Tag Archives: Amsterdam

Four Days in Amsterdam, Fourteen Days in Central Europe and Three Books

John Betjeman statue (St. Pancras International)We’d already decided on another central European railway jaunt this year then Eurostar announced its new London to Amsterdam service. The idea of arriving in a city dear to both of us without setting foot on a plane was irresistible so we decided to extend our holiday to include a few days there. John Betjeman was kind enough to see us off from St Pancras International.

Gorgeous weather meant we spent most of the time outside, in contrast to our Christmas visit a few years ago. I’ve been to Amsterdam many times during most seasons but never in June when the gardens are at their best. Amsterdammers manage to get cottage garden flowers to grow in the tiniest of cracks in the cobbles outside their home. There was an abundance of climbing Hollyhock (Amsterdam)roses, wisteria and greenery everywhere but my favourite was the good old-fashioned hollyhock.

Sunday was spent wandering around Hortus Botanicus and on Monday morning we took ourselves off to the Vondelpark, a haven for bird life with its many lakes and wild areas including a couple of storks busy feeding their four young. The afternoon’s treat was tea at the Tassen museum taken in one of their elegantly decorated rooms overlooking the Herengracht canal. Our only other bit of culture was Our Lord in the Attic, a remarkable hidden Catholic church built within a merchant’s canal house at a time when Amsterdam proclaimed its religious tolerance but could not be relied upon to practice it.

Art Nouveau frontage (Leipzig)On to Leipzig the following day, a stone’s throw away from Dresden which we visited on our last railway holiday. Lots of Arts Nouveau and Deco to ogle here, run through with arcades full of ritzy shops, and some lovely green spaces to explore around the city. Leipzig’s slice of culture was the Grassi, a complex of three museums. We only managed to see the applied arts section – so extensive, beautifully organised and rich in treasures that it could give the V & A a run for its money but, mystifyingly, we had it almost to ourselves.

Next stop Görlitz on the Polish/German border where Wes Anderson shot much of The Grand Budapest Hotel using the interior of the vast Görlitzer Warenhaus department store as a stand-in for Gorlitzthe Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. Unlike Leipzig, Görlitz escaped the devastation of WW2 bombing. It’s a little gem of a town much beloved by film-makers, from Quentin Tarantino to Jackie Chan. Inevitably it’s been dubbed Görliwood, I suspect by the local tourist board.

Our first Polish city was WrocƗaw whose name Botanical gardens (Wroclaw)sounds nothing like it looks to an English-speaker’s eyes. WrocƗaw is one of many central European cities razed to the ground in WW2 but, like Dresden, it’s been meticulously and beautifully restored with jaw-dropping architectural delights at every turn. It’s also home to botanical gardens that put Amsterdam’s in the shade plus an exquisite Japanese garden on the edge of town.

We lost around 14°C between WrocƗaw and Poznań which was something of a Craftsmen's cottages, Rtnek (Poznan)relief. Poznań’s grand square is a little smaller than WrocƗaw’s but its row of colourfully decorated craftsmen’s cottages marks it out. Every day at noon two mechanical goats emerge from beneath the town hall clock next to the cottages and butt horns twelve times to mark the hour. A chilly wind blew a light drizzle in our faces at the appointed hour but being British we’re used to that kind of thing and we were determined not to miss the show.

House of Nicolaus Copernicus (Torun)Our penultimate stop was Toruń which, like Görlitz, emerged from WW2 miraculously unscathed. It’s a small medieval walled city stuffed with Gothic and Gothic Revival red-brick architectural gems including the supposed birthplace of Copernicus (or Copper Knickers as we used to call him, sniggeringly, at school). H and I were both somewhat taken aback to find that it’s twinned with Swindon. Apologies to any Swindon-based readers but if you look to the left you’ll understand.

Our last two days were spent in Warsaw. The first thing we sawPalace of Culture and Science (Warsaw) when we walked out of the station was Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science looking oddly anachronistic and slightly menacing next to the many gleaming skyscrapers but still the tallest building in the city. As the museums close on Tuesdays and we’d arrived on Monday, we chose the Museum of the History of Polish Jews over the Warsaw Rising Museum and wished we hadn’t. Overwhelming multimedia and short quotes displayed without context resulted in an exhibition which lacked any coherence. Not a patch on the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I learnt nothing from it I didn’t already know.

We spent Tuesday ambling around the old town, beautifully restored after its WW2 bashing, and loafing in the stylish Café Bristol. After nearly three weeks away we were both ready for home and wondering if Mischief would still recognise us, let alone be pleased to see us. Then I remembered that we’d be arriving almost precisely at feeding time.

 And the books? Three of the six I took hit the spot:

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley, a perceptive, small town novel about a bright young woman whose future is clouded by family complications.Cover image

Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching tells four very personal stories of New York from the points-of-view of Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White, Walt Whitman and Robert Moses the urban planner who shaped the modern metropolis.

Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade, a heart wrenching, beautifully written story of a young boy’s love for an older woman.

Thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me through this very long post, and to H who planned the whole adventure and who’s already thinking about another. Back to books and brevity on Friday…

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: A box of jewels

Cover imageThis is a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time. I first noticed it at the centre of a little Twitter storm early this year in which several people whose opinion I trust were becoming very excited, then I noticed that not only was it set in Amsterdam which I’d visited at Christmas but that Jessie Burton had taken for her inspiration the ‘cabinet houses’ that had intrigued me in the Rijksmuseum. Cabinet houses are replicas of the wealthy merchants’ homes which line the canals, beautifully decorated and furnished in miniature. Petronella Oortman’s is a particularly fine example and it’s Nella’s story that Burton tells in The Miniaturist which is, I have to say, one of the finest books I’ve read this year.

