The itinerary we are on from the NorthEast US to the Netherlands and back with a stop over in Iceland is the same one good friends took just a month ago. It fact it was they who let us know about the great deal with IcelandAir earlier in the year. We tacked on an additional trip from Amsterdam to the UK, but otherwise our itineraries were very similar.
Not only did they do us the great favor of telling us about that offer, but they made it free for us to visit virtually every Museum we’ve seen, which is worth a lot seeings as most museums in Amsterdam cost €10 – €20 per person per site. They had purchased Museumkaarts on their trip, which provide free entry into almost every important museum in the country. For overseas visitors, the cards are valid for 31 days and guess what? they started the cards exactly 32 days before we leave and on our last day all we have time to do is head out to the airport, meaning that we haven’t had to pay for entry to the sites we have visited. However, apart from just saving some Euros, this also encouraged us to visit some sites that otherwise we might have just passed on, so it was also an opportunity to see a few “B” sites and not just the “A” ones.
We started the day with a quick visit to the FOAM museum (FOtographie AMsterdam) where the main exhibit was by American photographer Gordon Parks who is best known for his civil rights photos.
Our next stop was a lot longer, at the Museum of Bag and Purses (Tassenmuseum Hendrikje), which I enjoyed a lot. Up until the 17th century or so, bags were an essential part of both men’s and women’s wardrobes. Eventually men got pockets in their pants obviating their need for the various bags they had been carrying to hold coins, etc. Of course, murses are on the comeback, so what goes around comes around. For women, the fashion for purses is a bit more complex. Initially women wore bags attached to their person (see the photo of the “saddle bags” worn under their dresses, but in the late 17th century there was a big revival of interest in all things Greek and Roman, driven by the discovery of Pompeii. This let to women wearing high-waisted, simpler dresses (think Empire style), which meant they needed separate bags to carry their stuff. Even as the fashion for those dresses faded, the fashion for purses and handbags persisted.
The variety and form of all these bags is incredible, with some ingenious creativity. In the slideshow below you can see some of the bags that I found most interesting, including a 16th century “murse” with 18 pockets (most likely used by a trader to hold different coins) that attached to his belt.
Next stop – The Rembrandt House (Het Rembrandthuis), an expensive building Rembrandt bought when times were good and where he created many of his masterpieces and trained his students. As the economy went south, he couldn’t keep up the payments and lost not only the house, but all its contents (including his artwork) to debtors.
Rembrandt is famous for how he lit his subjects. When I first seriously learned about photographic lighting, one of the “styles” we learned about was Rembrandt lighting, characterized essentially by one side of the face being bright and the other darker, with a triangle of light below the eye of the darker side. I had Kelly try to recreate that effect in this picture taken in Rembrandt’s actual studio.
Another stop we probably would not have made without the MuseumKaarts was the Hermitage Museum, as in the Hermitage Museum from St. Petersburg, Russia. What is it doing in Amsterdam? Turns out they have so much art they can only display about 5% of it at any one time in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Since Kelly and I have been there and seen how massive that museum is, this is truly mind blowing. Anyway, the Hermitage is setting up satellite museums in various cities, but this is the largest. Art can only be out of Russia for 6 months, so it means that the displays constantly rotate.
At the Hermitage Museum they have 3 different galleries, but only one was included with the MuseumKaart and since we had other places we wanted to see, we restricted our visit to the Outsider Art gallery. Outsider Art does not refer to pieces placed outside, or art made outside of Russia, but rather art that was made outside the traditional art world, and specifically artwork from inmates at mental institutions and by degenerate prisoners. The famous French artist Jean Dubuffet championed this kind of “pure art” and called it Art Brut, establishing his own collection. You might know Dubuffet from his sculptures such as this outdoor piece in downtown Chicago outside the Thompson Center:
Outsider Art / Art Brut was an inspiration to the Dadaists and it pretty evident to see that link.
A friend recommended we visit the Dutch Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum Amsterdam), which she said she found even more moving than the Anne Frank House. Given how overrun The Anne Frank House is with tourists, that is perhaps not so difficult to imagine.
