A towering black man walks furtively behind me and surreptitiously whispers “hashish” in a rasping voice so deep, that another half octave lower would have ensured that only the local dogs heard the offer. Without having shaken off the effects of an overnight rail trip, and without taking more than ten paces from the platform of Amsterdam’s main rail station, I was still inside the grand 19th century neo-gothic building.
Directions to my cheap hotel take me straight through the centre of the red-light district (Wallatjes) and right near the Oude Kerk (old church). Scantily clad, overly made-up women parade their wares in the shop windows, trying to attract the passing pedestrians. The gentle aroma of cannabis (and probably more) wafts through the seedy alleyways, seemingly ignored by the local police.
Finally I locate my hotel and collapse on the soft but comfortable bed. I am not into drugs and I’ve never had the urge to pay for sex so what is this famed bohemian city all about? Surely Amsterdam has more on offer than sex and drugs.
After an hour’s repose and a decent breakfast, I feel ready to attack Amsterdam. A tour of the canals gives a great feel for the layout of this majestic capital city. Amsterdam sits like a flattened sea-shell, the mains streets radiating from the centre of the shell and the major canals arching in semi-circles across the streets. Numerous low bridges cross the canals making it an ideal walking or cycling city.
Though I’m not exactly an art aficionado, the Rijksmuseum holds the world’s greatest collection of Dutch art from its period as the cultural capital of the world. The collection is overwhelming, meaning many spend only seconds scanning rooms full of priceless Rembrandts, Vermeers, Delft pottery and more. Nothing can prepare you for the mesmerising Night Watch (by Rembrandt), easily found as it will be surrounded by crowds of people. It is a staggering 3.5 by 4.5 metres (around 12 by 14 feet) and is characterised by the lighting of the three featured characters (the other numerous people in deep shadow). Even those uninterested in art fail to be moved by this extraordinary artwork.
Even if feeling a cultural exhaustion, there is more at the superb, nearby Van Gogh Museum which holds a vast collection of his works along with displays about this artist's most disturbed life (he chopped off his ear and committed suicide at 37 years of age). Almost as stunning as Rembrandt's use of light, The Potato Eaters highlights a poor peasant family with their grizzled faces eating potatoes under the weak light from a single oil lamp.
Anne Frank’s house (non-descript from the outside) overlooks one of the canals and is where the Jewish Frank family (and four others) hid from the Germans during World War 2 in a secret annexe behind a swinging bookcase for over two years, until betrayed. The house contains a number of items from the time along with an excellent account of the period living in hiding. The entire family except the father died in concentration camps with the teenaged Anne leaving behind a diary presenting a moving account of these harsh times and which has sold multiple million copies (details from reading it at school come flooding back).
The day finishes with a visit to the Old Church (Oude Kerk) overlooking the red-light district. It is the finest of the many churches throughout Amsterdam, maybe as a penance for the apparent relaxed attitude towards sex and soft drugs. This 14th century church overlooks the glorious gabled houses and apartments, so narrow and deep, a throw-back to past times where the government charged property taxes based on the width of the building (note how narrow some of the buildings are in the lead photo).
There is much more to see in and around Amsterdam including Rembrandt’s house, the Heineken brewery, some of the Dutch clichés (clogs, windmills, dykes and tulips), some humming markets and the royal palace. But it takes little time to note that Amsterdam is far, far more than sex and drugs – indeed such a moniker does a severe disservice to this lively, bubbly, expressive travel wonder.
Credits to www.rembrandtpainting.net for the copy of the Night Watch and www.vangoghgallery.com for The Potato Eaters.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Friday, June 20, 2008
From the beautiful Spanish colonial city of Arequipa, the mini-tour promises a short journey to a canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and with magnificent condors in full flight. I tend to dislike tours but some locations are much easier to see that way.
A few hours into the trip through the bleak Peruvian altiplano on rugged roads and reaching a lung-busting 4,800 metres (15,000 feet) above sea level, the moans of headaches, the cold and the early morning start dominate conversation. Even the local coca tea seems to have little of its claimed effects to ease the altitude illnesses though the liquid warmth is welcome. The thought of soaring raptors and spectacular canyons seem far away. Herds of llama (or are they alpaca) look on, continuing to extract sustenance from the bare rocky fields.
The minibus plunges towards the small village of Chivay, the reducing altitude providing warmth and relief from the headaches, and the mountain vistas providing inspiring views. Nearby are the startling burial grounds of the local Indians, their bodies buried into steep cliff faces in the fetal position. Relaxing in the natural hot springs in Chivay soaks away the tiring day of travel and soothes the bumps and bruises caused by the worn suspension of the minibus.
