Our bus of the German Army is accompanied by another bus of the British Royal Air Force (RAF)

Netherlands: Visiting Amsterdam

The trips abroad of the voluntary work assignments of the Volksbund War Graves Commission include not only work, but also the occasional exploration of the surrounding area. Four days ago we visited the war museum in the neighboring town of Overloon. Today we drive a little further and visit the metropolis of Amsterdam.

We need two hours with the bus provided by the Bundeswehr for this work assignment, then we reach the main station. From there we have free time and I use it to visit the Rijksmuseum. It is one of the most important exhibition halls in the world. The path leads me through the station district of Amsterdam, which is dominated by tourism. From the notorious coffee shops where you can legally buy and consume cannabis products, the smell of weed wafts towards me again and again. They would be worth a visit, but this time I have something else in mind. I cross canal by canal and walk through the old town of Amsterdam. Countless small shops, cafés, restaurants and bars characterize the ground floors of the tall, slender brickwork houses. There are also the usual McDonalds's, Starbucks and fashion chains such as Zara, Urban Outfitter etc. But unlike in many German inner cities, they do not shape the picture here with their sterile uniform look.

Amsterdam's city center is lively, pedestrians and cyclists share the traffic space. Except for a few large main streets, cars only play a role when parked or as delivery traffic. The narrow streets along the canals that run in a ring around the city center are risky bottlenecks for 4-wheeled-vehicles. On my way, I observe several times how delivery trucks paralyze traffic for a long time while they are being unloaded and cars waiting in line behind them have no choice but to wait patiently. If you drive into Amsterdam with your own vehicle, you must bring time. It's best to have your own parking space, because I don't see any free parking spaces on my walk in Amsterdam's old town. Parking costs 7.50 euros an hour and the municipal traffic surveillance monitors with camera vehicles, but sometimes get stuck in traffic jams themselves.

Municipal traffic surveillance in Amsterdam ist assisted by camera vehicles
Municipal traffic surveillance in Amsterdam ist assisted by camera vehicles

A blessing is the ban on e-scooters, which crisscross the sidewalks in German cities. One does not get the impression that the people of Amsterdam would miss them. But if they were allowed, it would be chaos in the narrow space between the canals. It is well known that there are enough bicycle lanes in the Netherlands and in Amsterdam. However, as an observer, I cannot tell which priority rules apply between cyclists and pedestrians. "Everything can, nothing has to" seems to be the principle that the cyclists follow.

I reach the Rijksmuseum and fear a long queue like at the Frankfurt Städel Museum when a new exhibition with a well-known artist's name is shown there. The ticket can be booked online and a QR code on the facade of the museum building indicates it. However, I don't have my credit card number in my head and must buy a card at the counter in the neighboring museum shop. Here, too, I don't have to wait on a Friday afternoon.

In the museum, on three floors, the works of art of the Netherlands from the Middle Ages to modern times are shown. Not only paintings, but also pieces of furniture and ceramics can be seen. I take a good two hours and during this time I can look at and read through some things, but by no means everything. The panels next to the exhibits are entertaining, sometimes with an ironic reference to the content of the picture. In other museums, the explanatory panels are often so peppered with art-historical terms that one is more at a loss after reading them than before. This is not the case in the Rijksmuseum.

A vanitas painting evokes the impermanence of everything
A vanitas painting evokes the impermanence of everything

Because the signposts in the stairwell particularly point out the big names Vermeer and Rembrandt, I expect a large number of visitors and no chance to look at these famous paintings in peace. But Vermeer's Milkmaid hangs quite inconspicuously on the wall. One imagines this painting that I encountered on an entire facade in Colombia much bigger. In reality it is just a little more than 40 by 40 centimeters in size. I stand in front of it alone. In another room, Rembrandt's giant painting of the Night Watch can only be recognized by the protective pane of glass and the special construction intended to stretch the crumbling, wavy canvas. Without these additional installations, I would have walked past the picture, because compared to other motifs hanging next to it, the depicted motifs of a citizen guard getting ready to patrol have little luminosity and conciseness. This is certainly due to the aging process, which has severely affected the painting and its colors.

Vemeer's
Vemeer's "MIlmaid" in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum

After two hours my back hurts and I want to get back on the road to our meeting point at the main train station. But then I come across the special exhibition room with ship models and all kinds of engineering models from past centuries. From an optical telegraph system to the ancestor of the icebreaker, miniature replicas bear witness to the resourcefulness of past centuries.

Back at the meeting point we take a canal cruise by boat and move down some of the artificial waterways I just walked past. But the perspective is different. Due to the low vantage point in the boat, you can see much more of the facades of the town houses and many details on them that I had missed while walking by.

There are many cities whose downtown areas are architecturally hideous, uncomfortable, boring, or simply lacking opportunities to linger. During the few hours that I spent there today exclusively in the old town, I felt differently in Amsterdam.