day two in Amsterdam, Rembrandt and the Golden Age masterpieces

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The primary reason for my trip was to visit the Rembrandt exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. Weeks earlier I had purchased my ticket online, so I was all set to go.

Rembrandt lived and painted in Amsterdam for most of his life, and the city’s Rijksmuseum, renowned for its collection of Golden Age masterpieces, plans two extraordinary shows for 2019. ALL THE REMBRANDTS (15 February–10 June) will exhibit its entire collection of works by artist – over 20 paintings, including The Jewish Bride, circa 1667 and The Night Watch, 1642, the latter being widely considered Rembrandt’s masterwork; 60 drawings; and several hundred of the artist’s 1,300 prints.

Sunday morning was glorious. While church bells pealed across the city, I strolled the near-empty streets in search of a place for breakfast. Compared to Paris which was, and still is, in the grips of a pollution alert, the air was fresh, cold and clean. The cawing of gulls overhead reminded me that the sea is not far away. Like Venice, Amsterdam is a watery city comprising a river, a major seaport, and over 100 kilometres of canals. It connects to the North Sea via the North Sea Canal.

Amsterdam-centrum-OpenTopo

by Janwillemvanaalst

The Cold Pressed Juicery makes the tastiest and healthiest raw food, cold pressed juices and superfood smoothies. I grabbed a protein bar and a banana smoothie made with coconut, dates, tahini, brazil nuts, cacao, bee pollen, maca, chia seeds, vanilla, cinnamon and cashew milk. Yummy (and filling.)

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Then I walked northwards to spend the entire afternoon at the Rijksmuseum.

For Art Nouveau and Art Deco fans, there are fabulous examples all over Europe. Walking tours are popular, and one day I will partake in one, probably in Belgium; Brussels is an important Art Nouveau center. Here’s the Gunters & Meuser building, constructed in 1917 in the Amsterdam School style of architecture (1915-1940).

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The characteristics of the Amsterdam School style

The School of Amsterdam style was largely influenced by expressionism. The buildings were often built in round and expressive forms, with towers, ornamental spires and decorative windows and doors. Wrought iron elements, usually painted black or very dark green (so called Amsterdam green), were used as simple decorative or functional elements. Elaborate but sober in its expression, carpentry, usually painted white or again dark green, completes the buildings.

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Here are two random examples of Art Nouveau glass art (above and below), inspired by natural forms and structures, as well as the curved lines of plants and flowers. It amazes me that this prized example below is unprotected and accessible to all right out in the street, as if it were a trivial door, an inconsequential gate.

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Art Nouveau is a total art style. Most popular between 1890 and 1910, it embraces a wide range of fine and decorative arts, including architecture, painting, graphic art, interior design, jewelry, furniture, textiles, ceramics, glass art, and metal work.

The art movement had its roots in Britain, in the floral designs of William Morris, and in the Arts and Crafts movement founded by the pupils of Morris.

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By 1910, Art Nouveau was already out of style. It was replaced as the dominant European architectural and decorative style, first by Art Deco and then by Modernism.

If large museums are not to your liking, here’s a list of five small museums worth visiting in the lovely city of Amsterdam. There’s also a link to Art Nouveau walking tours in Brussels.

https://www.hideawayreport.com/articles/view/five-great-small-museums-in-amsterdam/

https://theculturetrip.com/europe/belgium/articles/art-nouveau-deco-a-walking-tour-of-saint-gilles-brussels/

https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en

 

 

back from Amsterdam, part 1

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So so lucky with the weather. After a 4-hour train ride crossing the north of France, all of Belgium and the bottom half of Holland, my train arrived at Amsterdam Centraal at 2:30 pm on Saturday. The train trip back was only three hours. I returned to Paris at 7 pm this Monday evening.

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Dragging my small suitcase across cobblestones, alongside canals and over bridges, I walked to my hotel located in the Jordaan district. I quickly checked in, then headed back out again. Everyone was out enjoying the beautiful weather.

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I walked for 4 hours doing what I love best: wandering, taking photographs and popping into candy and cosmetic shops while enjoying the sunshine and vibe of this small city.

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I don’t know what Jordaan district I ended up in, but towards 5:30 I spied a pizzeria called La Perla. Famished, I walked straight on in.

