A final Netherlands – Belgium vacation mash-up

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Belgium. If you’ve read any of the preceeding posts (about 9 so far I think) about the trip, thank you.

This will be my final post, with a melange of images that give you a taste of the many places I visited … some of which I haven’t mentioned yet.

(The blogging about the trip begins with the post “Going Dutch” and adds from there – you can also find them if you search my “Travel” tag.)

Boat making its way on a Brugge canal

Boat making its way on a Brugge canal

Travel Tip: Brugge is beautiful, and worth seeing as a day trip. Stay in Gent, Belgium and travel to Brugge for an afternoon.

The Delft town square

The Delft town square

The other side of the main square in Delft is this magnificent church

The other side of the main square in Delft is this magnificent church

Canal porn - Another tourist taking a canal beauty shot - Delft

Canal porn – Another tourist taking a canal beauty shot – Delft

Travel Tip: The three images above show you everything you would want see in Delft, in my opinion. I suggest you go elsewhere to spend your limited travel time and budget.

Stitched sculpture of a woman - SMAK Contemporary Art

Stitched sculpture of a woman – SMAK Contemporary Art

Travel Tip: And when you go to Gent, if you like contemporary art even a little bit, you would do well to spend an afternoon at SMAK, the Contemporary Art Museum.

Detail - stitched sculpture

Detail – stitched sculpture

Bicycle sculpture - SMAK

Bicycle sculpture – SMAK

Canal in Amsterdam

Canal in Amsterdam

Don’t get me wrong (from my previous blog posts, I mean) Amsterdam has it’s charms. When the sun peeks out from the clouds, and a lone boat sails down yet another picturesque canal in the center of the city, you could come to like the place.

Me taking a photo of tourists taking a photo of themselves in Rembrandt Square - Amsterdam

Me taking a photo of tourists taking a photo of themselves in Rembrandt Square – Amsterdam

Yeah, the place is over run with tourists but what can you do but go with the flow? After all, I was one of them.

Detail of something I liked at the Rijksmuseum

Detail of something I liked at the Rijksmuseum

And the art is pretty cool, no matter which museums you like best.

Writer sculpture - Eye Film Institute Amsterdam

Writer sculpture – Eye Film Institute Amsterdam

Despite all of my experiences, I still found it hard to encapsulate them into blog posts. There was so much to write about, and I didn’t even realize it until I got home.

View from top floor of the Amsterdam library

View from top floor of the Amsterdam library

Top Secret Travel Tip: This is the best view you can get in the city of Amsterdam. Behind Centraal Station, you can take a free ferry across the water. Find the Amsterdam Public Library, and go to the 7th Floor, which is their EXCELLENT restaurant. Go to the outside deck, and snap a couple of incredible shots of the city, then go back inside and get one of the most reasonbly priced, delicious lunches you’re going to find.

Worn Out - Van Gogh sketch

Worn Out – Van Gogh sketch

When it was time to leave, I was ready to come home to New York City… still the best city on the planet.

Art in Amsterdam – Contemporary and Classic

Tons of dilapidated tourist bicycles behind Central Station

Tons of dilapidated tourist bicycles behind Central Station

As a blogger, it’s up to me to decide what images to show you of a place I visit. If I show you a romanticized pic of the perfect bicycle alongside a canal on a sunny day, with the reflection of a bridge mirrored in the water you’d get a “travel-porn” view of Amsterdam.

But that wasn’t my experience, so that’s not what I am going to show.

These images are how I saw bicycles in Amsterdam. They abound by the hundreds, most of them homely and half-broke, locked up with thick metal chains, leaning against buildings, or bound to fences or ugly concrete pillars beside the canals. They are an eyesore; the city is over-run with them.

More bicycles leaning against a building

More bicycles leaning against a building

Art can be like that too. We have expectations of art. We want it to deliver a certain viewing experience. In many cases we romanticize art, particularly classical art.

For instance, when you are in Amsterdam and you go to any of the major museums, you will see the “Dutch Masters.” It’s easy to look at these images and settle back into your chair at your computer desk (unless you are looking at this screen on a tablet, or a cell phone I suppose) and say to yourself, Ah, yes, these are the paintings a tourist would see in Amsterdam. How beautiful.

It requires no thinking, it is a passive viewing experience.

So when we think of famous artists from the Netherlands, we’d call to mind Van Gogh:

Van Gogh self portrait - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh self portrait – Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

or a lovely Vermeer:

Vermeer's The Milkmaod - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Vermeer’s The Milkmaod – Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

or perhaps Rembrandt:

Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

I’m not criticizing this art. I’m not suggesting these artworks aren’t worth seeing, but I am saying a viewer will not feel challenged when you look at these works. You will see exactly what you expect.

So, I’d prefer not to just highlight these conventional images, and talk a little bit about images that aren’t as expected.

The original rock and roll smoking skeleton? Maybe. It's a Van Gogh.

The original rock and roll smoking skeleton? Maybe. It’s a Van Gogh.

Unfortunately I will be unable to show you photos of the art made an impression on me because I was not allowed to take photographs at FOAM – the contemporary museum of photography. I also forgot to take a photograph of “W139: a contemporary art space” and the current work there called “On Fresh Soil.”

Fortunately for you dear reader, I am a writer – not a professional artist – so I can share what I observed in words and you will come up with your own imagined view of what I saw.

