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The Grand Finale!

rain 12 °C

Sunday, 27 April 2014
Sofitel The Grand
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Yesterday was the official last day of our cruise, but today is the official last day of our vacation. And in case I forgot to mention it yesterday, I definitely think that cruising from Brussels to Amsterdam is the way to go: Amsterdam makes a great grand finale to the vacation…if we’d done it the other way, I think the rest of the trip wouldn’t have been able to compare to the grandeur of Keukenhof Gardens, King’s Day (did I remember to mention yesterday was the first King’s Day ever? They’ve always had queens before…I am definitely suffering travel fatigue.), the canal cruise, and the Rijksmuseum. And today, we put the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae: the Van Gogh Museum and the floating flower market!

We started our day with our transfer from the riverboat to the Sofitel hotel, which is right smack dab in the middle of the central portion of Amsterdam. We trooped from the buses to the hotel with Joeri (turns out I’ve been spelling his name wrong all week!), one of the Tauck guides. We were supposed to have a hospitality room waiting for us, since our rooms wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon. Apparently, though, nobody told the hotel because they were clearly flummoxed as to what to do with us. And Joeri was NOT happy about that! They marched us into one conference room where they couldn’t get the lights on, then realized that must not be correct and paraded us down the hall to another one. Our only question before setting out for our adventures was, “Where’s the bathroom?” The one they sent us to was LOCKED! So we simply sashayed across their totally glamorous lobby (yes, I think Beautiful People stay here) and asked the concierge where the public restroom was. He replied that we had one around the corner from our hospitality room. Sadly, we had to break his little heart and tell him that it was locked. We almost got a spit take!

The demands of nature attended to, we set out for Dam Square, which is pretty much the Amsterdam equivalent of Times Square. Our goal was a department store whose name translates to “The Beehive” (sorry, I can’t remember the Dutch…like I said, I’ve got travel fatigue verging on travel fugue), which is the store the girls at the Pandora store had told us about for office supplies. It was tres chic, that’s for sure, with lots of high end stuff like Ferragamo and Longchamps. Sadly, their office supply selection focused primarily on the brand Paper Chase, which I can get at home, so for perhaps the first time in recorded memory, I left a stationery department without purchasing a single item! (I told you, I’m not well.)

From there, we decided to set out for the Van Gogh Museum, where we had tickets for timed entry at 1:00 pm (it was now about 11:30). And it was fortunate that we did. We experienced…navigational difficulties…we’ll call it. Our plan had been to walk to the museum, which we were informed was about 10 minutes from our hotel, have lunch in the café, then tour the museum as scheduled. It was 12:30 before we found the Van Gogh museum, which we are attributing to rain and a slightly iffy map. We still had time to put the lunch plan into action, but the line was of BIBLICAL proportions, and they wouldn’t let us into the museum through the timed entry line until our scheduled time. So, we wandered down the street to a restaurant (it was pissing rain, and the opportunity to stay dry was quite attractive) and sat down, but nobody came to wait on us. We made an executive decision and left, then went back up the street to a little sandwich stand and had sandwiches (tuna for me, ham and cheese for Julie) and shared a waffle with Nutella (oh how I’ve missed it—NONE on the ship!) for dessert. By then, it was three minutes to one, and so we sauntered up the street to the timed entry line and got to jump the line of BIBLICAL proportions and go right in! (Thankfully, I had gone online on the ship Friday night and bought those tickets, because I don’t think I would have waited in a line that long if they were giving away free boob jobs at the front of it!)

Interestingly, the Van Gogh museum was the first one we visited that has metal detectors and bag check, but the screener simply waved us through—we must have honest, non-art-vandalizing, non-terrorist-looking faces! I wish you could have seen the artworks, because they were as wonderful as you would imagine. But, unlike the Rijksmuseum, there is a strict no-photography policy—the Rijksmuseum would let you take pictures without a flash. And the docents/guards were enforcing it, too: one woman tried to sneak a picture of the explanation beside one of the paintings and the guard busted her. You know, of course, that I was not-so-secretly cheering! What did we see: irises, haystacks, several self-portraits, one of the potato eaters, almond blossoms, parts of his Japanese series, Van Gogh’s actual palette, his easel, some of his paints, and his perspective frame. If you want to know more, come visit me because I bought the museum guide and another book about Van Gogh—I will happily show them to you!

