Amsterdam and Hamburg

One of the nice things about living in Europe is that there are so many destinations on the continent that are readily accessible. In fact, it took us less time to fly from Rome to Amsterdam (2 hours) than it took us to drive from our house to Rome’s Fiumicino airport.


We arrived at Schiphol Airport which, unusually for an airport in a major European city, is only about 20 minutes from the city center by bus. We stayed near the Vondelpark, a nice residential area about a 15 minutes walk from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, which were the focuses of our trip.

Amsterdam Vondelpark

For the most part, we were able to get around Amsterdam either on foot or by using the city’s extensive tram system. The city has recently converted to a paperless ticketing system, where you can pay for your ride either by swiping your debit card or by purchasing passes that you can download to your phone. It’s a good idea, but the little machine that reads phone QR-codes was sometimes a little fiddly on a moving tram.


The main reason we wanted to go to Amsterdam was for the once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of the work of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum. There are only 37 known works by Vermeer (including one whose authorship is disputed). And 27 of them were in the exhibit.

We tend to do a lot of advance planning even for these short trips. This time, that strategy proved extraordinarily lucky. We bought our tickets when we decided to go, even before the exhibit opened. It’s a good thing we did, because tickets for the entire 4-month run were sold out within a few days.

By limiting the sale of tickets, and selling tickets with specific entry times, the museum ensured that the viewing spaces would not be too crowded. And the exhibition designers had thoughtfully designed the presentation so that paintings were placed on only 3 walls in each room, with the explanatory captions for all the paintings on that room on the fourth otherwise empty wall. That meant that you did not have to crowd in front of the paintings to read the captions – especially helpful to those of us who don’t see as well as we used to.

The exhibit included paintings that we don’t usually think of as in Vermeer’s style, including this landscape of Delft that was almost photographic in its clarity.

View of Delft, 1660-61, Vermeer exhibit – Rijksmuseum

There were also several paintings with religious themes. Vermeer was born a Protestant, but converted to Catholicism when he got married, and remained a Catholic for the rest of his life.

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, 1654-55, Vermeer exhibit – Rijksmuseum

The exhibits included some generic portraits known as “tronies,” i.e., they were not portraits of specific individuals, but character studies. The exhibit placed Girl with a Red Hat, universally acknowledged to have been painted by the master, right next to Girl with a Flute, whose authorship is disputed.

The Girl with the Red Hat is clearly the better work. But is the Girl with the Flute simply a less successful work, or the work of a student? The experts disagree, and so did we. I was intrigued by the little dot of light that appeared at the end of each girl’s nose.

Most of the paintings, though, were the familiar depictions of one or two people, sitting at a table hard at work, playing a musical instrument, reading a letter.

Much attention has been focused, in recent years, about the incredible level of detail in some of these paintings – the texture of the clothing, the decoration on the carpets, even the iridescence on the milk jugs. But when you see a group of these paintings all together, what jumps out at you is how many of them show people looking out the window. What are they thinking about?

One of my favorites in this group was The Geographer, a rare example of a painting by Vermeer with a single male subject. Here we see a careful craftsman making maps, who has paused for a moment to look out the window – thinking, perhaps, of the many places he is depicting that he himself will never see? It his perhaps this ability to suggest hidden emotion that is Vermeer’s true genius.

The Geographer, 1669, Vermeer exhibit – Rijksmuseum

After spending a couple of hours with Vermeer, we spent a little time in the main part of the Museum, which has a number of outstanding paintings by Rembrandt and other Dutch artists.

These paintings by Rembrandt need no introduction.

Could this, perhaps, be a Lagota (an Italian breed much favored for truffle hunting)?

Bartholomeus van der Helst, Militia Company of District VIII under the Command of Captain Roelof Bicker (detail), 1640/43, RijksmuseumRijksmuseum

Some portraits are., like the early Vermeer landscape, almost photographic in their clarity.