The museum tells the stories of many people and their acts of resistance from various strikes held, housing Jews and others on the run from the Nazis, to a wider resistance movement.
One of the artifacts that particularly caught my eye is pictured above – after the war there was a lot of deprivation and people got creative with materials, including enameling old German helmets to turn them into pots and strainers.
The next stop was nearby and is one of the more unusual Museums we’ve visited: ARTIS – Micropia. ARTIS is the Amsterdam Zoo, but Micropia is a separate museum located adjacent to the zoo (no zoo entry required) that is dedicated to the microscopic creatures that make up more than 85% of all known animal and plant species. This includes bacteria, baceteriophages, viruses, fungi, algae, lichens, etc.
The museum presents photographs and live displays (with high powered microscopes) of various creatures, as well as explaining things like their methods of motion, reproduction, impact on health and the environment, etc. All in all, lots of fun for all ages and very well done.
Now that all the museums were closed, we walked to the nearby restaurant Bloem where we had a nice, healthy, vegan dinner.
With our energy restored, we walked across town and followed Rick Steve’s Red Light District walk on audio. I have to say that the place seems in some ways much tamer than on previous visits. Maybe its me, maybe it is the changing legal status of pot in the US, maybe it is the gentrification of the neighborhood, maybe it is the effect of the internet making what was once scandalous seem a bit less so.
The area is famous for sex and drugs. Some interesting facts:
- A black and blue flag with a heart means S&M. Who knew they had their own flag? I wonder if that is in the vexology atlas?
- Black doors and black windows mean the building is a mens’ only leather bar.
- The district really revolves around the oude kerk church, and one wonders what the faithful might think about that. Interestingly Rembrandt’s wife Saskia is buried there.
- There is a statue to the Unknown Prostitute outside the church, known as Belle and dedicated to sex workers around the world. There is also a nearby bronze set into the pavement of a naked breast being groped by a hand. Not sure what that is dedicated to.
- Prostitution is legal here, and regulated. The sex workers are independent contractors and there are no “pimps”. Health laws have to be followed and there is lots of security – police come to the aid of the hookers when called, not arrest them. The prostitutes also pay taxes. All part of the benefit of having the system be “above board” rather than driven underground.
- Kind of like a department store has different areas for different tastes, the district has segments to cater to different preferences, so for instance one finds most of the black prostitutes working side by side, as do the Asians, etc.
- Apparently a blue light means that the lady in the window is in fact a lady-man (truth in advertising?)
- Various drugs are legal, most notably cannabis. However, the Dutch have a lower per capita cannabis use than other Europeans and about half that of the US.
- Some shops used to sell magic mushrooms, but the EU made their sale illegal, so now those shops sell magic truffles instead.
- Hard drugs are illegal and since the 1980s when legal pot was introduced, marijuana usage has not gone up, hard drug usage has gone down dramatically, so it seems like the policy works.
- Coffee Shops (selling cannabis) may not advertise or promote sales – the customer has to initiate the conversation in order to see prices.
- The Netherlands has such a low rate of incarceration it rents out unused cell space to the Belgians.
The Red Light district is really a big deal for people coming TO Amsterdam. Most of the customers are not Dutch, but in fact Brits and other nationals for whom such activities are illegal, but for whom it is only a quick trip to visit Amsterdam.
Recent moves to gentrify the neighborhood and reduce some of the “sin” businesses have met with mixed reactions. The city is buying up a number of the red light booths to convert them to other uses, but the mayor is adamant that the district will continue to sell sex and drugs. Apart from the earnings, there is a fear that banning the businesses will drive them underground, empowering and enriching criminal gangs and increasing crime.
There is a contention that the Dutch are not really that much more liberal in their attitudes about drugs and sex, but that they are just more pragmatic and figure if these activities are going to happen, make them happen in the best way possible.
Okay, now it’s time to get back to the hotel and return to the world of general wholesomeness. A shower may be in order!