I chose this photo for today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, because I love how the different features of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk are visible in one shot.
There are the tall pillars, of course, And the pointed Gothic arches and windows.
What’s unique to the Oude Kerk is its wooden ceiling, which miraculously survived fires that swept through Amsterdam in 1421 and again in 1452 (after which wooden buildings were banned from the city). If you look closely, you can see the remains of the paintings commissioned by wealthy patrons.
And then there are the miniature ships. The Oude Kerk is steps away from the IJ and was traditionally a port church where the seamen came to pray for safety. The little ships are a testament to that history.
For the Second Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of what is probably the best-known church in all of Amsterdam: the Westerkerk. (Westerkerk is Dutch for “western church.”) Built between 1620 and 1631 in the Dutch Renaissance style, it too, like the Noorderkerk, was built as a Protestant church and in the shape of the Greek cross, except its design consists of two crosses placed side by side. Because of this, it has a long rectangular shape similar to a Catholic basilica, but its transepts are wider than in a Catholic church, and there are two of them.
The Westerkerk is about a five-minute walk from the Noorderkerk. It too is situated on the Prinsengracht, and is right across the canal from the Jordaan neighbourhood. Like the Noorderkerk, the Westerkerk was built to fulfill the pastoral needs of that fast-growing neighbourhood, but it ended up being the church of the upper and middle classes, whereas the Noorderkerk was where the working classes tended to go.
The reason the Westerkerk is likely the best-known church in all Amsterdam? Because Anne Frank wrote in her diary how its bells used to reassure her, especially at night. The carillon chimes every quarter hour and today is the only carillon in the city to do so 24/7 (at the request of the residents of the Jordaan).
I listened to those same bells chime through the night my first week in Amsterdam, as I tossed and turned, trying to get adjusted to the time zone. I could see the tower of the Westerkerk from my bedroom window, and when you climb that tower, your guide will point out the Achterhuis (where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years during World War II) and the window from which Anne could see the church tower.
Last summer was about a lot of things, but one thing I made sure to do was take lots of photos of the dozen or so European churches I was able to visit. And now that it’s once again the Season of Lent, I am so happy I get to share those photos with you.
For today, the First Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of the Noorderkerk. (Noorderkerk is Dutch for “northern church”). This church was built in the early 1620s in the Jordaan neighbourhood, right on the Prinsengracht, the outermost canal of Amsterdam’s Canal Belt. The Jordaan was growing fast at the time, and its residents were in need of another place of worship.
The Noorderkerk was purpose-built as a Protestant church (unlike older church buildings throughout the Netherlands that were originally Catholic, but were transformed into Protestant churches after the Reformation.) As such, its shape looks quite different from the traditional long nave of a Catholic church. It was instead built in the shape of the Greek cross, with four naves of equal length, and a small tower at the centre. The idea was that the building was centred around the pulpit, a type of church design that eventually become quite common throughout Calvinist Holland.
I have a lot of affection for the Noorderkerk as it was only a ten-minute walk from where I was living, and I passed it regularly, often daily, on my walks around Amsterdam. To my regret, I didn’t have a chance to see it on the inside — the church is still in use as a congregation and the hours it is open to the public are limited. But though it might look like a quiet, sleepy church, there was always a lot going on outside. On the square surrounding the church are the twice-weekly markets: a flea market on Mondays and a food market on Saturdays. There is nothing like a weekly market to give a church square a sense of being the heart of the neighbourhood.
Which to my mind is kinda cool.
I had lunch last month with a couple of friends who were in town for the holidays. One of them grew up not far from where I was living last summer, and naturally our conversation turned to my summer in Amsterdam. We had a very nice discussion about the differences between the Netherlands and North America. Our topics? The weather, table service, and, erm, the bike culture.
I looked out the window for a moment, thinking about what else I had noticed about life in Amsterdam, and then turned back to face my Dutch-born friend.
“You know what the Dutch do really well?” I said. “Trains.” I then marvelled aloud that I was able to travel by train from Amsterdam to another town for lunch, to yet a different town for dinner, and still be back in Amsterdam by midnight.