There was a REALLY interesting exhibit that talked about the color shifts that have occurred in Van Gogh’s paintings due to oxidation or photodegradation of pigments and dyes that he used, particularly the red ones. Consequently, many of his paintings that now appear blue were actually purple when he painted them (think “Irises” as a prime example). Now you KNOW I’m not going to leave that alone, so when Julie and I hit the gift shop, I looked for a book that talked about the chemistry of all of this. I didn’t find one, and was almost resigned to the disappointment, but when we came OUT of the gift shop, having paid for our purchases, I saw a sign that said, “Visit our bookshop on Level 3.” Since this entailed going back through the security screen, I ran back into the gift shop and asked a clerk if there was such a book. There was. So we went back through security and took the elevator to Level 3 (which is actually the 4th floor, since the ground floor is zero in Europe). I asked the clerk in the bookshop about such a book, and she pointed to a monster of a book. Sadly, I knew there was no room in my luggage for such a weighty tome, and I remarked as much to her.

“Oh, but we ship! Just take this book downstairs and they’ll ship it home for you.”

“You mean I don’t have to pay for it here?”

“No, you can pay for it downstairs and pay for the shipping there, as well.”

So I simply walked out of the bookstore, back down the elevator, back through security, and back into the gift shop, thus proving that the guard’s belief in my honest face was justified, because I could have simply kept walking right out the door with that book. And it was not cheap! But, as my friend Robin says, character is what you do when no one is looking, and I took the book back up to the shipping desk. I explained that I wanted to pay for the book and the shipping. (Can you guess where this is going?)

“I do not think you can pay for that book here. But let me get my boss.”

Boss: “I am so sorry, but this book is not in our system, so you cannot pay for it here. You must pay for it upstairs.”

“Can I pay for the shipping up there, too?”

“No, they do not know how to do that. You must bring the book down here for shipping. I am very sorry.” (And she really was apologetic.) This was the point where Julie retired the field and told me she’d wait for me in the café. (For your reference purposes: gift shop = outside security; café = inside security; bookshop = inside security.)

The supervisor escorted me upstairs (thereby bypassing the third security screen), where I paid for the book. Then I went back downstairs with the book and my receipt, exited security, and went back to the gift shop and paid for my shipping. Then I went back through security—this whole process having become a farce at this point—and met Julie in the café, where we shared a lovely pastry they called a profiterole cake. I’m going to have to hunt down that recipe, because it was YUM-O! And Julie says to tell you that only Pepsi products are available at the Van Gogh museum, which is sorely disappointing. And by the way, the already-well-traveled book will arrive in Delaware in two weeks.

Having adopted a slightly better map mid-trip, our return from the museum to the hotel took the as-promised 10 minutes, not including our significant stop in the middle: the floating flower market, or Bloemenmarkt. These are bulb, plant, and flower stalls that are actually housed in house boats (or would it be store boats?) along one of the canals. They had hundreds of different types of tulip bulbs, amaryllis bulbs, cut tulips, flower and vegetable seeds, cacti, and grow-your-own marijuana kits (seriously!). It was a flea market-like atmosphere but with bulbs, not junk. We didn’t buy anything because of a) the aforementioned space problem and b) we weren’t sure if the bulbs were agriculturally certified for export. (I know there are rules, I just don’t know what they are.)

