Thursday, August 27, 2015

Wrapping Up Our Trip to Europe by Reconnecting with Friends

For our last ten days in Europe we shifted gears, so to speak.  We spent 3 days in Den Haag and a week in Leiden, both in apartments where we could cook -- and we did!  Dutch supermarkets have very similar products to those we buy in the States, and the prices (at least at the favorable exchange rate of 2015) are comparable, maybe even a little cheaper.   At last we could have an adequate number of vegetables on our plates!  Our Leiden apartment building is the grey one halfway down the left side of the Singel Canal, though our own unit, alas, did not overlook the water.

We also spent 4 of these 10 days enjoying the company of old friends.  Well, the first group of "old friends" were actually Dutch artists from the Golden Age in the Mauritshuis, one of Europe's finest small art museums.  Inside this classical house is an amazing collection, including one of Holland's most iconic pictures, Vermeer's Girl With Pearl Earring.

But there was so much more!  Here are just a few, starting with a painting, or rather many paintings, within a painting, by Willem Van Haecht (actually a close-up of only part of this large canvas), and a classic winter skating scene by Hendrick Avercamp.

Another Vermeer is an outstanding view of the city of Delft in 1660, followed by a scene by Jan van der Heyden of Amsterdam about 1670, and a view of the city of Haarlem in the distance by Holland's greatest landscape artist, Jacob van Ruisdael.  The folks bleaching linen cloth in the foreground are clear enough, but all one really sees of Haarlem is its enormous cathedral, St. Bavo's.

The Dutch had made a real break from the religious art that previously dominated European art, and few paintings make that more obvious than Paulus Potter's monumental The Bull.  

Although the vast majority of the Mauritshuis collection is of Dutch artists, there are a few by others, of which Hans Holbein's portrait of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's favorite wife, was particularly striking.

And of course there are Rembrandts, including one of his many self portraits; the Portrait of an Elderly Man, done when Rembrandt himself was 61 years old; and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, with which Rembrandt taught the world how to do a truly engaging group portrait.

Then, when you think you've seen quite a few great Dutch paintings, the museum visit ends in a grand gallery with yet another 2 or 3 dozen more!  It's quite an experience!

We are shortly about to fly to Maine to pursue another love of ours, canoeing, so when we heard that there was a canoe rental 2 blocks from our apartment in Den Haag, we jumped at the opportunity.   Parts were classic Dutch city canal scenes, but we ran into some issues when we followed a route through a park.  The occasional patch of algae was one thing, but the tree that had come down in a recent storm was a whole 'nuther matter.  Guess we're not going down this canal!

With our gear moved on to Leiden, we were able to take a nice bike ride without luggage.  We headed to the upscale town of Wassenaar, where one if the neighbors is the King, and were amused to see a million dollar house with a thatch roof!  Nearby we had a luncheon pancake -- these ones were cheese and bell peppers.  

With no luggage, we had no qualms about biking in one of the few places in the Netherlands where it's hilly, the dunes along the North Sea.

Now it was time to get together with various Dutch friends.  First up were Kees and Janna, whom we befriended when we all traveled across the Atlantic on the S.S. Eurodam 2 years ago.  They made the mistake of giving us their address and telling us to see them sometime.  They live in Katwijk, a town on the North Sea, and they took us by car (our first car ride in 2 months) first to a greenhouse that invites painters to hang out and do their thing.  Next up was a windmill.  The fellow who maintains and runs it gave us a personal tour all the way up its five or six levels, explaining as we went.  On one level he's set up a workshop for his second love, after windmills -- painting.  That's his rendition of a nearby scene as it looked a few decades ago.

Then it was off to Kees and Janna's house, where Janna served up some nice home cooking.  We ended our visit with a walk to the beach from their home, which sits right behind the dunes.

Next up were new friends we made earlier this summer.  Nico lost his vision as a child, but has stayed quite active with regular 40 to 60 km rides on his tandem, steered by his wife Marga.  We met them on the Moselle in July and exchanged email addresses, and they agreed to drive an hour from their home south of Rotterdam to join us for a day ride near Leiden.  They have an impressive bike and they're impressive riders.  

We did a 45 km loop over to the North Sea dunes, all on routes they hadn't done before, and we finished up with lunch of soup and salad in our apartment.  We're hoping to get to Europe again next summer, and hopefully will be able to join them on their "home turf" for another ride or two.

The very next day, our Dutch friend from the Belgian city of Antwerp drove two hours to come see us!   Riet is a great lover of museums, so we did two.  The first was devoted to a Dutch physician who spent many years in Japan in the mid 1800's, in the period when the Dutch were the only foreigners allowed into Japan.  Then we drove back to Den Haag to see the Mesdag Panorama.  
Panoramas were popular in the 19th century, but very few remain today.   The concept is to give a 360 degree view from one point.  There are famous panoramas still standing at Waterloo and at Gettysburg which put the visitor seemingly in the middle of those battles.  

Hendrik Willem Mesdag was a painter of seascapes, so when he decided to do a panorama as his magnum opus, it was set as if the visitor were standing on a dune overlooking the North Sea to one side and the town of Scheveningen Holland on the other.  The Museum Mesdag first gave us a sampling of earlier works by Mesdag and his wife Sina van Houten, also an accomplished painter, then we walked through a dark tunnel and came up, seemingly, into the sand dune.  All around us was real sand and a few artifacts, then the 135-year-old painting.  It is clearly the largest single painting either of us has ever seen, and it's quite a good one.

Riet had lined up one more treat for us.  Long before we ever thought of traveling to the Netherlands, we had heard about the rijsttafel.  It originated as a banquet in Indonesia when it was a Dutch colony, and features several kinds of rice and small servings of numerous dishes.  The idea was to impress the guest with the many cuisines of Indonesia, and with a plenitude of flavors, colors and textures.  Our own 3-person rijsttafel featured two kinds of rice and 21 other dishes. We were duly impressed!

In Holland, biking is great fun, as we've shared with you in this blog, and very, very popular -- here's the bike parking lot on a weekend at the Central Train Station in Den Haag.  But it was finally time to end our biking there, for the time being.  The owner of the apartment we were renting through had kindly accepted delivery of our empty bike cases, shipped by DHL from Bamberg 9 weeks ago, and stored them safely for us.  Out came the drop cloth and tools, and pretty soon Little Red went from "bike" to "bike parts."

We're flying back on Icelandair, which allows passengers to stopover in Iceland at no extra fee, so our next blog will take you briefly to Reykjavik and then on to Maine, where we have four cabins rented for a total of six weeks.  Talk to you next from the other side of the Atlantic!

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