*          *          *

At FOAM, I saw a large exhibition of the works of Stephen Gill. The show is entitled “Best Before End.” This show will be on view at FOAM from May 17th thru July 14th 2013.

Here is an excerpt of the show’s description by the museum’s curators:  “The exhibition Best Before End incorporates a number of photographic series Gill made in and around the London borough of Hackney over the past 14 years. … Gill made various attempts to jump outside the technical boundaries that photography imposed. … His processes include burying photographs, making exuberant flower collages, places objects inside the camera so that their traces could be encapsulated within the film emulsion.”

One interesting technique Gill used was adding colored energy drinks to his film and the processed photograph would have a large orange, red or other color “splotch” in places on the finished print.

The content of Gill’s show isn’t always as fascinating as his techniques though. One series of a dozen photos was images of different individuals sitting on a train looking out the window. Another series was old women who used shopping carts and the images were centered on the woman with the shopping cart, and not much else in the image. Still another series was different pieces of concrete sitting in the center of the image, with no discernable background.

However, there were other images that strived toward a larger narrative. My favorite piece in the show was a small photo of a field of cone flowers with a yellow base to the flower, graduating to reddish orange on top in the foreground… in the background, were a series of industrial smokestacks, the top portion of which were safety yellow – but processed to look similar in color to the flowers.

Another interesting part of the exhibit was a dozen works on paper – not photos. Each paper had a smashed purplish blue splotch in the center. The contents of these artworks were, according to the description, “blueberry, hammer, paper.” The description of these works actually said “pathetic attempt to capture” … and I think it said something like the essence of that place at a particular time. But it’s a good challenge to a viewer at a photography exhibition, in my opinion.

There were several other galleries with other photographic works on display. The museum is not large, and depending on how you linger over particular exhibits, you can see it in an hour or hour and a half. Still, I found it worthwhile.

*          *          *

Travel Tip: If you want to purchase some decorative street art from local artists (tourist stuff) … you can stop by the “Art Plein Spui” on Sundays only, in the Spui district. There’s a little something for everybody: landscapes, nudes, abstract, a bit of sculpture … all while being serenaded by a harp player accompanied by a violinist.

Entrance to Art Plein Spui

Entrance to Art Plein Spui

Artists ready to meet the day's tourists at Art Plein Spui

Artists ready to meet the day’s tourists at Art Plein Spui

*          *          *

Finally, I didn’t have nearly enough time – or map sense – to find out what the contemporary art scene was like in Amsterdam. There was only one ground-breaking space (literally) that I saw, at W139.

W139 is a pseudo-warehouse looking space, with high ceilings, although accessible at street level. When I visited, W139 had “broken ground” by pulling a small tractor (yes, a farm tractor) into the building to plough a “furrow” into the blacktop macadam they had laid over a concrete floor years ago. The artists collective who run the space decided they are going to remove this blacktop surface, and they had a groundbreaking ceremony where the tractor did its bit to cut into the floor.

Unfortunately I wasn’t there to see that. I saw the aftermath… a tractor parked in the center of the space, behind the tractor are pieces of blacktop thrown to both sides of this “furrow” and the rest of the space looks like (and is) an unfinished construction zone.

The folks at W139 present this as an artwork in progress, and that is what’s on view. They are calling this exhibition “On Fresh Soil.” Entrance to the space is free.

*          *          *

Just like the random chaos at W139, there is no neat and tidy way to summarize the art I saw in Amsterdam. The museums are the institutional view, the street art is what it is, and the contemporary galleries are mostly unknown to me.

But if you find bicycles to be the moving art of the city of Amsterdam, don’t worry, you’ll see plenty.

The Train, The Train! Transportation Nightmares between Amsterdam and Belgium

A small variety of tram, high speed, and local train tickets needed to get around

A small variety of tram, high speed, and local train tickets needed to get around

Yellow tickets for travel inside the Netherlands; Blue ticket for the Amsterdam tram (24 hr pass); high speed computer print-out ticket for travel from Amsterdam, NL to Brugge, Belgium… the dizzying array of tickets needed to get from place to place was confusing for this traveler.

In Belgium, if you announce to the conductor before you get on the train, you can purchase your ticket on the train. In the Netherlands, if you attempt that move, you’ll be asked to pay a $35 euro surcharge for not having your ticket in hand.

What does that really mean? Miss the train sitting on the platform in front of you, go downstairs, wait on line to buy a ticket, then go back up to whatever platform for the next train, wait twenty minutes… did I mention drag your luggage around with you? Yeah, do that too.

And how are you supposed to know all this?

I have no idea.

The three days I decided to roam the countryside by train were a logistical nightmare.

Amsterdam to Brugge, Belgium

The day before I was supposed to leave, I went to buy a ticket at Amsterdam’s Central Station from the company that runs the HiSpeed rail service. I was informed that there were no more seats on the HiSpeed train, and that I would have to take a local train, that would add another 40 minutes to my trip – but – the cost would be half of what I would have paid for HiSpeed service ($43.80 euros vs. $97 euros for HiSpeed.) O-kay…

But, I was told, you have to change trains multiple times. That’s right: there is no train between Amsterdam and Brugge. There is train service, but you have to go from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, then from Rotterdam to Antwerp, and then go from Antwerp to Brugge.

Freaking hell, I thought, but what other choice did I have if I wanted to see picturesque Brugge?