From the Bloemenmarkt, we started walking toward the hotel to drop off the rest of the days haul, with the intention of wandering the Red Light district for a couple of hours. Then, in an act of serendipity that proves God is a woman and She takes care of her own, I glanced over and saw it: a STATIONERY STORE! (And even better—across the corner was a Waterstone’s bookstore—Nirvana!) I got some really cool new highlighters, but was trying to behave so I didn’t buy any of the wonky A4 sized paper (really, it would kill them to switch to 8 ½ by 11?). We made it to the hotel, where we had to be led to our room (this hotel used to be either a palace or a prison…we can’t remember which, and it is majorly confusing). By the time we got in our room, we decided we were too pooped to hit the Red Light district, so we went downstairs and got a recommendation from the concierge for dinner. He sent us to an Indonesian “rice table” restaurant, which is a type of cuisine apparently very popular here in Amsterdam. The best way I can describe it is Indonesian tapas. And it was all good: chicken satay kebobs, shrimp kebobs, hard-boiled eggs in a curry sauce, a whole cooked mackerel in sauce, pineapple and mango in peanut sauce (way better than it sounds) beef curry, green beans and corn (spicy!), and some condiments, like papadum crackers. It was all delicious—well done concierge! For that, and for your high speed internet that is actually high speed, we forgive you for the fact that you gave us a room with one king-sized bed and that we need GPS to find our room!

So here we are, watching “CSI” on some English-language channel—and are grateful to be watching something besides CNN International—and hoping this hotel room will quit rocking! Bags have been weight-redistributed, and I am sure that I will briefly regret all the books I bought, since I put them in my carry-on so my suitcase won’t be over weight. Not that I don’t trust Jeremy’s calibrated lift, but I’ve added more stuff since yesterday! It has been a fabulous trip—we met lots of nice people (even if they do walk slow), saw lots of amazing sites, ate way too much great food, and even enjoyed the atypical stretch of dry weather. But now it’s time to come home, and I think we’re both ready—my cabinet installers are coming on Thursday, so I have something to look forward to. Thanks for following along on our travels—hope you enjoyed your trip!

Love from Amsterdam….

Posted by hidburch 12:01 Archived in Netherlands Tagged amsterdam flower_market van_gogh_museum bloemenmarkt Comments (0)

Oh. My. God.

semi-overcast 15 °C

Saturday, 26 April 2014
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It is fortunate for my peeps that I am typing this, because I am virtually struck speechless by the wonderfulness of this entire day! Today’s itinerary: Keukenhof Gardens, Amsterdam canal boat ride, and Rijksmuseum. I will try to do each element as much justice as I can, but it will be challenging in the extreme!

Keukenhof Gardens, which translates as “The Kitchen Garden,” was begun in 1949 as a way for Dutch bulb growers to showcase their products. (Interesting, gratis factoids about Dutch agricuIture: The Netherlands is the world’s second leading agricultural exporter, behind the United States. It is responsible for 80% of all bulbs, 70% of cut flowers, and 50% of potted plants, as well as 1/3 of all tomatoes and 1/5 of all apples.) Keukenhof Gardens is only open for two months out of the year (this year from March 30th to May 20th) and it is ALL ABOUT TULIPS. (Okay, they allow in other bulbous plants, like daffodils, narcissus, hyacinths, and amaryllis, but tulips are the dominant species.) According to the little book I bought (of course), it takes a staff of 30 gardeners three months to plant the over 7 million bulbs, all by hand. And there are no carry-overs from last year: the plantscape is dug up and destroyed each summer and replanted again starting in September. To ensure that there is a constant parade of blooms for the two months that the garden is open, the gardeners use a method that they literally call “lasagna gardening:” they plant the bulbs in three layers, with the bulbs that take the longest to flower going in at the bottom, and those that flower the quickest at the top. Et voila: constant bloom for two months!

