My Tour Guide
Our trip has drawn to a close but, as usual, I can’t end without a final nod to my intrepid companion and chief motivator, the person who forces me off the couch and into the world.
Stay well my friends.
This year’s adventure flew by faster then a bullet train. I didn’t get even close to pointing out all the remarkable things we’ve seen in this outstanding country. Let’s finish with an assortment of the wacky, weird and wonderful.
I’d characterize almost every flea market and bazaar we’ve been to here as a Jumble Sale. I’ve never seen such an odd collection of used clothes, broken toys, rusty tools and assorted junky stuff.
The Rommelmarkt at Appelscha takes place in what appears to be an abandoned amusement park for kiddies. The only thing left are the creepy forlorn creatures that have been abandoned and left to fester like captives in an old Twilight Zone episode.
IJHallen, in North Amsterdam, is probably the longest running Rommelmarkt in Holland.
The Bazaar in Beverwijk is a whole other animal. It was billed as a long established mixed use affair. There are huge warehouse type buildings filled with most everything you can imagine. No collectibles or antiques but tons of cheap underwear, toys, tools, jewelry and Middle Eastern food. Kind of a free trip to Turkey.
Waanders In De Broeren
The Broerenkerk, Church of Brothers, was part of the Dominican monastery from 1465 until the monks were expelled in 1589 and the Protestants took over.
Now it houses Waanders in de Broeren, one of the coolest bookstores I’ve ever seen. A joy to wander around or just have a snack.
A Few Loose Ends
We’ve been on a Museum Binge. We happened to buy a couple Museumkarts and have been drunk on art ever since. The Museumkart gives you access to most of the best museums in the Netherlands and is the deal of a lifetime. You don’t even have to wait in the ticket line. In an attempt to squeeze every last drop of goodness out of the card we have attacked this part of Holland with a vengeance and been to 14 museums so far. Here’s just a couple.
Dutch Art 101
In this neck of the woods you are going to see lots of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, a period in Dutch history generally spanning the 17th century that rang in the new Dutch Republic and helped make it the most prosperous nation in Europe. As you can imagine we have managed to see a whole lot of great paintings, but I won’t bore you with all that. Describing images to people is like telling them about your dreams, you really had to be there. I think most people are somewhat familiar with Dutch paintings anyway. If you’ve seen a cigar box, you can probably imagine a Rembrandt. I’ll just talk about two of the big dogs and try to keep it short.
“The Night Watch” is a 1642 oil painting by Rembrandt that hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
To better understand the significance of this Dutch Masterpiece in contemporary terms lets first discuss that iconic TV show “Law & Order”, the longest-running hour-long primetime TV series in history. Created by Dick Wolf, this show ran for 20 seasons and spawned an entire Law & Order franchise. One of the chief successes of the show was it’s distinctive look. This was, in part, achieved by a technique brand new for TV, the “Walk & Talk”. This is done by using a steady cam and backing through the set as the main characters walk down hallways and go room to room discussing their next move. This gets the actors out from behind those boring old desks, propels the story forward by making it look like talking is actually doing something and it keeps the viewer actively engaged. This is so much a part of the show that it’s even in the intro. I thought it was so original until I finally realized this is exactly what Rembrandt did in 1642. Until then these group portraits of prominent citizens and military leaders were pretty staid affairs with everyone lined up like bowling pins or sitting around a table trying to figure out what to do with their hands. In this enormous painting, 142.9″ × 172″ , Rembrandt got them up off their considerable duffs and turned them into giant men of action who just might step right out the painting and do what needs to be done.
In the process Rembrandt cemented his place in art and is generally considered the greatest painter in Dutch history.
“The Young Bull “ is a 1647 oil painting by Paulus Potter that hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
At 92.7” x 133”, this huge painting approaches life-size, allowing space for very detailed realism, including flies, frogs and cow pies, a fact that was much criticized originally. But fortunes changed and by the 18th and 19th centuries the painting had gained much traction and was highly admired. Today it is considered one the Dutch Golden Age’s greatest paintings. Potter was only 22 when he completed this work and died of tuberculosis at the age of 28 having succeeded in producing about 100 paintings by working continuously.
