Wednesday, April 14, 2010
We had planned today to go to Haarlem, but when we bought our train tickets to Hoorn yesterday, a saleswoman launched into a pitch to sell us bus-tour tickets, and we decided to take the brochure and peruse it just to make her happy. And sure enough, while waiting on the train to Hoorn, Jennifer found an interesting bus tour that would take us through Delft and Rotterdam as well as a few places we’d missed in The Hague (including a very cool miniatures theme park I’d wanted to go to), and a stop at a massive flower auction and some drives through windmill country. It seemed too cool to pass up, really. Aside from the crowded Bloemenmarkt in central Amsterdam and a bustling little flower market at the train station in Hoorn (where we bought our B&B host some roses), we hadn’t seen much in the way of Holland’s famous flowers. Flower stands abound in Amsterdam, of course, so we’d seen plenty scattered here and there, but nothing like the massive array of flowers the guide books led us to expect, and this flower auction on the tour is one of the largest in the world. And I’d been on the lookout for Delft pottery but so far had only found cheap souvenir knock-offs, so a trip to Delft itself seemed ideal. Plus, after visiting the city where my great-grandfather grew up, it felt right to also take a short trip to Rotterdam, where he was born and where his brother—my grandfather’s uncle—lived for a while. So as a final bit of spontaneity, we decided to make a grand tour of the region as our last full day in The Netherlands.
The day turned out to be almost more tour than we could handle—or rather, more tour than the tour could handle. They packed a LOT into this trip, and in the end the whole day felt a bit rushed. Lunch in particular was more hurried than we’d have liked. But we also got to see a lot of things we might otherwise have missed, and exhausted as we are, I’m glad we went.
Still, not everything was up to expectations. The flower auction (our first stop), for example, was strongly underwhelming. I had expected to see vast fields of planted flowers blooming in the sun, glistening with dew. Instead, we walked a steel catwalk overlooking a huge warehouse, electric trolleys like airline luggage carts towing long trains of crated flowers around into lanes and rows. The huge auction rooms where masses of flowers are bought and sold were interesting to see, though, and the inside look at the global flower industry was educational. It’s also strange to think that I saw today, in The Netherlands, a rose or a tulip that tomorrow might sit on a dining table in Philadelphia.
The Delft pottery tour was also understated, but in this case I wasn’t disappointed. I had mentioned to Jennifer that I’d done a similar tour at the great Turkish ceramic center in Iznik, and sure enough, the styles, the process, and the tours were all quite similar, so I hadn’t expected a long tour and didn’t get one. What I did get—and had hoped for—was a chance to buy some Delftware directly from the source, which was exceptionally cool. Most interesting, though, was that the Delftse Pauw (The Delft Peacock), the shop we visited, is one of only two remaining authentic Delft pottery makers left; as the industry turned to machine-painted ceramics, the old handcrafted makers dwindled, but the name “Delft” can’t be copywrited because it’s the name of the city, so the traditional Delftware has to share its name with manufactured Delftware. It was nice, then, to see the old style of creating such ceramics and to purchase pieces that came with certificates of their authenticity.
Delft itself was lovely—perfectly picturesque—and I think if we’d gone on our own we could have spent the day there, as we did in The Hague and in Hoorn. The town center was as exact a portrait of traditional town life as one could imagine, complete with a fête in the square, music on the corners by the cafes and pubs, and college students reviewing exam notes while packs of teens flirted with each other. But the quiet residential areas surrounding the center were gorgeous as well, with tiny thatch-roofed cottages and small gardens lining grassy-banked canals, or tall, narrow townhouses overlooking narrow-alleyed neighborhoods. Every street paved in cobblestones.
Better still, Jennifer got to see the grave of Vermeer, overall her favorite painter and the impetus behind two major museum visits while here in The Netherlands. But we barely managed to squeeze in it and a hasty lunch at what was actually a fairly cool little indoor/outdoor café, located at the old weigh house on the square and seated in the shadow of the medieval tower at the town center, before the tour bus was loading and off to the next site. Like I said, things were a bit rushed today.
Also hasty was our trip through—not to—Rotterdam. In fact, the bus never stopped; we just navigated the busy streets as the guide pointed out landmarks and architecture, and then before we knew we were zipping north to The Hague. I was ready to be disappointed, given my family’s connection with the city, until we learned that the Nazis had decimated the city in 1941 in order to force the capitulation of the Dutch (they were successful)—the city was so utterly destroyed that only three buildings survived—so it turns out none of the city my ancestors knew even stands today, anyway. And we did get a good rundown of the recent architecture and the growth of the city, so in the end I felt okay about the brevity of the drive-through.
