Monthly Archives: April 2010

KONINGINNEDAG 2010 – Queens Day in pictures

Oh it was busy in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark!

Even the buses were jostling each other - ouch!

We knew Koninginnedag (‘Queens Day’ if you’re not Dutch) was coming days ago. There were orange streamers in the streets, silly orange hats for sale in the shops, flower stalls selling only orange tulips. In Dirk van den Broek supermarket I met a 10 year old boy buying 20 dozen eggs. ‘Making omelettes for Koninginnedag?’ I asked. ‘No, people can throw eggs at my brother. He stands with his head in a hole and people try to hit him. One euro for three eggs.’ Kids can make money in lots of inventive ways.

Just hold a violin and look cute

My favourite this year was ‘throw a smurf’. The country that gave us Vermeer and van Gogh also gave us reality TV’s Big Brother and Vader Abraham’s smurfs. In a Dutch variation on the coconut shy, kids could pay a modest fee to hurl a fluffy stuffed smurf at members of the royal family smiling at them from a pyramid of Droste cocoa tins.

Try your luck at shuffleboard

The royals are still popular though. On the telly we watched as Queen Beatrix led her family through Zeeland to great applause. You may remember last year’s tragedy when someone drove his car at the royal bus, killing himself and six people in the crowd. After last night’s memorial service for the victims, everyone was relieved that this year it was the old Koninginnedag again.

Only idiots who pressed the emergency stop button on a train and striking garbage collectors threatened the fun this year.

At Apollolaan street market there's always a chance of finding the vinyl LP you wish you hadn't given away when you bought your first CD player.


Filed under Budget travel, Holland, travel photography, Travel- Europe

ART TOURISM – what if the paintings were fake?

I’ve just read Joost Zwagerman’s entertaining book Duel, in which a subversive young artist substitutes her copy of a famous painting for the original in a museum. It fools the gallery’s director. Visitors don’t notice any difference. None but the gallery’s conservator can tell the real painting from the fake.

It got me thinking…

While we’re travelling, we spend a lot of money, time and effort visiting great art museums to see famous paintings. Even if we have little interest in art when we’re home, we feel that in Paris, Amsterdam or New York we ought grab the chance to see ‘real’ Rembrandts, Picassos or van Goghs.

Having forked out our hard-earned cash for our entry tickets, we expect to see real Da Vincis, original Renoirs and 100% genuine Monets. We marvel at the technical artistry, are moved by their beauty and feel we are in the presence of greatness. Would we be half so excited if we knew we were looking at fakes?

Suppose the Rijksmuseum announced that because their Rembrandts and Vermeers were in danger of deteriorating, they all had to go into climate-controlled storage, and meanwhile they would be replaced on the museum walls by reproductions. We can assume the copies will be so good that an expert would need a microscope and a chemistry set to tell the difference. Would we still queue up to see them?

Or what if the Louvre fessed up that the Mona Lisa had been in a vault since 1963 and visitors had been paying to shuffle past a poster ever since? Would we feel ripped off?

Suppose the MoMA offered to make numerous excellent copies of each its greatest treasures, then send them off as travelling exhibitions. It would save a fortune in insurance costs and everybody could enjoy them at an affordable price. Would anybody be interested?

A few years ago Mrs T and I went to an exhibition in Brussels of work by the Breughels, Elder and Younger. Pieter Breughel the Younger set up a studio and employed artists to produce reproductions of his father’s work. There was nothing fraudulent about this. In those days when travel was difficult it was the only way to have the paintings reach a wider audience. The reproductions were presented as copies and sold for much less than the originals. But in a number of cases we found the reproductions technically superior, sharper and more aesthetically pleasing. We were just as happy with the ‘phoney’ versions as with the originals.

So why are we so obsessed with seeing the real thing? Because we want to know that when we peer closely at an individual brush stroke that we are seeing the exact moment that Vermeer painted the pearl earring. We’ve heard of Vermeer; the name of an imitator means nothing to us. And we can’t help speculating on the astronomical sum the work would bring on the open market, and comparing it to the pittance the artist earned for painting it.

But isn’t this ridiculous? Surely a good painting is a good painting is a good painting, whoever created it. If it moves you or sparks your interest or speaks to you in a particular way, why should it matter who created it or when, or how much it last sold for? The experience is supposed to be about the artist communicating his or her idea of what is beautiful or interesting with us the viewers. An accurate copy could probably do this just as well as the original.

