The Netherlands, our final destination, were only a few hours away by bus, and we rolled up to Rotterdam late one evening to find the central station in an incomprehensible state of renovation. Wary after our previous experiences, we made our way to our hostel with as much haste as was seemly and did our best to make friends with the resident dog. As we had had a good experience with self-guided walking tours in Ghent, we were pleased to find the Rotterdam equivalent and set off around the Old Harbour with enthusiasm, pausing at Blaak Station (“the flying saucer” or “the kettle” – sadly the Blaak Market wasn’t on on that day) and the Cube Houses (Kubuswonigen). This last architectural achievement (opposite Europe’s first skyscraper, incidentally) was quite a surprise, but did raise the questions of where one puts shelves and how efficient tilted houses are in somewhere as densely populated as the Netherlands.
After lunch at a couple of local organic eateries, we were back on the tour trail and quickly came across a couple of unusual statues. First was the gigantic leprechaun holding a bell and something that can only be described as an “object for diversions of an adult nature” (later discovered to be a Christmas tree) – Rotterdam City Council was forced to relocate the piece several times due to outcry or embarrassment and eventually plonked it down in the middle of a large square next to the tram line. The second I pegged as a Gundam, but it turned out to be a Transformer watching over the local skate park (a steel-and-concrete agglomeration on the central reservation of a main road).
By this time, we were ready for a break from fine art and made a bold decision to go and visit the Tax and Customs Museum just around the corner from where we were staying. Upon entering, the staff ushered us into a small interactive exhibit (the “Smokkeltrip”) with assurances that it was very good – I think we both admitted to some foreboding as the door closed behind us and we were left in near-darkness. A few televisions flickered to life after a few seconds, though, and we were guided screen by screen into the Most Illegal Container Ever – full of animals, plants, weapons, drugs inside marmalade jars, radioactive waste and illegal immigrants (us!). As our container was loaded onto the ship, the floor jerked under our feet and we could hear clangs and bangs from outside as our smugglers checked we were still OK. There were more jerks as we were unloaded, a tense few minutes as the Dutch authorities went through customs checks (including scanning the container with a laser) and then the inevitable barking of dogs – caught! The large screen on one wall of the container showed the wall being cut open with a torch, and as light flooded in the exit opened to let us back into the museum (and presumably the holding cells in a real situation).
The rest of the museum was well put-together and informative, full of quirks such as techniques used to smuggle butter (e.g. inside blocks of wood) and initiatives such as replacing all money in circulation with individual certificates to stamp out the black market. We left after a couple of hours, wonderfully enriched.
Our next appointment was at Den Haag (The Hague), not too far from where we’d caught the ferry to England around a month ago. We arrived in the evening, met another warm and welcoming Couchsurfing host and, the weather being wet again, quickly embarked on a tour of the main museum highlights. The Mauritshuis (Royal Picture Gallery) turned out to be half price due to half of the exhibits being closed, but it (like most other places we’d visited) was densely packed with rich works of art (including Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which we didn’t know was there until we showed up) and required a lot of time for such a small area.
The Escher in het Paleis (Escher in the Palace) museum was our other must-see, and I ventured the opinion that some of the rooms should have photorealistic images of staircases going off in impossible directions and other optical illusions built in. This proved not to be the case (the museum is in a former palace and they probably can’t change it much anyway), though there was an interesting collection of specifically-commissioned chandeliers. The exhibitions covered M. C. Escher’s life and work in detail, with many original pieces, explanations of how pictures were put together, personal items and demonstrations of various optical illusions. We stayed until closing time, almost not believing the amount of precision and effort that had gone into seemingly simple works (easy to forget, in these days of computer manipulations, that most of Escher’s works were woodblock prints or lithographs).
Finally, we came full circle and caught the train back to Amsterdam just in time for the weather to clear. We met our last host, a delightfully witty and thoughtful runner, computer programmer and scientist, and set about seeing what we didn’t have time to on our previous visit. Like the Mauritshaus, most of the Rijksmuseum (State Museum) was closed for renovations – but (possibly due to its popularity) it was still charging full price and we grudgingly paid up and entered a showcase for the Dutch Golden Age. A casual perusal gave us the impression that we were seeing historical greed and oppression foisted upon us, and so we escaped upstairs to the more serene surroundings of the paintings. We were particularly impressed by Jan Asselijn’s The Threatened Swan and the expected crop of celebrated Dutch painters, but left feeling like we’d not quite got our money’s worth.
Our second major stop was the Anne Frank House, the place where Anne Frank and her family hid from Nazi persecution during the Second World War and now a museum (it had been scheduled to be demolished in 1955, but protesters saved it). The rooms themselves were curiously bare (we later found out that the furniture had been removed after the families had been taken away, and Otto Frank had not wanted it returned), but we could get a sense of what it must have been like to live in such close quarters under the constant threat of discovery from the numerous effects, explanations and video interviews. The original diary and papers were on display at the very end of the tour, and also an interesting interactive exhibit asking questions about human rights and comparing your responses to those of previous visitors. It was a sobering experience, but one that ended on a more positive and contemplative note (seen by the Foundation as part of Anne Frank’s legacy).
With our time in Europe rapidly drawing to a close, I spent a meditative morning wandering around Amsterdam’s canals before meeting Amy at the Van Gogh Museum and seeking out a final veggie burger for lunch. Our trip had been all too brief and stressful at times, but hugely informative and utterly worthwhile.