Yes, the Dutch have an excellent and comprehensive train system. What do I mean by “comprehensive”? I mean there are 3000 kilometres of railway in a country that is scarcely 400 kilometres from one end to the other. Along that rail network are nearly 400 train stations. That’s right: 400. Few Dutch towns are without a train station.
That kind of rail network isn’t possible in a country like Canada, of course, thanks to the fact that we “have too much geography.” I know that. Yet I still couldn’t help but wonder the other week, as I schlepped by Greyhound from Calgary to Red Deer to Edmonton, how much more pleasant my journey would have been by high-speed train.
Discovering the Netherlands by train was one of the highlights of my summer and I had lots of fun photographing the dozen or so Dutch trains stations I travelled through.
I don’t have a photo of the station I used most often (that would be Amsterdam Centraal) because the building was enshrouded in scaffolding all summer long. But here’s a look at the imposing entrance to Rotterdam Centraal, a station that was rebuilt only five years ago and, like Amsterdam, is one of the country’s busiest rail stations.
Den Haag Centraal is another of the country’s busiest stations. Note the Mondrian windows at the top right.
This is Leiden Centraal, another spectacularly designed station.
Most of Holland’s train stations date back to the nineteenth century, however, like this one in Kampen. It’s one of Holland’s smallest train stations. Only one train stops here, a small two-car train that does the ten-minute journey between Kampen and Zwolle three times an hour.
This is the entrance hall to the Maastricht station. See those ticket machines? There’s one for each national rail service: Belgium, Germany, and Holland. How efficient (and multinational) is that?
And this photo is from one of my favourite stations: Haarlem. Haarlem is on the Amsterdam–Rotterdam route, the oldest railway line in the country. The current building was built in the Art Nouveau style between 1906 and 1908 and is a national heritage site.
The sign above this doorway reads “Waiting Room First Class.”
I was especially intrigued by this plaque in Delfts Blauw tile on one of the walls in the Haarlem station. It’s from 1939 and commemorates 100 years of Dutch rail service. Train buffs know that the 1840s were the tech boom of the nineteenth century — railway lines were being laid down all over the place. In Canada, too.
I don’t know how many kilometres of rail travel I did last summer, but I do know this: it is such a civilized way to travel and I loved it.
So here’s another cool feature about the Low Countries that I want to share with you.
Those would be the Begijnhofs. Until the eighteenth century, most cities and large towns throughout Holland, Belgium, and northern France had a least one begijnhof. The Beguines (the French word for begijnhof is béguinage) were lay religious orders of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. These women were not nuns, and the communities they lived in were not convents. They did not take vows of poverty — some of them had servants. They did not marry while they lived in community, but were free to leave at any time. They supported themselves by teaching or by working as labourers. And they lived in houses surrounded by a walled courtyard (hof is Dutch for “court”). The gates were locked at night, and the community usually included a church and sometimes an infirmary.
One of the reasons these communities came about was simply due to the demographics in Europe at that time: there were more women than men. But also, living in community like this offered these women freedom and independence and choice in how they lived — basic rights that today we all take for granted.
I was introduced to the Amsterdam Begijnhof a long time ago by my Dutch cousin. Amsterdam is full of hofjes, most of which are private, but this one — one of the city’s oldest, dating back to the fourteenth century — is open to the public.
The Begijnhof was allowed to continue to exist as a Catholic institution during Calvinist rule because the homes were private property. The Beguines lost their chapel, however, and today it is the English Reformed Church. Later, they built a “hidden church.” (For the period of time when Catholic churches were banned in Protestant Amsterdam, Catholics built their churches behind the façades of regular houses. From the outside, they look like ordinary houses, but on the inside, they look just like a church.)
One curious fact about the Begijnhof: it is at medieval street level, which is about a metre below the rest of the city. What I also find particularly curious is how its entrance backs onto the Kalverstraat, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. The last Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof continues to be occupied by about 100 women.
It was my familiarity with the Amsterdam Begijnhof that led me to explore the ones in Belgium. The Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde (Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard) is located next to Brugge’s Minnewater. Dating back to the mid-thirteenth century, it is one of the best-preserved begijnhofs in the country. You enter it through this gate.