Anthonis Mor, Portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham, 1560/65, Rijksmuseum
Willem van der Velde, II, Dutch Ships in a Calm Sea, 1665, Rijksmuseum
Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with Gilt Cup, 1635, Rijksmuseum

The subjects of Franz Hals’ paintings always seem happy, whether it’s a militiaman holding his weapon (1630), and or an unidentified couple in what was probably their wedding portrait (1622).

I wonder how they got this little girl to remain still long enough to get her portrait done.

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronk, Portrait of a Girl in Blue, 1641, Rijksmuseum

We also got a brief look at the museum’s small but interesting Asian art collection.

Shiva, India, 12th C, Rijksmuseum
Modern Japanese print, Rijksmuseum
Van Gogh Museum

The museum is devoted to the works of the Dutch painter, whose influence is all the more remarkable given that almost all of his work was done over a 10 year period, and only one of his works was sold during his lifetime

The museum was a good counterpoint to the exhibit of Van Gogh’s work we saw in Rome earlier this year.

One whole room was devoted to self-portraits. Since Van Gogh didn’t have many commissions, he painted himself a lot.

The paintings from his early years in Holland were rather dark.

Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885, Van Gogh Museum

His color palette expanded during his sojourn in Paris (1887-1888)

By the time he got to Arles, bright colors had taken over his work.

He loved painting flowers: Sunflowers (1889) and Irises (1890)

Here’s an unusual seascape.

Van Gogh, Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saint-Marie-de-la-Mer, 1888, Van Gogh Museum

Van Gogh was intensely interested in Japanese art, which became widely available in Europe after the forcible opening of Japan in the mid-19th Century: Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige, 1887) and Almond Blossoms (1890).

The paintings Van Gogh did in the asylum at St. Remy have a peculiar intensity: Garden of the Asylum (1889) and Tree Roots (1890).

Van Gogh, Self-portrait with Pipe and Straw Hat, 1887, Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh museum was completely sold out during the day of our visit. So if you are planning a trip to Amsterdam and want to see the Van Gogh, it’s probably a good idea to buy your tickets in advance.

house museums

Amsterdam has several museums set in historic houses along the canals.

The Museum van Loon was closed the day of our visit, but they let us wander around the garden. This building reminded me a lot of Holden Chapel in Harvard Yard.

The Willet Holthuysen house also has a nice garden.

And of course, the canals themselves are charming, even in the rain.

Resistance Museum

The Resistance Museum is a chronicle of the Dutch experience under Nazi occupation from 1940-1945. The exhibits are quite well done, highlighting a variety of subjects from the persecution to the Jews to food shortages. There was also an interesting discussion of how Dutch attitudes towards their colonial possessions changed as a result of their own experience under occupation – some Dutch soldiers, sent to Indonesia after the war to protect Dutch interests, wound up thinking they were on the wrong side.

No photos – this is primarily a museum of artifacts, not works of art. But it’s well worth a visit, and it’s generally not crowded.


Finding interesting food to eat in Amsterdam is a bit of a challenge – Holland is generally a meat-and-potatoes country.

We had a wonderful rijstaffel at Blaauw – a series of small dishes (meat, fish and vegetables) served with rice – an Indonesian specialty.

And here we are eating oysters (again!) and fresh halibut at Visandescheide.


We took a day trip to Leiden, about half an hour from Amsterdam by train, to visit my friend Rachel, a former law firm colleague, who now lives in Leiden with her husband and two small boys. Thanks to Facebook, we were able to reconnect and spend an afternoon together.

Since the weather was nice, we took a canal boat tour around the historic center – note the small astronomical observatory, which is connected with Leiden University.

Leiden is quite charming and well worth a visit.


We took the train from Amsterdam to Hamburg. It was not the fastest ride – about 5 hours – and the German train was uncharacteristically late. But it was comfortable enough.

We connected to our hotel from the central train station by S-Bahn, Hamburg’s metro system. Hamburg also used an electronic payment system for public transit – again, you can buy either individual tickets or a day pass. Unlike in Amsterdam, though, in Hamburg (and throughout Germany) you just buy your ticket and get on the bus or train. There are no turnstiles or gates. Once in a while someone will turn up and check tickets. But for the most part ticket purchasing is on the honor system.

