Saturday, January 19, 2019

Amsterdam! Venice of the North

Nowhere where I have traveled have I been so aware of traffic and people as in Amsterdam, the city of canals. (The general chaos of Naples comes close.) If you are out on Amsterdam’s streets you constantly have to be aware of where you are and on the lookout for bicycles, motorbikes, trams, more bicycles and people. They all seem to mingle in perfect harmony, but one step to the right or to the left without looking and you can end up in front of a fast moving bicycle.

A classic Amsterdam memory

Traveling in winter have benefits: Shorter lines at museums and restaurants, but on the weather front it was mostly dreary with the sky varied from woolly clouds interspersed with rare patches of light blue to a dirty dark grey with occasional rain. Luckily, on the worst weather day when it was very windy and rainy we were indoors in the Rijksmuseum.    

The flower market and cheese caves

Traveling from America to Europe inevitability means an overnight flight and an early morning arrival, which means one cannot book into a hotel/apartment/Airbnb before 3 pm and walking around in any city dragging even your single suitcase everywhere is a schlep. Some hotels allow you to store your luggage before checking in. Ours, the JL No. 76 Hotel on Jan Luijkenstraat, a stone throw from the Museumplein and the Rijks and Van Gogh Museums, did allow for storage, and we went straight to our hotel after our arrival in Amsterdam and asked if we can book in earlier. I was not expecting an affirmative answer, but I took a chance! They can only say no.

It was then that I experienced the latest trend being employed by hospitality establishments, especially in Europe. If you try to book in earlier, they will make a show of looking for a room to book you, never find your room, but magically find an alternative room and then offer you an upgrade, in our case, $50 per night extra. We don’t usually stay in hotels so we have never experienced this sales pitch before, but luckily I read about it on Tripadvisor and Google Reviews and didn’t fall for the trap. Interestingly, it would happen again in Paris, even though we arrived there after the eligible booking time. Times must be hard in Europe or scamming hotel guests must have become the norm?    

I respectfully declined the offer to an upgrade, knowing full well, based on prior research on the internet of the types of rooms available in this hotel, that what I originally booked was one of the better rooms on offer. We selected to store our luggage at the hotel and floated into the streets of Amsterdam.

Sitting inside De Vier Pilaren restaurant and watching the world float by

On one of those occasional rainy moments, on our first day out walking towards the Jordaan area, we popped into De Vier Pilaren, a “Poffertjes en Pannenkoeken” restaurant for lunch, located near the Vondelpark entrance on Stadhouderskade and across the Singelgracht from Max Euweplein. Of course the Dutch pannenkoeken (pancake) is not a strange dish to us because we grew up with it. Every traditional Afrikaner gathering in South Africa usually served the thin styled pancake, mostly with a cinnamon and sugar mixture on top and rolled up like wrap. M went sweet and had a pancake with only a granular sugar coating. I went the other way, savory, and had one with aged Gouda cheese and liberally layered with cured ham, a light burgundy colored ham. It was so delicious! The tiny restaurant’s service was excellent, the aroma of the freshly baked pancakes and “poffertjes”, the warmth inside while it was cold and raining outside, created a cozy atmosphere that was perfect in that moment. We lingered inside De Vier Pilaren for quite a while. Feeling the effects of jet lag, time was not important, resting our feet was, and taking an early break to absorb the Amsterdam vibe was important. And we did. While we watched people come and go and tourist canal boats floating by on the Singelgracht, M sipped on a hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and I savored some French Chardonnay. [Gracht is Dutch for canal.]   

 Rembrandt's The Night Watch

The day after our arrival was all about the main purpose of this short vacation. The Rijksmuseum: The pride of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Rembrandt van Rijn and his fellow schilders (painters) from the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, are a major love of M’s art interest. We spent a whole day in the museum. In the end, the Rijksmuseum offered so much more than just a bunch of paintings against walls. It presented the history of the Netherlands and its conquered lands in art form and how the different cultures impacted the country. It certainly turned out to be one of better museums we have been to. One criticism though: Although they had a special exhibition of South Africa and its relationship with the Netherlands in the Rijksmuseum in 2017, it seems the settling of a halfway station at the southern tip of Africa by the Dutch and the incredible impact it had on the creation of the Afrikaner people, its language and on South Africa in general for centuries to come (after all the Dutch ruled the Cape of Good Hope for 150 years) are not enough to justify a permanent section on South Africa in the Rijksmuseum. Except if I missed it.    

