Amsterdam for Christmas 2004  
Pulitzer Hotel Prinsengracht 315-331

After a pretty awful Christmas last year we decided to "run away" for the festive period this year!

We were fortunate enough to have collected enough Tesco clubcard points to redeem against a stay at the plush 5 star Pulitzer Hotel.

It's an unique hotel set inside 25 canalside houses along the Prinsengraght and Keizersgracht canals.

The fact that it was built into several houses added character to the rooms, but ours was a bit on the small side.

It was conveniently located just a short walk from the tram stop at Westermarkt.

It was also far enough out of the centre to be reasonably quiet. No rowdy revellers, well apart from us!

Westerkerk

Built in 1631 the Westerkerk is the oldest and largest Protestant church in the Netherlands.

Apparently the view of the city from the tower is the best in Amsterdam but unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to frog march Julie up several hundred steps because from November to March it's closed to visitors.

Completely out of character for a Protestant Church (in my experience they've always been dowdy!) the tower is brightly topped with the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire.

The right to display it was gifted to the city in the 15th Century by Maximilian of Austria, in gratitude of receiving financial support from the city of Amsterdam.

The Westkerk tower also proudly displays the city's coat of arms. The three crosses crowned.

The triple X has now become the symbol of the city, some say appropriately so; due to the city's notorious sex industry!

The three crosses however represent the diagonal cross on which the apostle St. Andrew was martyred, and is triplicated for protection from flood, fire and famine.

The symbol is everywhere, even the burgundy bollards that marshall the city's roads carry the 'XXX'.

This reminds me of when I received a chocolate bollard from the Pulitzer's "chambermaid" and at first glance I could have sworn she'd handed me a chocolate penis!

I was shocked but thought "oh well, we are in Amsterdam I suppose !"

Another interesting fact about Westerkerk was that in 1669 Rembrandt was buried somewhere inside. The exact location is unknown but a plaque commemorates the fact.

Rijksmuseum www.rijksmuseum.com

One of the highlights of the 'Masterpieces' collection at the Rijksmuseum were the Rembrandt self-portraits.

We really enjoyed strolling around looking at the vast collection of prominent Dutch masters such as Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Rembrandt and Vermeer.

'The Kitchen Maid' is probably the one painting that most people come to see. Since the Hollywood film 'Girl With a Pearl Earing' everyone knows about the Dutch painter from Delft, Johaness Vermeer.

Only 35 paintings have been credited to Vermeer which is a very small catalgoue compared to say Rembrandt who painted nearly that many self-portraits!

Only four Vermeer's were on show at the Rijksmuseum. The Kitchen Maid, Woman Reading Letter, Love Letter and The Little Street. They all stood out.

What I found refreshing was that non-flash photography was allowed inside the Rijksmuseum. Great!

Outside the museum there was an ice skating rink. We sat down for a coffee in a nearby cafe and watched the kids slipping and sliding and then falling over!

Van Gogh Museum

A short walk from the rink was the Van Gogh museum. Photos were strictly not allowed. In fact I'm not too sure if I'm breaking the law here by unauthorised displaying of his artwork.

Ah well, nevermind. I really enjoyed this museum as it was the first time that I had seen a Van Gogh. Although we do have one on the wall at home called "Painting by Numbers of the Sunflowers" by Julie Owen. It's almost as good, but not quite!

The shop didn't sell any other painting by numbers kits so we bought the two postcards above, and a poster of our favourite painting, to the left.

It's called "Blossoming Almond Tree"; and was painted whilst Van Gogh was in a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy.

It has a definite Japanese zen charm and beauty. It certainly infuses calmness.

His life however was far from calm, and at the age of only 37, crippled with depression, he shot himself in the chest. His last words were reportedly "The sadness will last forever". [All of the above images are from Van Gogh Gallery ]

Anne Frank House Prinsengracht 263

The Anne Frank House Museum was my most eagerly awaited attraction of our visit to Amsterdam, but walking around the secret annex failed to move me as I had expected.

With the rooms mostly empty they seem devoid of emotion. Perhaps I should have finished reading the Diary before our visit. I'm sure I would have empathised better.

The original wallpaper with the pictures in Anne Frank's room, Anne and Margot's growth lines and the map of Normandy where Otto Frank recorded the allied invasion with pins, are the only remaining authentic traces of the stay of the people in hiding at the Secret Annex.

Whilst these were extremely fascinating to see I just didn't feel it, despite standing in the exact same spot Anne Frank stood peering out at the tree, sixty years earlier.

An exhibition at the end showing what happened after they were all captured did bring the attrocities of the holocaust to life and then it certainly hit me.

This wasn't Anne Frank's house, this was where she hid in fear for her life.

Canals

We walked a lot during our stay in Amsterdam, up down and around all the canals. The huge variety of architecture was very interesting.

Our favourite pastime however was peering inside the houses at the tastefully decorated rooms!

Our guide book suggested that a visit to Begijnhoff was worthwhile. It's an enclosed courtyard with pretty little houses with white picket fencing.

It was originally built as a sactuary for the Begijntjes, a Catholic sisterhood who lived like nuns. Houses in Begijnhof are still traditionally occupied by single women. A medieval church fills the south of the courtyard.

