Early next morning I was woken by the rumble of a passing freight train seven floors below which in my half sleep sounded like my next door neighbour putting the wheelie bin at the roadside and for a moment I was transported back home and had forgotten to put the refuse out and in an unnecessary panic this woke me completely.
I lay for a while reflecting on the first day in Amsterdam and planning the second and I began to regret that we hadn’t booked a second night in the city because we didn’t have enough time to do all of the things that we would have liked to.
One of these might have been a trip out of the city to see the countryside and I recalled a previous visit to Amsterdam thirty years ago when I had done just that. As on this occasion that trip was also by ferry crossing but out of Felixstowe rather than Hull and it was on an organised coach tour paid for by exchanging Persil washing powder vouchers and I can only imagine now that I must have done an awful lot of washing to get enough vouchers for two people to go to Amsterdam for a weekend.
We didn’t go very far into the countryside, just twenty-five kilometres or so to the attractive village of Volendam to the north of the city. Volendam is a popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands, well-known for its fleet of old fishing boats, pretty gabled wooden houses and the traditional clothing still worn by some of the older residents. The women’s costume of Volendam, with its high pointed bonnet, is one of the most recognizable of the Dutch traditional costumes, and is the one most often featured on tourist postcards and calendars. As everywhere else as time passes however fewer and fewer young people continue the custom of wearing traditional clothes and I suspect that this is something that is going to be difficult to keep going for very much longer.
We certainly saw some people in traditional clothing on this visit because they were waiting for us as the coach pulled into the car park of a clog making factory for a demonstration of how they are made. Wooden shoes have been popular in the Netherlands for about seven hundred years and along with windmills, Edam cheese and tulips provide the perfect tourist images of the country. The Dutch have been wearing wooden clogs or ‘Klompen’ since medieval times. Originally, they were made with a wooden sole of alder, willow and poplar and a leather top or strap tacked to the wood but eventually, the shoes began to be made entirely from wood to protect the whole foot. Painting the shoes is an old custom and carved, painted clogs are traditionally given by grooms their brides and that’s clever because that’s a lot cheaper than a diamond ring and a lot more practical as well.
I seem to remember now that clogs were quite fashionable for a short time in the 1970s (although many will dispute that there was any fashion in the 1970s) and I had a pair of black open back clogs which my boss told me I couldn’t wear to work and were terribly difficult to drive in so I wasn’t going to be tempted to buy another pair here.
Close by to Volendam is the village of Edam, where the cheese comes from and there was an inevitable visit to a dairy to try again to see if we could be parted from some of our spending money. Edam has never been a favourite of mine but I do remember that we left with a bag of cheesy comestibles with a variety of different additional ingredients including one with herbs and another with black pepper corns.
Twenty years later or so in 2004 I returned to Amsterdam with my son Jonathan on my very first Ryanair flight and on this occasion we visited some museums that we certainly wouldn’t be seeing today because we wouldn’t have time, the weather was too good to go inside and museums are not that popular with everyone in our group.
The first of these was the Scheepvaartmuseum or Maritime Museum which was a short walk from our hotel, the Amsterdam, on Damrak and told the story of the Dutch association with the sea through an interesting collection of maps, atlases, charts, paintings and scale models but best of all a full sized replica of the three masted ‘Amsterdam’, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, which in its maiden voyage sank in a storm in the English Channel in winter of 1749.
To sink on a maiden voyage always seems rather wasteful and sad to me, ships like Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, the German battleship Bismarck and most famous of all the passenger liner RMS Titanic; all that money, blood and sweat just for the ship to go to the bottom of the sea in a shorter space of time than it took to build it.
Admission to the museum included entry to the ship and we wandered around the decks and cabins completely alone because this was an early morning in February and the temperature was some considerable way below zero.
In the old town we warmed up when we visited the Rembrandt house museum and visited the reconstructed rooms and historically correct restoration based on the artists own sketches and drawings. In the afternoon we walked to the Van Gogh museum which is the most visited museum in the Netherlands and contains the largest collection of paintings by Vincent van Gogh in the World.
Together with those of Pablo Picasso, Van Gogh’s works are among the world’s most expensive paintings ever sold and some of the most valuable ever. Actually, I found the museum rather disappointing because there were lots of gaps where paintings were on loan to other galleries around the World and some of his best known works that I would like to have seen are tucked away in private collections and vaults.
I like Van Gogh paintings and the museum shop was full of prints and reproductions but I am not an art critic and have to confess that alongside those I find brilliant I find some that quite frankly are not so good (shock, horror). The sort of things that my children used to bring home from school, I’d say well done and give them words of patronising encouragement and then after they had gone to bed I’d tape it up inside a kitchen cupboard!
While I reminisced about these previous visits the clock ticked on and soon it was time for an Ibis hotel buffet breakfast, which turned out to be very good, to set us up for a second day of sightseeing and walking the canals of Amsterdam.