Friday, 4 November 2011

Fabulous things about the Dutch #6

They know how to do museums.

Any tourist, and especially those on a whistle-stop visit to a country, knows to limit their time in museums, churches and other ‘places of interest’, as if you do too many of them pretty soon all you’re thinking about is how sore your feet are and how much you’re dying for a cup of coffee, and anyway how many damned churches did these people build, for god’s sake?!

So we did only the most obvious ones in the cities we visited and almost all were simply fabulous.

Much of the Rijksmuseum was, alas, closed for refurbishment while we were there, but we did get to see Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (of course – and it was colossally stunning, even when you take into account the appalling fact that it was cavalierly ‘trimmed’ in the 1700s so that it could fit into the town hall!). My walkie-talkie headset (at a rental fee of R100) informed me, among other fascinating things, that the subjects portrayed, of which there are 26, paid Rembrandt various prices to be included, the sum varying with the person’s prominence in the painting.

I also loved the two elaborate multi-storey dolls’ houses, one of which you had to climb a ladder to peek into. These were, my walkie-talkie told me, not children’s toys, but a very expensive adult hobby – one of them, with everything exactly to scale (and the furniture and fittings made by some of Amsterdam’s finest craftsmen of the day), cost as much to put together as a real house would have in the same era.

Another high point at the Rijksmuseum was Dutch designer Maarten Baas’s ‘human clock’, where a 24-hour-long video gives the impression that a man inside a grandfather clock rubs off and redraws the time every minute – I was as fascinated as a monkey by this, and even searched the back of the clock to make sure there wasn’t a real man inside (while my sister rolled her eyes and pretended not to be with me).

The other tourist spot we went to in Amsterdam was the Anne Frank house, which was incredibly moving – in spite of being absolutely packed with visitors at all times (I repeatedly thanked the heavens that we’d gone – against advice – to Holland in its autumn ‘off season’, as I can’t imagine how crowded the city and its attractions must be at peak tourist times). The upper rooms in the ‘annex’ house behind a spice factory in which the four members of the Frank family and four other people lived in hiding for two years before, heartbreakingly, being betrayed to the Nazis mere months before liberation, and shipped off to various concentration camps (where all but Anne’s father, Otto, died), have been left empty, but scale-model reconstructions, plentiful illustrations, supporting videos and other material give a clear and shattering idea of their life during that time. It’s not really possible to describe the experience; you have to go and see it.

In Den Hague we visited Madurodam, Holland’s ‘mini-city’. It was swarming with people (and I offered up yet more thanks for being there out of season), and children in particular, but it was huge fun. We especially enjoyed the funfair (with tiny working bumper cars and a rollercoaster), the waterskier (performing non-stop Olympic-level slaloms), the open-air Golden Earring concert (with the ‘golden circle’ miniature people dancing their socks off) and the clog-making factory, where you inserted a Euro into a slot, then listened while your clogs were ‘made’ (hammering noises coming from the inside of a little workshop), and then waited for a mini-truck to drive out and deliver a tiny pair of clogs to you. Ag, we realised it was very touristy, but we loved it.

From there, it was on to the Panorama Mesdag (also undergoing refurbishment), a gigantic cylindrical painting that you view by climbing a spiral staircase in its centre. You end up in what feels like a beach gazebo, gazing out on a 180-degree 19th-century beach and city scene. There’s a glass dome (hidden by draped fabric) above the painting which lets in natural light, so the experience is somewhat surreal – the light changes as you stand there, right in the 120-metre-long painting-in-the-round. The primary artist, Hendrik Mesdag, was a banker until he turned 35, when he suddenly decided he’d like to be an artist instead (good for him!). His wife and various artist friends contributed to the Panorama; he included his wife in the artwork – she can be seen down on the beach, under an umbrella, working at an easel.

My sister and I had gone to Den Hague intending to spend the night, but we don’t know anyone who lives there, so we asked the woman at the Panorama Mesdag main desk if she could suggest a reasonably priced hotel. She immediately got on the phone and arranged for us to meet Basil, who runs a hotel right outside the gates of the Palace Gardens. We walked there, giggling, expecting to meet John Cleese, and instead got what Basil Fawlty could only ever have hoped to be as a hotelier: repeated assurances of only the best possible service at all times, utterly devoid of any venom-spitting, and a lovely room at a good price, above a busy pavement cafĂ© where we could sit in the sun and drink red wine and smoke cigarettes without being shouted at by anyone. Heaven.

The next morning we set off early to see the Palace of Justice (because, you know, you have to – and very beautiful it was, too),
and then marched smartly on to the Escher museum, which has been on my wish list since my Dad told me about it. Alas, Dutch museums are closed on Mondays! A bit of insider information you’d have thought a Dutch person might have told us about! (This recalled, for me, my one other major life-tourist-spots disappointment, when the Statue of Liberty was closed for refurbishment when I visited New York in 1985 – the only time until recently that it’s ever been off-limits to the public.)

But there wasn’t much time for weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, because Rotterdam and the Euromast awaited. My sister and I are both afraid of heights (I can’t go on the escalators at Cavendish Square because the last time I did, I felt strangely compelled to jump into the gaping four-storey drop below and had to – to my children’s intense embarrassment – sit down until I reached the next floor), so this may seem an odd choice of tourist attraction for us to visit, but everything else was closed – it was Monday. We debated the wisdom of what we were about to do for some time – I had gone on the ‘Amsterdam Eye’ a few days before and, mainly by keeping my eyes closed, gripping on for dear life and babbling frantically, had managed, even if I did tremble for several hours afterwards, so I reckoned I’d be okay. (Showing near-inhuman courage, I prised my fingers from the safety bar for long enough to snap the two pics of Amsterdam-from-above at the top of this post.) My sister wasn’t so sure – but, in the spirit of adventure, she finally said she’d try. And up we went. We were terrifically brave, and had a lovely lunch up there in the sky, and came down feeling as if we’d just done a Moon landing.

A couple of other attractions deserve special mention. First, the little museum in Naarden, which is the historic fort town (with five ‘points’ to its fortress, much in the style of Cape Town’s castle) in which my Dad lives. The town and its surrounds are, to all intents and purposes, a living museum, having changed little in structure over the last few hundred years, but the museum was intricate and interesting and informative, and I loved it. (And an added bonus was the oddness of the family of goats living in one of the battlements, which poked their billy-goat-gruff faces out of their houses on the rainy day we walked past.)

Also, FloraHolland, a gigantic flower-auction market that is as large, in total surface area, as the kingdom of Monaco. We watched some of the auctions in progress and stared down in astonishment at the gigantic warehouse below, where thousands upon thousands of cut flowers are traded every day, ending up in all parts of the world; it was organised chaos on such a grand scale that it’s another experience that has to be seen to be understood. And, third, our canal-boat tourist trip in Amsterdam was good fun – we didn’t learn a whole lot (the recorded commentary, in several languages, was too soft and a bit scratchy) but travelling the canals, and out into the harbour for a while, on a warm boat was a marvellous way to pass a couple of cold, rainy Amsterdam hours.

If you’re ever in Holland, I’d suggest you skip the Marken museum. It’s madly overpriced and all you get for your bucks is a look at some mannekins wearing strange and not terribly attractive clothes, a video presentation about the pig-headedness of the people of Marken (discussed here), and the knowledge that Dutch people slept in cupboards in the old days.

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1 comment:

Anatswanashe said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u.

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