So on the morning of my trip, I got onto the train in Amsterdam as planned. Half-way between Amsterdam and Rotterdam the train broke down. Dead. Stopped in place for more than 40 minutes. During the ticking of the clock, I missed my connection for Rotterdam to Antwerp.

Uh oh.

Skylights above the Antwerp Train Station, upper platforms

Skylights above the Antwerp Train Station, upper platforms

 

I could go through the hell I experienced in detail, but I will spare you and tell you this: I had to change trains five times before I finally got to Brugge in the pouring rain. And instead of taking 3 hours, or even 3.5 hours, the trip took me over six hours to get from Amsterdam to Brugge.

You can already guess, correctly, that all that changing of trains, waiting on platforms, purchasing of tickets and transfers and the rest of it… was exhausting. By the time I got to Brugge (in the pouring rain) I had little strength left to see the town. I walked around for two hours in the rain, and then went to my hotel and collapsed.

So much for Brugge. Which is beautiful, by the way, but not a “real town.” I mean to say, Belgians call it an “amusement park” because everything there is geared to tourists. Yes, it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site, and it’s a phenomenal example of medieval architecture and worth seeing. Once.

Travel Tip: Brugge is a very small town, so my recommendation is don’t bother staying there overnight to pay tourist hotel rates and instead stay in Gent and do it as a day trip.

Brugge to Gent

I don’t recall the trip from Brugge to Gent being that arduous, but it was time consuming. You’d think it shouldn’t take a few hours to get to a town that is really close by, but the stuff that takes up your time are all the little tasks you must attend to in order to get where you have to go.

For example, once I got to Gent I had to find out which Tram would get me nearest to my hotel. Then I had to go outside the train station and find an out-building where they sell the tram tickets (harder to find than you might think.) The trams in the Gent station are numbered, but even when you know which one you need, you have to make sure you’re getting on the right one, going in the right direction and you need to know the name of your stop (which they’re going to announce in foreign accent you probably can’t understand.)

So yeah, it took me all morning to get from Brugge to Gent due to all the little things.

Gent to Delft

I had had it by the time I tried to get from Gent to Delft. I had to do the reverse order crap I did before and change trains in Antwerp, then Rotterdam then… somewhere else I can’t remember because there is no direct train from Rotterdam to freaking Delft.

Travel tip: If you are going to see Brugge and Gent, SKIP DELFT. It’s smaller than both of those places, and just as touristy. It’s not worth it, especially when you consider the hassles of getting there by train, which are considerable.

I think I mentioned this in my other post Going Dutch, that it was freezing cold and windy the day I traveled to Delft. What I didn’t add then, but will add now, is that it took me from 9am until 1:30pm to get to my hotel. That just plain pissed me off.

Like in Brugge, between the horrible weather and the ridiculous arduous trip, it knocked me out from enjoying the sights for the most part. I walked around Delft and I’m sure I saw most of it, it’s a tiny place… but the near-gale force winds chased me inside to my hotel.

And finally…

Delft to Amsterdam

Yeah, that’s right… you can’t get to Amsterdam from Delft. You have to go to the Hague, where I did not visit because I was not going to take even one more tram, bus, train or horse drawn carriage ride to ANYwhere by the time I made it to Delft in the middle of the afternoon. So, sorry Hague, I could have spent some tourist dollars there but you’re train system sapped me of my willpower to get to you.

Ironically, and this is ironic to me… the train service between the Hague and Amsterdam is fast and nearly non-stop.

It was a quick and efficient trip.

Too little, too late.

Oh… yeah… the views of the countryside out the train window(s) are pretty. Lots of green space, cows, sheep and not much else.

For hours.

And hours.

Still More Dutch treats: Bourbon St. Blues and Jazz, Amsterdam

The stage set up at Bourbon Street Blues & Jazz Club in Amsterdam

The stage set up at Bourbon Street Blues & Jazz Club in Amsterdam

If you’re looking at the photo (above) of the Bourbon Street Blues & Jazz Club in Amsterdam and you’ve noticed a disco ball hanging over the center of the dance floor and wondering, do they really use that thing? The answer is Yes, They Do.

On my last Saturday night in Amsterdam, my wish to hear the blues was finally fulfilled by Reuben and the Jets. That is not a real band name by the way, but those cats played some phenomenal blues anyway. It was a group of four musicians who happened to be available to play together that night and they totally rocked the house.

Reuben (Klebbers) played lead guitar, and the drummer and bass player I had seen play before on a previous night I had stopped in to check out Bourbon St. They also had a French harmonica player, which Reuben admitted to the crowd he just met. But when the four of them put it all together: WOW, they put out a very original set of blues interpretations for the four or so sets I stayed for during that final Saturday night. (I listened to them until the wee hours… 2am!)

During one of the breaks between sets Reuben came down off the stage and I requested “Got My Mojo Workin'” which they played during the next set. He did a call back with the audience that was so much fun, the entire crowd kept singing “got my mojo workin'” calling back to Reuben as he sung his heart out, and then the harp player blew a mean streak on his harmonica. The guy made it sound like a freight train. I was really knocked out by their performance!

Bourbon Street Jazz and Blues Club (Amsterdam) has a “reputation” as being the place where people go late into the night, after they get drunk somewhere else. I can tell you that the crowds at Bourbon St. are larger than those at Alto or Maloe Melo because the place is bigger, and just in front of the stage it’s not uncommon to have a dozen people dancing (oddly, they are usually dancing by themselves… especially the guys.)