This is the part where I would typically have a description of the day’s adventures. I will try, but this is where there are no words. It is pretty much something that must be seen to be believed. We boarded the motorcoaches this morning at 8:00 am, which actually put us at the garden before it officially opened at 9:00 am (TOTALLY a Burch family standard time move…I approve.). The ever-efficient Tauck guides handed us our garden tickets and turned us loose. Nine o’clock must be a soft opening time, because they let us in the gardens as soon as we got there, which totally accommodated The Plan. Per The Plan, we walked all the way to the back of the gardens, where the model windmill is located, so that we could get a look at and take pictures of the tulip fields—long, uninterrupted swathes of one color of tulips. Breath-taking! From there, we power-toured our way through the gardens (we only had 2 ½ hours total, and per The Plan we allocated 45 minutes for shopping). And when I say power-toured, I mean pushing old ladies and Japanese tourists out of the way power-touring! It was crowded when it opened, and progressed to mayhem as the clock ticked nearer to noon. Ay-yi-yi! However, there was simply too much good stuff to see: tulips of every color and variation, including double blooms, pointed blooms, striped/variegated blooms, fringed blooms, and the color combinations were stunning and sometimes surprising: deep purple planted next to coral orange; snow white interspersed with blood red; yellow and purple; purple striped with white next to white striped with purple. The combinations are too many to name. Everywhere you looked were thousands of tulips. Or sometimes daffodils, or hyacinths. And then there were the pavilions. In one of them was a special show of orchids. I went in a little jaded, having been to the orchid spectacular at Longwood Gardens. This one was just as awe-inspiring—while the Longwood show has exemplars of more (and more unusual) species, this one had simply thousands of orchids, arranged on multiple levels. There were also some bromeliads, including anthuriums. In another pavilion, they had a show of spring flowers, including traditional bulb flowers, hydrangeas, lilacs, and azaleas. In a third pavilion, there were little tableaus that featured flowers in some fashion. Several of them were scenic backdrops of Amsterdam or other locations in The Netherlands, and when photographed in front of them, you look like you are actually there! All of them were adorable. I promise I will put up pictures when I get back to the Land of High-Speed Internet.

It was getting to be about 10:30, so we started pushing our way through the crowd back to the location marked “Bulb Information” on the map, figuring that would be the place to order bulbs. Not so much. Instead, they had exactly what they advertised: information about how to get a bulb from a seed, and how to plant them. For some reason, none of the staffers we passed could tell us how to get to where the bulb selling actually transpires, beyond, “It’s back that way.” So we went “back that way.” So we fought our way through the throng to the bulb sale, which was surprisingly uncrowded. It was pretty neat, too: they had a huge pictorial catalog of varietals to choose from (now THAT was overwhelming—how do you choose which of over a hundred varieties of tulips that you like best?), and it also included daffodils, hyacinths, etc. Fortunately, they also had “collections” (assortments) that were grouped by them—that did make the shopping somewhat easier. I was very disciplined in my bulb shopping—the landscaping crew in my development generally cuts down anything they didn’t plant, so no bulbs for me! Julie will basically be starting her own bulb farm next fall, however! (So if she calls you about helping her with her gardening, you have two choices: RUN or pack a lunch!) It was getting to be about 5 minutes until 11:00, so we powered our way back to the main gift shop—this would be where I literally pushed a couple of old ladies out of my way, since walking four wide across a three-foot sidewalk seemed to them to be the height of fun. Ugh. Anyway, we made it back to the gift shop and I was able to pick up a couple of books and some postcards, but sadly no 2015 calendar for my office. Guess I’ll have to stick with another Longwood calendar.

We made it back to the bus with about 5 minutes to spare, which was needed since literally hundreds of buses had shown up after we arrived. The Tauck directors were standing in the road with signs directing us! From there, it was back to the ship for lunch (spaghetti in the Bistro Bar or lamb in the main dining room…the proof will be left to the reader as to which one I chose).

Shortly after lunch, we boarded open-air canal boats for our ride to the Rijksmuseum. Why no motorcoaches, you may be wondering? Well, it turns out that today is King’s Day in Amsterdam. The streets (and waterways!) are THRONGED with people drinking, dancing, and celebrating the first King’s Day since The Netherlands became a constitutional monarchy—prior to this, they’ve always had queens and celebrated Queen’s Day. As a result of the legally-sanctioned anarchy of the day, many of the streets around the city center were closed to traffic, so we went via the water. This turned out to be an absolute blast. I am trying to think of a way to adequately describe this party to you. The best I’ve come up with is Mardi Gras crossed with a drunken frat party crossed with an LSU tailgate and on boats! We passed boat after boat after boat, jam-packed (well beyond their Coast Guard safe occupancy limit) with people wearing all manner of weird orange shirts, leis, boas, and hats, listening to music, drinking, dancing, and smoking. And maybe a few of those cigarettes could possibly be purchased legally in the United States, if you get my drift.

