Saturday, July 30, 2016

Unforgettable Amsterdam

When I wait a month before writing about a place I've visited, I run into the challenge of remembering all those glorious details I had intended to share. But instead of scolding myself for procrastinating, I offer some stand-out memories of the wonderful city of Amsterdam.

Amsterdam Centraal Station is our first destination after landing at Schipol airport.

A barge filled with tourists floats down one of Amsterdam's 165 canals.

Flowers frame another view of Amsterdam.

Look up and look out!

We take two guided tours during our five days in Amsterdam. A free (meaning tip-based) walking tour in the rain provides a great introduction to the city. On our last day the sun comes out, and our canal tour gives us a different perspective on Amsterdam.

I keep my camera in my hands when travelling. I'm simultaneously looking around (to see the sites and to avoid colliding with bicycles), looking down (so I don't trip over a curb or step in dog-poo, of which there is surprisingly little here), and looking up, where I discover some of the city's sweetest surprises.

Brouserij't IJ micro-brewery is located in a former bathhouse next to
the De Gooyer windmill in Amsterdam. 
I spot this little green guy sitting on the eaves of a house in Amsterdam.

A door-topper that I may have missed if I wasn't looking up.

A sculpture in the sidewalk that I may have missed if I wasn't looking down.

Monique of City Free Tour Amsterdam shares historical trivia and shows us
sites we likely wouldn't have otherwise come across.  

We choose a small boat for our guided tour of Amsterdam's canals. Tours
on bigger boats are a bit cheaper, but have recorded "guides." 
boats are being phased out because of pollution and canal traffic.

Eat anything anywhere

It didn't take us long to realize that eating while walking down the street is perfectly acceptable in Amsterdam. This is very different from France where, if we can't wait until we get home to eat our almond croissants, even total strangers inevitably wish us a bon appétit (meaning: "You clearly are not from around here.")

At least one travel report we watched on YouTube before our trip had warned that Amsterdam was not known for its cuisine. Boy, is that wrong! We eat street food (raw herring sandwiches and sauce-laden fries), ethnic food (Mexican nachos and Indonesian rice tables), and comfort food (burgers, bagels and corn on the cob). A month later, I'm still trying to take off those Dutch pounds.

Ken is halfway through his soused raw herring sandwich —
a Holland specialty for more than 600 years.

We should have ordered a smaller serving of patat frites, smothered in samurai
sauce, from Manneken Pis — we tried our best, but we couldn't finish them. 

Don't let the tiny bowls food you. It's a challenge to finish our rijsttafel
(rice table) meal at Betawi Indonesian restaurant.
Aside from our morning coffee, the only thing I cook at our rented
apartment is the corn on the cob we pick up at an open-air market.
While not as sweet and tender 
as American corn, it's light years
ahead of what we can get in France.

Lean in and out

In the 1500s, taxes were determined, in part, by the width of houses. That's why so many of Amsterdam's houses are narrow — but deep. Houses built on water mean that some lean sideways. And some houses were built forward-leaning, on purpose: in order to minimize the chance of damaging furniture when it was hoisted up via hooks hanging out over the front of the houses.

The red house with the flowers surrounding the door
is Amsterdam's narrowest home.

Nearly all the homes along Amsterdam's canals have hooks
onto which furniture is attached and hoisted to upper floors.

The step gables on this Amsterdam building are an architectural style from
the 17th century.

Meet the Masters

Eschewing religious themes in favor of portraits of real people and scenes of everyday life, Dutch Golden Age painting is one of my favorite genres. Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum is the place to see the great Dutch and Flemish masters. I also dig the dollhouses and Delftware.

Rembrandt's "Syndics of the Drapers' Guild" is on display at the Rijksmuseum
in Amsterdam. 

"Girl in a Large Hat" by Cesar Boetius van Everdingen
is on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

"The Merry Fiddler" by Gerard van Honthorst is on display
at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Later in the day, tourists will jockey for position to be photographed by the
"I amsterdam" sign at the back of the Rijksmuseum.

Yeah, yeah, yeah

The Beatles slept here, at the Doelen Hotel and escaped their enthusiastic fans
by exiting though a back door directly onto a water taxi. Just before their 
6, 1964 concert, fans attempted to reach the 
Royal Yacht, from which the band
was sightseeing, by jumping into the canal, and other fans tossed 
gifts to the
Fab Four from bridges.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Bringing on the cheese in Alkmaar

Alkmaar's cheese market and weigh house are seen from a bridge over the
Luttik Ourdorp canal.

We step off the train from Amsterdam and have no trouble finding our way to the old center of the Alkmaar. It's Friday and thousands of visitors pour into town to enjoy the festivities surrounding the weekly cheese market.

A woman dressed in traditional Dutch style sells cheese to tourists
at the cheese market in Alkmaar.

Alkmaar's first public cheese market took place in 1622, although cheese has been weighed in this Dutch town since 1365. The market is open to the public Friday mornings from April through September.

Customers can taste before buying cheese at the market
in Alkmaar.

At 10 a.m. the cheese inspection begins. A sampler extracts a piece from the center of huge wheels of cheese. Tasting, tapping and smelling ensue. Then, carriers load barrows (kind of like bobsleds with handles on the ends) with 120 kilos of cheese and rhythmically jog off to the Waaggebouw where the cheese is weighed on large, centuries-old scales. The proceedings are overseen by the head of the Cheese Carriers Guild — the "cheese father." The cheese is then taken away by each "veem" or forwarding company, who toss the cheese into the trucks.

