Travel
Holland days

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 66

Travel
Holland days

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 66

Travel
Holland days

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 66

Travel
Holland days

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 66

Returning to Amsterdam, John McDonald recalls his first, life-changing encounter with the greats of European art

"What about Amsterdam? What about Amsterdam?" intoned Captain Beefheart on his classic album, Safe As Milk. These lines kept running through my mind in 1981, as I landed for the first time on European soil. I was 20, freshly graduated from Sydney University. I'd left Australia on Christmas Day with the mercury hovering around 100°F. After 24 hours of flying I'd arrived on Christmas Day in the Netherlands, where snow was falling.

Is anyone prepared for that first glimpse of Amsterdam? Having come from a hot, sprawling city, it was for me like arriving in a town of dolls' houses. I had the strangest, most vivid dreams for weeks.

Everyone remembers the city for the spectacle of the girls in windows or the constant fragrance of marijuana, but I loved the carpets on the tables in pubs, the chips sold with squirts of mayonnaise, the tram ride back and forth through the center of town, the markets and bookshops, the lively music scene – and especially the art galleries.

Art had always been my passion, although I'd never studied it formally. I began my art education in the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk, the three fabulous art museums that cluster at Museumplein (Museum Square) in the Amsterdam-Zuid district. The square was a late 19th-century innovation planned to improve the setting of the Rijksmuseum, then brand new. Now, following extensive restoration by the Cruz y Ortiz practice, tourists throng there, ready to admire the masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer, just as I did.

But mine was an experience that perhaps only Australians and New Zealanders can fully appreciate. We are (or were) brought up to see ourselves as heirs to the culture of Britain and Europe, but there are few touchstones close at hand. Visiting the Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl; open 9am-5pm daily) felt like an immense privilege, but the painting that lodged in my mind while I was there wasn't The Night Watch, which was returned to the main building in 2013. The Rembrandt that captured me was Landscape with a Stone Bridge (1638), now in Room 2.8. I was transfixed by the way he had painted the sky in this tiny, transcendentally beautiful picture, with threads of light swirling in muddy clouds and pale sunlight suffusing the composition with an unearthly glow.

The Stedelijk (stedelijk.nl; open 10am-6pm daily, until 10pm Fri) is no less eye-opening. It, too, has undergone major reconstruction, finally completed for a grand opening in 2012. On my first visit there I had been able to examine paintings by Mondrian and Malevich, which always appeared so pristine and tidy in reproduction. I found myself instead looking at slightly grubby paintings where pencil marks were still visible, straight lines were crudely inscribed, and a fine layer of cracks infiltrated planes of pure color. It only made me more appreciative of works that no longer seemed austere, but filled with feeling.

I would have a very different experience many years later, having been allowed to walk around the stage of a famous opera house during the day and return at night for the performance. All I could think of was how dirty and threadbare the sets had looked up close. The illusion was gone, and so was my evening's pleasure.

With Mondrian, the opposite applied. Even today I can't look at a painting from any period of his career without thinking of him as a man of deep sensibility. His rigorous geometry feels like a form of expressionism.

The initial culture shock of arriving in Amsterdam set me on the path I'm still pursuing today, as a writer on art and cinema. Since that first, spectacular visit, I've been back to the city often, and have always felt gratified that so little has changed. Sydney, by contrast, is virtually unrecognizable from what it was in 1981.

I'm a little different too. Instead of seeing a band at the Melkweg (melkweg.nl) or Paradiso (paradiso.nl), I'm more inclined to visit the Concertgebouw (concertgebouw.nl), also on Museumplein, or the Dutch National Opera (operaballet.nl). I've also grown more skeptical about a contemporary art scene that once seemed so dynamic: set beside the contemporary art now coming out of China, it's hard to get excited about much of what one sees in Europe.

But Amsterdam's reopened grand museums draw tourists like never before. And despite the crowds, it's still possible to get close to paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh and Mondrian, and to reacquaint yourself with their qualities. With three decades of reading under my belt, I know a lot more about these artists and the times in which they lived, but the almost visceral thrill of looking at their works in the museum has never diminished.

Lawrence Alloway once used the term "sunflowering" to describe our reaction to works of art – Van Gogh's Sunflowers, for instance – we can no longer quite see because they are too familiar. Only someone with easy access to such paintings would agree. Go to the Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl; open 9am-7pm, until 10pm Fri & 9pm Sat) and you'll see I'm right. Every time I'm in Amsterdam I feel as if I were 20 years old again, discovering such works for the first time.

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and film critic for the Australian Financial Review.

Where to eat

There is so much more to Amsterdam's culinary scene than chips with mayonnaise and herring. A classic is Toscanini (restauranttoscanini.nl) in the Jordaan. Opened in 1985, this Italian restaurant serves brilliantly executed food. It was Ottolenghi's favorite place to eat when he lived in the city the '90s. You can see why: on arrival in the airy space, you are greeted by beautifully cooked vegetables piled up on huge plates at the bar – perhaps an early inspiration for the young chef. If you spy lamb's tongue with quail's egg on the menu, don't miss it.

One lively new contender is Gebr. Hartering (gebr-hartering.nl), a casual and unpretentious establishment hidden at the very top of the city's horseshoe. Here two brothers serve a modern Dutch menu that changes daily. Take a table on their canalside barge if the weather's good. Afterwards, head next door to Hiding In Plain Sight (hpsamsterdam.com) – the award-winning bar is famous for its lethal Walking Dead cocktail. BAK (bakrestaurant.nl) started as a pop-up restaurant, but found permanent residence in 2013 at the Het Veem theater, a former warehouse on the waterfront. The five-course seasonal set menu is excellent value at €50, with fantastic game and local produce.

In the Frankendael Park is an old greenhouse with 30ft-high ceilings. Inside, you'll find the glade-like sanctuary that is De Kas (restaurantdekas.nl), a fantastic restaurant which has beautifully presented dishes made from produce grown within the building, which used to be the city nursery.

Where to stay

Overlooking a lush courtyard, the Dylan (dylanamsterdam.com) is a boutique hotel in the chic 'Nine Streets' shopping district. It has 40 sun-flooded rooms in two historic canalside houses, and a modern aesthetic that tastefully offsets period features. Michelin-starred food is served in an elegant dining room. Trendy types flock to The Conservatorium (conservatoriumhotel.com, pictured above), not so much a hotel as a fusion of modern design and 19th-century architecture. The former home of a 17th-century sugar trader, Seven one Seven (717hotel.nl) is in a prime location on the beautiful Prinsengracht. It has no hotel sign: just a brass bell next to the door, beyond which are nine sumptuous rooms. Ten minutes' drive from Amsterdam is The Inn, a 17th-century vicarage. The owner is an excellent chef, who lays on breakfast in the lakeside conservatory. Dinner is available on request, at €40 a head. And she'll happily give you a tour of their wine cellar.

Isobel Cockerell

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