It contains a church and about 30 white painted houses.
For the last 90 years, it has been the residence of a community of Benedictine nuns.
The Oude Begijnhof in Gent, also built during the mid-thirteenth century, is no longer walled. During the French Revolution, the city acquired property rights to the Begijnhof and then, in the eighteenth century, it wanted to take it over to use as housing for labourers. The Beguines moved to a new purpose-built begijnhof in the suburbs. The houses in the original begijnhof became worn and run-down, but were eventually restored in the twentieth century.
None of the original medieval houses are still standing in any of the begijnhofs throughout Belgium and Holland, although the layout of the communities remains essentially the same. Wooden houses were rebuilt in brick or stone from the sixteenth century onward. An exception is the single wooden house in the Amsterdam Begijnhof (the oldest wooden house in the centre of Amsterdam and one of only two still standing).
What I find fascinating about the begijnhofs is the witness they bear to a long tradition of women living independently in times when few were permitted to do so. As communities, they developed an architectural style of their own, which fortunately has been preserved.
And for the tourist overwhelmed by the chaos of central Amsterdam or on a whistle-stop tour of Belgium, they are a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of a tourist-overrun city.
When you hear the word “Belgium,” what comes to mind? Waffles? Chocolate? Maybe a good beer?
My first visit to Belgium was on that long-ago European trip with my family, when I first got hooked on travelling. I remember liking this wee country a lot. Yes, the waffles were pretty awesome, but so was the architecture. And the artwork. Everything I saw and tasted in Belgium instilled in me my lifelong interest in architecture, art, and regional cuisine.
But I haven’t been back to Belgium since. Because, truth be told, Belgium is one of those countries you fly over or travel through on your way to some more exciting place, like, um, Paris. (Guilty.)
Which is why, after spending two months in Amsterdam, I decided to finish my European summer with a return visit to Belgium.
But here was my dilemma when I started planning my trip to Belgium: I wanted to visit three different cities, but had only five days in which to do it.
Three cities in five days? Was I crazy? We North Americans are fond — at our peril — of overestimating how small European countries are, and even though Belgium is one of the smallest of Europe’s many small countries, it seemed a bit of a foolish plan to me.
What’s the point of travelling if you don’t challenge yourself? I decided to give it a go, and resolved to hit the ground running as soon as I arrived in the country.
Which I did. I skipped the overpriced hotel breakfasts and began each morning in a café. Over my latte and croissant each morning, I planned my attack. This was my only time to dawdle and got me up and out the door early since I can only wait so long for coffee. Which meant I was able to cram a lot into each day.
Brugge was my first stop. This small, medieval city of almost 120,000 people is located just a few miles from the North Sea. And before I go any further, let’s get something out of the way. Brugge (pronounced BRU-huh) is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country. It’s become popular with English-speakers to call the city by its French name (Bruges), which makes no sense to either me or the Belgians — I can only assume it’s because of a certain Hollywood movie.
Brugge means “bridge,” of which there are lots in this medieval town. Canals, too.
Despite my strong memories of Brugge from my first visit, what surprised me this time was how medieval the place is. No idea why I was surprised by that, but it was delightful. And so this photographer spent a happy two days here, clicking away to her heart’s content.
I started off here, at the Markt, or market square, the centre of Brugge’s medieval centre.
The Markt is dominated by the Belfort. There are a lot of belfries in Belgium and northern France. (In fact, the Belfries of Belgium and France, more than 50 towers in total, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Originally built as watch towers, they all house bells. This one was built in the thirteenth century and has a 47-bell carillon.
Then I was off to the Minnewater, also known as the Lake of Love. Yeah, it’s romantic, but really, just so peaceful and beautiful. And you actually can’t avoid it as it’s right on the way from the train station to the centre of the Old Town. I could have easily spent an entire afternoon here, but I had to move on.
I had more canals to photograph.
Turn around from the above spot, and you see this, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady).
And this church was the main event for me during my visit to Brugge, because of this.
That would be Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. My lifelong love affair with Michelangelo’s work began when I first saw this piece, oh so many years ago. My second viewing was no less mesmerizing. It is the only artwork by Michelangelo to leave Italy in his lifetime.