Besides the staggering craftsmanship, what makes this painting so unusual is the sheer scale. Up until then extremely large paintings were reserved for the rich, the royal and the Gods. This is the first time that a farm animal has been afforded such reverence. The life size image forces us to look into the Bull’s penetrating gaze and it becomes almost difficult to perceive it as anything but a sentient being. This painting with its almost heroic treatment of an animal alters our perception of the Bull’s place in the universe and, by extension, our own. Whether he meant to or not Potter moved the art world in fundamental ways and by the 19th century this monumental treatment of virtually the entire animal kingdom would become somewhat commonplace.
Still I find the whole notion that a mere 22 year old, with some paint and a few brushes, has that kind of power utterly remarkable.
Interesting But Useless Facts #289 & #290:
As large as “the Nightwatch” is, 20% was cut off the left hand side in 1715 to make the painting fit its new position at the Amsterdam town hall.
“The Young Bull” was at least 20% smaller when first painted. Potter added extra strips of canvas on both sides and at the top of his original composition, which just included the bull itself.
I’ve wandered through Scandinavia like a bit player in the Norse Sagas, those timeless myths filled with blood, battles and debauchery. Only my voyage consists of beer, buses and bargain basements. Maybe not as dangerous but just as exhausting. At this point in the trip I’m downright tuckered out. I have been trudging around after Wendi as she’s pillaged her way through Iceland, Norway and Sweden for weeks. I’m always a couple steps slow and a few beats behind like a bass player that can’t catch up to the rest of the band. It seems she is always looking back at me with that “will you hurry up” look on her face.
And hats! What’s with the hats? Every silly hat from Reykjavik to Stockholm has magically ended up on her head, coupled with a goofy grin. She doesn’t want to bring them home so, I suppose, that’s good.
Regardless of her proclivity for wacky chapeaus, Wendi’s enthusiasm is undeniable. She is clearly a woman on the move.
She does have quiet moments of self reflection, albeit few and far between and usually after extensive shopping or while jet lagged.
She did take time for a little work.
That’s all for now.
Let’s start with a travel tip. I’m always a little leery of package schemes and deals aimed at visitors, but the Stockholm Card is the exception and a great deal. This is a real godsend, which, if you keep busy, offers significant savings. It is also hugely convenient to not have to dig for cash or use a credit card everywhere you go. Besides giving you free passage on all of Stockholm’s public transportation you also get free access to over 75 major museums and major historical sites.
Stockholm is a big and busy city, not big and busy in an otherworldly sense like Hong Kong, New York or London. There are no skyscrapers and the church spires are still the tallest structures in town. There are no giant cloverleaf overpasses like arteries in some huge beast, but Stockholm is spread out over 14 islands with a complex overlapping transport system that incorporates ferries, buses, trams, subways, bridges, walkways and roads that tie the whole thing together.
Gamla Stan, or “Old Town”, is our favorite part of the city. It is situated on the island of Stadsholmen and is one huge warren of narrow medieval streets and heritage sites. The Royal Palace, museums and 17th century churches are just steps from each other. The entire atmosphere is of a bygone era.
Stortorget was the site of the old Stock Exchange is now a lively square in the heart of the old town but in 1520 it was the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath when the Danish King tricked the Swedish Regent and beheaded more then 80 Swedish noblemen in this very square.
The Hotorget Flea Market
No trip would be complete without a flea market. The square at Hotorget is a flower and produce market all week but every Sunday it transforms to a great little second hand market. Just try to keep Wendi away. I dare you.
