutionary his techniques were in their time, who his influences were and who, in turn, was influenced by him. At the same time, the museum was full of touch screens to learn more about the paintings, as well as headphone stations, where you could listen to narrations of some of the extraordinary correspondence between Vincent and his brother, Theo, as well as friends and other family members. Not surprisingly, Van Gogh's letters are as almost as interesting to me as his art--and he wrote a ton of letters.
The comprehensive nature of the museum provided such a full picture of not only Van Gogh's work and legacy, but also of his life and his relationships. Among those relationships was the one Van Gogh had with Gaughin--that is, until the two had a huge blow-up that led to the infamous ear incident--and, happy surprise, there happened to be a special Gaughin exhibit on during our visit as well.
Following a late, tasty lunch in the museum's airy cafeteria, Le Tambourin, we had moved on to the ground floor that housed the Gaughin exhibit when we heard an announcement about a free oil painting workshop. I am no artist--stick figures are the pinnacle of my achievement--but my husband is quite talented in this regard, so off we went. And I am so glad we did as it was certainly a highlight of an already incredible visit. There was an "instructor" who provided a bit of guidance; he showed us a Van Gogh painting and offered some tips on technique and a soft mandate to paint a storm. We were given smocks and a palette of five oil colors and we installed ourselves in front of a couple of easels. I then proceeded to execute what I refer to as my "Kindergarten Monet" while Ken channeled Vincent and rendered a magnificent scene of a small red house in a field of blowing wheat under a swirly blue sky. We spent an hour or so in this workshop and I'm confident in asserting that it will be the most memorable hour we've ever spent in any museum.
We'd entered at 10 am and we didn't depart until 5 pm, but the day had gone by in little more than a flash and we felt somewhat sad to leave. For me, it wasn't only about the great job the masterminds behind the museum have done in making it such a hands-on and immersive environment; rather, it was about Vincent Van Gogh the Man. Many great artists are fascinating characters, and it's true that I can't resist a tortured artist type, but Van Gogh's story has always been particularly compelling to me (my interest in him was heightened by last year's live animation film, Loving Vincent). My trip to this museum brought all of that to another level, so much so that I'm inspired to read more, see more, learn more about the artist. What better compliment can be paid to a museum?
When at last we forced ourselves through the doors and back outside where the bicycles whizzed by us in bright aluminum blurs, the gray, chilly day was rapidly morphing into dark, cold evening. Perfect weather for comfort food at an Indian-Nepalese restaurant! And the chicken tikka masala I ate that night was the cherry on top of our awesome day--the curry sauce was cooked with fresh mint in it and the only word to describe it is WOW. I had mint tea as well, and I don't think it can get any more authentic than a bouquet of mint drowning
in a mug of hot water.
Ken and I spent a total of only 45 hours in Amsterdam, yet we squeezed so much out of every minute and learned so much. Amsterdam left us feeling enriched...and energized for the next stop in our travels: Bruges!