Amsterdam is primarily known to the younger generation as the city where you can acquire light drugs pretty easily, watch girls through the windows of their boutiques in the red-light district and so on. But there seems to be a forgotten side to this nice little city, which is even more interesting from my point of view: cultural Amsterdam.
I was impressed by the abundance of museums, especially since the city is not large at all. Unfortunately, since my stay only lasted 4 days, I didn’t have to time to see so many places, but I still got a good taste of Amsterdam’s cultural scenery, visiting up to 4 museums a day. The Rijksmuseum (Imperial Museum) in itself would take a whole week to visit entirely. I managed to see the 16th and 17th century in about 4 hours. Standing before a monumental Rembrandt picture is an experience one has to make in a lifetime. Vermeer was also a highlight. His „Girl With a Pearl Earring“ had been acquired by a museum in the USA and was therefore not there, which disappointed me a bit, especially since I had read the book by Tracy Chevalier and was eager to see the expressive picture which had inspired such an interesting novel. However, there were a few other renowned Vermeers there to console me.
One of the even more delightful experiences was the Van Gogh Museum. Impressionism and post-impressionism are some of my favourite periods in art history, and van Gogh is one of my favourite painters, so seeing the marks left by his brush on the canvas live was eye-opening. Learning about his personality and artistic evolution even more so. I could go on and on about admiring the “Almond Blossom“ (I have a poster of it in my bedroom) and the famous “Sunflowers“, but I feel that trying to translate the visual experience into words would be in vain.
I’m guessing almost none of the tourists going there for drinks and marijuana knows that you can find a tulip museum, a cheese museum and even a diamond museum in Amsterdam. They are all tiny, but nonetheless fascinating. Interestingly enough, tulips don’t actually come from Holland, as many believe. The flower was allegedly introduced in Europe from Turkey. In fact, the name tulip is the Latinized version of the Turkish word for turban (tülbend), which is derived from the Persian dulband (round) because of the similarity between the shape of a tulip and that of a turban. Turkish men would often wear tulips tucked into the folds of their turbans. In Turkish, tulips were called lale (from which the Romanian word for tulip, lalea, also originates), which was the name that arrived with the flowers from their Iranian heartland. The flower even acquired a sacred meaning: the Muslim rite regards flowers and gardens as sacred; paradise itself is thought to be an extraordinarily beautiful garden. Thus the tulip came to be considered the holiest of flowers. In the Arabic script, the word tulip meant the flower of God: Laleh, which is also the Turkish word for tulip, was written in the exact same letters as Allah.
From the Ottoman Empire, tulips were soon transported to Austria, then Germany and the United Provinces. In the 17th century, tulips had acquired such a great popularity in the Netherlands that their prices became exorbitant. As a comparison, the highest priced bulbs could cost as much as a house. In 1637, the entire market crashed because of it. That was the end of the so-called „tulip mania“, which was referenced and ridiculed in numerous works of art.
Perhaps the most historically charged place I visited was the house of Anne Frank. I had read her diary as a child, but I didn’t remember much of it. However, as I entered the first room, which was empty of furniture but had a picture of Anne on every wall, I remembered seeing her face before. That youthful smile, frozen into a picture but erased from this world far too early.
The house was quite well preserved, so that one could easily imagine its inhabitants going about their daily lives. It was Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only survivor among the members of the family and close friends, who transformed the house into a museum after the war. He was also the one who got the diary published. Following the tour of the house, visitors could see some video projections downstairs and the most interesting was of course a video of Otto Frank himself. He recalled how a friend of his had found the diary and he had finally read it by necessity, although he never did while Anne was still alive. He was taken aback by the profoundness of his daughter’s thoughts and felt like he discovered a whole new side of her. ”Oftentimes, we never really know our children“, he said with the sad eyes of a father who had outlived his two daughters.
Of course, compared to this, the Cheese Museum and Diamond Museum do not seem so spectacular. But given my old passion for geology, especially minerals, I found the latter fascinating. From pictures of the most famous diamonds discovered worldwide and schemes representing crystal forms to the step-by-step polishing process a diamond undergoes, that museum really had me hooked.
With this selection, I have far from exhausted the list of interesting things to see. Of course, after an entire day of walking around (which is easily done because of the small distances), you can always search for a place in a nice bar or café – the center has a plethora of them. If it’s Friday or Saturday however, you might not find a table or even a chair so easily.
It may not seem like it nowadays, but aside from its racy reputation, Amsterdam is a culture and history lover’s paradise. Do the two sides exclude one another? This is surely an interesting question. However, there is something more important that I wanted to share with you, and that is: dare to be different, to look for the unexpected everywhere you go. It can be found anywhere, even entangled in the things you know – or think you know, for that matter – so well.
photo source: Miruna Bacali’s personal archive