Friday, August 28th 2015
There are several ways to travel from London to Amsterdam but the way we prefer is to take the train. Our journey was in two stages.
We started from St Pancras International Station, just down the road from us. We had bought our tickets and reserved our hotel online and had collected the train tickets from the machine the evening before, to avoid any last-minute rush. This morning we had leisure enough to have breakfast before catching the 8:55 Eurostar to Brussels.
The worst part of the journey is right at the beginning where you have to submit to the baggage and person search. For short trips like this, we limit our luggage to ‘cabin bags’ – bags of the permitted dimensions to be taken aboard the aircraft with you when you fly – and I stuff my camera and handbag into this before dumping it on the conveyor belt. I have to remember to remove my rings and take my belt off or the metal buckle will trigger the alarm. My coat and hat also have to go through the X-ray machine (who knows what wickedness might be hidden in my fedora?). Happily, this tedious process has to be done only once even though we cross several national frontiers on our journey1.
The Eurostar has three classes: Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier. Despite the extra expense, we usually choose Standard Premier because there is more room for our long legs and a meal is served en route.
The Eurostar deposited us at Brussels Midi Station. Here we had 47 minutes to transfer to our next train. This is perfectly feasible because there are no passport or baggage checks, thanks to Schengen. We had time to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and to make a purchase at the station shop.
Books in French are apt to be expensive in the UK so I often buy one or more on our way through France or Belgium, especially at station shops where they are cheaper than in bookshops. I bought this book more or less at random and partly because I liked the author’s name (it is pronounced like ‘Wellbeck’).
For the next stage of the journey we departed from Brussels at 12:52 aboard the Thalys Paris to Amsterdam train. The Thalys has two classes, called Comfort 1 and Comfort 2. We chose Comfort 1 for the extra leg room. As on the Eurostar, a meal is provided in Comfort 1.
Our train journey ended in the heart of Amsterdam at Amsterdam Centraal Station. The station itself is very busy and so is the area in front of it which serves as a bus and tram station. Our first task was to find our hotel which we knew was somewhat away from the centre.
Faint hearts would have taken a cab but Tigger is made of sterner stuff. We made our way to the public transport ticket office and bought a 72-hour pass each. This provides unlimited travel on buses and trams for the number of hours indicated. It becomes valid from the minute you first use it and as it was now Friday afternoon, we would be able to use it right up to our departure on Monday morning.
Linguistic Note 1
The language spoken in the Netherlands is, of course, Dutch. The Dutch, however, are a pragmatic race and recognize the increasing importance of English both on its own terms and as a world lingua franca. All the Dutch and Flemish people we have met have spoken English to a very high standard. If you want to live and work in the Netherlands, you will absolutely have to learn to speak Dutch but the visitor can rely on using English everywhere.
Our hotel is called Amsterdam Teleport Hotel and is on Heathrowstraat near the Sloterdijk railway station. Tigger, with her usual aplomb, soon discovered which bus we needed to take to get there. Our nearest stop was beside the station. We had a little trouble finding the hotel, partly because it was still being built!
We eventually recognized it by the various national flags being flown on the roof but the next problem was finding the way in! The entrance was quite understated but we found it at last.
The hotel was fine and the staff polite and helpful. Being away from the centre was a slight disadvantage but we soon got used to catching the bus which quickly whisked us to Amsterdam Centraal Station. I would be happy to stay here again.
We returned to the area near Centraal station, partly because that was where the bus took us but also because there was something here that we wanted to visit.
There is, of course, a lot of water in the Netherlands. Apart from the surrounding sea there are rivers and canals and docks. It’s quite hard sometimes to decide what a particular stretch of water is. The waterway that passes in front of Amsterdam Centraal Station is a river and it is called the Ij. This is pronounced ‘ay’ as in the word ‘say’.
Linguistic Note 2
The letter combination ‘ij’ is a characteristic of the Dutch language. For example, in Dutch, the capital of France is Parijs. But how do you pronounce it? It seems that even native speakers find this a matter for discussion. I think the answer is that the pronunciation of ‘ij’ varies between ‘ay’ and ‘eye’, depending on the speaker. I have seen it suggested that it partakes of both sounds. Nice trick if you can do it.
The scenery just begs for panorama shots, of course. Taking an ordinary photo feels like looking at the view through a keyhole. You need to capture the sweep of the water, the craft on it and the buildings lining it.
