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Monday, 01 March 2021

Exploring Amsterdam and its ‘Big Three’ Museums

Written by Russ and Emily Firlik
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We arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which is one of the busiest airports in Europe, for our two week slow travel adventure. Normally, we have a longer period of time, so we planned well and just focused on the city. Having just finished Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by J.L Price, I was anxious to spend as much time at the Rijksmuseum as possible. The majority of our time we were joyfully visiting the museums, enjoying several canal rides, and leisurely walking around and admiring the sights along the Amstel River.



After researching Amsterdam, we discovered it is a two wheel culture, bikes take priority over pedestrians and there are over 300 miles of bike paths. It also has 165 canals — with a combined length of 50 KM (31 miles). There are 281 bridges and over 2,500 houseboats.


The ‘Big Three’ museums and highlights of our slow travel:

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1) The Vincent van Gogh Museum. During his ten-year artistic career, Van Gogh was highly prolific. We read that 864 paintings and almost 1,200 drawings and prints have survived. The largest collection of his work, more than 200 paintings, 437 drawings, 31 prints and 700 letters are found in the Vincent Van Gogh Museum. We purchased the 120 hour City Card that provided sufficient time to slow travel, and we were very happy to have observed, lingered and reflected on almost every painting. Most intriguing (which is very difficult to choose) were: SUNFLOWERS, THE POTATO EATERS and THE SOWER. At peak times, the museum was very busy, as expected. We determined that the best viewing times, with less people, were in the early mornings and late afternoons. Fortunately, the museum is open on weekends as well. One interesting tidbit I learned about Vincent: After losing his job after working for six years, he became a substitute teacher in a boarding school in the seaside town of Ramsgate, England.

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One observation we made was the paintings were not only displayed in chronological order by years, but by color and composition; extremely enjoyable and a valuable learning feature.


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In between museum visits, were the two hour rides on the 17th century canals, with UNESCO status. They fostered new discoveries and appreciation for the history and architecture of Amsterdam. The narrow houses were built because in the 17th century taxes were based upon the size of the building’s facade. Dutch colonial architecture was characterized by gambrel roofs (two-sided roofs with two slopes on each side), with curved eaves along the length of the houses. Especially in the Jordaan quarter, many of the houses are sunken into the ground, most likely due to an added floor, which added extra weight. With careful observation, one notices the ‘hook’ that enables residents to pull large and bulky objects up into a window at the focused floor.


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Most of our time in Amsterdam the weather ranged from high 40’s to high 50’s degrees Fahrenheit. The relatively few days of sunshine did not detour our quest to seek out the endless treasure troves in Amsterdam. The museums, canal views, redevelopment of the Tobacco Theater, the cultural center of Amsterdam, and the colorful buildings more than compensated for the weather.


2) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam’s museum of modern and contemporary art.

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The museum’s interesting architecture is a harmonious collaboration of 19th Dutch Neo-Renaissance meeting the 21st century wing and current entrance. The building was a massive white building with tall ceilings. The rooms were large and spacious providing ample room to move around the collections. We really did like the design section and the modern works. Contemporary art is another geography in and of itself; it is a stretch for me, but a joy for my wife, Emily. The more I visited the Stedelijk, the fresher my observational skills became. I began to observe the dynamic combination of materials, methods and concepts that challenged the boundaries in the 20th century.

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The collection comprised modern and contemporary art and design from the early 20th century up to the 21st century. The museum collection holds 90,000 objects that represent every important movement in art and design of the 20th - 21st centuries. Included are paintings, ‘pop art’ moving images and sound, drawing, posters and photography. It featured artists such as Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Chagall, Matisse, Pollock, Warhol, de Looning, Dumas, and many more. An observation and a pleasant surprise were the smaller crowds as opposed to the Vincent van Gogh Museum.


A break from the museums, we continued to be joyful tourists. Not to be missed attractions were taking the tram to Dam Square, the famous flower market, the Cheese Museum and cheese shops, Anne Frank's House, the daily markets and cheese stalls, and the oldest and second oldest churches. We went scouting out the fabric section where an impressive array of Dutch fabrics were on display; Em was in her element for sure. We found our way around rather easily, as Old Amsterdam is not that large. The trams are a quick and easy (albeit expensive) mode of transport. The On and Off canal buses were another way to travel in and around the city. After we found the supermarket, fruit and cheese shops, cafes with reasonably priced coffee/tea and a large multi-stocked department store, we thought we could live here very happily for many years, and still would not discover all that Amsterdam offers.