But even if the place does get a little rowdy, which it can, it’s still an extremely fun venue. If you show up before 11pm you don’t have to pay a door fee. I don’t know the door fee because I always showed up before 11… before things really got started.

A funny thing about clubs in Amsterdam is that they bill themselves as jazz or blues or whatnot, but they don’t always PLAY jazz or blues – but offer the whatnot (see my post about Maloe Melo). The exception for me was Alto, because they only played jazz when I went, but I was only there twice. (I’m sure it would have been the same if I had made it to Bim Haus, which is the Amsterdam equivalent of Jazz at Lincoln Center and seats 200+. Bim Haus is located behind Central Station, which is sketchy late at night … one reason I decided not to go on my own.)

Anyway, another thing I loved about Bourbon Street was the bartending staff. They were so friendly, bopped along to the music, clapped and sang along and participated in creating a fun vibe. There was one particular bartender, a black guy who wore a bow tie… I wish I had gotten his name, he was so nice to me every time I came in he made me feel particularly welcome.

Bourbon Street Jazz and Blues is located beside a canal, and just around the corner from Alto Jazz Cafe, near the Leidseplein. They are open 7 days a week. I highly recommend this venue, it’s got a large space to spread out, an ample dance floor, rocking bands, and a super friendly staff that adds up to a guaranteed night of musical fun!

More Dutch Treats: Maloe Melo Blues Club, Amsterdam

Maloe Melo is a club famous for showcasing Blues acts in Amsterdam. In fact, it’s known as a hard core Blues joint for blues fans, and regular readers of my blog know how much I love the blues. So there was no way for me to miss Maloe Melo while I was in town!

Finding the club was a challenge. It is tucked in a residential neighborhood, alongside a canal called “Lijnbaans gracht” – the word “gracht” means canal in Dutch. This area gets kinda spooky at night. It’s not a bustling neighborhood; the streets are empty after midnight. It might not be a great idea to go alone, or if you do, have a transportation plan mapped out beforehand.

But, I was so excited to hear blues, and having learned my lesson at Alto Jazz Cafe (where I showed up at 9pm and sat for an hour before the music started…) I found my way to the front door of Maloe Melo at 10pm.

In front of the door, or should I say, blocking the doorway, was a bruiser of a Dutch guy, with mini-mutton chop sideburns, chomping an unlit black cigar. (It turns out this bruiser is a sweetheart…and…the bartender. His name is Patrick. Still, I wouldn’t want to piss him off. 😉 )

“Are you open?” I said.

He looked at me and stepped aside, letting me see that the bar behind him was empty.

“Oh! What time does the music start?” I asked.

“Eleven o’clock,” he said in a thick Dutch accent.

“Damn it!” I slipped, I was so surprised. He laughed at that.

I just couldn’t believe I’d been stumped again by showing up an hour early – and on a Tuesday night no less. Amsterdamers must be party animals to start that late during the week, I thought.

“Well, I guess I’m here to keep you company,” I said and flashed him my most charming American tourist smile. He smiled back.

We went inside together.

“Tonight’s my birthday…” I added, “and I really want to hear some blues!” I said, feeling happy at the thought.

“Happy Birthday,” he said, and stepped behind the bar.

I ordered a “Coca Light” (Euro-speak for Diet Coke) and he produced a tiny bottle with about six ounces of soda, like the ones I’d been given at all the cafes.

(Travel Tip: These midget bottles cost between $2-3 euros, typically… somewhere between $2.50-4 US dollars. In all the music clubs I went to there was no drink minimum. No one will bother you if you want to hang out and listen to the music while you nurse a drink.)

I took a moment to look around the bar, which I noticed smelled kind of smoky. Posters for European and American blues festivals and guitar legends plastered the walls and ceiling. An Aunt Jemima bust sat perched behind the teensy “stage” where barely two people could stand, with nowhere to put a drum kit.

The postage stamp sized "stage" in the front bar at Maloe Melo

The postage stamp sized “stage” in the front bar at Maloe Melo

Hmm, I thought.

“What kind of blues will they play tonight?” I asked the bartender. “Chicago style, country style, something else?”

“The band tonight is really good,” he said, “but they don’t play blues.”

“What?!” I said. “Oh no!”

“They are really good, you’ll like them,” he said.

I nodded, but sighed heavily. No blues at the blues club. I put on the best face I could, and said quietly, “I guess it’s too much to want to hear some Buddy Guy on my birthday…”

He gave me a Cheshire cat smile, a big wide grin, and popped a tape into the bar’s audio system. Buddy Guy belted out “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” over the loudspeakers.

I laughed and thanked him; I figured recorded blues on my birthday is better than no blues at all.

And then… the guitar player showed up. He was a petite fellow, very thin, with the worn lines of a rocker who has seen a lot in his years etched on his face. He introduced himself as “Kevin, but I prefer Kev…” with a pronounced British accent, although he told me he’d been living in Amsterdam for decades.

We began to chat, and the bartender mentioned to Kev that it was my birthday… and that I had come to hear blues. Kev told me that he and his two band-mates were going to do some low-key original stuff, no microphones, no drums.

