Sunday, February 8, 2009
For anyone still reading, yes, we are still here in London, and having a great time. You can see photos of our Marylebone flat here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=57499&l=a4305&id=509253462. You don't have to be on Facebook to see them.
We just got back from a trip to Amsterdam. Andrew had some extra vacation days to use up, so we took a couple days off, packed our backpacks and flew down there last Sunday morning. The flight was only about 45 minutes; I didn't realize it was so close! We landed and easily found our way to the trains and then into the city. There was no line at customs, and the language barrier wasn't a problem since almost everything is written in English as well as Dutch. It was almost...too easy. Except, at 9:00 in the morning, I was happy not to have to think too much.
We got to the central train station, bundled up in the freezing cold, and started walking through the city. We got to see Amsterdam wake up, as nothing was open when we started walking but after about an hour we were able to get some coffee and little toasted ham and cheese sandwiches at a cafe. Andrew tried out some Dutch phrases on the waitress and made her laugh. Everyone there spoke English as well as we did! After our warm interlude in the cafe, we found our hotel and were able to check in even though it was only about noon. Thank goodness! We curled up under the warm blankets in our very nice room and took a nap to prepare for more walking around later.
We woke up to see a few flakes of snow in our Dutch sky and tons of snow on Sky News. Apparently we missed England's biggest snow storms in a hundred years! It was certainly cold enough for us in Amsterdam, though. We wanted to see the city, but it was almost unbearable outside, so we bought tickets for a tour of the canals, inside a nice, warm, enclosed boat. It was a great introduction to the city, too. We had fun listening to the narration first in Dutch, then in English and Spanish, and trying to predict from the Dutch what it would be in English. Dutch sounds very much like English (I thought it sounded like something in between English and German). We saw all the main canals and lots of pretty buildings and bridges from the boat. We even saw some of the bridges up close because our driver ran into a few of them. The boat was about six inches narrower than the narrowest canal and about six inches shorter than the turning radius between some of the bridges. I'm surprised we didn't hit the walls and bridges more often.
The architecture in Amsterdam is beautiful. Because of all the canals and what I imagine must essentially be islands in between, a lot of the older buildings are crooked because they are slowly sinking. The houses all follow one or two designs, but they don't look like cookie cutters. There are endless variations on similar designs. Each facade rises several stories high to accommodate a house in such a narrow space. The roofs apparently mostly run perpendicular to the streets, and to hide the ends of the roofbeams, the Dutch developed the famous gables that we saw on almost every house. At the top of each gable, we could see a beam sticking out with a hook hanging underneath it. We couldn't figure out what they were for, but the narration on the tour finally explained that, due to the narrow houses (they were taxed on the width of the houses rather than the depth, so they are all tiny in the front), no one could fit furniture in through the doors and up the winding staircases, so all the houses were built with hooks that allowed them to lift furniture up and into the windows to get to the upper floors. I would love to see a piano lifted up that way. There's a piano in the flat on the other side of the wall from us, and I suspect it must have been lifted up there, too.
Our canal tour took us through the canals in the center of the city, out into the harbor a little bit and back into the center, passing briefly through the red-light district on the way. I caught a glimpse of a couple of the red lights, and that was quite enough for me. It was not nearly as sleazy as I imagined, though. All the buildings were still beautiful, old brick buildings, and everything was very clean; there just happened to be illicit activity going on behind closed doors. We saw a lot of coffee shops all over town, too, where customers can buy drugs. It was weird to see that, and a few times we smelled marijuana on the streets, but mostly Amsterdam was just like any other European city.
After our canal trip, we found a grandiose cafe with high ceilings and cool vintage posters on the walls. We got some Belgian cherry-flavored beer called Kriek, and had some french fries and bitterballen, a Dutch specialty that is basically a fried cheese ball, as far as I could tell. They were delicious. Then we walked around a little bit more and went back to the warmth of our hotel room. One of the things we've learned to enjoy about travelling is just sitting and relaxing and not feeling like we have to be sightseeing every minute of the day. When dinner time rolled around we just headed downstairs to the French brasserie on the ground floor. I had a nice salad with a poached egg and lardons, and Andrew had some really good French Onion soup. The restaurant was nearly empty, and we struck up a conversation with an American guy about our age who was sitting by himself at the next table over. After dessert and some coffee, it was bed time.