The Church of Saint Nicholas overlooks the river.
I mentioned above that there was something we wanted to visit. It’s visible in the above photo. Can you spot what it is?
The Dutch may have a reputation for creating land where there was water before but they also build things on the water. On two other trips to the Netherlands for example, we stayed in floating hotels. We had visited this floating Chinese restaurant, the Sea Palace, on a previous occasion and wanted to see it again.
I get the impression that the Dutch have a passion for Chinese cuisine. There are very many Chinese restaurants in the Netherlands, more per square mile, I think, than in the UK. Whether or not that is true, this is an impressive example of its kind.
You can’t run about a restaurant taking photos without annoying people and getting in the way so I contented myself with this (stitched) panorama from my seat.
By the time we emerged from the restaurant, the daylight was fading and the moon was bright in the sky. We went for a little stroll before catching the bus back to the hotel.
The glow of the sky was reflected in the water turning everything else into silhouettes.
I think the contrast of light and dark gives the pictures characteristics similar to Chinese ink drawings but that may be the influence of our Chinese meal!
1Under the Schengen Agreement, persons entering the EU show their passports and have their baggage checked only at the point of entry and do not need to be checked when crossing ‘internal frontiers’ between EU states. Britain opted out of the Agreement and this is why you still have to be checked when travelling between Britain and other EU countries. The recent ‘immigrant crisis’, caused by large numbers of refugees trying to enter the EU, has strained the Schengen Agreement to near breaking point as several countries have erected controls where there were none before.
Saturday, August 29th 2015
We awoke to find that it was a fine day, propitious for exploring. We set out for the bus stop but first I wanted to take this photo:
During the day, the sun passes above and behind the hotel causing flaring in the lens. The early morning is the best time to take a photo of it.
The bus took us to Amsterdam Centraal station and we looked around for somewhere to have breakfast. Breakfast in the hotel is usually expensive with little choice for vegetarians so we prefer to find our own breakfast in town.
Another advantage of eating out is that you don’t know what you are going to find. It might be croissants and coffee or a traditional cooked breakfast or something else entirely. Today we found a crêpe bar which made a pleasant change from run-of-the-mill breakfasts.
After breakfast we took the train. You can perhaps see our destination on the train announcement display: Den Haag. The Hague, as we call it in English, occupies a somewhat anomalous place in Dutch political life. It is not the capital of the Netherlands – that honour belongs to Amsterdam – but it is the seat of government. The King and Queen also live in the Hague where they have two residences. It is the third largest city of the Netherlands.
We disembarked amid the bustle of the station that has the unsurprising name of Den Haag Centraal. We travelled on what is something of a novelty for British rail travellers, a double-decker train. Sitting on the upper deck allows good views of the countryside you pass through.
Den Haag Centraal is a large station comprising 12 tracks. It was completed in 1973 when it replaced the old Den Haag Staatspoor (opened May 1870). We were struck by the impressive ceiling.
Compared with the Gothic charm of Amsterdam Centraal (opened 1889), Den Haag’s station is of a rather dull ‘fishtank’ design.
We set out to explore and, as usual, we wandered as fancy took us. We thus arrived unexpectedly at Delft, which is a famous old town quite distinct from Den Haag, known for its much prized blue and white pottery. We found ourselves walking along this narrow street which is called Schoolstraat.
It was beginning to feel like lunchtime so we were quite pleased to happen upon this restaurant. It is called ‘t Koetshuys, which I think means ‘The Coach House’.
The interior had an historical feel to it and we found a welcoming atmosphere (being attended to in fluent English, of course).
After lunch we continued exploring. There are at least three canals, running along in parallel, in this district, and other bodies of water, and I have no idea of their names. They are crossed at intervals by hump-backed bridges. There may be barges and other craft on them.
This doorway kept me busy for a while and I am going to bore you with my thoughts and questions about the building it belongs to. First, note the Latin inscription in black immediately above the door, which makes reference to a ‘gymnasium’. It looks as though the building was once used as a school, which may possibly explain why the street is called Schoolstraat.