Sinking Expectations or The Very Short Voyage of the Vasa
When the Vasa was designed by two Dutch brothers in 1628 it was the largest and most heavily armed war ship in the world. With this vessel the Swedes hoped to strike fear in their enemies and control all trade on the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, there was no engineering, as we know it, at the time and all construction was essentially done by trial and error. The massive ship proved to be just a whisper too tall and slightly too narrow. It was a lovely sunny day on August 10th in 1628 when the Vasa set out on it’s maiden voyage. In a slight breeze it listed a little to starboard, took in water through the gun ports and sank to the bottom of Stockholm harbor where it lay until being rediscovered in 330 feet of water in 1956. After a complex salvage operation and a 17 year conservation project the Vasa now sits proudly in it’s own especially designed museum.
The first stop on our swing through southern Bavaria was Munich. It’s a big place, Germany’s third largest city, with a population of around 1.5 million. Although it’s an old city, 1158, it feels very young and is presently undergoing a huge facelift with new construction and restoration everywhere. Munich may be one of the most prosperous and fastest growing cities in Germany but it’s not all business, people are having a pretty good time here.
Marienplatz is the central plaza in the old town and like most everything in central Munich it is overfowing with tourists.
Probably the largest tourist attraction in Munich is the Glockenspiel located on the Rathaus in Marienplatz. Every day at 12 p.m. and 5 p.m in the summer mass crowds of tourists and locals fill the plaza to watch this low-tech marvel chime and re-enact two stories from the 16th century. Consisting of 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures, the whole show lasts somewhere between 12 and 15 minutes. At the end of the show, a very small golden rooster at the top of the Glockenspiel chirps quietly three times, marking the end of the spectacle.
Despite being many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest ocean, Munich has a reputation as a surfing hotspot, offering one of Europe’s best waves. The Bavarian capital is the birthplace of river surfing and has been the center of surfboard riding on a stationary wave since the early 70s. Up to 100 surfers daily hit the Eisbach wave in the city’s Englischer Garten. Munich has produced the best river surfers and has around 1,000 active surfers, while 10,000 people have tried it at some point. An annual surfing competition is held on the standing wave.
Hans der Kunst
Hans der Kunst was constructed from 1933 to 1937 as the Third Reich’s first monumental structure of Nazi architecture and as Nazi propaganda. The museum was opened on July,18 1937 as a showcase for what the Third Reich regarded as Germany’s finest art. The building’s original purpose can still be seen in such guises as the swastika-motif mosaics in the ceiling panels of its front portico.
We were there to see a great exhibition called “Mise en scene” by American photographer and filmmaker Stan Douglas.
The Lenbachhaus is a great museum with outstanding art and a terrific cafe. It was built as a Florentine-style villa for the painter Franz von Lenbach between 1887 and 1891. The building has been remodeled, modernized and expanded many times over the years but some of the rooms of the villa still have kept their original design.
If money is what we use to keep score then Gerhard Richter is an MVP. He held the auction record price for a painting by a living artist at $37.1 million until last November when the Balloon Dog (Orange) by Jeff Koons sold for $58.4 million at Christie’s, and knocked Richter off his perch. The museum has 8 large scale Richter abstracts and up close, they are amazing.
Further south near the Austrian border we stopped by three of Mad King Ludwigs most popular castles.
King Lugwig of Bavaria was an enigma. Even before he died, the king was already somewhat of a legend. He once told his governess, “I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others”. With his palaces the king built an ideal fantasy world and refuge from reality. He conducted no matters of state and strangers were barred from his palaces during his lifetime. Called the Moon King, he stayed up all night reading alone and slept during the day. Although engaged twice, Ludwig never married or took a mistress. His hugely expensive and eccentric interpretation of his role as king was ultimately his downfall. From 1885 foreign banks threatened to seize his property. The government viewed Ludwig’s actions as irrational, had him declared insane and deposed him in 1886. The very next day both he and his psychiatrist died under mysterious circumstances at Lake Starnberg. The shy dreamer palaces have been visited by over 60 million people since his death. Due to tourist revenue over the past thirty years these properties are now firmly in the black. It seems that tales of craziness, murder, deception and an obscene amount of money will work every time.