Soon the other two band mates showed up, looking similarly well-worn from the lives they’ve led as experienced musicians. The second guitarist (who was the lead vocalist) was a Dutch guy, who reminded me a lot of Ronny Wood; he wore a black vest with white skulls all over it and beat up sneakers. Then the bassist showed up, and he reminded me of Gene Simmons, with dyed jet black hair in a ponytail, thick lips and olive colored skin. Kev was something of a Mick Jagger type, I’d say.

Unfortunately, as the band began their set-up for the evening, “Ronny Wood” and “Gene Simmons” decided to roll their own cigarettes (big, fat ones) and to smoke (tobacco).

When I asked about it, Kev told me that yes, it’s technically not legal to smoke in bars in Amsterdam, but that some bars have a lenient policy towards smoking (of both cigarettes and pot) and that in Maloe Melo, smoking was tolerated. I wasn’t happy about this development, because I knew my clothes and hair would reek after a few minutes of being in that cloud, but I was there to listen to the band… so I stayed.

At about 11:15pm, the trio began their first set… even though it was still just me and the bartender in the place. They played a personal performance for me for about a half hour. Kev kept saying it was fate that brought me there to hear them on my birthday. Maybe so.

I clapped appreciatively after each song and chatted with the band in between, mostly with Kev, who I think took a liking to me. I say that because when Kev went to the bathroom during one of the breaks, “Ronny Wood” came over to tell me, ‘Kev may look like crap, but he’s a really nice guy.’ That made me laugh, but I knew I wasn’t there to be a groupie for the evening! In any case, all three guys were amiable, but I could tell “Gene Simmons” wasn’t too happy about having an audience of one. I can’t blame him.

I didn’t know any of the tunes they played because they were all originals. The lead singer (“Ronny”), who was also the lyricist, liked to sing about love and romance, chasing girls, good friends, and hanging out with the boys in Amsterdam. All the songs were variations on those themes. “Ronny” and Kev did decent two-part harmonies; it was enjoyable but a bit mellow for me, especially considering I was looking for foot stomping blues.

Eventually other people came in, several who were good friends of the band, and they sat at the table nearest the ‘stage.’ A highlight for me was when one of their friends took out a pair of drum sticks, got up and stood next to me and used the vinyl covered bar stool as a drum and played along with the band on one of their songs. It was a fantastic impromtu performance.

The bar didn’t wind up with more than 20 people in it, but the heavy cloud of smoke hovering below the low ceiling was starting to get to me from both the band and many of the patrons, so I decided to leave after two sets (I heard one song twice, not sure if that was an accident)… around 12:40. I figured I would have to walk back to my hotel because of the time.

I did the proper thing and waited until the end of the set to go, and Kev came over and gave me a big hug and kissed my hand. He wished me a happy birthday again. “Ronny” also shook my hand, as did “Gene.” I was starting to feel like family in there, but it was time to go.

When I got out to the street, I ran into a couple on bicycles chatting under a street light. They were the only people around.

“Which way do I have to walk to get back to Central Station,” I asked them, dreading the long walk back in the dark and too-quiet neighborhood.

“That way,” the guy said, pointing.

The girl looked at me, “But if you hurry, you can probably catch the last tram. It doesn’t leave until 12:45…”

“I thought the last tram was midnight?” I said.

“Yes, the last trams leave Central Station at midnight,” she said, “but they get out here later before they circle back.”

Amsterdam: full of its own mysterious ways.

I quickly thanked them and started running toward the corner. I kept running, hoping that if the tram came down the track, that I would be on it.

When I was three quarters of the way toward the corner, the tram pulled up. I pushed myself to run faster before the tram doors slammed shut.

I flew into the open front door of the tram, breathing hard, but in just enough time to swipe my card, and take a comfy seat back to Central Station.

Dutch Treats: Alto Jazz Club, Amsterdam

My very first day in Amsterdam I took an afternoon “siesta” (nap) so I could go out that night to hear live music – one of the main activities I wanted to do while on vacation.

I went to the Alto Jazz Cafe, which is right off the Leidseplein (a part of Amsterdam with lots of cafes, music clubs and is the center of a nightlife scene in A’dam.)

The Alto Jazz Cafe is easy to spot when you walk off the Leidseplein square area (it’s down the street with the Pancake House on the corner) because the club sports a gigantic saxophone as its sign. The club opens every night at 9pm, but the music won’t start before 10pm. This is common in A’dam, nightlife doesn’t get started until late. (On Saturday night there is a $5 euro door charge, other nights there is no entrance fee.)

From my observations, Alto is a place mostly for locals. The walls of the cafe are dark wood panels, a low ceiling, and extremely dim lighting that you could call atmospheric. On the walls, as with so many clubs, there are posters of musicians, famous and local.

The space is long and narrow, with the stage at the back, a “platformed” area just beneath the stage with four tables and chairs, then a space with just chairs set along the left side of the wall, and then eventually towards the entrance a small bar on the right – where people pack themselves in.

The space gets very crowded so if you want to enjoy the music its best to get there closer to 9-9:30p so you can get a seat where you are able to see the stage. Otherwise it quickly gets to be standing room only. I doubt you can fit 75 people in that club!

The night I went there was an excellent jazz trio playing. The lead of the trio was a tall, heroin-chic-thin woman with long straight blonde hair who wore a gold lame sleeveless blouse. (Her name is Saskia Laroo, and is a local legend.) She alternated playing the trumpet and the saxophone, bleating out an improvised beat which captivated the audience. Backing her up she had a drummer and a bass player. The trio had a great energy, and it was obvious the crowd was familiar with this group, they gave them a lot of love.