In November 1686, fresh from the country town of Assendelft, Nella knocks on the door of her new husband’s house. She hasn’t seen him since they were married a month ago. He’s a merchant, a wealthy businessman who divides his time between the stock exchange, the Dutch East India Company and searching out exotic goods far away from Amsterdam. Nella’s reception is distinctly chilly: her husband is absent, her sister-in-law taciturn and the maid sulky, only the black manservant – the like of which she’s never seen before – seems polite. Perhaps this is the way things are done in Amsterdam but as the week wears on there’s still no sign of Johannes, Marin continues to behave as if she’s the mistress of the house rather than Nella and Cornelia becomes cheekier. Nella begins to question the nature of this strange household of which she is nominally in charge. When, eventually, Johannes turns up, his gentle fondness for her fails to materialise into anything else and she continues to sleep alone. She needs an occupation which comes in the form of a present from Johannes: the cabinet house, beautifully crafted but in need of furnishing. When she commissions a miniaturist she finds the packages that are sent contain unasked for extras, dolls which mirror the inhabitants of the Herengracht house a little too exactly. As Nella becomes more confident, she begins to understand that there are many layers to the Brandt household just as there are many layers to Amsterdam. I’m not going to tell you much more than that – much of the delight and skill of this impressive, immensely enjoyable novel is the way in which Nella’s questioning peels back those layers and the many surprises – and shocks – she reveals.

This is a gorgeous jewel box of a novel packed with vivid descriptions that summon up seventeenth-century Amsterdam where ‘how you dress is what you are’ although a very plain dress many well be lined in velvet and sable, hidden well away from public gaze. It’s a city where women may walk the streets at liberty but their desire to see the world is confined to map-lined rooms. Burton is particularly adept at characterisation – there are no sinners and saints amongst her main protagonists, each is complex, many-faceted and often surprising. Nella’s transformation from naïve young country girl with visions of a glittering marriage to a resourceful, courageous woman capable of facing even the most gruelling of ordeals is a triumph. The dialogue is often snappy and the device of the mysterious miniaturist who seems to know far more that she should keeps you guessing. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book, indeed. And it made mePoffertjes want to get on the next plane to Amsterdam, head for the Rijksmuseum to look into Nella’s house then stuff my face with poffertjes or pufferts as Nella knew them. Absolutely delicious!

So, I’ve already mentioned that The Miniaturist is one of the finest books I’ve read this year – for the record the two that rank alongside it are Nikolaus Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart. We’re well past the half-way point for 2014 – what are your favourites so far?

Five Days in Amsterdam and One book

From iamsterdamA very happy New Year to you all! I’m afraid this is going to be a ‘what I did on my holidays’ post although there will be a mention of books. H and I took off from Bristol on Christmas Eve for Amsterdam after a slight delay, blissfully unaware of the mayhem that was playing out at Gatwick  – many commiserations to anyone caught up in that misery or in the floods that struck some parts of the UK. This was our seventh visit to Amsterdam so you can tell we like it a lot. Our first was in our early twenties, spent under canvas with one night in a dirt cheap dormitory, as part of a hitching around Europe trip. This one was a bit more comfortable. It’s a gorgeous city to wander around: beautiful canals lined with houses whose occupants obligingly keep their curtains open, their houses lit up like jewel boxes at night and often lined with bookshelves. We walked our socks off.

The catalyst for this particular visit was Andrew Graham Dixon’s BBC documentary on the newly restored Rijksmuseum which looked stunning on TV, and indeed it was in reality. The building is a piece of art in itself, setting off its contents beautifully. We sampled rather than crammed enjoying dolls’ houses – recreation for moneyed ladies rather than little girls – ship models and, of course, the lovely seventeenth century Dutch genre paintings filled with clean Northern light. Two other museums we particularly enjoyed were the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam’s ethnographic museum, and the Tassenmuseum, the Museum of Bags and Purses. The Tropenmuseum had a fascinating exhibition on Escher’s work and its relationship with the mathematical aspects of Islamic art, plus one on how the Dutch view immigration and their colonial past. The Tassenmuseum is one of those niche museums which turns out to be much more interesting that you might expect – I should know, I’ve been to a nail museum in Slovenia, and enjoyed it. It was particularly welcoming with an attention to detail that extended to green marzipan handbags decorating the cupcakes in their wonderfully elegant café. Some of the exhibits were quite stunning, from highly decorated gaming purses to bags spun out of steel to beautiful raffia clutch bags.

And, of course, there were a few visits to bookshops the best of which was The AmericanAmsterdam Book Center: three floors of cleverly arranged shelves full of interesting stock – even on Christmas Eve when it must have been severely depleted – staffed by friendly, knowledgeable booksellers. Just one book was bought – English language imports were expensive – but it was entirely appropriate: Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. H raced through it while we were there – I’m a few chapters in and very much enjoying it. It’s a very readable account which although chronological relates the city’s history back to the present day. It’s also an enjoyable way of prolonging the holiday for me. We’ll be back, no doubt about it.

So, back to reality although I was met with a nice surprise as my submission for the Guardian readers’ books of the year had been accepted. Lots of interesting choices here, if you’re not already up to your eyes in ‘best of’s. I do hope your holiday was as enjoyable as mine. Happy reading in 2014!