Saturday, August 31, 2013

Highbrow and Lowbrow in Amsterdam

On the morning of our second (and final) day in Amsterdam, we went back to Headfirst Coffee. The guy recognized us from the day before, and asked if we wanted the same as before. We did.

Three flat whites.
If you are in Amsterdam, you should have coffee here. No arguments.
Properly caffeinated, and having been told about an afternoon show where it was rumored Prince might appear (I don't know if he did in the end, but he did do a short-notice show that evening), we headed out to the Rijksmuseum, which was our major plan for the day.

On the Museumplein is a sculpture which is a tourism professional's dream - I amsterdam.

They tried "You aremsterdam", but it didn't have the same ring to it.
So you can climb on it, get your picture taken with 100 of your closest tourist friends, and then buy an uncluttered version as logo on t-shirts, bags, keychains, postcards, socks, hats, underwear, shot glasses ... you get the idea. We didn't pose with it.

On to the museum, which is there lurking in the background of that photo. There was a line to get in, but the line was shorter than the one for the Anne Frank house, and I was pretty sure there was more room inside the Rijksmuseum, so we waited it out. I took a lot of pictures in the museum, but I'll spare you most of them. Nothing worse than "look, here's a thing! And a different one! And another one!" The point is, you will not want for awesome things to see if you visit.

We spent a while exploring the rooms of religious art. For some reason, it's always fascinating to me. In amongst the Madonna-and-Childs were some carvings that intrigued me.

This one is "Christ in the house of Mary and Martha"
Mary's parents celebrating their impending parenthood
Our Lady of Sorrows
So. There were some things.

We had lunch in the museum cafe (quite good, and surprisingly reasonably priced) and dove back in for an assault on the must-sees of the museum: some Vermeers and Rembrandt's "Night Watch." Before getting there, though, I got side-tracked by a cluster of people.

You might recognize that guy in the painting.
I didn't bother to try to get any closer to these. There's a whole Van Gogh museum across the park from here, and besides, he still has two ears in this one. On we went, and found the real crowds. You can see a panoramic photo of the Masterpieces Hall on my Flickr account (the Vermeer room is on the left of that photo). The Vermeer paintings, I did get mostly close to. There aren't that many of them in the world, and I hadn't seen one in person before. (This is a list of his paintings and where you can find them; the Rijksmuseum has four.)

Then, the Night Watch.

It's a big painting, with a big crowd in front of it.
And after that, we were pretty well done. Happy with what we'd been able to see, and ready to move on, we left the museum to spend the last couple of hours in the city outdoors.

We wandered through the red light district (intentionally, this time). Why did we decide to check it out? In the immortal words of mountain climber George Mallory, "Because it's there." On a Sunday afternoon, it mostly consists of women in lingerie sitting in windows, texting. So aside from the lingerie, an Amsterdam prostitute's slow afternoon at work looks pretty much like everyone else's.

We didn't stray too much farther afield because we had a train to catch in the evening, so we took some last photos here and there and headed back to the train station.

The hazards of going on a trip with a new camera - it doesn't always
focus where you want it to, and you don't always notice that.
The train station - beginning and ending point of our journey.
And that's it for Amsterdam! Next stop: Cologne (or Köln, depending who you ask), Germany.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Staying in Amsterdam

When I left off, we'd departed the Westerkerk to go see more of the city. We started off by heading to the shopping streets of the city (De Negen Straatjes), where we found a couple of good deals (Em bought some pants, I bought a purse). Well, actually, first we tried to find de Negen Straatjes. We got a little lost and ended up on the edges of the red light district on our first attempt. But then we got ourselves oriented and found the shopping area. We also saw one of the street organs which are popular in the Netherlands.

In the middle, blocked by people's heads, is a scary clown face.
You're welcome.

Then we got back on our bikes and went in search of some lunch. We crossed some canals (boy are there a lot of canals to cross!), and after getting lost again (you may be sensing a theme here), we found our way to a little sandwich shop. We sat in the little upstairs loft and I drew while we ate.

The rest of the day is sort of a jumble of getting lost and seeing things, so I don't entirely know what we were doing when some of the photos were taken, but here are a couple anyway.

I loved that some bridges had these name markers, and
I meant to try to be on the lookout for more, but it just
didn't happen. Another visit, maybe.
Tiny car. And not much to keep one from driving straight
into the canal.
Eventually, after riding way too far out of our way and subsequently correcting our course, we ended up at the Waterlooplein flea market. (Just to be clear, this is where we were trying to end up.) I didn't take any photos of the market itself, but it was bustling and we spent quite a while there going through the wares at the various booths.

Blessing the market.
Days later on a train, we talked to a Dutch guy who said that riding bikes in Amsterdam takes nerve. We had to agree. There's just a lot of bike traffic, and although the bike lanes and such are pretty well marked, it's a little intimidating when you don't know exactly how all the rules work to keep the flow of traffic going. Who has the right of way at bike lane intersections? Where do you stop at a light to keep from blocking the intersecting bike lane? Merging? Is there such a thing as "yield," and who's supposed to do it if so?

Even though it was a little hard at first, bikes are a great way to see Amsterdam, especially because the only "hills" we saw were the slight inclines of the bridges over canals. We did one day with bikes and one day without, so on the morning of the next day we returned them and continued our adventures on foot.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What Happens in Amsterdam

Stays in Amsterdam?

