Thursday, 9 January 2014

Abigail's Adventures in Amsterdam (Day 2)

For centuries, Amsterdam has been a city of art and artists, and this has continued to the present day, where numerous galleries and art museums in the capital cater to a whole range of tastes, except perhaps that of the die-hard cultural philistine. The Rijksmuseum, with its collection spanning over 800 years of Dutch art and history, is probably the best place to take in the breadth of the Netherland's offerings. It was finally reopened to the public in 2013 after a lengthy ten-year renovation, so IZV and I set aside the 8th of January as the pre-designated Cultural Day of our whirlwind tour, to explore the museum and the over 8000 pieces of objets d'art housed within. Because going to extremely popular museums is sometimes a little like going to war, we had our battle plans readied in advance: We'd fortify ourselves with a proper breakfast on our way there, and aim to arrive well before the peak crowds of 11 am to 2 pm. 

The patisserie the internet had suggested didn't look particularly suitable as a breakfast location, so we doubled back to the small bagel café IZV had spotted on the corner of Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam's Big Three canals. The weather outside was gloomy enough to rival London, so the warmly-lit interior of Village Bagels looked particularly inviting. Inside, it seemed almost like spring had come early, with tulips blooming in vases and the smell of fresh baking in the air. We placed our orders at the counter, where all the bagels were being assembled. The Early Bird special got us both a bagel and a tea for under €3 each, which was an absolute steal. 

I got a sesame-studded bagel with chive cream cheese, while IZV had a sun-dried tomato cream cheese bagel. The cream cheese went so well with the crunch and sharpness of the bits of chives, and the spread had been very generously slathered between two warm and chewy bagel halves. Village Bagels claims to serve the best and most authentic bagels in Amsterdam, making theirs the traditional way, kettle boiling the bagels before baking them daily at their two stores. I'm hardly a connoisseur of bagels (I have been known to very aggressively drown my supermarket-bought cinnamon-raisin bagels in bowls of milk before consumption), but IZV is, so you can trust her judgment when she says that the bagels here are legit. 

Thusly nourished, we hopped to and made it to the Rijksmuseum a little before 9.30 in the morning. There were no queues in sight, so we breezed past the ticketing counter (No student discount either, alas) and took advantage of the free cloakroom service provided. As part of the renovation works done since 2004, the Spanish architectural firm Cruz y Ortiz got rid of the labyrinthine extensions that had previously been made to the museum, going back to the the clean and intuitive layout that had been envisaged by Pierre Cuypers, who had designed the first museum building back in the 19th century. The new additions made, like the spacious underground atrium connecting both wings, work extremely well with the original structure, unobtrusively updating it for the 21st century. With the restoration of murals and other decorative features, the museum building itself is a real work of art, and very pretty indeed. 

The Rijksmuseum was opened in 1885 to house an ever-growing collection of art, although the jewels of its crown (Like The Night Watch) had already been part of previous incarnations of Dutch national museums since the early 1700s. The new and improved version of the Rijksmuseum has an even more extensive catalogue, and also comes with free WiFi everywhere within the building, modern climate controls and interactive tablet displays in the Special Collection wing that allow visitors to know more about each item on display. IZV and I were particularly impressed with the high definition images that could be accessed on these tablets (They worked extraordinarily well with the jewellery section, allowing us to see in full detail the intricate work done) although we couldn't find English translations for the more in-depth information provided, and had to guess from the Dutch. 

We were joined by BA and SB as we made our way up the original stone steps of the museum to the main wing, and the four of us dove head-first into the museum's 17th century art, which forms the bulk of its collection. With so many complex and vast pieces of art to take in and without the luxury of having all the time in the world to do so, I found myself fixating on just one specific point of each painting after the initial sweep of the big picture. I'm fairly sure I may have missed the point of most of them, but nothing will take away the wonder I felt when I first laid eyes on the gold brocade detailing on that pair of breeches, or those tiny human figures falling off their burning battleships into the sea. 

Over three hours of non-stop intensive art viewing later, I was dizzy with it, and went out to the bright and airy atrium area to rest and recover. I found GW at the museum's café, where she'd turned up to wait for us to be done with all our "artistic nonsense". We ended up going to the shop, where I pointed out all my favourite paintings from the morning since they'd all been conveniently rendered in postcard form. I purchased a couple, along with the museum guide. I just couldn't resist the guide, although I'm still not sure why - it might have been mostly its adorably small size, although the detailed write-ups made it a very compelling buy as well. 

No one wanted to travel very far for lunch, and everyone wanted to eat pancakes at least once in Amsterdam, so we took a short canal-side walk from the Museum Quarter towards the Weteringcircuit, where The Carousel Pancake House (Pannenkoekenhuis De Carrousel) is located. 

There are actual carousel horses arranged in a circle in the centre of the restaurant, but since they were fixed to the floor, there didn't seem to be much point hopping on one. In any case, none of us even had enough energy to move away from our seats by the window. It was a quiet and lazy afternoon at De Carrousel, so we got into the spirit of things and sank deep into our chairs while waiting for our pancakes to arrive. IZV added some Latin American flair to the proceedings by fixing up a simple michelada with beer, lemons, tabasco, salt and pepper. 