The Tauck directors were REALLY nervous about this part of the itinerary, afraid we would not be able to make it to the Rijksmuseum because of boat traffic on the canals. We were much more sanguine about it, especially since they gave us dessert while we sailed. We were all having a jolly good time waving to all the crazy people on boats we passed, and even on the streets and bridges. And they were all so drunk they waved back! (And by the way, did you know that you can pump up the bass on the stereo system on a boat so that it rocks the other boats around it, just like a car? Hell, some of these boats even had a DJ! And there seemed to be no qualms about drinking and boating—in the States, the jails would be stacked three deep after what I witnessed this afternoon.)

The canal boat company had assured Tauck that they could get us to the Rijksmuseum using the “back canals,” and they were as good as their word: we docked right across the street from the museum at 5 minutes to 3:00, and our appointed tour time was 3:00 pm. They divided us up into groups and sent us out with expert museum guides. Our guide’s name was Pauline and she was FASCINATING! She took us directly to the good stuff, the Dutch Old Masters on the third floor of the museum. None of this messing around looking at Egyptian artifacts or Victorian furniture! After being closed for 10 years (10 years!) for renovation, the Rijksmuseum reopened last year. Supposedly, Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” is the only painting still in its original location, but what a location: at one end of a long hall filled with paintings from the Old Masters like Vermeer, Hals, and Rembrandt himself. And it is a HUGE painting. In fact, it used to be even bigger, but when it was too big to get through the door of where it was to be originally hung, and they cut off some of the sides to get it to fit! One interesting thing Pauline told us is that there are only something like 30 Vermeers known to exist because Vermeer had a regular job working for the city of Delft and could paint as a hobby. Rembrandt and Hals, on the other hand, were “bread painters”—they painted to pay the bills—so their output was much more prolific. Hals could paint to order, say if you wanted to be taller or skinny, he was happy to oblige. Rembrandt, on the other hand, would only paint you as you truly appeared, and would typically depict you as a biblical personality. For example, he painted himself as St. Paul, and his son Titus as St. Francis of Assissi. She also taught us quite a lot about the symbolism in Old Dutch Masters—for example, a small stove in the corner or depths of a painting meant the subject was loved or in love, since a stove gives warmth. (Don’t ask me to explain it—as every English teacher I ever had will tell you, I have an inherent mistrust of symbolism.) I’m not much for Old Masters, but Pauline’s explanations really helped bring the paintings to life!

After the tour, it was a whirlwind spin through the gift shop (and that was a pity, since it was truly an excellent one), then back on the boats for our return to the ship. It was at that point that we became a party barge, too: out came wine, kegs of beer, Coke, chips, cookies, peanuts! They were prepared for boat gridlock, but it never materialized—we made it back to the ship by 5:45 and were ready for the Captain’s farewell toast at 6:30!

After dinner, Julie and I finished up our packing. I was concerned that my suitcase was a little…um..weighty because of all the books I purchased, so I walked up to reception to ask Jeremy, our wonderful cruise director, if he had a luggage scale. No, he didn’t not, but he is a calibrated lifted! He came down to our cabin and pronounced us both under the 50 lb limit. (Regardless, I’ve got the books where I can get to them easily if I have to pull them out and put them in my carryon at the airport…a girl has to be prepared!)

Tomorrow we will be transferred to our hotel around 9:30, then Julie and I have tickets to the Van Gogh museum. Should be lots more wonderful art tomorrow, and I can take as long as I want at the gift shop! Love to all from Party Central!

Posted by hidburch 13:32 Archived in Netherlands Tagged amsterdam keukenhof_gardens rijksmuseum king's_day Comments (0)

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