Next, note the sculpted gentlemen in Paddington Bear hats. I take it that they are merchants and they seem to be handling cloth of some kind. The name in lettering below the sculpted plaque reads ‘SAAI Greine en Stoffe-Hal’. I haven’t found translations for Greine or Stoffe but Stoffe suggests cloth to me and Hal surely indicates that this was once a merchants’ trading hall. If anyone can cast light on this do please let me know. (Update Oct 10 2015: Translations for these words have been kindly supplied by Baldwin Hamey – see comment.)
The doorway has a date and this is in Roman numerals but these are somewhat strange to the eye used to Roman numerals as these are normally practised in the UK. Here is the date:
I am used to deciphering Roman numerals as this is done in Britain but the way it is done in the Netherlands puzzled me. What are these backwards-way-round Cs? In the end I looked it up and discovered that there are many different schemes of Roman numerals. One method (probably dating back to the Roman Empire) used a I (one) in brackets to indicate 1000. The brackets look like a C and a mirror-image C. Later, these 3 characters would be replaced by the letter M. So the first three characters in the date mean ‘1000’.
A I (one) with a single right-bracket means ‘half a thousand’, i.e. 500. This symbol later evolved into the more familiar D. The remaining characters, CCLXXV can be understood according to usual conventions.
The date is therefore (I) = 1000 plus I) = 500 plus CC = 200 plus LXXV = 75 or, adding it all together, 1775!
The Oude Kerk
This is the Oude Kerk (Old Church). I’m not sure how old the church is or whether the adjective ‘old’ has simply been added to distinguish it from newer churches. The church’s main claim to fame is that within it is a vault that served as the mausoleum of Johannes Vermeer (b. 1632) and his family. The artist died in 1675, having been preceded by three of his children.
This house attracted my attention for its fine and decorative design. Its size combined with the narrow street made it hard to photograph. The name, Gemeenlandshuis, is descriptive its present purpose, meaning a house used as HQ by one of the waterboards. Affixed to the façade is a notice in Dutch and English which reads as follows:
Very large and luxurious, late Gothic private house with stone façade and a nice turret. built for Jan de Huyter, largely about 1505. Since 1645 seat of the Dyke Conservancy Board of Delfland. Coats of arms above the entrance designed by Pieter Post (1652).
Here are a couple more scenery photos without any further comment:
The Hague is divided into eight districts and one of these is called Scheveningen. Among other things, it is famous as a seaside resort.
We made our way to the seaside and found a long beach of sand. For some reason, this made me think of the beach in Jacques Tati’s film Mr Hulot’s Holiday. There was a slightly old fashioned feel to it. The mood was more Broadstairs than Southend, one might say. People were taking their ease calmly, enjoying the sunshine and the various amenities.
Along the beach was a sort of undercroft which provided space for shops, bars and restaurants. Some restaurants also had tables out on the beach.
Scheveningen, as a seaside resort of course has a pier. It is actually Scheveningen’s second pier, the first, a wooden structure which was opened in 1901 and called the Queen Wilhermina Pier, was destroyed by fire during the Second World War. The current one was opened in 1961. We did not go onto it but you will find some more about it here.
It was now quite hot, too hot to continue walking up and down in the sun. We repaired to one of the beach cafes for cooling draughts of iced tea. After resting and cooling down, we started out again and made an enticing discovery.
I idly noticed this stall selling drinks and snacks and it was Tigger who spotted the interesting notice advertising Vlaamse Frites met mayo. The British love their chips but I doubt whether any nation makes than so badly as the British. Soggy, greasy, half burnt, half-frozen lumps of potato do not qualify as ‘chips’ in my vocabulary but it is all too often what is shoved at you under than designation. You have not had chips until you have had them in Belgium or the Netherlands. Here you find what, at the risk of mixing metaphors, I might call the champagne of chips.
Proper chips (not the hair-thin straws called ‘French fries’), properly cooked, crisp but not burnt, served in a paper cone with a dollop of mayonnaise on top. These ‘Flemish chips’ come close to being the natural destiny of potatoes. The mayo is so delicious that it is a game in itself trying to make it last all the way down to the last chip.
It was still so hot on the exposed beach that, having finished our chips, we retired to another bar for some more iced tea. Then we began the slow return to the station. We passed the above two objects, one an abstract monument or sculpture of some kind and the other an immoblised fishing boat. I didn’t see any label or explanation of either and prefer not to engage in guesswork. If you know anything about them, please let me know.
