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As a consequence of our itinerary changes, on April 6th we had one of our longest drives ever. We left Danmark at 11:00 AM, and after driving back through Deutchland we didn't get to our next accommodations in Nederland (the Netherlands) until 7:30 PM. Cameron and Joss held up extremely well, though we had to take several stretch breaks at rest stops. We have also now added subtraction to their in-car math drills (along with multiplication, addition, and division) because they have gotten very much out of practice.
To settle a question that we have been pondering since our airplane stopover last November, "Holland" and "the Netherlands" are not the same thing. "North Holland" and "South Holland" are the two largest states, but there are still ten others. After we crossed the border into the most densely populated country in Europe, we began to see places with wonderful names like "Twello," "Wilp," "Apeldoorn," "Zwolle," and "Gooimeer." Although our main excursion destination here is Amsterdam, we followed Rick Steves' advice and made reservations in Haarlem, the town next door (fifteen minutes by train to the west).
Our first choice was the Bed and Breakfast House de Kiefte, and we were absolutely amazed when we were able to secure four nights with less than a week's notice. The proprietors, Hans and Marjet, are described by Rick Steves as "a fun-to-know Dutch couple," and they certainly are. When we were on the phone with Hans a few days ago, he gave us the best directions to accommodations we've ever gotten:
"Follow the signs to Amsterdam. Exit at Haarlem Zuid. Go to the Texaco Station. Enter our address in the yellow computer, and print out the free directions in English."
Hans and Marjet are living their dream life; they have been running this B&B in an old family home for eleven years. The business has done so well that the two were able to quit their jobs (as a clinical chemist and managing director, respectively); and they now take four months of vacation a year (they usually travel). We are staying here in a single room up two steep and narrow flights of stairs; Cameron and Joss are sleeping at the top of one more ladder in the loft (they love crawling around up there).
Breakfast is only served from 8:00 until 9:00 AM, so we literally had to drag ourselves out of bed on April 7th. After chatting with Hans, Marjet, and Mary (the woman staying in the room next door), it was past 11:00 AM before we set out on the ten-minute walk to the train station. Nederland has a fantastic transportation system -- trains run from Haarlem to Amsterdam every 15 minutes -- and we soon found ourselves in Amsterrdam. Our two sightseeing destinations -- the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House -- should not be visited during the crowded middle of the day, so we took our time and walked all over the city during the afternoon.
Like Venezia, Amsterdam is a canal city built on top of pilings -- it actually has more canals than Venezia does -- but we found the ambience here to be much, much more agreeable. Autos are allowed here, but most people ride buses or bicycles -- we saw a three-story parking garage just for bikes. Amsterdam also has something that Venezia is sorely lacking: trees. We saw wonderful gardens and parks all around us. We stopped at the oldest playground in Amsterdam, where Cameron and Joss played in the sun for more than an hour. The playground has a full-time proctor who monitors all activities; she let the boys take turns on a pedal car and other fun vehicles.
At the south end of town, we had a choice between the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum (we decided that visiting both would be unfair to the boys). We chose the Van Gogh Museum, not only because we are all fans of Van Gogh, but because for four months only, there is a special Van Gogh and Gauguin Exhibition going on (we had no idea beforehand; we just got incredibly lucky). More than 100 works of art have been loaned from 65 sources around the world, and together they tell the story of one of the most famous artistic relationships in history.
Russell, outside of the Van Gogh Museum
Paul Gauguin first met the Van Gogh brothers -- Theo the art dealer, and his brother Vincent the struggling artist -- in Paris in November 1887. The two painters became friends through subsequent letters, and in the summer of 1888 Van Gogh formed a "Studio of the South" in Arles, France, where Gauguin joined him. For nine tumultuous weeks, the two painters lived together and became greatly influenced by each other. As Gauguin became more famous and Van Gogh did not, tempers flared. It was here that Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a knife and ultimately cut off a piece of his own ear. Gauguin left Arles and the two never met again. Two years later, Van Gogh, in a state of extreme depression, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
We were pleased by how much Cameron and Joss appreciated and learned from the exhibit. Because they are shorter, they were able to walk right up to the paintings without bothering other visitors, and Gail and Russell spent a lot of time kneeling beside them, explaining what they were seeing. Van Gogh and Gauguin fundamentally disagreed about the purpose of art; Van Gogh believed that the hand of the artist should be visible in his work, while Gauguin believed that the art should speak for itself. We saw first-hand how Van Gogh's brushstrokes seem to leap from the canvas, and how his mood and frame of mind are present in every one of his paintings.
It was after 6:00 PM before we made our way to the Anne Frank House on the west side of town, and it was just as well. During the day, lines of people stretch around the block as they wait for more than an hour to get in. In the evening, we were just about the only visitors there, and we were able to read and view this excellent museum in a much more quiet and intimate setting.
265 Prinsengracht: the Anne Frank House
Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Deutschland, but her family moved to Amsterdam after Hitler came to power. The Jewish family was safe here until the Nazis occupied Nederland in 1940. For the next 25 months, eight people hid in a secret annex behind a bookcase on the upper floors of Otto Frank's office building. For 25 months they could not make any noise, they could not go outside, and they were at the mercy of the office workers who secretly brought them food and supplies. In the end, the hiding place was betrayed, and the family was split up and sent to different concentration camps around Germany. Fifteen-year-old Anne died in Bergen-Belsen one month before it was liberated. Her teenaged friend Peter van Pels died in Mauthausen, whose konzentrationlager we visited a few weeks ago. Of the eight victims, only Otto Frank survived.
During her short life, Anne Frank had hoped one day to become a writer. Two years after the war, Otto Frank published a book from her diaries -- to date, it has been published in 60 different languages. The house itself, at 265 Prinsengracht (behind the Westerkerk Church) has been outstandingly restored. Each room of the office and the secret annex looks just as it was and is fully explained in English -- the tour path even leads you through the false bookcase and up the narrow stairway. Preserved on the walls are Anne's photographs, pencil markings showing the heights of the children, and the map on which Otto Frank charted the course of the D-Day advance. With the interactive PC program at the end, we spent more than two hours here. For all of us, this remarkable exhibit brought the horrors of WWII down to an extremely personal level.
It was 8:45 PM before we caught a train from Amsterdam back to Haarlem, and by the time we remounted the steep and narrow stairs back to our room, we all had very sore legs. But it was just as much from dancing around in the streets with excitement at being able to spend a day in this beautiful, magical city.
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