I was so entranced with the music and the vibe, time slipped by. Around one o’clock in the morning, I leaned over and asked the guy next to me, “Excuse me, what time do the trams stop running?” fully expecting him to say they ran all night because this was Amsterdam.

“Midnight,” he said.

I immediately realized without the tram, I wasn’t sure how to get back to my bed and breakfast! It was my first night in town, and I had barely figured out how to navigate to and from the Central Station, where all the trams originate. Uh oh.

“Oh no!” I said, laughing, “I guess I’ll take a cab,” I added, amused at my own newbie travel error.

“Cabs are very expensive,” he said, in a thick Dutch accent. “I could give you a ride. My car is just around the corner.”

I looked at the gentleman in question: a handsome, nicely dressed guy in a sport coat and button down shirt… compared to all the flannel shirt / blue jeans / sneakers crowd around us. (I had on a dress and heels, again, setting me apart as “different” from the local women, as per my previous post. It would have been “obvious” I was a tourist before I opened my mouth, but definitely after the first word, anyone would know I was American.)

We introduced ourselves, and I accepted the offer that Jon, (pronounced Yon) decided to give me a ride in his little European car back to my bed and breakfast at 2am, on a Sunday night.

(Jon, it turned out, was the IT manager at a local Dutch bank, and had taken Monday as a vacation day, which is why he was in the jazz club so late on Sunday.)

I MUST give huge “plus points” for Dutch kindness and hospitality for Jon to offer a strange woman a ride to her hotel in the middle of the night. Also, Jon was a total gentleman (remember, a girl from New York City has this radar built in…) he did not attempt to “take advantage” of the situation… although he did mention he would be back at Alto again next Sunday. Unfortunately I was unable to make it back there that night because I got sick!

Jon drove me around town a bit, pointing out the tourist sights on the way back to my place, and safely deposited me on my doorstep, wishing me a great holiday.

What a great night of great jazz, and Dutch kindness from a stranger.

Going Dutch

I am just back today from nine days of vacation… seven in the Netherlands, and two in Belgium. Beforehand, the trip seemed enticing with the potential for tremendous fun; and the trip was fun… at times. But I don’t think I’ve digested my Dutch and Belgian “meal” fully yet. It may take more time, and with the distance of time, better perspective on the aspects of the trip I did not expect.

As someone who has not been to Europe in over a decade, I was hit over the head with the culture shock. There are significant differences between New and Old Amsterdam.

Still, there are two main elements of my trip that redeemed any “less than” experiences: all the magnificent art and lively music I enjoyed. Had it not been for art and music, the trip would have been a bust.

So… IF you are planning a trip to Amsterdam, I will start with two words of warning: WEATHER AHEAD!

In the nine days I spent on the ground, it was freezing cold; extremely windy and cold; raining and cold; or … hot. (The warmth lasted one tantalizing day in my first 48 hours, never to return.)

When I say “freezing cold” I mean it was probably around 45-55 degrees Farenheit most of the time, usually on the lower side of that scale. It was so cold, in fact, the locals complained about it, saying it was one of the coldest summers on record so far. (Just my luck!)

In the streets, people wore heavy sweaters, pants, boots, hats, winter jackets and scarves. Everyone in Amsterdam must have a huge collection of scarves.

I was not fully prepared for the weather, and in my last two days I wound up getting sick. despite my precautions of wearing a scarf whereever I went – my Spring jacket was just not warm enough over the Spring dresses I wore (with leggings!) In fact, I’ve partially lost my voice again, and now the coughing and sneezing have begun in earnest… I guess that was an Amsterdam parting gift. :-}

Under normal work-a-day circumstances, cold weather is a temporary nuisance. You go from your home to the car or train, get to work inside where it is warm, and go home the same way. But when you are a tourist, walking around town for four or five hours a day, freezing your butt off becomes a more serious issue.

In the town of Delft, where I stayed one brief afternoon (more about that in a future post), the wind howled so badly through the town square that cafe chairs went flying across the square and bicycles were knocked down. Anything on the cafe tables flew away, menus, napkins, whatever. The wind got so severe, I went inside and read a book rather than continue to endure it.

My advice for any traveler is check the weather report before you go (in other words, do as I say, not as I did…) but regardless, be prepared for cold, wind and freezing rain in the Netherlands, even during the Summer.

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And speaking of scarves and boots and other whatnot that ladies wear, I was surprised at what women in Amsterdam were wearing. The vast majority of women wore variations on the same outfit: blue jeans, a blouse or sweater, a long looping scarf slung around the neck twice or thrice, and ankle high boots or flat shoes. In the rare case where a woman wore a dress, she wore a long dress down to her ankles, with flats.

I did not pack boots or flats (I’m short enough already, so I don’t wear flats!) and so I wore the heels I brought that were comfortable enough to walk around in all day, or a pair of summer sandals – in which my feet froze, of course. (As a side note, perhaps the footwear choice of Dutch women is predominantly influenced by the fact that everyone is riding a bicycle at some point in the day? That would make more sense because you can’t pedal a bike in heels.)

One amusing side note…

I noticed at least a dozen women who were both fascinated and repulsed by my bright bubblegum pink toenail polish. Women would glance at my toes, then look up at me and give me the stink eye! And these Dutch women REALLY knew how to give a good stink eye – they looked you directly in the face and curled their lip to let you know just how much they disapproved of pink toes.