The Rijksmuseum at night and the Christmas market on the right of the ice skating rink 

After the Rijksmuseum and a walk through the Christmas market in front of the museum we were famished and went searching for a restaurant. A few blocks away we came across an Irish pub, packed to the rafters. After all, it was Friday night and happy hour was still in full swing. Two blocks away, M found the Le Garage, a Michelin Bib listed restaurant, French/Europe in cuisine and molecular gastronomy in style. However, the restaurant was less than satisfactory with terrible service, nicely decorated plates, but rather tasteless food. I had a bland rotisserie chicken which barely had any color on it. A chain grocery in Danville sells better rotisserie chicken than these “wannabe” chefs. Harsh, but that’s how bad it was. M’s fish was only slightly better, but they forgot to bring her side dish and when it eventually arrived after we had to ask for it, it was cold. The next evening’s dinner at an Irish pub on Max Euweplein, the atmosphere was livelier, the music much better, the food a slight improvement on the night before, and the price much less.  In general, even in Paris, this trip cannot be described as a visit to foodies’ paradise. But that’s our fault; we never made a serious effort to find exceptional restaurants.

Although we also visited the Van Gogh Museum, the rest of our time in Amsterdam was spent walking the streets, at times using the tram to save our feet and we went on a canal tour late one afternoon and returned to our base as dusk descended upon the city.

The Basilica of Saint Nicholas near Centraal Station

Although I found the Koninklijk Paleis, the Royal Palace, rather dirty on the outside, Amsterdam in general is a very clean city. You hardly saw a cigarette butt on the street. With its numerous canals, hundreds of bridges, thousands of bicycles in all shapes and sizes, I found it an exciting and cozy city. Very walkable. Just a pity it was such a short visit. 

A small lunch and tea for two. That tea was very delicious (Rooibos, orange, vanilla and honey) 

Vondel Park

The Red Light district with the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam's oldest building, in the background

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Fish Shack

Move over Man Cave, the She Shed has arrived.

For some time now, Monica wanted a She Shed, the latest craze that is sweeping over America. It is used by women for painting, reading, yoga, meeting and partying with the girls or just a place to leave the house and the household behind for a sanctuary of their own. It is in a way dovetailing with the tiny house craze although a she shed is not for permanent living. But…I guess it can be.

On Facebook there is a She Shed Shop. On Google you can buy the She Shed ebook. Now Lowe’s and Home Depot sell them and these backyard beauties are featured in House Beautiful magazine. The she sheds range from a converted wooden potting shed to rustic enclave, to specially constructed, nearly all glass buildings to invite nature in. From a soulful escape from husband and kids to a total party place with the girls.

So a few months ago M bought a small basic wooden cabin (12 x 10 feet) with a small front porch and it was positioned at the pond on Lily Rose Ranch. I added some steps and insulated it. Initially she had a working title for the place of le Petit Maison (the tiny house) with the intention to decorate it in a Shabby Chic d├ęcor and all Parisian, I think. But after it was all fitted out with bead board ceiling and walls it turned into The Fish Shack with a nautical theme.

But erase that image of a basic cabin on a frozen lake with a hole in the floor for ice fishing, a bunch of ruddy guys and cases of beer and bourbon in the corner. Oh no, this fish shack is painted a soft shade of pink inside, decorated with M’s effervescent style and a 16-foot deck that stretches to the edge of the pond for bug-free and slipfree fishing. It is still a work in progress because I still need to add the nautical rope to the deck posts and put some finials on the day bed.

She really took fishing and a fish shack up a notch!

And it even comes with battery operated globe light and candles for just the right romantic ambiance
for night time visits.

It will be the closest she can bring the beach to Kentucky.

My next project is to plant grass and build a fire-pit and picnic area on that brown peninsula in the background that juts out into the pond. Last year most of the trees were cut down and now I have to cleanup and beautify. 

The tiny porch is perfect for catching the late afternoon sun.

Two days after we decorated The Fish Shack, seeing that the start of spring was one day away, winter once more acted out its recurring visiting act of barging in and "...oh, and one more thing..."