Strangely, we don’t seem to mind much if sculptures or buildings are reproductions. We know that a Rodin bronze is one of a series which came out of the same mould. We’re happy to admire the rebuilding of towns like Ypres and Dusseldorf after their original buildings were bombed flat. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the original sculptures from Prague’s lovely Charles Bridge are in a vault somewhere, protected from the visitors and the vandals, and those we see out there on the bridge are reproductions. Does it matter? Not to me.

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Filed under Art, Travel, Travel- Europe


The Musicians of Bremen

Once upon a time, a boy called Richard left his family and friends for a while and went out into the world, seeking fame, fortune and fun. He flew over the sea and landed in the city of Frankfurt, where people ate long sausages and drank beer from the largest glasses he had ever seen.

Just outside Frankfurt is a road, 400 miles long, winding through the countryside. People call it the Fairy Tale Road, and along it are towns where many adventures had begun, long, long ago.

The Brothers Grimm were born in Steinau, near Frankfurt. Their house is now a museum and for many visitors it’s the start of the Fairy Tale Road. Other towns along the road proudly spruik their fairytale credentials too. Any deep dark forest has to be the very one where Red Riding Hood got lost and any castle with a tower on top offers visitors the chance to rest very comfortably like Sleeping Beauty or let their hair down like Rapunzel.

Unfortunately I had no time for getting lost in forests and, although sleeping in castles is fine if they’re centrally heated, it can also be rather expensive.

Instead I cut to the chase and took a train to Hamelin, where the famous tale began in 1284. The area around Hamelin Station was anything but the stuff of fairytales – nondescript streets with Internet cafes and doner kebab shops.

Things became a little more fairytale-like as I entered the Altstadt or ‘Old City’. A line of white rats painted on the ground led me on a walk through wide squares and narrow lanes, where half timbered houses were covered with brightly coloured wooden carvings, and many had numbers over the door claiming they were hundreds of years old.

Altstadt, Hamelin

In the storybook, Hamelin’s rats were drowned in the River Weser, but they’ve sneaked back into the town since then. Pedlars sell rat-shaped cookies, and there are rat statues, rat fountains, rat toys, paintings and postcards, and nearly every building is called ‘rat’ something. There’s the Rat Catcher’s House, Rat Catcher’s Hall, Hotel Rat Catcher, and even the town hall where the mayor and corporation hold important meetings is called the ‘Rathaus’.

Pied Piper - town hall clock

I walked out of the town along the River Weser where the rats had drowned. It was pleasant green countryside, and many of Hamelin’s citizens were riding their bicycles and exercising their dogs. But the sky grew dark and rain began to fall heavily, and soon I knew exactly how the rats must have felt.

So I turned back to the train station. ‘When does the train go to Bremen?’ I asked a little man in a blue jacket and red peaked cap. ‘At ten minutes to two precisely,’ said the man, with a twinkle in his eye. And, sure enough, it arrived on time, exactly as the little man had predicted.

You remember the Bremen story of course; donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster set out for Bremen to become musicians. In the storybook, the animals never reach the town, but there they are now in a particularly beautiful market square, standing on top of each other.

In front of the ornate town hall stands a giant statue, six hundred years old and several metres high, of Roland, the defender of Bremen, holding his unbreakable magic sword, Durendal.

Roland Statue - Bremen Market

An intriguing narrow lane called the Bottcherstrasse led away from the square. It looked really ancient, but when I googled it later, I learned that although some of the houses were old, it was developed into a museum street in 1926-30, with money donated by a burgher of Bremen, Dr Roselius, who made his fortune from the invention of decaffeinated coffee.

At last it was time to leave the Fairy Tale Road. Richard hadn’t yet found fame and fortune, but he had found fun. ‘One out of three is a start,’ he laughed, and went on his merry way, hoping to live happily ever after.


Getting there:
The best way to explore the Fairy Tale Road is by car, but trains run from Frankfurt to Hamelin and Bremen. Prices to either town start from EUR29 one way. For full fares and timetables, see

Staying there: Hotel zur Krone, Hamelin, has single/double rooms for EUR68/80 Hotel Bremer Haus, near Bremen station, has rooms for single/double EUR80/110. Both hotels include breakfast.

Further information:,


Filed under Germany, Hiking, Literary history, Travel, Travel- Europe

BOOKS AS TRAIN TICKETS – a brilliant idea!

This is not exactly a travel story, but it’s such a brilliant idea I thought it worth a spot on the blog…

I’ve been reading the Dutch Book Week Present. My wife was given it for free because she bought another Dutch book. It’s an entertaining and thoughtful little story called Duel by Joost Zwagerman, published in a neat hardcover edition, and I’m very pleased to have read it.