Brugge is full of tiny alleys and medieval buildings. On the other side of the above alley is the Oude Civiele Griffie (Old Civic Registry, below, at left). To its right is the Stadhuis or Town Hall. Built in the fourteenth century, it’s one of the oldest town halls in the Low Countries. Both of these buildings are located in the Burg, another square in the Old Town that is just around the corner from the Markt. And with that, I had come full circle and it was time to move on.
My next stop was Gent. I’m still in Flanders, but I’ve travelled east and am now about midway between Brugge and Brussels. Gent is about double the size of Brugge and proof that there are other lovely medieval cities in Belgium besides Brugge. It too has a belfry.
Also many lovely canals.
And … a castle!
I didn’t have enough time to check out the Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) on the inside, because this is what I came to Gent to see.
It’s another stunning piece of art. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is located in the Sint-Baafskathedraal (Saint Bavo’s Cathedral), which is behind the Belfort in the photo up above.
Of all my stops in Europe last summer, Gent was where I spent the least amount of time, but did the most walking in one day. (Now that’s hitting the ground running.)
My last stop was Brussels. I had one goal here: to do some night photography in the Grand Place, one of the most impressive squares in all Europe. Sadly, my plans were thwarted by some miserable weather and dozens of market stalls in the centre of the square, which were empty, so I have no idea why they were there, but they certainly ruined any chance of a decent photo.
Brussels is an interesting mix of old and new. It’s the capital of the European Union and has shopping streets that wouldn’t be out of place in Canada. But then you turn a corner and see a street scene that reminds you of Paris. Also like Paris, security was noticeable but not obtrusive, and completely expected given recent events in both those cities.
Brussels also has a couple of iconic characters. First, there’s this guy.
That would be Mannekin Pis. He’s not very tall. A bronze statue and fountain have stood on this street corner for some 400 years, and there are all sorts of urban legends as to who he is and why he has been memorialized in this way.
And then there’s this fellow.
The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé first appeared in 1929 and has been translated into 100 languages. Did you know that Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world? And Brussels has an entire trail of comic strip murals, which I did not get to see, thanks to the heavy rain that kept up for the entire day. As it was, I had to scurry from coffee shop to church to restaurant in an effort to keep somewhat dry, which only worked so well.
Eventually, though, it was time for me to head to the airport to fly back to Canada. If I could have, I would have added at least one more night to my stay in each city, but, even so, my whistle-stop tour through Belgium was so worth the effort.
Because, as far as I’m concerned, Belgium is highly overlooked and underrated.
And has far more to offer the world than just waffles and chocolate.
After our lunch stop in Aachen, my German friends and I continued our journey to the south of Germany.
Here’s a question: What happens when you put a Canadian in the passenger seat of a German-made car driven by a car-mad German down the German Autobahn?
And here’s the answer: She giggles hysterically when it hits her how impossibly fast 214 km/h is after sneaking a glance at the speedometer.
Happily, the hysteria lasted only for a moment. And even at those speeds, it still took us much longer than I expected to reach our destination just outside of Heidelberg. (Remember, I’m the Canadian who thinks all European countries are tiny.)
Which meant we arrived after dark. But that made the end of the journey the most magical part of the day. After turning off the Autobahn, we drove through the countryside on what in Canada we call secondary roads. Suddenly, we were driving through the centre of Heidelberg. I’d been to Heidelberg before and knew, even in the darkness, roughly where we were. I looked up.
Yup, there it was. High above us, illuminated with floodlights, was the Heidelberg Schloss, or Heidelberg Castle.
It was quite the view on my first night in Germany.
Heidelberg straddles the Neckar River. From the hillsides on either side of the river valley, you have a pretty awesome view of the city. This is the view of the Old Town from the Philosophenweg, or Philosopher’s Walk. That’s the Castle behind the Old Town, up the hill a ways.
Here is the view of the Old Town from the Castle.
And here’s a better look at the Castle from the Castle Terrace.
The Castle is built out of Neckar Valley sandstone. The first structure on the site went up around 1300, and the prince-electors began to use it as a palace about a hundred years later. They added more buildings, all facing an inner courtyard and all representing different time periods and different styles of architecture from Renaissance to Rococo.