To return to the station, we decided to take a tram. Trams are making a comeback in some towns in the UK and I think we should welcome them. The Dutch, though, do trams extremely well. Theirs are slightly old-fashioned and fun to ride. All too soon the journey was over and we disembarked at the station to catch our train back to Amsterdam.
Sunday, August 30th 2015
Taking the bus to the central station as usual, we then walked along the River Ij to the Westerdok and IJdok (see this Google Map).
The way onto the Ikdok is along a sort of ‘panhandle’ road lined with the most unusual architecture I have seen for a long time. Here are a few glimpses of what we saw:
As it was still quite early and a Sunday, there were not many people about and very little movement on the water. It was very calm and peaceful, especially as we were in the midst of a great city.
We had not yet had breakfast and looked around for a cafe that was open. We had already seen several places but they were all closed, their staff no doubt having a Sunday lie-in.
We spotted chairs and tables on the pavement and this seemed a good sign. A notice declared (in English) that French breakfast was available. We didn’t need any more prompting.
After breakfast we continued our ramble, looking at the architecture (see the ‘glimpses’ above) and the views over the water. The riverine scenery reminded me a bit of some parts of the Thames though in reality it rather different.
Between the Ijdok and the road is a triangular body of water (see map) which has been made into a harbour for yachts and small craft, called the City Marina IJdok.
We crossed the wider end of the marina by the foot bridge and continued walking north along a road called Westerdoksdijk. This is a wide and pleasant thoroughfare.
I looked across the northern end of the Westerdok and saw this white bridge shining in the sun. It closely resembles representations of the Arles Bridge that appear in a number of Van Gogh’s paintings (for example, see here). Its peculiar ‘wings’ are counterweights for lifting the bridge to allow boats to pass through.
We now made our way to the day’s main event, a tour of an early 20th-century social housing project of unusual and beautiful design, known popularly as Het Schip (‘The Ship’) because many of its features remind people of a ship. Two longer blocks and a shorter one form a triangular ground plan in which are contained 102 flats.
The complex was designed by architect Michel de Klerk, a founding member of the Amsterdamse School of architecture, and is perhaps the finest surviving example of its principles. The first two blocks were built in 1913-14 and the third one in 1919. In the above two photos, the drum-shaped feature contains what was the Post Office and is now the reception for tours of the site.
Traces remain inside of the post office, not least the splendid red post box and the Art Deco telephone booth.
The tour begins with a look at a mock-up of the typical living conditions endured by a worker and his family in the early decades of the 20th century. The family would be confined to a single room with no proper washing facilities and a bucket for a toilet. It hardly need to said that moving from such a hovel to a flat with several bedrooms, running water and a flush toilet represented a huge leap in workers’ living standards.
The tour began by examining the outside of the building. It is clear that, far from just putting up a brick box for workers to live in, the intention was to build a structure that was beautiful in its own right and was pleasant to live in.
All of the other visitors were Dutch but the tour guide spoke in English throughout and the other members of the group made comments or asked questions and chatted with us in English too.
Here are a few more views of the design of the exterior:
Although there are several entrances (see above photos), the short side of the triangle forms a kind of formal or main entrance. With the sun behind it, it was a little difficult to photograph.
It is topped by a tower, obelisk or spire – all of those words seem to fit. One is almost irresistibly drawn to ask what the tower is for. Actually, it isn’t for anything; it is purely decorative.
While most of the flats are inhabited and, I imagine, have been updated during the century of their existence, one flat has been kept in its original condition to show visitors.
A large number of people milling about in a flat makes it hard to get unobstructed pictures.
I think it natural to compare these dwelling with modern council flats. Discounting the old-fashioned facilities (see below), I think they compare favourably. The design was predicated on the philosophy that the family should live together as a unit, children and parents sharing home life. There was a touch of ‘social engineering’ in this, namely that if you improve people’s lives, then you improve the people, morally and socially.
The kitchen seems to modern tastes a little antiquated but I think that not a few of us can remember using kitchens just like this!
This visit was certainly instructive. The building is historically interesting in its own right as an example of the work of the expressionist Amsterdamse School but also of how, with good will and intelligent planning, people’s lives can be improved to their benefit and, through them, the benefit of the whole of society. This seems to be a lesson that government learn again and again only to forget it in between times.
We paid a quick visit to the Olympisch Stadion (Olympic Stadium). We could not go inside and had to be content with looking at the exterior. It was designed by Jan Wils, also a member of the Amsterdamse School, and first used for the summer Olympic Games of 1928.