Each year the Netherlands Book Week committee publishes a novella commissioned from a Dutch author. This little book is then given away by bookstores to customers who purchase books to a certain modest value. Good value for them and the publishers and authors because it stimulates book buying and reading.

Then on the Sunday of Book Week itself, copies of this Boekenweekgeschenk (Book Week Present) become valid train tickets. Anyone clutching a copy of the book can travel free all day on the trains to anywhere in the country. The expectation is that readers will meet up with other train travellers on a Book Week pass and run an informal book club session during their journey.

Is this not the most brilliant idea, stimulating reading, social interaction and use of public transport? Could it work in other countries too? I would love to see Australians meeting each other on a pleasant Sydney ferry ride, chatting for twenty minutes about the latest Tim Winton, Peter Carey or Kate Grenville.

It would surely cost very little to organise – even if the commission/publishing element were omitted (which would be a pity) it would be possible to simply nominate, say, three newly published books which would operate as tickets for the day. Leave the rest up to the public. If people who are normally non-readers rush to buy the books for the bonus travel, that’s a plus. If book readers who are normally non-public transport travellers take advantage of the scheme, that’s good publicity for the railways, buses and ferries.

How about it? Could it work in your city?


Filed under Art, Holland, Literary history, Travel- Europe


Running for the number 10 tram, Marnixstraat

Between 1982 and 1999 a number of sculptures were installed under cover of darkness at various Amsterdam locations. Like England’s elusive graffiti artist Banksy, the sneaky Dutch artist remains unidentified, though there is speculation that he is a local doctor who knocks out statues in his spare time.

The violinist bursting out of the floor in the foyer of the muziektheater in the ‘Stopera’ (City Opera House) is a reference to Amsterdam’s vibrant, irrepressible Jewish community, which used to be centred in this district before World War II.

In the Leidsebosje, the patch of green between the busy Leidseplein entertainment area and trams rattling around the corner in the Stadhouderskade, this little chap appeared one night, sawing through a branch in one of Amsterdam’s biggest and oldest trees. The tree is fighting back, over the years growing out over his saw.

The square in front of the Oude Kerk (Old Church) is right in the centre of Amsterdam’s notorious red light district, hence this work set in the cobblestones. I don’t know if the padlock is a real security device, to deter those who are both art lovers and unscrupulous, or an essential part of the image.

I do love the idea of all this though – art for the people, accessible, well executed, witty, anonymous. Amsterdammers enjoy it too, which is why it has stayed there.


Filed under Art, Holland

AMSTERDAM’S GREAT ART – for a limited time only…

It’s a particularly brilliant time for art exhibitions in Dutch galleries at the moment. Mevrouw T and I are fans of art – maybe we don’t know as much about it as we should, but we know what we like, and we very much like what we are seeing right now.

Of course in Amsterdam there are always the Rembrandts and Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum. It is being renovated at the moment, with work set to drag on till at least 2013, but I regard that as a plus. Like the Louvre in Paris, the Rijksmuseum is simply too big to take in at a sitting (or rather, a wandering) so for first time visitors a tour of the highlights which are on display may well be a better option.

The Van Gogh Museum is brimming with Van Goghs any time of year, and people queue to get in to see them. The Van Gogh has a new Gaugin exhibition at the moment.

On the Amstel canal in the newly-opened (2009) Hermitage Museum there are some of the best works of Matisse (notably his very famous ‘Dance’) as well as Picasso, Kandinsky, Malevich and others. If the Hermitage can keep presenting work as good as this, it is a worthy rival to the big two above.

It’s only on until May 16, but we highly recommend the exhibition in the Jewish Historic Museum Gedurfte Verzamelen or “Daring Patronage”.  This was an unexpected treat. The collections of three wonderful Jewish art patrons from the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries are on show. The highlights are three superb Chagalls, including his green-faced violinist, and a selection of Piet Mondriaan’s paintings, proving he could do more than just rule a few black lines and colour in the boxes.

The Rembrandthuis, the house where Rembrandt lived, has an exhibition of early photography:,0,0&nav_lang=en

Meanwhile down in Den Haag (the Hague), a 40 minute train ride away, the Gemeentemuseum has a superb Kandinsky retrospective.

Tip: For anybody planning to visit four or more museums in Holland, a museumkaart (museum card) is excellent value. It is valid for most museums in the country, good for a year, and can be bought at most major museums. We are wearing out our museum cards by having them swiped so often. Cost: EUR35 plus EUR4.95 ”handling costs”. Why don’t they just say they cost EUR40? Since individual museum entry is EUR7.50 to EUR12.50, that’s still a very good deal.


Filed under Art, Holland