It wasn’t until I heard the Spanish for The Netherlands that I ever considered what the name might signify… Paises Bajos, The Low Countries. At first I thought this meant ‘lower on the map than other countries’, but that’s a bit silly. These things are relative, and we all know Australia and NZ are the most undermost of them all.
So it turns out that the Netherlands are physically/geographically really low. As in, below sea level. Perhaps this is common knowledge that I somehow missed out on (it wouldn’t be the first giant, gaping hole), but the revelation was news to me. Upon arrival in the Netherlands it all made perfect sense. It’s a wet and swampy country, full of canals and dams and waterways. The only obstructions to the horizon (other than other than not-very-tall buildings) were droopy trees and fog. I suspect the people might even have webbed feet and gills, but can’t be sure, I’ve never seen a naked Netherlander.
Despite the way-too-early nightfall and the weather being the opposite of my ideal (I ‘strongly dislike’ the rain), my first impression of Amsterdam was that it was a really, really beautiful city. Nice streets, little bridges, and warm, glowing cafes. Ridiculously good looking hipsters were gliding around on bicycles, seemingly protected from the rain by impermeable bubbles of coolness, whilst I fumbled around on foot, getting drenched whilst trying to make sense of my waterlogged paper map (I gave up on the sat nav thingy after Luxembourg).
In the short time I spent there, my first impression of Amsterdam didn’t change. Despite the grunginess that is inevitably attracted by such famously liberal drug laws, the city isn’t really grungy at all. It’s certainly not for the prudish, but for the most part, Amsterdam is clean, relaxed, safe, and super-refreshingly open.
I ‘only’ had two days and nights to play with (it’s a hard life), but I managed to squish a fair bit into a short time, whilst maintaining a fairly relaxed pace. The persistent rain wiped ‘strolling in the parks to check out the crazy people’ off my list, and instead I took refuge in some fantastic galleries and cafes.
I visited the original home of the Dutch artist Rembrandt, and quite enjoyed the free audio tour which explained the how and why of the 17th century curiosities on display there. The painter went bankrupt in his old age and was forced to sell his every possession, and this meant historians had access to detailed inventories which enabled them to reconstruct the house piece by piece. Looking at all the old paraphernalia made me wish I was born a couple of hundred years ago… (despite the fact I’d probably be dead of a toothache or married with 12 children or stoned as a witch by now)
Next stop was the Van Gogh museum, where I saw (in addition to Van Gogh) some works by Vermeer, another Dutch artist who died destitute, despite his talent. I was first introduced to these Flemish artists by my Dad, who’s also a painter (that seems to have an unhealthy idolatry for meticulously slow artists who die penniless). Dad explained to me that one of the beauties of seeing a Vermeer is that only 34 paintings survive in the world today… which means that being in front of one is quite a special and privileged experience. And they’re absolutely beautiful.
Concurrent to the Van Gogh Museum permanent collection was a temporary Impressionists exhibition. This was like stepping into some much needed sunlight. I would’ve liked to be able to climb inside some of the paintings and wander the warm dry countryside of Southern France in the summer.
Instead, I braved the wind and rain to check out Hortus Botanicus, one of the world’s oldest botanic gardens. It was founded in 1638 as a medicinal herb garden, where doctors explored the properties of exotic plants and spices brought across from Asia by the Dutch East India Company.
The garden is located in the middle of Amsterdam city, but feels another world away. This isn’t surprising; it’s actually many other worlds. The garden has a number of greenhouses, each of which plays host to a particular microclimate and plants from specific botanical regions. It was a strange feeling to be wandering amongst seemingly prehistoric Tasmanian ferns, just minutes after navigating a busy intersection to get to an ATM. For those of you that know me from a long time back, you will also be impressed to hear that I entered the butterfly house. Alone. And survived. Fortunately it wasn’t butterfly hatching season and there weren’t too many of them (either that or they were very well camouflaged, uh). I think this means that I don’t have a phobia after all… just an extreme (and arguably reasonable) discomfort in the presence of chaotically moving bits of fleshy live tissue paper.
So what else in Amsterdam? The Rijksmuseum, a walking tour, and a browse in some antique shops and smaller commercial galleries. All were enjoyable and recommendable. It’s obvious why it’s such a popular tourist destination, and for me, it felt like one of those cities I could just keep going back to.
After Amsterdam I headed south to visit some friends in Maastricht, a small city/big town near the Belgian border. As well as a lot of talking and eating, we visited an underground Christmas market with prettily decorated caves, and my friends proudly showed me the biggest hill in the Netherlands. Which I thought quite impressive. It had been a few days since I’d seen an incline of any kind.
I took very few photos, as due to the constant rain I wasn’t feeling inclined to take my hands out of my pockets or spent time hanging around in the street. The majority here are from inside The Hortus, and yes, I’ve played with the colours just a little… Click on the pics for a better/bigger view :-)