Construction was completed on Ludwig’s Schloss Linderhof in 1878. It is the smallest of the three palaces built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the only one which he lived to see completed. We took the tour and enjoyed every minute.
Further south to Reutte, Austria we passed by Plansee, one of the lovelest lakes anywhere.
Spent the night at the Kroll Gasthof – Hotel in Wangle, Austria. A family institution since 1731.
We finished the whole thing off on the top of the Höfener Alpe with apfelstrudel and a small dollop of whipped cream!
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For most Americans, unless of course you happened to work for the CIA or were unfortunate enough to have friends or relatives behind the Iron Curtain, the Cold War always remained a sort of conceptual notion, like the Boogie Man hiding in the closet that could burst forth at any moment and annihilate us all with hundreds of unseen thermonuclear devices, more of a threat then something real and tangible.
Not so for the Hungarians. After the Soviets drove the Nazis out at the end of WWII, the Communists held this place in a grip that was total and absolute and lasted over 40 years. In Hungary the Iron Curtain was not some scary ethereal miasma. Here it was very real, fashioned out of guns, spies, interrogation, propaganda and fear.
Capitalism, with all it’s pluses and minuses, is now the system du jour and virtually all signs of Soviet domination have been eradicated with a few notable exceptions. Flea markets, where the sale of Soviet era paraphernalia, i.e. coats, hats, pins, etc., is an ongoing enterprise, and two museums, the House of Terror Museum and Momento Park, stand as constant reminders of life under the Communist boot.
The House of Terror, located at Andrássy útca 60, is a memorial to the victims of the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes who were detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in this building.
The Nazi’s took possession of this very fashionable location during WWII. When the Soviets and Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party took over, they expanded it to include almost the entire block and converted the basement into a labyrinth of cells and interrogation rooms.
Memento Park is an open air museum about 20 minutes southeast of Budapest. It is filled with monumental statues from Hungary’s Communist period (1949–1989).
Most notably absent are any statues of Stalin. Apparently all of them were destroyed after the Soviets fled in 1989. All that remains are Papa Joe’s boots.
And finally, just for scale.
This show has been put together on a scale that could rival a Hollywood production. Barnum & Bailey would be proud. It starts with the gigantic, spotlighted Lenin statue, erected at the apex of the major roads and canal adjacent to downtown. Because of the scale, its presence is slightly surreal, like being transported to a different time and place.
The paintings themselves are as massive as they are fanciful. Bright carnival colors, huge images of dedicated, industrious, self-assured, healthy and purposeful young men and woman. Ever striving.
Completely engaged super solders forcing back a faceless evil.
Benevolent leaders like fathers and super heroes all in one.
And that Red! Always that Red!
At first glance these images seem designed to simply motivate, inspire and create an overwhelming sense of pride and confidence in the people they are supposed to represent. But then, in the west, we were taught to distrust these images, as I’m certain they were taught to distrust images of us. Perhaps, with all that behind us now, these iconic paintings have simply moved into the realm of a classic, incredibly well done and very enjoyable advertising campaign.
It’s not really drizzle. But then it’s not really rain. It’s rizzle. And with rizzle you have to persevere. In this case persevering constituted a short drive to Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland. Leeuwarden’s most celebrated daughter was probably Mata Hari, a Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan, and accused spy who was executed by firing squad in France under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.
This is a lovely little city despite the wind and cold and rizzle. Nice lunch, small shops, culture and beer.
Keramiekmuseum Princessehof is an amazing structure and has a huge collection of Asian and European ceramics and tiles which, quite frankly, can make me a little nervous. When I was a kid we weren’t allowed anywhere near the “Good Dishes”. This is an entire palace full of the “Good Dishes”.
But then you get to the attic and they have life size contemporary pieces.
Just a little wacky.