The next day we had some breakfast and headed out to see more of the city. It was still cold but not nearly so windy, so we managed much better. We walked further south in the city, down to the museum district, and found the Van Gogh Museum first. All the museums were really expensive (but then, we have been spoiled by the free museums first in DC and now in London). I think they were mostly worth the expense in Amsterdam, though. The Van Gogh Museum was nice. They had a lot of his earlier paintings, most of which I didn't recognize. Everything was laid out chronologically, and it was very easy to see how his style changed from very dark, earthy brown paintings of Dutch peasants to the wild, colorful style that he became famous for. The museum had some of my favorite paintings, including sunflowers and irises and orchards with bright blue skies. It also had a few paintings he made where he was copying Japanese prints. Those were kind of funny because we had just seen some Japanese prints at the V&A Museum in London, and his copies really weren't very good. Sorry, Vincent. But the other paintings were wonderful. They also had a special exhibit of landscape sketches by a group of nineteenth-century Danish artists. They were really nice. Andrew usually likes sketches and prints better than paintings, and I like seeing them with him because he finds such interesting details in them that I would miss otherwise.
One museum down, it was time for lunch. We set out to find a specific restaurant but got some bad directions and ended up wandering through some very nice neighborhoods for a while. We finally found the restaurant, but it was closed for lunch, so instead we went to another French-ish sort of cafe, which seems to be the standard in Amsterdam. I had a nice salad and Andrew had a sandwich, accompanied by more coffee (we drank a lot of coffee on that trip). Then we bundled up again and headed for the Rijksmuseum, which is the main art museum. It is undergoing major renovations, so the museum is closed, but they have one wing open with some of the highlights of the collections. We really enjoyed the Rijksmuseum. It was nice not to be faced with miles of galleries, like you would normally get. We just saw the best stuff. The highlights exhibit was also set up nicely for an introduction to the Dutch Golden Age, which was in the late 17th century, mostly. There was a lot of maritime art, including a huge model ship. There were examples of silver and gold work and displays of Delft pottery, and there were paintings showing the reach of the Dutch trading companies at the time, including India, Indonesia, the Caribbean, and Africa. Upstairs, there were rooms full of portraits and rooms dedicated to specific artists. Our favorite portraits were a pair showing a father and his son. The father looks like a Pilgrim, all dour and serious in black clothes and a simple white collar, while the son, a rotund 20-year-old, is dressed in bright red silk, with curly hair and the haughtiest expression I have ever seen. Fantastic. The museum had lots of paintings by some of the Netherlands' native sons, including Franz Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. The Rembrandts were dark and atmospheric, as ever. The Hals paintings made me smile like they usually do. His subjects always look like they're having a good time, which is unusual in portraiture. The Vermeers caught my breath when we walked into the room. There were just three of them on display, all in a row. They are tiny paintings, only about 2 feet high, but the light and the colors are just amazing. There was one of the exterior of a house that was almost photographic in its details. The other two were paintings of women. One was a woman standing in a reception room, looking up as if she's just been distracted from an activity that has held her attention deeply. She stares out from the painting with an intense look, not angry but surprised. The soft light highlights her pale, smooth face and her furs and pearl jewelry. The other woman is a maid pouring a jug of milk into a bowl. The light in this one is harsher, and her clothes are rougher and more colorful, but Vermeer gave her the same level of intensity and dignity as the woman in the pearls. The final painting in the exhibit is the museum's most famous: Rembrandt's The Night Watch. It's a group portrait of one of Amsterdam's powerful private militias in the late 17th century. The militiamen are wealthy merchants, lawyers, and politicians, rather than actual soldiers, and I thought it was funny to see them showing off their guns, guessing they probably wouldn't know what to do with them in real life. The painting is enormous, much bigger than life size, and it includes all the details a painter's eye could find. The structure of the painting is very strong, as with Vermeer's paintings, and all the people are arranged symmetrically (but subtly) around one central figure, who stands with his hand outstretched in the very centre of the picture. There weren't too many visitors in the museum, so we were able to stand and look at the painting for several minutes. I think I liked it because it seems to capture the essence of the age in which it was painted. It's full of power and wealth and arrogance. It's intimidating, but you know that the power of these men won't last. I think Rembrandt knew that when he painted it.
From the museum, we walked back up to our hotel along smaller side streets during rush hour. Because the streets are so narrow and the city is so compact, almost no one in Amsterdam has a car, but everyone has a bicycle, and all the streets have bike lanes. It took us a while to realize this, and each of us was almost hit by a bicycle at one point, but the riders were at least friendly! Rush hour meant hundreds of cyclists, everywhere we could see. It was great! One of the streets we walked along, which had fewer cyclists to look out for, was lined with antique stores with jewelry and pottery and paintings and objets d'art all jumbled up in their windows, like some sort of fantastical garage sale. After a short rest in the hotel, we went out again, to meet Aleksey, the son of Andrew's mom's colleague at the library, who now lives in Amsterdam. We met him at a bar around the corner from our hotel for a few drinks and a nice chat about living abroad and how to avoid getting killed by cyclists in Amsterdam.