Unless you blog about it, I suppose. I'm not sure what made me think of that slogan in the first place; I guess Amsterdam just strikes me as a Vegas-like city. With somewhat less neon. And a lot more water.

Morgan, Emily and I headed out to Amsterdam on the evening of August 9. We'd decided to take our trains in the evening so that we could wake up in our destination city and not waste half the day getting to the place. We connected through Antwerp, which has a pretty cool train station. It's like a good airport - clean, open, and with decent snack options.

It also has trains (not pictured).
After a few hours of watching the Dutch countryside roll by (green fields, cows, flat, a couple of windmills), we arrived in Amsterdam. We decided to catch a tram to the area where our hotel was. It seemed that the trams would pull up a little back from the stop to let everyone get out, then pull forward when they were empty (the train station was the end of the line) and load up again. This was apparently a really hard concept for people to grasp. They started shoving to get back to where the tram had stopped (passengers still unloading at this point), and then when they were unable to get on and the tram started moving forward, people stepped out in front of it to get a better position at the stop. Jobs to expect in hell: Amsterdam tram driver.

The hotel was fine, although three beds pretty much took care of the floor space. I mean, two beds pretty much took care of the floor space; adding in another one meant that we could easily play "the floor is made of lava." Emily and Morgan got caught in a downpour coming back from dinner that night (I had stayed in, being more tired than hungry). In the morning, we got coffee at Headfirst Coffee and then went off to rent bikes. The proprietors of the bike rental shop were less than friendly (if you hate tourists, why do you work in tourism?), and the bikes were not the best-maintained I'd ever seen, but we were determined to get ourselves thoroughly lost as fast as possible so we pedaled on. (About getting lost - we were obviously not trying to get lost, but one thing about riding bikes is that it certainly enables you to go well past where you should have gone before you notice anything amiss. You can fly right off the edges of your tourist map awfully easily.)

We headed into the city center to find the Anne Frank House. It's right around the corner from a big church, the Westerkerk. Around the edge of the square was a long line of people, which we speculated was maybe to go up in the church tower or something.

As it turns out, this was the line for the Anne Frank house. Across, then down the block, then across to the middle of the next block where the house actually is. We took a quick vote, the results of which were: Ixnay on the Anne Frank house-ay.

Instead, we went into the Westerkerk.
That is a crown on top.

Not the most exciting church I've ever seen, but Protestants built it, so what can you do? Rembrandt is buried there ... somewhere. No, seriously, they say "probably along the north wall." Another claim to fame? Anne Frank wrote about hearing the bells of the church. Snobs of the tangible that we are, we took some photos and went on our way. Stay tuned.

It took them 50 years to decide to add an organ. Protestants.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Bruges

Here are my travel tips for going to Bruges. Are you ready?

1. Don't go to Bruges.

2. Watch the movie In Bruges instead, provided you have the necessary ability to withstand a pretty decent amount of blood, jokes about dwarves, and swearing.

While Emily was here, we decided it would be fun to go to Bruges in the evening and have dinner, walk around the city, take night photos, whatever. It is (as every source will tell you) the best-preserved medieval city in Europe.

When we got there, we noticed the train station is nothing special. In fact, it is perhaps the ugliest and most boring train station I've seen in any city so far. It's a station which opens out into a central flat area with no distinguishing features surrounded by chain store hell.

The chain stores are behind me.
 We got on the bus and were taken into the main part of town, and there we did indeed see a square surrounded by various old buildings.

The bell tower
However, the square was also absolutely thronged with tourists. Also: overpriced restaurants, people stumbling around not looking where they were going because they were staring through their camera's viewfinders, being stepped on by people backing up to get a picture of their companions standing in front of ... something.

Don't look now, but I think we're surrounded.

That only gives you the smallest idea of it, but if you imagine that in every direction you turn, you start to get the idea. And okay, I get it - it's a tourist destination, and it's tourist season, and we were after all tourists ourselves. But there was a big difference in the feel of Bruges and the feel of Gent when it's full of tourists, and here's what it is: Bruges is dead.

Even on the days when it seems like we've reached a critical mass of tourists in Gent, you see people biking through the squares on their way home or out with friends, or locals sitting and having drinks, or people shopping like on any other day. But the tourist center of Bruges is like an Epcot version of Belgium; there's not a single thing going on there that isn't directly related to tourists. The restaurants? Only tourists. The buildings? Mostly empty facades. Shops? Either souvenirs or high-end chain stores. If you're suddenly seized by the urge to buy a Rolex while on vacation, Bruges is your city.

"My God, it's full of stars! I mean, tourists."
So we beat a quick retreat to try to find some other more interesting and real parts of the city. We found the expected old buildings and canals (populated by tour boats going at warp speed), but still there was that feeling of deadness. No one riding bikes from here to there in the course of their daily lives, only the rare car that went by on the street, disturbing the horse carriages. Not even that many people walking around, and none of the few we saw seemed to be natives.

Bruges is, indeed, as they say in the movie, a fairytale town. There are some old buildings, and some pretty scenes to take photos of if you can manage to get a clear shot (forget it in the main area). But it's also completely lifeless. It's like a constructed simulacrum, a thing that used to be authentic but has now become a shell and sad parody of its former self.

Rent the movie, and come to Gent instead.