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As it happened, a few days when the rather chilly and rainy weather detoured our plans, we explored all the areas around the museums. This landed us at the Spiegelwartier - The exciting art and antique quarter. Several blocks of art galleries and art shops along both sides of the canal. A little reminiscent of Paris with the narrow lanes and the shop fronts painted in blue and red enamel paint. We were fortunate to have a healthy lunch at one of the best eating places, we were told, in Amsterdam. What attracted us to this establishment was a sign posted directly at the entrance which stated, ‘We do not accept cash, only credit cards; for hygienic reasons, only cards.” This seemed like a courageous hygienic platform to stand on. Impressed for sure, but I suspect that this phenomenon is currently in use elsewhere in the states. The Flemish Bread House - A selection of homemade sourdough breads made with whole grain flour and various herbs, homemade herb butters, pesto, one red and blue fruit tart, and two authentic mint teas, complemented our long and very enjoyable lunch. Fortunately, by the time we were ready to leave, the sun did its best to come out and the rain stopped.


3) The Rikjismusuem, ‘The Museum of the Netherlands,’ and an UNSECO Heritage Site since 1970. The museum told a 800 year old story of Dutch history from the 1200's to present. The Dutch neo-Renaissance architectural style, makes an impressive edifice. With over 2.3 million visitors per year, and housing 1.1 million objects, its Holland’s most cherished national treasure.

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Approaching the Rijksmuseum, we noticed how open, airy and beautiful the structure was. A worthy reflection for hosting the ‘Masters,’ including Han, Steen, Vermeer and Rembrandt, just to name a few, who had given the world so many samples of ‘How to paint the light.’

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Just to be clear, Holland is a region of two provinces of Nordic - and - Zuid, of which Amsterdam is included. There are 12 provinces in the Netherlands. With over 1.5 kilometers of space, the museum even hosts the largest research library in the Netherlands. My main interest was the 2,000 paintings from the Dutch Golden Age (1575-1655). To try and satisfy my learning quest, it took nine visits to even scratch the surface of understanding of this masterpiece. Particularly impressive and interesting were the paintings by Johannes Vermeer’s (The Milkmaid,) Frans Hals’s (Portrait of a Women,) and Rembrandt’s, (The Night Watch). Never satisfied, we must return to Amsterdam in the near future.

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In closing, a couple of observations about Amsterdam from a strictly foreigner’s point of view:


1. When we were there the Euro was at a two- year high of 1.30 dollars to one Euro, making everything even more expensive. A tram ride for two for one hour cost 11 Euro, one way. Coffee runs about $8-10.00 for two. Museum entry fees would have cost us $44.00 without our City Card, which saved us an enormous amount. Our small apartment was perfect because of the low rent cost, including utilities, and its location close to the museums and trams. Our supermarket excursions helped us to save money by purchasing fresh bread, ham, salmon, Edam cheese, yogurt, water, wine and fruit. We ate most of our meals at the apartment, and on those few days when it did not rain, in the park or along the canals.


2. There were no beggars, panhandlers, or dog poop - We only spotted one homeless person, and not badly dressed, on the streets of Amsterdam. In fact, we only saw four dogs this entire time. There are no cats on the street, very few motorcycles, although some noise eminated from the moped motors. We also noticed many BMW’s, a few Mercedes, one Aston Martin, a couple of Porsches.


3. We learned to be very careful crossing streets and tram lines. The trams have their rights, the bikes have their rights and autos, coaches, city buses have theirs. For us pedestrians, however, we had to be vigilant to stop and look constantly both ways. In addition, we still had to watch out for the bikes coming in both directions on their red brick lanes which were sometimes a larger area than the sidewalks. The cycle lanes have an excellent infrastructure with white lines, cycle signs and dedicated traffic lights. Given that the trams can’t be steered, we had to listen for their rattle and stay clear as well. We observed that bicycle riders travel at a very fast pace and frequently jump red lights and ride on sidewalks. This was not England's Oxford or Cambridge riding where bikes travel at a leisurely pace moving ever so slowly with their baskets on the front handle bars and gently ringing their bells to notify you that they are near you. No, No, in Amsterdam you better watch out because the bikes are coming with an undetermined speed. They are all going someplace special! If you happen to unfortunately be on their bike lane you will hear a ghastly horn sound that makes you look like a fool!


Nonetheless, Amsterdam is a city that everyone must see in their lifetime. It is different from our many visits to Venice, but with the same type of buildings. That is, all the buildings in both cities are on wooden or concrete beams that force the building to stand together next to each other. Some end buildings are tilted badly due to the beams shifting or sinking. Some beams are sunk at 54 feet in the marshy soil. Amsterdam does not have to worry about flooding as Venice does because of its dyke system. Interestingly, during the summer the canals are frequently drained to clean them. In fact, there are swimming trials and meets in the cleaned canals. The point being, the canals are very clean in the summer.


These are merely our observations as slow travelers on a fixed budget. The museums were fantastic, the people very friendly, polite, and everyone spoke English. The spiritual beauty of the canal buildings and the cultural attractions made Amsterdam one our most favorite cities.



©Russ and Emily Firlik, “Nothing without Joy!”


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Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021