the Rijksmuseum


My birthday gift to myself was a day at the magnificent Rijksmuseum. And it wasn’t just the art that was the gift, it was the time. The luxury of free time – to wander leisurely from room to room, stopping in front of a painting, a tapestry or an exquisite silver goblet and gazing at it for as long as I desired, studying every detail and reading the information notice beside it.  Antiques show us where we come from.

Museums are, of course, an education. But it’s usually not until adulthood that we appreciate the treasures held within. I visited the best of them as a child and teenager.  In an effort to instil aesthetic values in their children, my English parents, bless them, took my sister and me all over Europe. We attended operas and visited museums and galleries. I was bored stiff. Opera perplexed me and museums were old and dusty. I remember gazing at gigantic tableaux of naked people, usually cowering before a snarling beast or something ominous from heaven, and all I could wonder was….where were their clothes? Perhaps if the symbolism of the painting had been explained to me, I would have understood something. But symbolism and metaphors are not easily grasped by children.

Below is a portrait painted in 1652 by Johannes Verspronck. The sitter’s name is Maria van Strijp. As you can see by her jewellery and the finery of her clothing, Maria was an affluent woman. She lived in Haarlem, North Holland and was the wife of a wealthy cloth merchant. Verspronck‘s painting style shows attention to the depiction of clothing and jewellery. His precision is not stiff, but beautiful and quiet.


Cartwheel ruffs. What an odd accoutrement. Ruffs were highly luxurious garments, a potent symbol of status and wealth. Anyone who could afford to wear and maintain a ruff was clearly not doing any manual labor. They were made from starched linen and edged with lace. The fabric was put into a figure 8 pattern, called goffering, and sewn with gossamer threads.

Portrait of a Woman by Frans Hals, 1635IMG_3989Portrait of Feyntje van Steenkiste by Frans Hals, 1635IMG_4020Look at this magnificent cabinet veneered with tortoiseshell and ivory.IMG_3978IMG_3979

Delftware is blue and white pottery made in and around Delft in the Netherlands from the 16th to the 18th century.


From a distance I thought this painting was a Bruegel, but it wasn’t. It was painted by Hendrick Avercamp, a Dutchman born in Amsterdam in 1585. As one of the first landscape painters of the 17th-century Dutch school, Avercamp is famous for his winterscapes. Many of his paintings feature people ice skating.


Modern skaters today. This rink is in front of the museum. Notice the chairs. I don’t recall seeing that in other countries. Ah, the ever-pragmatic Dutch!



Amsterdam – Part II


I haven’t a clue who these people are. They looked so happy, I thought I’d take a picture.

I wanted to visit the Rembrandt House Museum where the painter lived and worked between 1639 and 1656, but somehow never made it to that side of town. Instead I visited the Museum Van Loon for a peek indoors at the home of an Amsterdam patrician family. This 17th-century canal mansion, one of the most splendid in town, has retained the atmosphere of an extremely grand family home. In 1602 Willem Van Loon was co-founder of the Dutch East Indian Company. As I wandered from room to room staring at the family portraits on the walls, I wondered what had become of the Van Loon family.  Where are the family members today, if any?


Many of Amsterdam’s canal houses were built during the height of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. In 2010, the canal district was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List

Contrary to the tightly-shuttered windows in France, many of the tall windows here are unshuttered and uncurtained. This means that at night you can walk past and see people going about their business inside, completely unperturbed that passersby like myself might be looking in. And guess what they were doing? Sitting on a couch reading a newspaper. Watching TV. Typing in front of a computer. Preparing dinner.


As mentioned earlier, winter nights fall swiftly at 4:30 pm in Holland and you suddenly find yourself plunged into darkness. The city is dimly-lit by old-fashioned streetlamps. In fact, most rooms and interiors are dimly-lit too. I think this fondness for dim interiors is a Flemish particularity that I noticed in Antwerp, Belgium last year. It’s at this moment, if you’re walking around outside, that you should pay extra attention when crossing the streets because energetic cyclists will bear down on you. Other than that, I felt perfectly safe walking around this area in the dark (other areas, near the train station, might be less safe.) I’ve always loved walking at night. Especially on crisp, clear, cold nights.


Amsterdam – Part I


I found Amsterdam to be a romantic city with its canals, old-fashioned street lamps, picturesque shops and cozy coffee houses. Night fell swiftly at 4:30 pm and the decorative lamps cast a golden glow over the canals and cobbled streets. It’s a compact, walkable city, however a word of warning – beware when crossing the street! Squadrons of cyclists advance at a fast clip. I nearly got myself run over more than once.


Christmas wreaths hung in windows and adorned doors. As I walked along admiring them, I thought to myself “In France, they’d be stolen overnight, along with the bicycles.”

There’s a sense of virtuousness about the Dutch. They look virtuous as they cycle vigorously along (whole families sometimes, the children in a little cart attached to the bicycle or riding on the crossbar), fresh-faced and smiling, their bodies lean and fit. They also employ a no-nonsense pragmatism in their politics. Amsterdam has the most liberal and tolerant policies with regards to prostitution and soft drugs. Prostitution is legalized. There’s a common sense to this. By working in a controlled environment, prostitutes are protected from violence and exploitation. As for health issues, they must undergo regular medical examinations to prevent the spread of STDs. This sounds safer and saner than what one sees in Paris – male and female prostitutes lurking behind trees in the Bois de Boulogne.

As for legalized hash and marijuana, the benefits are a safer product, elimination of dealers and illicit revenue going towards criminal organizations and drug cartels. Although that happens too.


As is the custom in all northern European countries, coffee and cake (koffie en gebak) is a morning and afternoon ritual in which to enjoy almond and butter cookies, apple turnovers, gingerbread, streusel, different cakes and fruit-filled pies. Coffee shops and tea salons abound.


My hotel, called Sebastian’s, was perfectly located at number 15 Keizersgracht, a long road that runs parallel to a canal and winds around the city. A 10-minute walk from the train station, the hotel has soundproofed rooms equipped with comfortable beds and a deluxe espresso machine. Small shopping streets, lined on either side with boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants are just up the road. I was charmed the whole time I was there.


pre-Christmas dinner at Paul Bert bistro


In an earlier post this year (April 2014), I put up photos of a rollicking dinner we had at our favourite bistro in the 11th arrondissement, the Paul Bert.  Last night was a slightly more sedate affair, but in terms of food and company, equally delicious.


A Swedish Christmas elf offered me a gift that happened to be on my Christmas list – a box of marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) from Paris’s best chocolatier, La Maison du Chocolat.  A glass of champagne was ordered for the occasion.  And then an English Christmas elf, who had also referred to that list (which I didn’t think anyone would actually consult!), offered me a Diptyque Feu du Bois candle.


As a starter, I ordered the marrow bone simply roasted and sprinkled with fleur de sel. My companions had foie gras and roasted scallops.


I then chose the roast venison with celeriac puree and juniper berries while my friends enjoyed pepper steak with a load of hot crispy fries.  Paul Bert is known for their delicious, hot and crispy fries.


IMG_3828IMG_3824I don’t know what they’re making eyes about here.  Paul Bert makes the best crème caramel I have ever tasted.IMG_3833IMG_3836IMG_3840IMG_3842

And so, as always at Paul Bert bistro, a good time was had by all.  We walked off into the dampish night, each of us headed to different destinations over the holidays – Sweden, Holland and south-west France.