Refreshed from a good sleep, next morning we rise early to a crisp and clear day. Around breakfast time, the condors also rise. At 13,000 feet above sea level (4,000 metres) at Condor Pass (Cruz del Condor), the condors ration their energy, gliding effortlessly in the morning thermals and updrafts. Their huge wingspan (9 feet for larger birds) catch the most subtle of drafts lifting them above the canyon rim, their eyes feast upon carrion in the depths below rather than the heady scenery of this Andean travel wonder.
Though lacking the steep walls and stark-coloring of its American cousin, Colca Canyon plunges to over twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Large tracts of Colca Canyon have been exploited for centuries with the Incan terraced fields still supporting agriculture and family life. The women of these canyon-bound villages sell their fruits, vegetables and Peruvian handicrafts at a nearby market, resplendent in their local dress and impressive headwear.
The canyon is staggering in scale, the mountain backdrop leaving long-lasting memories. But it is the majestic soaring condors and the immense travel wonder of Colca Canyon that would guarantee that I’d once more venture into the rugged heights of the Peruvian altiplano.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Dramatically changing by the seasons, the tranquil symmetric Water Garden is as much a travel wonder today as it was when being recorded on canvas by Claude Monet’s artistic brushstrokes around 100 years ago. The Japanese bridge elegantly arches over the jeweled waterway bedecked with lilies and reflections from the dappled light through the overhanging weeping willow trees.
Monet concentrated his later life painting similar scenes in a variety of light, seasons and times of day. His famed Waterlilies series (of which there are around 250 paintings) were drawn in this very garden.
Breaking the peaceful mood and crossing under the teeming traffic on the ugly D5 and into the equally intense traffic of the gift shop, Monet’s house and studio can be viewed. His house is furnished in an oriental style but sadly no original Monets decorate the walls. Some original Monets (including a Waterlily) can be sighted in the nearby town of Verdon.
Most importantly, take your time to wander the gardens, dream of Monet’s time while standing on the bridge and sit, relax and enjoy the tranquillity and beauty of Monet’s majestic Water Garden in Giverny. Being only 50 miles (80 km) from Paris, Giverny certainly leaves an impression.
The Monet painting above is courtesy of www.artchive.com. Playing around, the picture to the right shows the first photo with an artistic filter applied with PhotoShop. Not quite Monet, but certainly has the earmarks of a painting!
Thursday, June 5, 2008
This entry represents my top five South American travel wonders list. Numbers six to ten of the South American travel wonders appear here.
South America holds a staggering array of travel wonders both natural and cultural. Boasting the world’s greatest rainforest, the world’s most spectacular waterfall, the world’s highest waterfall, the world’s greatest river, cosmopolitan cities and remarkable ancient cultures, there is something in this great continent for everyone.
As with my African top ten, it is near impossible to nominate a top ten travel wonders list without omitting a number of “must see” sights. Here is my list. How many have you seen?
1. Machu Picchu and Inca Trail (Peru)
Having trekked for a few days along the famed Inca Trail, South America’s greatest experience is standing at dawn at the Sun Gate as the early morning light unveils the evocative grandeur of South America’s most famous archaeological ruins. Perched on a grassy mountain saddle surrounded by dense forest and with the steep-sided mountain Huayna Picchu overlooking, the perfect forms of the Incan stonework and large number of religious sites makes Machu Picchu a truly significant ceremonial centre.
2. Iguazu Falls (Argentina / Brazil)
From the thunderous, awesome power of Devil’s Throat to the most delicate wispy falls, Iguazu’s 275 falls provides the world's most spectacular national border dividing the two mighty South American nations of Argentina and Brazil. Iguazu Falls are simply the world’s most mesmerising and awe-inspiring waterfalls.
3. Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
As might be expected in the birthplace of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Galapagos contains a diverse variety of unique wildlife that has adapted to the warm oceans and barren volcanic islands provides one of nature’s greatest wildlife shows.
4. Amazon River and Rain Forest
Providing around half of the world’s rainforest, around one-fifth of the world’s river flow, one-fifth of the world’s oxygen and home to around one-tenth of the world’s species of fauna and flora, time spent walking the trails of the extraordinary Amazon ecosystem and forest, relaxing in a small forest village or spending time on the river is one of life’s most treasured experiences.
5. Easter Island (Chile)
The enigmatic stone statues (moai) chiseled from the local volcanic rock stand in testament to a remarkable past civilisation on this remote Pacific island.
This completes my list of top ten South American travel wonders. What sights make your list?