Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Adventures in Den Bosch and Arnhem

In our last blog entry we took you with us by bike from Maastricht in the bottom right-hand corner of Holland to 's Hertogenbosch, aka Den Bosch, the capital of North Brabant Province, and on to Arnhem, capital of Gelderland.  Today we will take a closer look at three interesting adventures we had in these last two cities.

Den Bosch's canals are unlike others in the Netherlands, due to quirks of history.  Many of them go underneath not just bridges, but also whole buildings and a few whole blocks.  As late as the 1960s they also acted, unfortunately, as open sewers.  When that problem was finally addressed, there was a move to simply fill them in.  Preservationists succeeded in saving part of the complex system, and we got into town early enough to make the last boat trip of the day through this strange world.

It starts simply enough in a quiet, electric motor-driven boat, going under various arches and bridges.  We passed former outlets for waste that were deliberately left to show what it used to be like, but without the aromas.  Pretty soon we were going through longer and longer tunnels, and occasionally we could look forwards or backwards to see what we were passing under.

We were far from done.  The tunnels got longer and narrower.  We're gonna fit through that!!  Then make that tight turn?

So, what's it like to have tourists float through your basement everyday?  We didn't see any residents to pose that question to.

If the name "Den Bosch" has a vaguely familiar sound to you, it's probably because of its most famous son, the painter Jheronimus Aken (Jerome from Aachen (actually his father's birthplace)), who as an adult called himself Hieronymus Bosch after his own birthplace.  His work was appreciated and collected during his lifetime, particularly by the Spaniards who ruled what is now Holland and Belgium, and the closest Bosch painting is now in Rotterdam, 100 km away from the city of Den Bosch.  That hasn't stopped the Jheronimus Bosch Center.  The folks here have made exact copies of each of his works, often a precise copy of the original frame as well, and set them imaginatively in a former church.  You start by going by elevator to the top of the steeple for a look at the Den Bosch of today.  As you can see, we weren't missing any outdoor fun on this wet and windy day.  We then worked our way down the belfry and around the church, admiring these realistic reproductions.

Like virtually all artists of the Late Middle Ages -- Bosch died in 1516, one year before Luther's famous 95 Theses -- he dealt almost entirely with religious topics.  Almost every artist of that age painted the Adoration of the Wise Men, often multiple times.  But who put such interesting peasants on the edges, peering in?

In one of a handful of non religious paintings, Bosch shows us a fellow intently trying to follow a shell game at a fair.  We've focused not on the shell game but instead on the left side of the painting, where another fellow is nonchalantly picking the pocket of the onlooker!

 What makes Bosch so fascinating is his wild imagination.  Sometimes it is fairly benign, an obvious role model for Dr. Seuss.  But in many of his religious works, he gets kinda sorta carried away depicting the fate of those who've been naughty.  In The Last Judgment, a triptych painted probably as an altarpiece, Bosch shows us heaven on the left, the Last Judgment in the center, and hell on the right.  The devil is in the details, you might say, such as this little vignette of one person being roasted on a spit, and another being pan-roasted into jelly.  Whew, we all better be good little boys and girls if that is the alternative!

Then there's the passage at death through a long tunnel toward a great light.  We had no idea that this obligatory part of all descriptions nowadays of near-death experiences was already a standard iconographic image 500 years ago.

Before leaving Den Bosch we dropped in on two more sights, each half a block from our hotel.  First was the cathedral, yet another church that has  dazzled and perhaps intimidated many of its visitors over the centuries.  On the outside, however, there was a light touch.  In the most recent renovation a few years ago, workmen installed an angel using a most 21st century way of communicating -- a cellphone. A sign tells you how you can communicate as well with the angel.  Our Dutch is pretty much nonexistent, but we can read enough to tell you that it will cost you 90 euro cents per minute, and that's if you call on a mobile from Holland.  We have no idea whether the angel will impart any heavenly wisdom in return.

The other scenic wonder was underneath the street in front of our hotel -- an enormous bicycle parking lot, complete with an air pump and other tools and an electric charging station off-camera to the right.   To get in or out, there's even a not-too-steep staircase with a grooved slot for your bike tires.  Pretty cool!

Our main reason for visiting Arnhem was to go to the Nederlands Openlucht Museum, or as it's called in English, the Open Air Museum of Holland.  It was terrific.

Like most museums if this sort, it was chock full of old farmhouses.  With the help of docents, you got a good feel for the old cottage industries of spinning, weaving and the like.  The details were fascinating, like this high chair that doubled as a potty chair.  Maybe the ancestors of the folks who started In & Out Burgers owned one.  One thing that didn't go in and out for us was the soup we were served at one house where the docent had been making it all morning.  She only had a few bowls, and the two of us and a Dutch family of four just happened to be in the Right Spot at the proverbial Right Time.

Another feature of many old houses were the bed boxes.  Until the late 19th century, many Dutch and other Europeans believed it was unhealthy to sleep horizontally.  Beds were more like built-in cabinets, about four feet long from bent neck to curled toe and narrow enough that with two occupants-- the usual minimum occupancy -- there was no chance anyone was going to roll over in bed.  Since there were rarely more than two bed boxes per dwelling and we know that families were way bigger than today, the kids' bed boxes must've looked a lot like a new litter of kittens, year in and year out.

It wasn't all buildings.  The Dutch love gardens, and there were several in the complex, including these two.

It also didn't just wallow in the antiquarian.  One example is this old farmhouse and barn.  When the high speed train line from Amsterdam to Brussels and Paris was being built, it had to go.  It's been preserved as it was in the 1960s and '70s, when the old cow stall area had been converted into a sleek, modern living space.  In the Green Cross Centre building they showed how this Roman Catholic health center provided the poor with a place for a weekly bath, as well as medical attention for babies.  The mannequins were so realistic in this building we had to pause for a moment and make sure they were not docents who were really into role-playing.

Of course there were windmills -- this is Holland, right?  When you see a small mill with a large vane at the back to keep it turned into the wind, its function was almost certainly the moving of water from a wet low spot into a higher drainage canal, the way in which the Netherlands has been able to keep so much land below sea level dry enough for farming.  The larger mill behind it was for milling grain into flour.  In the second photo there is a very large windmill on the left that kept dry a very large polder, or area of reclaimed land.  It could move an amount of water equal to a modern tanker truck every minute.  Then there's another small "meadow mill" and finally a sawmill, which explains why it is open at two ends underneath.  In the center is a dad showing his kids how a self-propelled "ferry" works, by just pulling on the continuous-loop rope.

The first or last exhibit is this group of what were actually slum dwellings from the now-trendy Jordaan District of Amsterdam.  They look attractive on the outside, but the museum conservators have kept one part of the inside as a slum apartment and another as a sleazy tobacco-stained bar.

Our stay in Arnhem has been extended to four nights as we have hunkered down through several more days of rain and high winds.  The only chance we've had to enjoy the view from the roof deck was on the day we arrived.  At least it's given us a chance to bring the blog up to date and do some trip planning for the next few days.  Tomorrow is supposed to be dry in the morning, then one more half-day of rain.  Wish us well making it to our next destination without having to pull out the rain gear!


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