This wall is all that remains of the Renaissance Palace.
The castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), and then completely destroyed by lightning in 1764, after which it lay in ruins for many years. People began hauling away its stone to build their houses, a custom that was stopped in 1800 by a Frenchman named Count Charles de Graimberg, who began restoring and preserving the castle.
Here’s a closer look at the bridge that crosses the Neckar.
It’s known simply as the Alte Brücke or Old Bridge, but its official name is Karl-Theodor Brücke after the fellow who arranged to have it built (this version, that is, which went up in 1788). Karl Theodor was a prince-elector. (Fun fact: The Holy Roman Emperor was not a hereditary title, but an elected one, and he was elected to that office by the prince-electors. The things I learn doing research for this blog.)
It seemed like every time I turned around in Heidelberg, I bumped into Karl Theodor. Not literally, of course, but figuratively as his likeness is everywhere. Here he is on the bridge he had built.
This is the view of the Bridge Gate from the bridge. The gate dates back to the Middle Ages, making it much older than the bridge itself, except for its Baroque spires, which were added in 1788.
The Old Town of Heidelberg is a lovely place to wander through. Its buildings are mostly in the Baroque style.
This house was built in 1592 in the Late Renaissance style, and is now a hotel.
Heidelberg is very much a college town. Heidelberg University is Germany’s oldest (founded in 1386) and most prestigious. A quarter of the city’s population are students. A fun place to visit is the Studentenkarzer or Student Prison, which was in use until 1914. Students were detained for unseemly conduct like public drunkenness (or what we call a typical Saturday night on campus), but were allowed out to go to class. While locked up, they took out their pens. Here’s some of their graffiti.
Heidelberg is one of Germany’s most visited cities and I’m not surprised. This was my third visit and I keep going back as it’s quite lovely.
On the flip side, Germany is the top source of tourists to BC from continental Europe by quite a margin. This too does not surprise me — I keep bumping into them in our parks. I think they like our mountains.
But what surprised me as my friends and I flew down the Autobahn is how much forest cover there is in the country. The Autobahn is bordered on either side by woodland. Heidelberg is surrounded by timbered hilltops. My friend’s house backs onto a forest.
And here’s another fun fact I learned while doing research for this post: the Brothers Grimm lived not far from Heidelberg.
Romantic castles and enchanted forests indeed.
And then there are the canal houses.
Google “unique European architecture” and Amsterdam is sure to be on the list. That’s because of its unique canal houses.
Amsterdam’s canal houses are narrow, they are tall, and they are deep. Although the place where I stayed in Amsterdam is a modern house by Dutch standards (a mere 125 years old) and doesn’t face a canal, it too was built in the Dutch canal house style. And let me tell you: you don’t appreciate how narrow, tall, and deep these houses are until you’ve climbed a narrow, vertigo-inducing staircase all the way up to the fifth floor.
A typical canal house is only six metres wide. The reason why they are so narrow? It’s because canal houses were taxed on their width. The city governors needed money to pay for the massive canal expansion of the seventeenth century (when most of the canal houses were built), and knew they could raise the money by taxing the most desirable properties, which the canal houses were.
The Dutch are notoriously thrifty, shall we say, and anything they can do to save a cent, they will do. So they built narrow houses.
Many canal houses were multi-functional: they served as both family home and warehouse for the merchants who lived in them. The first storey was where the company’s office was located (at front) and where the family lived (at back). The upper storeys were the warehouse. At the top of each house was a beam with a hook. When the merchant needed to haul his trade goods into the warehouse, he attached a pulley and rope to the hook. Those same hooks are still used today when moving furniture or during renovations when building materials need to be brought into a house.
Amsterdam’s canal houses are still in use as family homes, but also as restaurants, hotels, museums, and offices. I lost count of how many times I walked past a canal house, its doors open wide to the street so I could look right in on an open-concept office, with rows of white computer-laden tables or groups of people gathered around a long meeting table. The offices all looked like remarkably relaxed work environments.
