Thursday, May 24, 2007

Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM
(May 18 - May 26)


(Atop the "I amsterdam" sign in Museumplein. Rijksmuseum in the background)

What a beautiful city! What a beautiful country.

I fell in love with 17th century Dutch paintings, specifically the works of Vermeer, Peter de Hooch, Rembrandt, Meindert Hobbema, Albert Cuyp, Peter Saenredam, Berckhyde, de Witte and Frans Hals almost 7 years ago. I studied their paintings in fascination, hoping to get an insight into their psyche. Their genius was evident in every brush stroke.

My chance to visit the land that inspired them came early in April when I decided to accompany Sam to Amsterdam. She was to spend 3 days in a conference. Once she agreed to have me tag along, we decided to leave the US on Friday, May 18.

We left on two different airlines yet managed to get into Amsterdam the next day (Saturday, May 19) within 5 minutes of each other (around 2 p.m.).

Saturday, May 19
We took a shuttle from Schiphol airport to the NH City Centre hotel (intersection of Stadhouderskade and Overtoom, near Leidseplein) and were in the room by 3 p.m.

As I am wont to do on my trips, I got into my running shoes and headed out the door to Vondelpark for a leisurely 4.5 mile run. The entrance to the park is literally steps away from the hotel. Vondelpark is the biggest park in Amsterdam and the most famous one in the country.

Sam and I paid at the front desk for a trip the next day (last day that Keukenhof was open). We then went to an Indian restaurant around the corner that I had noticed on the drive in from the airport. Dosa is, supposedly, the only Indian restaurant in Holland that serves dosas. The food was better than Sam and I expected. We then stepped into a local supermarket, Albert Heijn, where we bought water, fruits and crackers for the week. After putting all of this stuff in the hotel room, we headed off to explore the canals and streets leading to Dam Square.

Jet lagged we were fast asleep by 9:30 p.m.

Sunday, May 20
The Magnificence that was Keukenhof
I was stunned. It hit me like a slap in the face and a hard one at that too. For a creature with a sensitive nose, the William Alexander pavilion with its unbelievably beautiful and headily fragrant lilies, was olfactory heaven. I sat near the entrance with my eyes closed, inhaling the fragrance deep into my lungs. I don't believe I was more alive than I was in that motionless state, cocooned in the intoxicating fragrance of a thousand multi-colored lilies.



From the William Alexander pavilion we headed to the windmill in the park which we duly climbed to the viewing gallery all of 30 feet above the ground. From there we went to the Beatrix Pavilion. This pavilion was filled with orchids of all shapes, colors and sizes. I have never seen a more exotic looking flower and the varieties I saw here reaffirmed my belief.



We headed back to Amsterdam to get onto a different bus for the afternoon trip we had impulsively booked before the start of the Keukenhof trip. This was a trip to Delft, Den Hague and Madurodam.

Ever since I had seen Vermeer's "A View of Delft", I had wanted to visit the little Dutch town.

The drive there took us through the Dutch countryside. Tranquil pastoral beauty is all I can say. Cows everywhere.

Part of the journey to Delft was along the bed of an old, vast lake. 16th and 17th century Dutch engineers drained it using windmills. The farmland on either side of our bus was what used to be the bed of the lake. The Dutch have a name for such land - polder. They have a saying here in the Netherlands - "God created the world, the Dutch created Holland". How appropriate.

Delft was beautiful. We were taken to a small factory that showed us how Delft pottery is made. The famous blue of Delftware comes from cobalt. The Dutch originally got their pottery from China. It became very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries until problems with China forced the Dutch to start making it at home. Delft became the center for the now famous blue pottery.

We then got aboard the bus to head to The Hague but not before we passed the place where Vermeer must have positioned himself to paint his "A View of Delft". I felt like I had seen God himself!


(A view of the gate, featured in Vermeer's famous painting, from our bus)

From here we drove through Den Hague. We stopped for a bit outside the International Court of Justice building (Peace Palace or "Vredespaleis" in Dutch). Work on this building was started after American millionaire Andrew Carnegie started the ball rolling by donating $1.5 million. French architect Louis Cordonnier was assigned the task of creating the masterpiece. It is a beautiful building.


(Vredespaleis or the Peace Palace)

Amazing Food
I had bought the Doris Kindersley guide to Amsterdam in the US and Sam and I spent a few minutes checking out the recommendations for vegetarian restaurants. We decided to try the De Vliegende Schotel on Nieuwe Leliestraat 162. The following description is from the book - "Enormously popular with the artistic and alternative crowd, "The Flying Saucer" dishes up cheap and hearty organic vegetarian/vegan fare in two bright canteen-style rooms (one is non-smoking)". What fantastic food! I was amazed at the variety of tastes my stuffed tortilla had. Two wheat tortillas stuffed with spicy chili-kidney beans and cool guacamole with sheep's yogurt made for an amazingly flavorful dish. Sam feasted on the Aubergine a la Greque.