After drinks, we got dressed quickly and caught a cab to a restaurant called De Kas, which means greenhouse in Dutch, and which is housed in an old greenhouse that used to supply plants for the city's parks. The main space is a huge room with gleaming glass panes that reflect the light beautifully. The decor was luxuriously minimalist, and the tables had a lot of space between them, which is hard to find in a European restaurant. De Kas grows a lot of its own produce right in the greenhouse, and they serve seasonal food in a pan-European style (Dutch cuisine is nothing to write home about, so you get a lot of French-ish and Mediterranean-ish food there. I think the Dutch are a lot like the Americans. If they see someone else doing something better, they'll adopt that). De Kas doesn't have a menu but a set dinner that changes every day, so we didn't know what we were going to get, which was kind of fun. We started with a glass of champagne and the bread and olives and white bean hummus that the server brought out right away. We ordered wine pairings to go with the meal, which we had never done before but will certainly do again when our bank account recovers from our trip to Amsterdam. Our server asked if we had any food allergies or if there was anything we didn't like (we couldn't think of anything), and a few minutes later the sommelier came with the first two wines for the starters, followed by the server with the three starters. We took a deep breath and got down to work.
The starters were smoked duck with sauerkraut and smoked apples (with a light chardonnay); a tart made of a whole caramelized shallot, with marinated chioggia beets and rocket; and lobster ceviche with langoustine sauce and black olive tuile (the tart and the lobster were paired with a dry riesling). The wines and the foods were delicious, some of the best of both we've ever had. The wine pairing was a real eye opener. I know a little bit about matching wines with foods, but because the restaurant: a) has a sommelier; b) creates a unique menu each day and controls all the flavors down to the last detail; and c) only has one set of foods to match wines to; these pairings were precise in a way that I had never experienced before. The sommelier was adamant that the chardonnay went with the duck and the riesling with the others and said that they wouldn't taste right the other way around, so of course I tried the riesling with the duck to see the difference, and she was absolutely right. I would have thought riesling would be perfect with the duck and the apple and especially the sauerkraut, and it did taste good with them, but it didn't elevate the flavors in the way the chardonnay did. Extraordinary.
After savoring every last bit of our starters, we moved onto the main course. The sommelier brought out the next wine, a pinot nero (which is the Italian version of pinot noir). Then came the food, which turned out to be braised veal shanks with demiglace sauce, roasted potatoes, celeriac wrapped in Iberico ham, and a bowl of crisp, bitter endive in a lemony dressing. The meat was sticky and tender, the vegetables aromatic, and the endive refreshing on the palate after all that food. The wine was a little bit tart and not at all heavy like so many red wines. It was at this point that we deemed De Kas one of the best restaurants we'd ever been to.
And that was even before dessert. We were surprised when we got another visit from the sommelier - these were all very small glasses of wine, mind you - with a dessert wine. This one just about blew my mind. It was a muscatel anejo, an aged Spanish wine, and it was like drinking a caramelized orange blossom. It was also like drinking heaven. The actual dessert was lovely, too. It was a bread pudding with blueberry sauce and caramel ice cream. It didn't compete with the sweetness of the wine at all. They complemented each other just as well as all the other pairings. We ordered some coffee, which came with three little sweets (almost more than we could handle at this point): a little lemony shortbread, a tiny pastry with fig filling (basically, a fancy fig newton), and a chocolatey-oaty sort of brittle. It was all delicious, and at that point, we were absolutely full to the brim. We got a cab back to the hotel (by a different route, accidentally, so we got to see more of the city), and fell asleep immediately.
On our last day, we started as usual with some good continental coffee, then caught a tram - I forgot to mention the tram lines. So when you cross the street, first you remember you're not in England and look left instead of right to see if any bikes are coming in the bike lane. Then you look further to the left to see if a tram is coming in the tram lane. Then you look further left to see if any cars are coming in the car lane. By this point, you are in the middle of the street and have to look right for cars, then trams, then bikes. It's a wonder we're still alive. So we caught a tram to the Anne Frank House museum, where we got to see the attic where she hid with her family. It was eerie standing there, imagining what she went through and how she managed to record her experiences and pass them on. Andrew and I both agreed, though, that the museum was not as powerful or moving as it could have been. It left us with more questions than answers. But I suppose that's not a bad thing.
After a quick lunch, we walked across town to the Rembrandt House museum. This is the house where Rembrandt lived and had his studio. We weren't clear on what happened to the house in the intervening years; surely it hasn't always been a museum, but there it was, all set up as it would have been in Rembrandt's time. They have a big collection of his etchings, and we got to see a few of them on display, but the fascinating part of the museum was that they had a woman there demonstrating the etching process, from the original sketches to the finished drawings on copper plates to the inking and cleaning of the plates and the actual printing process.
After the museum, we had time for one more cup of coffee, then we caught another tram, then a train, then our flight back to London. Then another train, a bus, and a few steps to get back to our cozy flat. It was an intellectually and culinarily stimulating trip, with plenty of relaxation and general atmosphere-soaking-in. Just another weekend in glorious Europe. I'll post some photos soon.