Finally, the world is opening back up.
Traveling to Amsterdam for fun seemed impossible not that long ago. When given the opportunity to meet my best friend, Chuck Bigger, in our favorite city, I jumped onto the bandwagon.
Given a short window to book the trip, at first I was overwhelmed at the high priced airfare. Nonstop flights were out of the question. Then along came SAS, Scandinavian Air. Stopping in Stockholm en Route and Oslo on the return. It gave the trip an exotic feel.
Flying from Stockholm to Amsterdam in a smaller, full plane made me realize that travel is really back. Schiphol airport was a beehive of energy. It was also where we were basing our three days. A long time ago I learned that airport hotels really have their act together. With all-day shuttle service to and from Schiphol, we had the entire public transportation system at our fingertips. The Dutch trains are a joy. Express from the airport to Amsterdam Central is a whopping 12 minutes. And from there everything is possible.
Everything in the center city is an easy walk. Throngs of tourists filled the sidewalks everywhere we walked. Tourists were definitely back in Amsterdam.
On the first night, I stumbled upon Cafe Belgique, a tiny, welcoming hole in the wall bar that has been there since the beginning of time. Sitting at the bar with a Chimay Red, I talked to my first locals stopping for a drink on their way to see Bob Dylan, playing two nights at AFAS Live. They had tickets for both nights.
Bartender Serena Pigozzol gave me a Duvel 666, and then introduced me to Kwak, a Belgian Pale Strong Ale brewed by Brouwerij Bosteels in Buggenhout, Belgium. Well, that’s gonna be hard to find back home.
The capital of the Netherlands and the country’s most populous city, Amsterdam is at once an antique and a modern, vibrant town: The art, the energy, the 88 gorgeous canals. Stuffed with tulips and beer halls, charming cafes and world-famous “coffee” bars in which you can chat with friendly locals who speak perfect English and enjoy a rollicking good time. Walking the cobblestone streets along the canals is breathtaking. Throw in fall colors on top of the fairy-tale architecture and it is a visual paradise. You can begin to understand how Rembrandt and Van Gogh both came from this corner of the world. Jerry Howell, my instructor at Randolph Technical College, introduced me to Rembrandt in my first photography course. It was a moment of enlightenment. Thank you Mr. Howell.
The first time I visited Amsterdam on my honeymoon in 1988, I remember standing in front of The Night Watch for an hour, feeling myself fall into his use of light and shadow. The longer you looked the more you saw. I wanted to do the same thing on film that Rembrandt created almost 400 years ago.
We began this Rembrandt tour with a visit to his home which is now Museum Het Rembrandthuis. For twenty years, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn lived and worked in this impressive building in the heart of Amsterdam, with a gorgeous view out the studio window looking at Café de Sluyswacht, still there today, 400 years later. Standing by the easel in the center of the studio, you can almost lose yourself to the time of Rembrandt. But then your shutter trips, and suddenly you are back in the future.
After seeing where he worked, it was time to go to the Rijksmuseum, home to The Night Watch Gallery, and one of the largest collections of art in the world celebrating the Dutch masters.
Rembrandt’s most famous work, The Night Watch, is now guarded like the irreplaceable antiquity it is. Set within a glass case the size of a house, it is a completely different viewing experience. The majesty of the display is worthy of the grandeur. It also received some very tender loving care as it approaches its 400th year.
Operation Night Watch began with 2.5 years of research on how to best maintain the masterpiece by Rembrandt. Treatment began in January 2022. For two months, The Night Watch lay face down in the glass room as conservators removed 564 nails to detach the canvas from its wooden stretcher. By early March 2022, the deformations and cracking were significantly reduced. The painting was then attached to a new aluminum strainer with spring tension maintained by sensors that can be adjusted as the canvas ages further.
What is most fascinating about the restoration was the discovery of traces of a preparatory sketch underneath the painting. Curators had thought this a possibility and a relatively new type of X-ray using Macro-XRF imaging found a layer of beige paint with a high chalk content sketching out the scene.
The newly revealed sketch shows how Rembrandt’s creative process worked and changed his mind about certain compositional elements during the three-year process of its creation. The sketch reveals that he initially planned to include several pointed spears sticking above the heads of the company. He also planned to paint feathers onto the elaborate helmet of militiaman Claes van Cruijsbergen, but later painted over them.
The other thing that I learned on this trip was how much of the original had been cut off in its 1715 move to the Town Hall. Someone removed about nine inches from the top, five inches from the bottom, three inches from the right side and about two feet from the left to make it fit in the space between two doorways. Utilizing Artificial Intelligence and a reproduction painted by Gerrit Lundens not long after it was completed in 1642 that is now on display, the missing pieces were recreated. It is well worth watching how this was done.
We had not realized that it was a school vacation week across Europe, until we saw the groups of children with museum docents and staff learning about the great masters of their country. What a schoolroom.
The living history of Amsterdam is most evident in Dam Square, standing in front of the National Memorial statue, looking directly at the Royal Palace. with the impressive New Church (Nieuwe Kerk) to its side, home to World Press Photo Exhibition in 2022. Emanating in every direction around the square is architecture that stands the test of time. While we were there, we got the additional treat of Jupiter ruling the sky above the square.
From across the square comes the sound of a piano, echoing within the confines of the old city. We had met Arian Müller earlier in the day, probably a mile from where we were now. His performance was haunting and uplifting at the same time. Earlier he had been along a canal, playing in the afternoon sunshine. (Instagram: @arianmuller)
Now at night, in front of the Royal Palace, his music gave a poignant ending to my stay in Amsterdam. Till next time.