The first time this happened to me, I was walking out of a cafe and the woman just stared and stared at my sandals and toes. Then – oop – the stink eye! It happened again when I was walking in a shop, and twice again at the Rijksmuseum; after a while I thought to myself Geez, aren’t the Dutch supposed to be super-tolerant?

I guess you can light up a joint on any street corner any time of the day or night in Amsterdam, but god help you if you have pink toes.

American ladies be warned: tropical color toes will get you the stink eye from Dutch women in Amsterdam.

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You may wonder why I have devoted all that space to something as banal as painted toes, but I think it helps illustrate a strange dichotomy I found in Amsterdam. The city has an international reputation as being one of the most liberal, laid back cities in Europe and I’m here to tell you there is a huge difference between agreeing to tolerate something vs. embracing it as a part of the culture.

For example, in Berkeley, California there are all manner of freaks, hippies, students, stoners and what have you, and they are all an intrinsic part of the culture of that place. Berkeley wouldn’t be “Berkeley” without all of them.

Despite the reputation of tolerance, I didn’t feel that warm, accepting embrace from the Dutch people I came in contact with on my trip – particularly the “regular man and woman on the street.” They seemed distant and aloof, especially toward anyone they identified as a stranger.

Again, I hypothesize: Amsterdam is a city constantly over-run with tons of international tourists. (On the streets I would mostly hear Dutch being spoken, then French, Arabic, Russian and some Italian thrown in, but very little English was being spoken on the street. Now, if you speak to someone in English it is a different matter – they will answer you in perfect and fluent English. But don’t expect to hear people speaking English. None of the street signs, or the announcements on the tram, are in English – they are all in Dutch. If you have a little familiarity with how language “works” you will figure it out, but if any foreign tongue sounds like gibberish to you, you will need to ask for a lot of help to ensure you don’t get lost.)

And just maybe these tons of international tourists are irritating to the locals as we clog up their cafes, museums, streets, trams and stores. And Amsterdam is too small a city to run away from the tourist mobs who are everywhere around the city. I suspect this is something people learn to put up with if they want to live there, but there is not a particularly friendly attitude towards these tourists who bring millions of dollars to their city.

Ironically, for me at least, I felt I was dealt with in a more friendly way in Oaxaca, Mexico from a “walking the streets” point of view – and that area had much more poverty and social problems than A’dam.

But… it wasn’t all bad! Far from it!

Some of the best experiences I had during my trip were my “night life outings.” Once the locals got a few beers in them, they loosened up considerably.

And in my next few posts, I will give you an intimate perspective on the jazz and blues clubs in Amsterdam (A’dam).

Vacation Planning III: I don’t know what I don’t know

This weekend I fly to Amsterdam for 9 fun filled days in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Belgium. (And may I just say right now: WOO HOO!!!)

I’m usually a decent planner, and before I go on vacation, especially when I’m going someplace where I want to get the most out of my time on the ground, I go all out crafting a daily itinerary, broken out into “Morning” “Afternoon” and “Evening.”

This time around, my life has been so busy, I haven’t been able to do that. So, I don’t know what I don’t know. And what I don’t know about this trip is a lot.

What I mean to say… is that I’ve left plenty of open space in my planning (or lack of it.) Beyond knowing where I’ll lay my head at night, and what city I will be in, I have nothing that resembles “a plan.”

As a way to compensate for my lack of preparedness, I bought a notebook for this trip. Not that kind of notebook… the old fashioned kind: paper. In that notebook, I’ve jotted down the contact info of jazz and blues clubs in Amsterdam. Beyond that, I’ve written the names of two art galleries I want to see. Oh yeah, and the location of the Albert Cuyp market – which I don’t want to miss (thank you George!).

But, lists of restaurants, the place to get the canal tour, the train tickets, the street addresses of the major museums, the whatever else? Nope, no information.

I’ve also decided on a no laptop policy so I can be unplugged. My thinking is… whatever it is, it can wait until I get back. If I desperately need a computer, I’ll find an internet cafe. Or not.

What about my phone, right? Yes, I’ll have my phone with me, but considering roaming charges in Europe, I won’t be checking email too often.

One thing I need to get better at, in my life in general not just for my vacation, is knowing how to RELAX. How to unwind. How to not get spun up over one thing or another. Going on vacation should be an ideal time to practice that principle, with no time pressures to be somewhere, on a timeline, with a mapped out itinerary.

And without a laptop, I’ll emphasize being present in the moment, not connected to the inter-web, and connected instead to the inter-web of humanity I come in contact with on my journey. I want to hear the stories of people I meet, to sit in cafes and watch how people live. To dig the music, and experience the whole vibe Amsterdam has to offer.

I mean, hey, tourists have traveled to Amsterdam before me. Whatever I need to know will be available when I get there.

As for the rest of the stuff I don’t see or do because I didn’t know about it… I will be blissfully ignorant.

Vacation Planning II – the Netherlands and Belgium

Vacation planning can be fun, but sometimes frustrating. There is a lot of information, and when you know nothing about the place you are traveling to visit, lots of reading to ensure you are prepared.

When I travel, I like having a more personal experience so I try to use boutique hotels or bed and breakfast places. These kinds of lodgings tend to be much more personalized than a big “brand name” hotel. Large hotels have an anonymous, often sterile quality that I don’t prefer when I can stay in someone’s home whose whole occupation is hospitality and making sure you have a great time in your destination of choice.