It is also home to the oldest surviving house in Amsterdam, the Het Houten Huis, dating from around 1420.

Het Houten Huis

This statue of Multatuli was on a bridge over the Singel canal. I did not know who he was. Not a clue. Never heard of him. Apparently he was a hugely succesful 19th century Dutch writer.

Boat Trip

To give our feet a rest, and to see Amsterdam from a different angle we decided to go on a canal boat trip.

The starting point was Damrak, not far from the Centraal Station. We entered the Ooosterdok and looped around, down to the Amstel, then up Herengracht canal.

We took a left, then a right onto Prinsengracht floating past our hotel, Westerkerk and Ann Frank Huis. Eventually popping out into the vast open water. We felt a little exposed out here after the comfortable narrowness of the canals!

Returning to the Ooosterdok it felt very peculiar to see a Floating Chinese Restaurant similar to the famous one in Hong Kong. However this was apparently the third of the size.

We also sailed by the 'Botel'. A large ship permanently moored to serve as a hotel. The price seemed extremely cheap at 40 for a room for the night.

The boat trip didn't go as far as the Magere Bridge across the Amstel but we had already walked there on our first day.

Not far from here I enjoyed 3 fried eggs on bread, (a traditional Dutch lunch), in a great little corner cafe.

Dam Square and behind

The royal palace on Dam Square was a huge imposing building. The square was flanked also by the Nieuwe Kerk, which is now no longer used as a church but is a museum, and to the south by the famous waxworks museum of Madam Tussads.

The building which I thought was far more interesting architechturally was behind the Koninklijk Royal Palace. It's called The Magna Plaza and was originally the central Post Office but now houses three floors of shops.

We didn't know this at the time and didn't go inside!

A Night on the Tiles

On our first night in Amsterdam we found a little gem of a restaurant on a side canal [on Leliegracht between Prinsengraght and Keizersgraght] called Spanjer & Van Twist. They made the most delicious Goat's Cheese Lasagna. [So much so that ever since we've been home we have been trying to replicate the taste!]

On Christmas Eve we tried a Sikh vegetarian restaurant which was very disappointing. The quality of the food was not at all good, and to make it even more unpalatable we couldn't wash it down with lashings of alcohol, only peppermint tea!

We reacted to being "too virtuos" the night before by eating in the Hard Rock cafe on Christmas Day. They did have a traditional Turkey roast on the menu but Julie went for burger and chips!

On Boxing Day we returned to our favourite which was the Spanjer & Van Twist for another delicious meal.

We spent much of Boxing Day in shock, fighting back the tears whilst watching the news about the tsunami disaster unfolding. Phi Phi, Krabi and Phuket were badly hit, and four years ago on Boxing Day we were on Rai Ley beach, Krabi. I remember late one night on Ko Phi Phi when Julie asked me if they suffered from tidal waves in Thailand to which I laughed myself back to sleep. What an awful tragedy.

Our final evening was spent in the hotel's bar drinking to the small hours of the morning with two Americans.

I remember that one worked for Oscar de la something and the other one was into his music. We got along great, playing with the jukebox until the Californian pinched my bottom. He didn't stay long after that!

The New Yorker desinger guy was worrying about how to claim his "Starwood Preferred Guest" discount to which Julie joked that She and I were probably "Starwood's Least Preferred Guests" !!

As the evening progressed a while later he wept into his martini when he talked about friends he had lost in 9/11. Still suffering from the trauma.

Canals by night

Without a doubt the canals look even more beautiful when illuminated at night.

A Long Way Home
 
We began our journey home by catching a train to Brussels from the Centraal Station. We settled down for a relaxing ride to the Belgian capital when all of a sudden the train made an unscheduled stop in Essen, right on the border of Holland and Belgium. (Not the one in Germany!) All the passengers were asked to leave the train, and it carried on without us! We were left stranded in the middle of nowhere with only two hours remaining to catch our Eurostar connection!

I was absolutely fuming! I was Effiing and Blinding, with steam venting out the top of my head, I stomped purposefully inside the station looking for a member of staff to throttle but there were none to be seen. They were in hiding!

Finally, over half an hour later, a message, (in Flemish or Dutch?), was read over the loudspeaker and everybody quickly moved platforms. We followed the crowd. A train pulled up to collect us and took us to Antwerp, stopping at every little Walloon village along the way. This was torturous.

A kind gentleman on this train explained to us in English that there appeared to have been some industrial action between the Dutch and Belgian train services, and the Dutch had refused to take us any further than the border where we were then picked up by the Belgians.

In Antwerp we changed trains for Brussels, and thankfully it sped its way directly to Gare Midi. As soon as the train reached a standstill at the platform we jumped off and walked as briskly as possible through the crowd. On reaching the escalators I looked at my watch and panicked. I ran down the moving stairs, then sped towards the Eurostar terminal. I came to an abrupt stop, turned around and Julie was nowhere to be seen!! She simply can't walk down those steps whilst they move let alone run! So I ran all the way back to the bottom of the escalators and waited for her.

We eventually made it to the Eurostar platform with only 10 minutes to spare. Phew!

Even Julie agreed that next time we'll fly !!

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