The Canal Cruise
After dinner we decided to walk around Dam Square. We meandered from street to street, trying to familiarize ourselves with the city. We soon found ourselves outside Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station. We went inside to ask about schedules and tickets for our intended trip to Delft on Monday.

Just outside the station we noticed one of the numerous canal cruise operators. On an impulse, we paid for a trip that left almost immediately after. Both Sam and I were jet lagged but the canal tour was fantastic. Some pictures below.


(The Singel bridge in the left picture and one of the ubiquitous arches over a canal in the right one).

Sleep that night was wonderful.

Monday, May 21
We were up early to eat breakfast and make our way to the lobby in order to get on the bus for the Zaanse Schans, Edam, Marken and Volendam trip.

This trip took us through the Dutch countryside again. I was again struck by the serenity on view.

Our first stop was a place in Zaanse Schans where they make Dutch clogs. Both Sam and I were impressed enough to buy a pair each. Sam took a wonderful picture of the beauty of these wooden creations.



There were 3 large windmills behind the shoe store and Sam took some more pictures of these structures too.


(Windmills in Zaanse Schans)

We then made our way to Edam where we were shown the cheese making process. Such a huge variety of cheeses in their store. I resisted the impulse to buy too many of them and settled on a 3-pack in addition to some honey mustard to go with it.

We then drove to the quaint little seaside town of Volendam where Sam and I ate lunch and where Sam took some wonderful pictures of people and birds. One of us will duly put these pictures on Fotki soon.


(Our lovely waitress in the restaurant in Volendam)

After lunch we made it across the large body of water, the Zuider Zee ("Southern Sea"), to the other side, Marken, where our bus back to town awaited us. Sam took some more wonderful pictures here. All in all it was a different kind of day. We got to see more of the Dutch countryside and little Dutch towns.

The Zuider Zee is now a lake. It was once an ocean connected to the North Sea. Too many years of flooding leading to destroyed homes and lives forced the Dutch to dam it up.

We came back to Amsterdam around 7 pm and decided to eat dinner in yet another great vegetarian restaurant - The Green Planet (Spuistraat 122). I liked the food so much that I went back on my own the next evening and then Sam and I, being in its vicinity, ate there once more on Friday.

Tuesday, May 22
Sam went off early to work. I stayed in bed until past 10 a.m. and then headed off to the Rijksmuseum to feast on the 17th century Dutch paintings there. I was not disappointed and had the most wonderful 3 hours there.

I came back to the hotel and went for a run in the evening. After the run I headed back to The Green Planet for dinner. Sam had decided to skip dinner with her workmates that evening and instead opted to try out yet another vegetarian restaurant close to the hotel. Since I had already had dinner, I had a cup of tea. Sam thoroughly enjoyed the food here too.

Wednesday, May 23
Sam went off early again and I slept in once more. Got up and went shopping. Wandered up and down the streets and along canals. Sam came back around 1:30 p.m. and we both went off to the Rijksmuseum so that she could also enjoy the paintings. We spent a couple of hours there and then came back to the hotel to go for a short run. After the run, Sam and I decided to go for a long walk to a Middle Eastern restaurant called Bazar. What a fun place this was. Lots of people. noise and cigarette smoke to go with the simply superb food.

Both Sam and I were shocked at the fantastically high quality of vegetarian fare on offer in the small city. I wish the South Bay had such places.

Thursday, May 24
Sam came back around 4:30 p.m. (I was shopping at that time) and I decided to meet her at the Centraal Station. We both got on a tram and made our short way back to the hotel. I deposited my shopping in the room and then she and I decided to head to Vondelpark - she with the Nikon to take pictures and I for a 6 mile run. She did take a few pictures of me while I was running. In one of the grassy areas in the park is this tree that grows sideways. Sam and I decided to climb it and take pictures of each other when in the tree. Climbing that tree brought back memories of my childhood. We went out for dinner and then for a 90 minute night canal cruise (it started at 10:00 p.m. from near the hotel).





Friday, May 25
Friday was a chilling out day for the both of us. We did some last minute shopping and then unwound by sitting in the hotel lobby enjoying wine and good conversation until midnight.

Saturday, May 26
We woke up early to make it to the airport shuttle at 8:20 a.m. Both of us sat near our gates until it was time to take our respective flights back to SFO. Sam got it around 5 p.m. while I did not land in SFO until 10:00 p.m. (Amsterdam --> London --> Chicago --> SFO). I took a shuttle that dropped of a bunch of people in San Carlos and Atherton before dropping me off outside Anu's place where I picked up my car and finally got home around 11:45 p.m. What a long and tiring day it turned out to be.