Although the canal houses follow a pretty similar cookie-cutter style from one to the next, where they do differ is in the style of their gables.
There’s the step gable.
And there is the spout gable. It looks like an inverted funnel, and indicated that the canal house was a warehouse rather than a residence.
The neck gables allowed for the most individualization. The corners created by the 90-degree angle of the facade were filled in with ornate decoration that reflected the Baroque style of the time.
Sometimes the neck gables were built in identical pairs.
But often you see a row of canal houses with each gable different from the next. In this photo, from left to right, is a neck gable, a spout gable, and a bell gable. The bell gables are called that because the shape of the top of the gable resembles a church bell.
Here is a row of mostly bell gables. Note how the houses are tilted. Amsterdam’s canal houses are built on top of wooden piles that were pounded into the swampy peat bog until solid sand was reached. But as the land shifts through the centuries, so too do the houses. This particular row is known as the Dancing Houses.
Here’s another thing I learned last summer. Marvelling at the Amsterdam canal houses is a whole lot more fun when you have a house builder along with you. My brother would shake his head, chuckle, and say, “There are no straight lines.” I don’t know if he was unsettled by the lack of straight lines, or merely fascinated, but after he left, for the rest of the summer, I walked around the city looking for straight lines.
I didn’t find many.
The real reason I went to New York last month had more to do with me wanting to visit another Met.
That would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I’ve written before about my love–hate relationship with the Vancouver Art Gallery. Which is why, after a rather trying visit to a popular exhibition at the VAG late last summer, I lamented to the friend I was with that I needed a proper art fix at a proper world class art gallery. Preferably in a city like Paris. Or London.
Or New York.
A few hours later, as I was pondering my meltdown outside the VAG, I suddenly remembered that (1) I had enough points for a plane ticket to New York and (2) it had been far too long since I had visited my friend in Brooklyn.
A few emails back and forth, a few online bookings, and, within a few days, a few plans were in place.
And a few months later, just a few hours after touchdown at JFK, I was standing at the entrance to what most people rate as one of the top art galleries in the world.
The first time I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on an earlier visit to New York, I did have a wee bit of a momentary breakdown. Its size almost did me in. I knew the Met was big ― I just didn’t realize it was that big. But within seconds, I shrugged off my frustrations. When you’re playing art tourist and you’re in the largest art gallery in the Western Hemisphere, there is no time to waste.
The trick to large art galleries is to get a map, and quickly zero in on what you want to see, picking a floor or wing to focus on. Don’t even thinking of trying to see it all. And don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Those gallery guards know their way around.
I tend to gravitate towards European Painting no matter what art gallery I am in. But if the Old Masters put you to sleep, not to worry. The Met has everything from Greek, Roman, and Islamic art all the way to present-day contemporary art. And if you’re there in good weather, don’t skip the roof garden. It has an amazing bird’s eye view of Central Park.
If oversized galleries aren’t your thing at all, then go to the Frick. The Frick was the perfect antidote to my morning at the Met. It’s so small you can see the entire gallery in a little more than an hour depending on long you linger in each room. Which is what makes it so delightful. The Frick is my idea of a perfect art museum, actually, as I truly believe art should be consumed in small doses before it all becomes a blur.
Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist who made his money in Pittsburgh steel, built the museum in 1914 as a private home for his family, although he fully intended it to be turned into a museum after his death. Many of the rooms remain furnished and decorated as they were when the Fricks lived there, including how and where the paintings are hung.
The collection focuses on European paintings, and has an entire room of Limoges enamels ― something I knew nothing about, but they are quite impressive. Old man Frick was quite the collector. How on earth did he get his hands on three Vermeers is what I’d like to know, given there are only about 35 in existence?
The Met and the Frick are both located on Fifth Avenue (aka Museum Mile). Still on Fifth Avenue, but further north, is the Guggenheim. This museum is worth a visit even if it is just to have a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s amazing architectural design that is as much sculpture as it is building.
The Guggenheim focuses mainly on art from the last 150 years or so. I enjoy the Impressionist works and there are always interesting temporary exhibits.
Spending a long weekend zipping from art gallery to art gallery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and I can’t wait to get back to New York for another art fix.