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From my seat at the window ledge, I watched the street scene, drank ginger beer and ate my delicious pie.

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Certain areas are what I call “feel-good” places. This district was one of them. If you could see the cute little houses with wooden benches out front, tulips adorning the windowboxes, and the general conviviality of the residents, you’d feel good too. I know I did. And then suddenly it got dark around 6:30 pm and the temperature dropped dramatically.

I scurried back to the hotel for a cocktail (in reverse order, as I had already eaten.) The bar at the hotel was warm and welcoming. I perused the cocktail list and chose a concoction of cognac, crème de framboise and champagne.

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A nightcap on the house: espresso and Grand Marnier generously topped with thick fresh cream, not a jot of sugar. Yum.

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And then upstairs to lie on my bed in front of the television.

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My hotel room on the top floor was completely silent. Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons I travel is to seek quietude.

More photos to come.

https://www.hotelmercier.com/en

Amsterdam – Part I

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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.

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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 which I find deeply appealing. They look virtuous as they cycle energetically 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. A progressive city, 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.

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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.

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My hotel (link below) 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. (If you book your train tickets well in advance, you benefit from a considerable discount.)

Don’t expect sunny weather. Although fairly mild, it’s generally overcast during the winter months and even blustery as winds gust in from the North Sea.

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MORE TO COME – the canal houses, more photos, and the famous Rijksmuseum.

http://www.hotelsebastians.nl/en/

part four – more Holland

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I think I’m a wanderer at heart, a gypsy-spirit … no, I know I am. Truly happiest with a knapsack on my back and a camera slung around my neck. I could travel forever.

Do you want to know the number one reason why I live and work in France? Seven (7) paid vacation weeks a year was and still is the deal-clincher.

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Strolling around the neighborhood near my hotel one sunny Sunday morning, I came across an inviting café-bookstore. Music-filled, lots of wood and divided into different sections, you could buy and read books, drink coffee and eat little cakes all day long. The place had such a pleasant laidback vibe, I returned every day for the rest of my stay in The Hague.

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I sat in this cozy corner and read these two books (after purchasing them.) Cappuccino was brought to me on a little wooden platter.

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What was funny was this name directly above my head (watching over me?)

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Jongbloed in English is Youngblood. It’s the name my father gave to his publishing company (in Toronto). He would have been tickled pink to see this.

***

Part Three – cannabis and coffeeshops

THE HAGUE – Just down the road from my hotel was a large-windowed store with people going in and out all day long. Sometimes there was a long queue of people waiting to get inside. “What on earth are they selling?” I thought to myself. And then I learned that it was a store selling hashish, marijuana and other cannabis products. I was intrigued. In this small permissive country, you can legally buy pot (this was one year before Canada legalized marijuana.) Rather than skulking about in dark alleys, trading is carried out in broad daylight. Even on Sunday mornings!

So every day I passed this shop, and every day I became “curioser and curioser”, to quote Lewis Carroll. One warm, sunny evening – my last evening in Holland – I stopped for a burger, beer and fries at a place near the hotel.

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Sharing an outside table with a local Dutchwoman, we chatted. (If I haven’t mentioned it before, the Dutch speak perfect English.) I asked her about coffeeshops. She blithely said that she goes regularly (as if she were going to the corner store for milk.)

On my way back to the hotel I walked past the cannabis shop. My curiosity piqued, I stepped inside.

Here’s how the conversation went –

“So how does it work here?”

“You tell me what you want and we give it to you. Are you looking to buy hash or grass?”

“Errr … grass, I guess.” There was a really strong, funky, fuggy smell in the shop.

“Do you want to try just a single joint for starters?”

“OK.”

“Loose or pre-rolled?”

“Pre-rolled.”

“With or without tobacco?”

I wimped out. “With tobacco.”

“And what effect are you looking for?”

“Oh, definitely mellow.”

“OK, well I recommend one of our best-sellers. It’s called Strawberry Kush and if you smoke half of it, the effect is the equivalent to drinking two glasses of really good wine.”

“Sounds good. But say, can I travel with this? Because I’m leaving Holland tomorrow.”

“Where are you going, back to the States? In that case, the answer is no.”

“I’m not American.”

“You sure sound American. Where are you from?”