The pancakes we received were absolutely massive. Everyone else had some variation of cheese, mushroom and pineapple, but I went for the bacon, apple and butter pancake, which took up residence in my brain and very loudly demanded to be ordered once I'd spied it on the menu. The apple half of the pancake was sprinkled with fine icing sugar, while butter dominated the half that had strips of bacon running through it. After trying the savoury then sweet bits of the pancake on their own, I cut my pancake up into strips that incorporated both the bacon and the apple and ate them all rolled up to mix the flavours. Once most of the pancake was done, I noticed the bottle of treacle on the table, and swirled the remaining bites through the sticky-sweet sauce that worked really well in bringing out the salty-oiliness of the bacon and the residual tartness of the apple slices. For dessert we had a plate of Grand Marnier poffertjes (Pancake Puffs) with cream. Initially, I thought the pancakes were swimming in butter, but it turned out that we'd actually been given really boozy poffertjes. I nearly choked on my first one when I bit down and realized how generous the pour had been. 

Cravings thus satisfied, it was back to doing the touristy thing. We passed through the archway of the Rijksmuseum, (Which used to be a city gate connecting the older part of the city with the newer districts that sprouted up just beyond its metaphorical walls) and went towards Museumplein, where IZV wanted to take the customary picture with the I amsterdam sign. 

It was quite literally crawling with people. IZV called dibs on one of the letters, but not everyone received the memo, and a small child beat her to it. Thus, Plan B was put into motion, and she and BA spent the next five minutes attempting to scale the sign while the rest of us acted as their official photographers. It took a while before they figured out the optimal way to get up, but they were ultimately triumphant. 

We made our way down the Museumplein ICE*Amsterdam skating rink, during which we hashed out a tentative plan for the rest of the afternoon which involved the Van Gogh Museum. When we got there though, GW decided that she wasn't going to force herself to look at art that she didn't want to, so I dragged her with me to the Bols Cocktail Museum (Or more accurately, the House of Bols Cocktail and Genever Experience), which was just across the road. I had fond memories of visiting it after an afternoon full of Van Gogh three years before, and I figured that we'd end up feeling about as tripped out as the rest of the gang who were going to see more art. The Bols Museum also seems to be one of the few places in Amsterdam offering student discounts - we got 20% off the original cost of admission, which was a nice little bonus. 

The House of Bols had been established in Amsterdam in 1575 by the Bols family, and claims to be the world's oldest distilled spirits brand. Their recipe for Genever was last tweaked in the 1800s, and today's Genevers are made using the same blend of malt wine, neutral grain alcohol and a proprietary selection of botanicals. The alcohol level of their Genever is fixed at 42%, which is supposed to be optimal for cocktail making. Apart from this traditional Dutch spirit, Bols also makes a wide selection of liqueurs mainly for use in cocktails, and during the walk-through section, you can have a whiff of the over 30 different kinds that they sell. Fair warning: It can get extremely confusing. We had smell fatigue for a while afterward.  

Bols liquer bottles are apparently made to be especially balanced for flair bartending, and when we asked the guys behind the Mirror Bar if we could see a few tricks, they gamely obliged, flicking the bottles into the air with enviable ease. They suggested we try our hand at it in the Magical Flair Booth, and boosted by the liquid courage provided by our first cocktails, we went in. I'll be the first to admit that more than a few bottles were dropped, but somehow when it came to the moment when the video recorded, the residual magic from our Elderflower and Pomegranate Collins kicked in and we managed to pull off the moves we'd been taught. There's a video floating somewhere on GW's computer, but even if you look very closely, I'm not in it. I later realized that I hadn't been standing where the camera could see me. Whoops. 

Back at the bar, a couple of the mixologists were trying out potential cocktail recipes for a brand new liqueur, so GW and I jumped at the chance to offer ourselves up as very willing guinea pigs for their experiments. Alas, the concoction they passed over tasted like an awfully watery vanilla milkshake, and we registered our dissatisfaction and constructive feedback for a new iteration (Less ice! More chocolate!). Our rejected drink was later taken up by a rowdy group who had shimmied into the bar, who pronounced it the Best Thing Ever™. There's really no accounting for taste. 

Like the Heineken Experience, the House of Bols had a definite nightclub vibe going on, and after the room of advertisements and the aggressive sleekness of the space, a second proper cocktail seemed like an excellent idea. Three summers ago, I'd tried their Blackberry Bramble cocktail, and it was memorable enough that I made an off-menu request for it. Turns out the bartenders remembered it too, and set about fixing one up for me. Blackberries weren't in season so I had to do without the garnishing, but that was fine by me. GW had a sip and promptly got one for herself too. 

We nursed our second drinks for a while before the siren song of the multicoloured liqueurs called to us and insisted we try the shots that came as part of the museum experience. With 34 different flavours, I was firmly entrenched within the choice paradox after selecting the Passion Fruit flavor for my first shot, and ended up having to ask for recommendations. The bartender suggested I try the Natural Yogurt Liqueur, which I normally would have steered clear of. In the end, being open to suggestion paid off, and it turned out to be strangely enjoyable.  

Everyone's timing turned out spectacularly, and when we left the building, the rest of the gang had just walked over from their Van Gogh experience. Our next stop was Wynand Fockink, which turned out to be so amazing that it's going to have it's own dedicated post. 

After the Bols Museum, the clouds had cleared enough for sunset to cast a rosy glow over Amsterdam as we traipsed past a goodly fraction of the city's over 100 km worth of canals. The canals had been constructed from one side to the next, in an action one historian likened to that of a windscreen wiper.

On our way to Wynand Fockink, GW & I managed to lose the rest while skipping happily along the roads, enough that we managed to do a spot of shopping along Kalverstraat (I got a nifty pair of on-sale earrings, which I was very pleased with) where the main chain stores are located, reach the bar and have our first drinks before they eventually joined us. 

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