I found out B&B’s in Amsterdam book up quickly. If I’d been better prepared (2 months advance notice) I’m sure I could have scored fantastic, reasonably priced B&B lodging in center city. However, since I only have about a month, I had to spend time figuring out which B&B’s were booked (most of them!) and which were still available. I found two lovely B&B’s close to Amsterdam’s “Central Station” and while I’m paying a bit more ($120+ euros /night), I’m pretty sure it’ll be worth it. (Both of these B&B’s are still less than the brand name, ‘anonymous’ hotels.)

Travel note: From what I can tell, all B&B’s in Amsterdam require all cash payment. I have not even seen one B&B that accepts credit cards.

Travel tip: When booking a B&B in Amsterdam, if you want a simple room for under $100 euros a night including breakfast, book well in advance! ($100 euros is $130 US dollars.)

Lonely Planet suggests: Hotel Brouwer, Sebastian’s, Chic and Basic Amsterdam or Hotel Residence Le Coin. All of these places were fully booked when I checked with them, a month in advance.

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OKAY… so, lodging for the Amsterdam part of my trip has been booked, and I’m satisfied I’ve found great places. You’ll know in a month in more detail about the places I stayed and how it went.

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Planning Phase Two: Here’s how it looks…

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Days 1, 2, 3: Amsterdam

Days 4, 5 6: Travel to multiple cities

Days 7, 8, 9: Return to Amsterdam (including a Saturday night!)

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After doing intensive research and investigation of all the places I could have gone, I’ve made decisions about the cities I will visit in my three days of wandering outside of Amsterdam.

Day 4 will be spent traveling about three and a half hours by train to get to Bruges, Belgium. Bruges is a medieval city that has maintained itself for centuries and looks gorgeous.

Day 5 a very short distance from Bruges, is Ghent, another small medieval city in Belgium. One of the cool things about Ghent is that it is home to SMAK, a large Contemporary Art Museum which is on my list of things to see.

Day 6 it will take me about two hours heading back towards Amsterdam to get to Delft, Netherlands which is also 10 minutes distance from The Hague so I will plan to see both Delft and the Hague on Day 6. Most importantly to me is the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague which houses Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, as well as other important Vermeer and Rembrandt works.

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Lodging in all of these places was easy to find, and it’s less expensive than Amsterdam for nicer accomodation. I’ll be staying in some charming places overlooking canals and such while being in the center of the action. Again, I’ll share more about the places I go and how it went in future posts.

Thankfully, one nice Dutch young lady who booked my room in Delft advised me to purchase “Hispeed” (High Speed) rail tickets in advance to get from Amsterdam to other locations. This is a great idea, because I can purchase the tickets online, and I can just print out the ticket and bring it with me.

Okay, that’s it for now… I’m pleased I’m making progress.

Vacation Planning: Amsterdam

With all the running I do through airports, you’d almost think that I’d prefer to stay home for vacation instead of getting on a plane, but nah, this explorer and traveler is ready for interesting adventures once again.

I decided after numerous travels across the United States, Canada and some of Mexico in the past several years that it was time to return to Europe. (The Asia Pacific region will have to wait, as will the Mahgreb, and Central America… so many places, not enough time.)

Previously I’ve been fortunate to visit Paris, London and the southern coast of Portugal so when I began thinking about where to go this year, I knew I didn’t want to repeat any of those.

Europe is big and varied, there are so many regions offering any number of experiences, so… where to go?

After looking at a map and pondering for a while, I narrowed my list to Amsterdam, Barcelona and Dublin. I’ve never been to any of them; each had their unique charms.

It was a very tough decision, but I’ve decided to go to Amsterdam and the Netherlands. (The image below is of Amsterdam’s famous canals that surround the center of the city in concentric rings.)

Amsterdam Canal Rings

Dublin and Barcelona are still on my European wish-list along with Prague, and various cities in Spain, Greece, France and Italy.

I will have the luxury of being in the Netherlands for nine (9) days (not counting my two days needed to fly there and back), which is nice because I will be able to see a lot.

Dutch friends have already told me that it won’t make sense to spend all 9 days in Amsterdam… even though I will need plenty of time to see the museums housing Van Gogh, Vermeer, Rembrandt and lots of contemporary art and galleries. I’m really excited to see Vermeer’s work in person and to get a sense of the local art scene, which I understand is vibrant.

AND I’m extremely pleased because I’ve investigated music venues too, and blues and jazz clubs are all over Amsterdam. I think I mentioned in my post about Jr. Mack playing at Terra Blues, that he told the crowd in NYC that night he had just returned from Amsterdam the previous day… so it makes sense that blues venues are popular there. That is so cool.

So now I begin the work of figuring out where else to go in the Netherlands. Do I go to Rotterdam? Maybe Kinderdijk with its charming windmills? These are places I could probably go on day trips so that might be cool. (If I was really ambitious I could probably visit Antwerp or Bruges in Belgium, but that might be too ambitious.)

Some of you, my dear readers, live in the Netherlands and others who have traveled in that area… please feel free to make suggestions for your favorite places, restaurants, music venues, and other fun stuff to do in Amsterdam, and the Netherlands (links are also welcome.)

In any case, as my plans firm up for my “Return to the Continent” I’ll let you know.