Wheels of cheese are literally tossed onto a truck
in Alkmaar.

Since I don't like crowds, we leave the market and spend the next few hours exploring this thousand-year-old village. We have some difficulty finding Alkmaar's tourist office (called the VVV in the Netherlands), located in the Waagplein, so for much of our morning here, we are map-less. Fortunately, Alkmaar's charms are obvious.

Wooden shoes are on sale at the weekly market in Alkmaar.

I fortify myself for sightseeing with a breakfast of savory Dutch pancakes stuffed with Beemster cheese, made locally, of course. Canals wind through the village, crossed by bridges that beg me to stop and take pictures. Ornate façades mark the former homes of merchants — the upper crust of Alkmaar society when the town was a thriving trading destination. Today, the town has a healthy shopping area along Langestraat and Laat streets. along with dozens of restaurants and cafes. There's even a miniature "red light district" down one side street.

A small barge laden with cheese floats down a canal in Alkmaar.

This ornate building in Alkmaar likely was once the home of a wealth merchant.

We arrive at a large church just before an organ concert begins and decide to give our feet a rest for a bit and enjoy the music. Grote Sint Laurenskerk, or Grote Kerk, was built in the 15th to 16th centuries on a site of a couple of older churches dating back as far as the year 600. Until 1572 the church was Roman-Catholic, but became Protestant after the Reformation and remained so until 1996. Now it is a multi-purpose facility. The church's decor is simple, but its two organs are the building's main attractions. The smaller one, built in 1511, is the oldest playable organ in the Netherlands. The "Great Organ" was built by Van Hagerbeer and his sons in 1640. Its case was designed by architect Jacob van Campen, who also designed the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. The case has shutters which can be closed to reveal a painting of David and Goliath by Alkmaar artist Caesar van Everdingen.

The "Great Organ" at Grote Kerk in Alkmaar

After getting our culture on at the classical music concert, we head out to find Molen van Piet, Alkmaar's last old-style windmill. Unfortunately, like most windmills around here, it is not open to the public.

Molen van Piet in Alkmaar

By early afternoon, we are back on the train to Amsterdam where, after several days of rain, the skies are clearing.

The tower of Alkmaar's weigh house (Waaggebouw)
dominates the village's skyline.

Canoeing in the land of châteaux

The "lazy hazy days" of summer don't get much better than this.

La Roque-Gageac as seen from the bow of a canoe

We wake up early, forego our (my) daily workout, rub on sunscreen, put on bathing suits, load the car with towels, snacks and wide-brimmed hats and head to the river.

One recent jour trop chaud we drive to Port d'Enveaux where we're taken by van upriver to just past La Roque-Gageac. We're the first departure of the day so before 10 a.m. we are on the Dordogne. After a bit of frustration trying to figure out who is supposed to be steering the canoe — bow or stern — we're on our way.

Canoeing along the Dordogne at La Roque-Gageac

Along our 14 km journey we pass by the village of La Roque-Gageac and châteaux Beynac, Castelnaud and Milandes, among others in the distance.

Castelnaud from a canoe on the Dordogne

The village and Château de Beynac from a canoe on the Dordogne

Aside from fellow river drifters, we spot some swans and lots of fish. We stop a couple of times for cool dips in the crystal-clear water. And really, before we know it, we're back at base camp. It's just starting to get hot and the gnats are starting to swarm around my face, so even though my heart says I could have stayed on the river another hour, my reddening shoulders tell me it's time to go home.

A garbarre tour out of Beynac on the Dordogne river

Swans on the Dordogne

If you go

There are lots of canoe and kayak rental places along your river of choice. Pick up brochures at your local tourism office. Call ahead for reservations. By the time we returned to base camp, the parking lot was full of cars. Also, we tried to reserve a canoe the last week of June and were told the river was too high and fast due to recent rains. Typically, you can choose from half- or full-day rentals, costing between 8 and 25 euros per person. Most places offer a snack bar at base camp, but bring along water and munchies for the "road." And don't forget the sunscreen.

A family canoes on the Dordogne river.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Real places, fictional heroes

We’ve just returned from a visit to Amsterdam (lovely despite the rain). My one disappointment was that a museum in Alkmaar dedicated to Hans Brinker, which I had read about in an old travel guide, no longer exists. This got me thinking about cities that honor fictional characters. Philadelphia has its Rocky, Brussels has its Tintin, Copenhagen has its Little Mermaid, and London honors Paddington Bear, Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh.

Locally, I offer two examples of cities embracing literary figures as their own: Condom’s Musketeers and Bergerac’s Cyrano. Can you think of others?

Cyrano de Bergerac

There really was a Cyrano de Bergerac, but the Cyrano we know is a fictionalized version created by the French poet/playwright Edmond Rostand. Visit the city of Bergerac in the Dordogne department, and you’ll find two large statues of Cyrano, a couple of shops and cafés named for him and plenty of Cyrano souvenirs.

Statue of Cyrano de Bergerac in Bergerac

Another statue of Cyrano de Bergerac in Bergerac

Sign honoring Cyrano de Bergerac and his lady love
Roxanne in Bergerac

Cyrano wooden toys in a shop window in Bergerac

The Three Musketeers

Visit Condom in the Gers department and you can’t miss the lifesize statues of D’Artagnan and his three buddies: Athos, Porthos and Aramis, characters created by Alexandre Dumas. The bronze work by sculptor Zurab Tsereteli was installed in 2010. 

Musketeers statue in Condom

Musketeers statue in Condom