In The Hague, we stopped by the Queen’s working residence (she was in her office and at work, which she indicates by flying her flag at full mast), and then hopped out for a quick peek at the Peace Palace, seat of international arbitration–it was established as an alternative to war, which, as a committed pacifist, I quite enjoyed seeing even if we couldn’t go inside. But the highlight of the day, it turned out, was the trip to Madurodam.
Madurodam is a vast theme park constructed entirely of 1:25-scale miniatures of Dutch landmarks, architecture, and cultural scenes. Here, in perfect detail, were the Rijksmuseum (without the shell of renovation scaffolding we’d seen), the Royal Palace (without the shell of renovation scaffolding), the National Monument on the Dam (without the shell of renovation fencing)—in short, all the sights we’d missed seeing in their full glory because they were under renovation, here were reproduced in perfect miniature. The detail was so amazing that on several occasions I dropped to the ground, placed the camera at model-eye level, and snapped a photo that looks utterly convincing as an actual street shot. The attention to realism is exquisite, too: the grass is all living moss, and the trees are pruned bonsai, so they look like real trees because they are real trees, just in miniature. The boats navigate the harbors and canals (pulled along underwater tracks), the trains ride their rails, the windmills turn…. At the scale model of Schiphol Airport, the planes even taxi around the runway. It was astounding, and a man-boy’s ultimate playground. It was also our longest stop of the day—more than an hour to explore the grounds—so I was positively giddy with excitement.
Still, the day had to end, and we had reservations at De Kas, a classy organic restaurant built inside a greenhouse—we made our last dinner in The Netherlands a special one. De Kas is a specialty place that grows most of its own vegetables in a greenhouse attached to the dining room (the dining room, too, looks like a greenhouse, with the glass ceiling alternating clear panels and solar collectors for their power); they grow their own herbs on site, too. The rest of their veggies they grow in a farm outside the city, and the meat, fish, and cheese comes from local producers, too. Each day, the staff brings in a fresh harvest, and each day the chef designs a new menu based on what’s available. Therefore, there is only one menu each day, with two options: Meat and fish, or vegetarian. Jennifer ordered the meat and fish menu, and I had the vegetarian. They also hand-select a series of wines custom-matched to each course of each evening’s menu, so we did that as well.
For our starters, Jennifer had lobster ravioli in a cream sauce and lamb tongue in lentils, while I had cabbage rolls in lentils and parsley and a spinach ravioli in cream sauce. We also both shared a plate of smoked lettuce with aged Dutch cheese. Our starters were paired with a pinot blanc and a Madeira. Then, for the main course, Jennifer have seawolf with mashed potatoes and parsnips while I ate roasted potatoes with parsnips and onions, which was paired with a French chardonnay. And then, for dessert, we each had a crème brulee topped with rhubarb sorbet and a delicious dry Riesling. I’m not much of a food snob, but I love great cuisine when we can get it, and this was one of those most unique and delicious dining experiences we’ve ever had. I loved it, and we will definitely return to De Kas if we ever get to Amsterdam again.
But now, despite an after-dinner cup of coffee, I am tired, and though we have an evening flight out tomorrow, we plan to spend some time wandering the park tomorrow before finishing our packing, so I’m done for the evening.
12:25 am (April 15)
[Just for fun, I’m including this small gallery of images from Madurodam to show the incredible detail of the place.]
Thursday, April 15, 2010
I had intended to write this in my notebook on the plane home. But I am not on the plane home. I am in a hotel on the outskirts of the city, between the airport and Amsterdam proper. It is late. We are tired. But we are not going home today.
After we left our B&B, Irene, our host, called the taxi driver (they’re friends) and told us she’d just seen the news about a volcano erupting in Iceland. All the flights out of Schiphol were being canceled, she said. She still had a vacancy for the night—our old room, in fact—so we were welcome to return to her place if our flight, too, was canceled. We thanked her, crossed our fingers, and went inside.
We were canceled.
I’m not entirely sure what the full extent of the situation is, but after spending a few hours in line and talking with the Lufthansa people (who operate the first leg of our flight, to Frankfurt, before we switch to Etihad to go home), they managed to rebook us for tomorrow on KLM. But they also are saying tomorrow doesn’t look good. The volcano, it seems, is not finished spewing ash yet, and word is they might cancel everything tomorrow, too. So, who knows.
The good news is that Lufthansa was kind enough to give us a free room and dinner at a nearby hotel. Because this is a natural disaster and outside the airline’s control, they didn’t have to do that, but they seem to want to treat their customers well, so we lucked out.
I should go ahead and recap the rest of today, but I’m tired and need some rest. The hotel is okay, dinner was as good as we could expect, right now all we want to do and get some sleep, get on a plane, and forget this happened. But we’ll see what tomorrow brings.