One of the first things I did in Amsterdam was to take a canal tour. For a city whose rings of concentric canals were described by Camus as being akin to Dante’s circles of hell (albeit in a rather more bourgeois version), there is no other way to intuit the geography of the city. Amongst other things, there is no better way to see the succession of bridges forming a row over the canals as they stretch into the distance, or to see the prow of the New Metropolis (a building on the harbour designed to resemble a ship) that faces out to sea, or to sail around the Dutch East Indiaman Amsterdam at the Ship Museum. Walking around the city by foot was a different experience altogether. The city streets that contain such sites as the Oude Kerk (swathed in scaffolding during my visit), the Nieuwe Kerk, and Royal Palace are much narrower than those of London (presumably they were never designed for any vehicular traffic) and with taller buildings. Needless to add the names of many of the stores were all too familiar (far more branches of the Body Shop were in evidence than I’ve seen in London), although the homogenisation was something that did not seem particularly threatening, more of a reassuring offset to the alien quality of the streets. This quality is a particularly blatant in certain respects; in keeping with the liberal reputation of the city much of it has a somewhat bohemian quality that easily offends anyone from a gentrified area of England. Conversely, much of the populace themselves seem to have a rather more officious attitude; walking down to the centraal station platform and having missed the unmarked ticket franking machine outside, I was accosted by a helpful Dutchman who was quick to demonstrate the error of my ways. The individual in question was only being helpful, but I think it unlikely that anyone would have been so helpful in Britain. Similarly, at an evening concert a woman coming in late and taking a vacant seat was requested to move to her allocated seat, a process which disturbed many of the people she had obviously been trying to avoid disturbing.
On the following day, the visit was to the Rijksmuseum and its large collection of Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings (I must express a marked preference for the latter, although only a small number of his works were present. I did incidentally have lunch at a cafe in the Rembrandt Square although oddly enough the cafe itself was devoted to Schiller, displaying many paintings that I was unaware of him having created). The building itself is one of the most impressive buildings in the city, along with the Centraal Station. Both were designed by the same architect and are designed in the same redbrick gothic style with murals and gold ornamentation ensnaring the walls denounced as being ‘too Catholic’ at the time). One interesting exception to this was the art-deco Tuschinski theatre; which I stumbled across entirely by accident.
The style of the buildings is actually not that remote from Keble College in Oxford (apart from the fact that Keble is not a particularly pleasing building to look at, having little more than eccentricity to recommend it) with that being the English city that Amsterdam (and the museum quarter in particular) most resembles. For a capital city it is extremely green and quiet with most traffic being confined to trams and bicycles in much the same way as Oxford, although the cosmopolitanism of the city does resemble London rather more (the national Dutch cuisine is only marginally better than that of England, hence the presence of Indonesian restaurants with overly helpful waiters everywhere).
The Rijksmuseum looks out over a large plain, upon which also reside the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. At the far end of the plain sits the resolutely neo-classical Concertgebouw, forming the official architectural opposition (even if it too is constructed from much the same red brick). Of these, my next visit was to the Van Gogh Museum (whose dour modern architecture renders any comment more or less specious) which houses an extremely impressive collection that also includes works from Whistler, Alma Tadema and Daumier (in an exhibition devoted to French Salon culture). The Van Gogh collection itself runs in chronological order from his early realist phase (which appears to have largely consisted of painting far more pictures of potatoes that can possibly be deemed healthy) to his merciful corruption by Gauguin and introduction to pointillism. It should be observed that when it comes to prints of Van Gogh none seem likely to do him justice; the thick smearing of oil in canvas and the vividness of the colours in paintings like his study of Quinces and Lemons or the Irises cannot hope to be replicated. I also attended an evening concert in the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw. Somewhat embarrassingly the quartet in question proved to be from Britain, but their performance of Schubert and Janacek was nonetheless extremely good (there was also a piece from Britten played to a standard that would doubtless delight anyone who actually liked Britten).
Another important feature of the area is the Vondelpark. Unlike the rather more manicured parks in Britain, this is more closely related to an arboretum or nature reserve. On a similar note, I also visited the Hortus Botannicus, which shared many of the same characteristics as the Vondelpark rose garden and the Rijksmuseum gardens, with the typically Dutch sculpted hedgerows enclosing many of the plants.