“Canada.”

“Oh, well,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “Same thing.”

Bristling, I replied – “Is Holland the same thing as Germany?”

“No, but Canada and the States is the same land mass …”

“The U.S.A. and Canada are two distinctly different countries.”

“Oh, yeah? How are they different?”

“Well, for one thing, we wouldn’t have voted for a dickhead like Trump. But changing the subject, I’m leaving tomorrow for Belgium and then back to France where I live. So, can I travel with this?”

“To Belgium, yes. You can legally carry 3 grams in that country, in Holland 5 grams. But in France, I don’t know.”

So I bought a spliff of Strawberry Kush. It cost six euros, 50 cents and came in its own little carrying case.

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Packing in my hotel room the next morning, I must have put that spliff in five different places – first in my cosmetic bag, then in the inside pocket of my travel bag, then in my knapsack, then in my eyeglasses case. I didn’t know what to do with it, other than smoke the damn thing, but it was 10 am on a Wednesday morning.

My concern was that my bags would pass through a scanner on my way back to France, and it would show up on the X-ray machine. I imagined sniffer dogs, an alarm going off, border police frogmarching me into a little room where I’d be strip-searched and humiliated. And the worst, I’d end up with a casier judiciaire (criminal record.) You can’t be employed with one. I’d lose my job, I’d have to go on welfare, I’d end up on the streets, all my worldly possessions in a storage unit …

Stop! For god’s sake, Juliet, get a grip! I pulled myself together. I think I’ve seen too many movies. We’re talking about a single joint mixed with tobacco and two grams … two grams of marijuana! Surely the police have more important things to look for … like, er, terrorists???

Down in the lobby of the hotel, I googled “Legality of cannabis in France” and what came up was ILLEGAL ILLEGAL ILLEGAL. I was surprised. Wow. Chill out, France, what’s the problem? 

Here’s what I learned – Possession of cannabis is illegal in France and can lead to severe punishments. In French law, there is no difference between cannabis and any other drug. Drug-related offences are taken very seriously and France is known for having one of the harshest drug policies in Europe.

Depending on the amount and the circumstances, you could be lucky to get away with just a slap on the wrist. But chances are, you’ll end up receiving a substantial fine, or even a prison sentence.

This was becoming far too sturm und drang. I could either go into the garden of the hotel and smoke the thing right then and there, or flush it down the toilet. Coz the thing was this: I had purchased the joint to smoke with my friend back in France, not on my own, alone in Holland. I headed for the lavatory.

To read the final Part Four – More Holland, go back up to the top and click on “Next”.

 

 

part two – the magnificent Mauritshuis

A jewel in the heart of the city. The Mauritshuis is one of the reasons I travelled to The Hague.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. A girl wearing an oriental turban and a large pearl earring. Johannes Vermeer was a master of light. This extraordinary work of art was painted 352 years ago in 1665.

The collection inside the Mauritshuis is made up of paintings dating from around 1400 to 1800. There are Flemish, German and French works, but the vast majority are Dutch dating from the seventeenth century. This was the Dutch Golden Age, a period of great prosperity boasting famous painters such as Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Vermeer.

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Fans of Donna Tartt will enjoy this painting of the chained bird on its perch. Tartt wrote her last novel, The Goldfinch, around this little masterpiece. In 2013, on loan from the Mauritshuis and as part of a travelling exhibition, this painting and others travelled to the Frick Collection in New York City. Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, created in 1654, is a small but potent painting.

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Well, they say that Vermeer was a master of light, but look at this splendid panel of artwork entitled Old Woman and Boy with Candles, painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1616.

This one I especially loved –

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Luminous! (It’s actually brighter in real life than it appears here.) As if lit from within. Entitled View of Delft and painted by Vermeer, this is the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age. Looking at Delft from the south, the city has an air of tranquillity. Reflecting this in his composition, Vermeer made three horizontal stripes: water, city and sky. Look at the interplay of light and shade and the clouds, as well as the reflections in the water and the two women standing in the forefront. This painting, 357 years old, is a masterpiece.

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Right beside the museum is a lovely restaurant and gift shop. Looking at all that art makes you hungry and thirsty!

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All this was for me. Just kidding!

