On our way back from Paris we again got into a TGV train for Brussels where we changed into another high speed train for Amsterdam. It took us around two hours to be there. But unexpectedly, the railway station was very crowded. We waded through the crowd to go to to the AAA office, the outlet at the station of Amsterdam Tourism. When our turn came to ask for a hotel room the first question the man behind the counter put to us was whether we were Pakistanis. As I said “no” he seemed to be visibly relieved. He asked for our passports saw them then returned them to us. After checking the hotels in the town on his computer he said there was no room in the town but he could accommodate us in a hotel in The Hague, the town famous for the International Court of Justice an hour away from Amsterdam. We said no thank you and asked whether we could try our luck next day. The man was friendly and said he would find a place for us.
We came back to Brussels to sleep off. Next morning we took the train again headed straight for the AAA office, He provided us a room on the first floor in Hotel Amsterdam at a rate slightly up and away from our budget. But there was no alternative. The man at the counter was good enough to tell us the way to the hotel which involved taking the metro and then a bus. As we stepped out on to the street a mass of humanity seemed to greet us. The roads were crowded and there were temporary stalls everywhere and people had, much like in India, set shop on even the roadsides. This was one day, we were told, everything was relaxed and people could come on to the streets to sell whatever they wanted to dispose of. This relaxation was because it happened to be the birthday of Queen Beatrice of Netherlands. We ultimately found the hotel that was in a leafy area in an old-fashioned building and were shown into a very good room with large windows letting in a lot of natural light. The room was well worth the money.
We had decided that the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank’s House would be “must see” sites. Having read Lust for Life and seen its Hollywood version starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh we made a beeline for the Van Gogh Museum. Situated in the Museums Square close to the State Museum, Van Gogh’s Museum was a delight. I had seen many of his paintings in print and found the originals very impressive. Some of the paintings in the Museum were just sublime. Van Gogh was known for heavy and vigorous stokes of his brush, an essential element of his Impressionism and that was in ample display at the Museum’s collection. The Museum now has added another building.
While we were at the Museum a bus load of Western tourists arrived. All of them were old, past 70. Many were on wheel chairs with their wife or daughters pushing the chair. Despite their age and/or disability it was pleasure to see their spirit and sheer lust for life. Armed with a recorder with details of each painting they were moving from room to room appreciating Van Gogh’s incredible output. In India after 70 a person is considered on his way out and he/she too loses that verve and will to live. Only now, gradually as education and affluence increases, one can see elderly persons making forays abroad to take in the sights and sounds of tourist spots.
The house of Anne Frank is situated by the side of a canal. After a short bus ride we walked down to a small bridge over a canal. Before we got to it something interesting caught my attention. I saw “Darjeeling” writ large on a signboard and it warmed the cockles of my heart. To see something native when one is in a foreign land one is likely to get just that feeling. Obviously, the shop stacked Darjeeling Tea.
Anne Frank’s house is a 17th Century block which the local administration cannot allow demolition of under an enacted law. It was here that the family of Otto Frank consisting of his wife and two daughters, the younger one being Anne, had hidden for two years. Eventually their hideout was raided by the Nazi Police and all of them were sent to the concentration camps to be gassed. Somehow only Otto survived. Anne Frank’s diary was recovered by some of their Dutch saviours who, defying the prevailing orders, came to the house to look for some of their belongings. It is they who found the diary and gave it to Otto. All the personal effects of the family of Otto were seized and given away to those Germans who lost theirs in bombings.
The house was converted into a museum in 1960. It preserves the hiding place of the Frank family and has a permanent exhibition on the life and times of Anne Frank in Nazi dominated times of the countries annexed by Hitler. The exhibition also displays all kinds of discrimination and persecutions, especially of Jews, by the Nazis in occupied countries.
We visited Anne Frank’s House more than forty years after the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied Forces yet the curiosity about Anne Frank and her diary continues. People have read it, and perhaps re-read it to internalise the essence of Nazi brutality. For that reason there is always a crowd in front of the house of Anne Frank. Attractive cafes have come up by the side of the canal for people to come and discuss all about Anne Frank over cups of coffee or glasses of beer. We too joined them and spent a few moments of relaxation after soaking in the dreadful events that took place more than seventy years ago in this rather plain looking old house, called Canal Huis,.
We gave a wide berth to Amsterdam’s famed red light district. At least I knew all about it as I had read features about it and seen some photographs. We instead took a tour of Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum which was more interesting. Netherlands has been a sea-faring nation for centuries and had established colonies in warmer climes in the East and the West. In the East Indonesia was its colony long known as Dutch East Indies and in the West it was Dutch Guiana in the north-east Atlantic coast of South America currently known as Suriname. They had also established footholds in India in the West and East of the country. They had settlements in Surat and Malabar in the West and Coromandel and Bengal in the East of the country. These were more in the shape of trading posts. I happened to have visited one of them in Bengal, viz. Chinsura.
The Museum offers maritime history of Netherlands. Several maps of earlier times are also on display. It also contains many artifacts connected with shipping and sailing. It also has paintings, scale models and world maps including those of a 17th Century cartographer.
We saw moored outside a replica of The Amsterdam that used to sail between Netherlands and Dutch East Indies. It was a fascinating sight. One imagined that this sailing ship might have touched even the Dutch ports of call in India too.
Amsterdam is a beautiful town. Some even go on to say that it is better than even Paris – the people making the difference. I wouldn’t go to that length but it was indeed a pleasure to be in Amsterdam.