We had been meaning to visit Hamburg for some time, since it was the town that Ted’s German grandparents came from. Truth be told, though, there wasn’t much about the city that they would recognize. The city was heavily bombed during WWII, and it was rebuilt with wide streets and plenty of parking, more like an American city. Hamburg is a working port city, but is not without charm – recent renovations have left plenty of space to walk along or view the water and port operations.


The Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s symphony hall, is an architectural masterpiece. Built to resemble a boat, the concert space is on the upper floors of the building, which also harbors a parking garage and a Westin hotel. It’s quite impressive.

There are large balconies outside the concert hall, which allow for some incredible views either before the concert or during intermission.

The inside of the concert hall looks starkly modern. Traditional European concert halls, built in the 18th or 19th Centuries, had richly decorated interiors, which included everything from decorative moldings to flying cherubs. That florid style has gone out of fashion. But I noticed that on the apparently plain walls there was a lot of “texturing” (ridges and bubbles) – unfortunately not easily seen in the photos. Perhaps someone thought this made the interior more interesting. But whether it was the textured walls or some other reason, the acoustics were fantastic.

The program included a symphony by Brahms, a native of Hamburg, and an unusual piece by Stravinsky, Les Noces, scored for 4 grand pianos, percussion, and a chorus with 4 soloists. (Note the black sound structure handing from the ceiling in the first photo – this is apparently also an acoustic device, since it was moved up to the ceiling for the second piece.)

Both pieces were enthusiastically received. There seemed to be a lot of affection, also, for the orchestra’s American conductor, Kent Nagano.

We were regular patrons of the San Francisco Symphony when we lived in the Bay Area. Although we have a lot of cultural events in Ascoli, we don’t have regular symphony concerts. I was surprised at how much I missed it.

Maritime Museum

It is perhaps not surprising that Hamburg, as a port city, has a maritime museum. But I wasn’t expecting one as spectacular as this one. The museum has nine levels, each devoted to a different aspect of commercial navigation. One floor is dedicated to direction finding .- from compasses and astrolabes to modern GPS. There are exhibits of maritime knots and naval uniforms. Most impressive of all, though, are the ship models – from Chinese junks and the Santa Maria to the Bismarck and modern cruise liners and container ships.

It’s pretty interesting even for those of us who don’t like boats.

Kunsthalle (art museum)

The Hamburg Kunsthalle (art museum) had a number of interesting paintings from a wide variety of countries and eras.

Hans Holbein the Elder, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1500/01, Hamburg Kunsthalle
Bernini, Cardinal Alessandro Damasceni-Peretti-Montalto, 1622/23, Hamburg Kunsthalle
Rembrandt, Maurits Huygens, Secretary to the Council of State, 1632, Hamburg Kunsthalle
Goya, Don Tomas Pérez Estala, 1795, Hamburg Kunsthalle

I am always intrigued by these moonlight paintings, since it’s not a form of ambient light we can readily experience in our electric age.

Friedrich Nerly, Piazzetta in Venedig in Mondschein, 1842, Hamburg Kunsthalle

This ship stuck in the ice is not something we’re likely to see these days either.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823/24, Hamburg Kunsthalle

There was quite a nice selection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting.

Alfred Sisley, The Seine at Billancourt, 1879, Hamburg Kunsthalle

Max Lieberman was a German artist whose work we were introduced on our visit last year to Berlin.

Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphans in the Garden, 1885, Hamburg Kunsthalle
Renoir, Madame Heriot, 1882, Hamburg Kunsthalle
Max Beckmann, Self-portrait, Florence, 1907, Hamburg Kunsthalle

The bridge in this painting by Edvard Munch looks strangely familiar…

Edvard Munch, Girls on the Pier, 1901, Hamburg Kunsthalle

And here I am eating oysters again!

Oysters @ Restaurant Fischereihafen

That’s all for now!

Elbphilharmonie: preconcert from the balcony