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Of course you have the world-famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with its own important collection of the Dutch masters. But what makes the Mauritshuis special is its smallness and intimacy (and of course those exquisite paintings.)

Continue to Part Three – Cannabis and coffee shops.
Go back up to top right-hand of this page and click on “Next”.

Den Haag, Holland – part one

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These days, boarding a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord train station involves passing through a phalanx of machine gun-wielding policemen, sniffer dogs, scanners and metal detectors similar to those used in airports. However, in my line-up the scanner wasn’t working, so they just waved us through. And I thought, “What’s the point in having a scanner if it doesn’t work?”

The reason for this heightened surveillance is primarily to dissuade potential terrorists from climbing aboard a train armed to the teeth with weapons, which is exactly what happened two years ago (the horror!)

In August 2015, a deranged 25-year-old Moroccan Islamist called Ayoub El Khazzani nearly opened fire on passengers inside a Thalys train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris. Thanks to the courage, strength and alacrity of three American men, two who were off-duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces, they tackled the terrorist and managed to subdue him. Later, these heros were awarded France’s highest decoration for bravery, the Legion of Honor, by then-president François Holland. This is worth mentioning because these brave men averted a possible bloodbath. Again, the horror! To think that you could be sitting on a European train, or a train anywhere for that matter, calmly flipping through a magazine or chatting with your companion when suddenly a crazed lunatic shouting “Allah Akbar!” and wielding an assault rifle bursts into your compartment is beyond terrifying. But this is what is happening today. Islamic terrorism in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) is defining the beginning of the 21st century. And it is tragic. Governments need to work harder to eradicate this horrendous phenomenon.

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Seat prices are cheaper if you book months in advance. I booked myself a First Class ticket, Paris to Rotterdam, for 62 euros. Travel time is two hours and 37 minutes. A snack and lunch are included in the price of the ticket. If you’re travelling solo, ask for a “place isolée” or “place solo” (same thing) which means a single, window seat.

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Below is a photo of the mid-morning snack I received. As I was drinking coffee and reading my book, I was listening with one ear to the four New Yorkers sitting across the aisle from me. In their late sixties or early seventies, one of them was telling the others that during her visit to the world’s largest genealogical library in Salt Lake City, Utah, she had been researching her family history. “My maternal grandparents came from Minsk,” I heard her say. Funnily enough, the book I was reading – East West Street – covers precisely that region and era.

“Have you read this book?” I said to them, explaining that I had overheard their conversation. Naturally, a discussion ensued and we chatted amicably for the rest of the journey. (As an aside, I only barge into other peoples’ conversations when I hear they’re North American (or Australian.) Europeans, including the British, tend to be more private and probably resent the intrusion.)

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From Rotterdam I took a local train to The Hague (Den Haag), only a 20-minute ride. As I sat amongst the locals listening to the guttural Dutch language, I did a double-take. A man sitting across from me was wearing wooden clogs. Real, farmer-type clogs with a leather strap across the top of his foot. I had (mistakenly) thought that wooden clogs were a thing of the past. I wanted to laugh and take a photo, but that would have been too rude. 

At Den Haag train station, I picked up a street map and meandered the narrow streets (dragging my suitcase behind me) in search of my hotel, the Parkhotel Den Haag. A 4-star hotel, it was perfection; better than I had expected. My room overlooked the inner garden and the only sound was the cawing of sea gulls overhead. Den Haag is a seaside town located on the North Sea coast. Those gulls were constant and at one point, days later, I imagined myself in that famous Hitchcock film. (I’m not a fan of large, uncaged birds.)

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He looks quite vicious, don’t you think?

Here’s the hotel garden where I spent a few hours each morning (with coffee) and each evening (with a glass of wine) working on my memoir (rewriting some segments.) I have a new editor in Vancouver and he’s a taskmaster.

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Bicycles

Be forewarned that Holland is a nation of bikes, and at certain times of the day crossing the road can be perilous. So stressed was I by the flotilla of bikes bearing down on me at breakneck speed, not to mention the clanging of oncoming trams, I was a nervous wreck on my first day.

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Stay tuned for Part Two: the magnificent Mauritshuis art museum and the buying of cannabis in a legalized coffeeshop. Go back up to top right-hand of this page and click on “Next”.