This statue honours ‘The Baron’, also known as ‘The Father of Sports’ who was the first chairman of the Dutch Olympic Committee and the first Dutch member of the IOC. He was responsible for bringing the 1928 Olympic Games to Amsterdam but died in 1924 and therefore did not live to see them. There has been comment about his salute which is explained on the plate attached to the sculpture in these words: ‘The statue depicts the Olympic salute, which was used during the Roman Empire. Since World War II, the outstretched arm has been associated with the Hitler salute, but this monument was created in 1928 and has no relationship with Hitler at all’.
Promotheus stole fire from Olympus to benefit mankind and is therefore associated with the Olympic flame. This particular sculpture by Fred Carasso was commissioned by the Dutch Olympic Committee ‘to create a war memorial for the victims from the world of sport. The statue was intended to express freedom and sport’ (plate attached to the sculpture).
We stopped off at this handsome late 19th-century building, now the American Hotel Amsterdam. I imagine (though I haven’t checked) that prices of rooms would be somewhat outside our budget but sitting on the terrace sipping an iced tea was as pleasant as it was affordable!
Suitably refreshed, we proceeded on the final jaunt of the day, a visit to the Pathé Tuschinski cinema. This opened in 1921 and was commissioned by Abraham Tuschinski. It evinces a mixture of styles in which the philosophy of the Amsterdam School again appears.
We could visit only the foyer but we sat for a while a looked around at the magnificent décor, dodging the people in an attempt to take some photos. (The above is a multi-part scan and shows a small amount of distortion.)
The above shows a decorative motif behind the counter of the coffee and snack counter.
The picture in this alcove is highly stylized, in fact verging on the abstract, but if you look hard you can begin to see – or is it imagine? – figures.
It is, all in all, a remarkable, unique and beautiful setting, creating an atmosphere of wonder and fantasy for the audience even before they seat themselves in front of the screen.
This was our second and last full day in Amsterdam. Tomorrow we must be up in good time to catch our train at Amsterdam Centraal. It has been an enjoyable trip and I am sure we shall return again one day.
Monday, August 31st 2015
Today we return to London. As our train leaves Amsterdam Centraal at 08:15, we will not have time to do anything but go straight to the station.
This is my final photo of the hotel, taken yesterday. As I explained, it is at a distance from the centre of town near Amsterdam Sloterdijk Station but once we had found which bus serviced this station and Centraal, it was not a problem. The hotel itself was quite pleasant and I would be happy to stay there again.
We had decided that for the return journey, it would be convenient to take the train, rather than the bus, from Sloterdijk to Centraal as it would deliver us right in the station. We bought tickets yesterday evening so as not to be in a rush this morning. Ticket machines can be operated in several languages, one of which is of course English.
In the Netherlands, as in other European countries, tickets are not valid until you register them in the special machine prior to travel. This means you can buy a time-limited ticket (such as a 72-hour pass) well in advance and it will start the time period only when you register it.
We found ourselves participating in the morning rush-hour as most of the other passengers on the train were on their way to work.
We reached Amsterdam Centraal with plenty of time to spare and before the platform of our Thalys was showing on the departures board. We had not had breakfast because we knew we would be served a meal on the Thalys but a cup of coffee would help us while away the time.
We discovered the station buffet. This had probably been a rather grand affair in its day, a posh restaurant, to judge from the high ceiling and intricate decor. One felt that the modern coffee shop was a bit of a come-down, like nomads camping in the ruins of an ancient palace!
Eventually, the waiting was over and our train was announced. We were soon accommodated in comfortable seats with power points for our phones or whatever else we wanted to recharge.
The changeover at Brussels Midi was a little more fraught. We had 48 minutes to make the changeover and this included making our way from the main station to the Eurostar platforms and enduring bag search and passport control. I needn’t have worried. Firstly, Tigger’s inner pigeon knew exactly where the Eurostar was and unerringly led us there and, secondly, the baggage check was performed with commendable speed and efficiency. Soon we were aboard the Eurostar and speeding our way to London.
Thus ended our brief visit to the capital of the Netherlands. We have been here before and will no doubt return again in a couple of years or so. There is always something new to discover and, while there are interesting things to see and do, the people are generally pleasant and helpful and speak excellent English!