Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum

AmsterdamAmsterdam owes its wealth to the sea. In the Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch sailed around the world looking for rare products to bring back to Europe. They were one of the great maritime powers and are still important in shipping today.

Amsterdam is a city made for the sea. Its canals are laid out like a spider’s web, where every family that could afford it built a narrow house on one of the canals, complete with a private warehouse and crane on the upper floor. This maximization of seafront property allowed a large section of society to share in the nation’s wealth.

To really understand Amsterdam and The Netherlands, you need to visit the National Maritime Museum, called Het Scheepvaartmuseum in Dutch. This museum, reopened earlier this year after a major remodel, offers a history of Holland’s maritime adventures from the past 500 years.

Just a short walk from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, the museum is housed in a large 17th century arsenal. Inside are modern interactive displays explaining how early mariners found their way by the stars, how ships were built, and where and for what they traded.

One of my favorite displays is a set of reproductions of sailors’ photo albums from the past century. You sit in an easy chair flipping through the pages while listening to an audio commentary explaining the photos. It was like sitting with some old Jack Tar as he spun tales of the sea. There’s also a large collection of ship’s ornaments, nautical equipment, and an art gallery of maritime paintings.

%Gallery-139729%Another big draw is the Amsterdam, a beautiful full-sized replica of an East Indiaman from the Age of Sail. This is a big hit with Dutch kids, if the squealing school groups crawling all over it were anything to judge by.

Some locals have complained that the remodeled museum has been “dumbed down”, and while I applaud the many exhibitions specifically directed at children, I have to agree the museum lacks a certain something. There’s a large amount of wasted space and as I finished every floor I was left with the feeling “that’s it?” Yes, the displays are artistically lit and well labeled, and the whole execution is well conceived, yet I was left feeling I’d missed out on something.

Another problem is the price–a tooth-grinding 15 euros ($20.23) for adults and 7.50 ($10.12) for kids and seniors. Thankfully I had the I amsterdam City Card, which got me in for free. If you don’t have the card, I’m sad to say that unless you’re a serious history or nautical buff, the price simply isn’t worth it. It’s a shame the high entrance fee will drive people away, because there are some really beautiful artifacts and works of art here.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Hagelslag: Belgian chocolate for breakfast

HagelslagChocolate. You gotta love it. You can eat it, cook with it, even snort it. It’s good at every meal. Even breakfast, as I discovered on a recent trip to Antwerp.

The Belgians enjoy a special breakfast treat called Hagelslag. These are basically chocolate sprinkles put on toast. The heat of the toast melts the bottom sprinkles, making a nice gooey mess, while the top sprinkles scatter all over the plate. This gives you lots of tasty scrounging once you’ve finished your chocolate toast. I brought a box home to my six-year-old son and as you can imagine, it was quite a hit.

Now before anyone gets all self-righteous about diet and nutrition in the comments section, let me just say that I don’t give the little nipper chocolate toast every morning, and fine Belgian chocolate is a helluva lot more natural than the average kids breakfast cereal. And he never eats fast food. That’s right. Never.

(We’ll see how long that lasts once he’s older and has pocket money)

Hagelslag comes in different varieties and the original recipe was Dutch, although I’ve only tried one Belgian brand. There are several competing brands and some come out with white chocolate and chocolate shavings rather than sprinkles. So if you’re passing through the Low Countries, pick up some Hagelslag. Your kids will thank you for it.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Preserved human flesh at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Photo courtesy Mtcv.

The oldest printing press in the world

oldest printing press in the worldAntwerp has been an important port and center of commerce for centuries. Because of this it has a long history of printing and the elegant mansion/workshop of one of its early printing companies has been turned into a museum

The Museum Plantin-Moretus houses a huge collection, including the oldest printing press in the world. Actually there are two of them, both from about 1600 and complete with all their parts and movable type. The first printing press with movable type in Europe was built by Gutenberg around 1440 and it revolutionized culture by allowing books to be printed en masse instead of handwritten one by one. The Chinese had printing presses more than a thousand years before this, but they used the more cumbersome block printing method.

The invention of movable type had a huge effect on just about everything. Printing presses could soon be found in every major city. They were made of wood, however, and subject to decay, so the two examples from c. 1600 are rare treasures.
The museum has a lot more too. There’s a collection of 25,000 early books and engravings, as well as sumptuous rooms from the original owners, Christoffel Plantin (1520 – 1589) and Jan I Moretus (1543 – 1610). Some of the walls are decorated in gilded leather, using a layer of gold so thin that you can see the texture of the leather underneath. There’s also a beautiful Renaissance courtyard built in the 1620s. The workshops date to about the same time. If you’re interested in books or the history of technology, this museum is well worth a visit.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Luxury accommodation in the heart of Antwerp!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

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Luxury accommodation in the heart of Antwerp


Antwerp is a compact city with bad weather, so while it’s walkable, it pays to be in the center of town. During my visit I stayed at the Hotel Julien, a recently renovated and expanded hotel within sight of the cathedral. In fact, I could see it from my bathroom window!

The Hotel Julien is firmly in the luxury hotel bracket with prices from 195€ ($268) and up, breakfast included. The decor is chic and modern, as you can see from this shot of the lounge. Next to it is a bar and then the breakfast room. There’s also a leafy patio and a rooftop viewing deck that the rain stopped me from ever using. There’s a spa on site as well as a helpful front desk with lots of information about the city and umbrellas to borrow when a nasty wind tears up the one you brought. Tip for the traveler: don’t bring a Spanish umbrella to a North Sea port. It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.AntwerpThere’s lots to do within five minute’s walk, including the cathedral, several fine restaurants, a jazz bar, a rock bar, and a vibrant shopping district on Koepoort Straat, with its antique shops, bookshops, music stores, and vintage clothing stores. The walk to the central train station only took me 15 minutes.

To be honest, I don’t really care all that much what my hotel is like. The custom-made linen and trendy photography were a bit lost on me after a long day of sightseeing. If my hotel is convenient and comfortable, that’s all I need, and the Hotel Julien was both of these. If you’re looking for a luxury hotel with a great location, this is a good bet.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Masterpieces of silver in Antwerp

silverBelgium is famous for its silver. Belgian silversmiths have a history stretching back hundreds of years. Their work has always been sought after for its high degree of craftsmanship and so it’s no surprise there’s a Silver Museum in Antwerp dedicated to the craftsmen that make these works of art.

Besides talent, they have a sense of humor too. This wine cup, shown here in a photo copyright Hugo Maertens of Bruges, is actually an early drinking game. It’s shown upside down so you can get a good view of the clockwork mill. When it’s wound up, the mill begins to turn and the people climb up the stairs. After a few seconds the clock strikes 11, and if you haven’t drained the cup you have to drink 11 more times. The fact that this was made back in 1688 or 1689 shows just how good the Belgian silversmiths were, and what people liked to get up to on their off hours.

Antwerp has been a center for silversmithing for 500 years and the Silver Museum is in the castle of Sterckshof. Different sections explain how silver is mined, processed, and worked. Sumptuous displays of silver items from all times fill the many rooms.

Until 9 April 2012 there’s a special exhibition called Esthétique Moderne focusing on Belgian silversmiths of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This covers the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. It’s an impressive collection of works of art. For images from the exhibition, check out the gallery, and if you like seeing beautiful works of art, check out the Silver Museum.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: The oldest printing press in the world!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

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