Van Gogh Painting Losing Its Luster

Van GoghVincent Van Gogh is famous for the brilliant colors he used in his paintings, but one of them is beginning to fade.

“Flowers in a Blue Vase,” owned by the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands, is showing signs of deterioration. Specifically, the brilliant yellows are beginning to crack and turn gray.

The museum stated in a press release that it decided to take two tiny samples from the painting and have them analyzed. Imagine being charged with the task of popping off pieces of a Van Gogh painting! Anyway, the samples were sent off to a laboratory that found that a varnish added to protect the painting after the artist’s death included lead that reacted to cadmium in the yellow paint to gradually turn the paint gray.

Even more worrying, the varnish seems to have absorbed some of the underlying paint, thus making it hard to remove without causing damage to the picture. Now other museums owning Van Goghs will need to check to see if this type of varnish was used on their art treasures.

Koen Janssens, who led the research team, stated that, “paintings by Vincent Van Gogh are not static entities for decades and centuries to come. Over a period of 100 years, they can actually be considered a fairly reactive cocktail of chemicals that behaves in unexpected manners.”

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

VIDEO: Visit a guinea pig village in Holland

If you prefer cute and cuddly animals to the Big Five on safari, you may want to consider a trip to the Netherlands. VICE’s Cute Show takes a look this week at a guinea pig village in Holland, where the hairy rodents go to “retire” when their owners can no longer look after them. You can adopt a guinea pig or just visit them (I’m partial to the scrappy and long-haired Droopy).

The guinea pig village is located in Bakkeveen, about 2 hours northeast of Amsterdam. It’s open Wednesdays and Saturdays to the public, more info available here. Guinea pigs not your thing? Watch the Cute Show visit baby sloths in Costa Rica.

Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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Down-home Dutch cooking in Amsterdam

Dutch cooking, AmsterdamDutch cooking isn’t one of Europe’s famous cuisines. Yet while it can’t compete on the world stage with Italian or Spanish cuisine, Dutch cooking can been really good and travelers to The Netherlands shouldn’t dismiss the culinary side of their trip. Here are three cheap to mid-priced restaurants that will make you appreciate Dutch cooking.

De Stadskantine
This “city canteen” at Van Woustraat 120 is run by friendly folks who decided there needed to be a cheap, quick, cafeteria-style restaurant in Amsterdam, something between the grab-and-gulp fast food joints and the sedate sit-down restaurants.

They succeed admirably. The long tables allow people to mingle in an informal atmosphere and each dish is already prepared so you don’t have long to wait. This is especially good if you’re just visiting Amsterdam, because you can rest and refuel without losing a big part of your sightseeing day. The servings are hearty and the food well-prepared and healthy. I had the turkey with tomato sauce, potatoes, and green beans. This isn’t haute cuisine; this is tasty, filling food the way you mom used to make, assuming your mom was Dutch.

De Stadskantine has only been open eight months and it’s already hugely popular. It hasn’t made it onto the tourist trail yet and the only language I overheard was Dutch. The menu changes regularly and there’s always a meat dish, a fish dish, and a vegetarian option. Entrees are all under ten euros ($13.50), a bargain for Amsterdam. Check out their website for what’s on today.Restaurant Moeders
This restaurant at Rozengracht 251 is named after and dedicated to mothers. The walls are covered with photos of them and you can donate one of your own mom. They also offer specials if it happens to be mom’s birthday.

The odd decor doesn’t stop with the mother obsession. The restaurant looks like a cross between a diner, a cafe, and the cluttered living room of some old spinster who lives with 50 cats. That’s a good thing, as you can see from their website. Oh, and none of the cutlery or dishes match because they was all donated by the diners the first day it opened.

So this is one of the most distinctive looking restaurants in Amsterdam, but how’s the food? Excellent. I had a hearty stew that was just the ticket on the cold drizzly night I went and left no room at all for dessert. Service was friendly and prompt. This restaurant fills up quickly so book ahead, way ahead if you want to attend their annual Mother’s Day party. They also serve High Tea.

Haesje Claes
This large restaurant housed in three connected historic canal homes has been popular with locals and tourists for years now. While many such places coast on their reputation, Haesje Claes doesn’t.

It’s great for dining alone like I was because the decor gives you plenty to look at. The rooms and tables are lined with old decorative tiles from centuries past, and one room has an ornate Baroque ceiling the owner salvaged from some old building. The atmosphere is homey and intimate with a relaxed, cheerful crowd and friendly waitresses.

The food was cleverly done without being pretentious. Spoiled for choice with the appetizers, I ordered the Taster, which comes with six starters including cheese croquet, shrimp croquet, potato salad, fried tripe ball, and a couple more that I’ve forgotten. All were excellent except the tripe, which was, well, tripe. The venison steak I had as a main was well-prepared too.

In all, these three restaurants should satisfy your appetite no matter how long you walked around Amsterdam that day, and they’ll each give you an insight into the underrated world of Dutch cooking. All are reasonably priced. I’d pick De Stadskantine as my overall favorite for its good value and fun atmosphere. Haesje Claes is best for a proper sit-down meal in historic surroundings. Restaurant Moeders is the place to be if you’re traveling with your mom or you are a mom.

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

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s Torture Museum!

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

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.