Friday, February 9, 2007

Travel Tales: Tulip Fields and a Quest for Vermeer

I blame it squarely on the film Silsila, this long time desire to see the Tulip fields in the Netherlands. There was this scene picturised with a nubile maiden singing along the fields...25 years passed but I remembered that scene very well indeed. To the uninitiated, Silsila was a Bollywood blockbuster made in 1981, with a superb music score which, once heard, was remembered forever with pleasure. Since we moved to Europe, I had been looking for an opportunity to make a trip. Easter holidays 2006 were coming up, and I charted out a plan which included tulips and art museums. I stealthily plotted to drag my poor man, who would prefer pub crawls to flowers or museums, into dozens of them (museums not pubs :) thanks to my Quest.

Aah, I haven't quite mentioned my Quest as yet, have I? A simple quest really, I just want to see all of Vermeer's paintings, that's all :) I had always admired his works, but it was after seeing The Love Letter in a visiting exhibition in Melbourne in 2005 that I became enraptured. The Light!! Oh the light!!! How it gleams from inside his paintings!! What a magician!!! And hence my new Quest, to see the Light captured by the master. As there are only 35 surviving works of his, I think I might achieve it too :)

I kept looking at this Tulip Blooming Status website as our holiday drew near; unseasonably cold, the tulips were still stubbornly closing their charms to the world. But our holiday was booked, and we left for Amsterdam, stopping in Frankfurt on the way to visit friends. They told us that they had just been to Amsterdam, and no, the tulips didn't look quite look like they did in Silsila. I sent a quick prayer up to the Sun God to warm up the tulip's hearts as we drove towards Amsterdam.

The hotel I had booked on the net was as central as it can get, but what a dump!! The water dripped non-stop from the faucets, a huge dead cockroach behind the toilet stayed right there for all the four days we were there in spite of my complaints, the sheets got changed only on the third day after my demands rose in pitch and intensity...bad experience. Travellers beware, Amsterdam overprices its hotels rooms and you don't get anything like what you deserve for your money.

The first day, we set off along the canals towards the Van Gogh museum after a hearty breakfast. This museum has the largest collection of his works and at the time of our visit it also had a special exhibition on Rembrandt and Caravaggio. We spent virtually the whole day in the museum, eating a light lunch at the cafe to keep us going. My transports of delight are a whole new tale perhaps of interest only to those who are 'into' art as well...if you are one of them, check out my Artistic Tales: On some Dutch and not so Dutch Artists.

The museum took a toll on our feet, with all of us limping on our way out. At least I felt good inside, I am not so sure about the other two :) One hint for future travellers : a lot of queuing time can be saved by purchasing tickets over the Internet. We walked slowly back, along routes mentioned in our guide book as being particularly interesting. But we were all interested in just taking the weight off our feet and eating something. We walked to Dam square which was pretty and well lit up, and then rested in a restaurant for some time.

Nushk wanted to see the red light district which his sister(!!!!) had told him about. I was not keen, being morally opposed to the trade in women, whether displayed on a window or not. But the better half decided that it was an educational experience for the boy, and so we wandered through some parts of the area. I was shocked to see that the girls were so very young and pretty. I wondered sadly about their stories, the tales they would tell...what bought them from the bosom of their family, to displaying their bosoms in public? Was it desperation or was it choice? Was it need for money, drugs, or an escape from, I shudder to think, a worse situation? Would any young woman choose this life voluntarily? I could not look at those windows. My guilt that I was comfortable and safe, when these young children stood so exposed in all senses, my guilt that I would do nothing about this, that by my inaction I would acknowledge this as an 'acceptable' part of the world shamed me to silent tears.

I had wanted to go on a canal cruise but was so very tired by then. But the boys were keen, so we stood in the icily cold pier waiting for the next boat. The boat finally came, and a recorded commentary followed. The pretty passing lights, the warmth of the boat, the droning commentary was all too much to be resisted, and I fell asleep much as the boys tried to prod me awake!!

The next day started with another museum trip, this time to the Rijksmuseum. As it was undergoing renovation, only a special exhibition called the 'Masterpieces' was open. Even that took a full three hours to see. And I made my first headway into my Quest :) After that we stopped for some lunch, and using our guide book, did a walking tour seeing canal houses of note. One interesting fact was that many of them leaned forward, thus allowing big pieces of furniture to be pulleyed up through windows as the stairwells of these houses were narrow. We ended up finally at the Heineken factory tour where Nushk and I struggled to stop the better half from consuming more than half a dozen of the free beers on offer!! That was stressful!!!

Third day, and we drove out to Marken first, a small fishing village not far from Amsterdam. A perfect little town, it still didn't appeal to was just too perfect, as if it were a Disney 'village' made to please tourists. Our next stop was Volendam, another perfect little town. I have decided that the Dutch women have an obsession with cleaning!! I saw women busily dusting imaginary dust inside their homes, women hanging precariously out of windows to clean the outsides, sweeping the sidewalk in front of their homes, tidying their already tidy gardens....Women, get a life, for God's sake if you have free time just Blog!!! I was a little envious of the consistently beautiful windows though, perfect little lace curtains, pretty vases and ceramics, so very pristine. Next stop was Zaans Schaans to see the windmills. Again, too unreal to appeal...though it was indeed real. We stopped at the tourist shop and bought some very nice cheese.

Then with hope in my heart, we headed off to Keukenhof and the tulip fields. YES!!! Though everything hadn't bloomed as yet, the one warm day had been enough to encourage the little darlings to open their pretty hearts. Keukenhof didn't have just tulips of course, but flowers of all kinds set in a most magnificent garden. It was a treat, and even the boys who aren't into flowers agreed with that. I resisted my impulse to run through the tulip fields, singing, with my sari flying in the air....both the nubility and the flapping sari were missing :) We drove back through village roads, besides fields of different bulbs...if you haven't been already, and you like colour, DO!!

Last day..we packed our bags, and left towards Leiden, the birthplace of Rembrandt van Rijn. Now this was so much more of a 'real' town, with a beautiful old town centre and a very lively atmosphere. We enjoyed a nice lunch and stroll through the town and then headed towards Den Haag to see the Mauritshuis, in search of more Vermeers. Nushk fell desperately in love with this girl wearing a pearl earring...but that's another story :) From there we headed to our last quick stop, Delft, to see the birthplace of Vermeer. Again a 'real' and beautiful town, it had a beautiful church, lovely canals, pretty houses, and many shops selling the wonderful pottery that Delft is famous for. I would have liked more time in all the three towns we visited this day, but we couldn't linger, and we left for our drive back home, again with a nice stop in Frankfurt with friends (and for me, a visit to the museum to see Vermeer's The Geographer :).

My impressions? Amsterdam was a lively city, but if it were not for the art museums, I would not want to visit again. The tulips were wonderful, and well worth a visit. The touristy towns of Marken, Volendam and Zaans Schaans didn't attract me, but I would be happy to return to Leiden to explore it's museums, as well as to Delft. The Netherlands doesn't call to my blood as France does, but it's art certainly does, so yes, I will go back one day.

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