Monday, May 31, 2010

Arnhem: Gateway to the Kröller-Müller Museum

From Volendam, we cruised to Arnhem on the River Empress. Our shore excursion in Arnhem was a visit to the Kröller-Müller Museum which is named after Helene Kröller-Müller, daughter of a German industrialist who collected 11,500 art works. Helene's favorite artist was Vincent van Gogh and she acquired 91 of his paintings. For me, the collection of Van Gogh's paintings was the highlight of the museum. We were lucky to have a guide who was knowledgeable about Van Gogh and who could explain how his artistic style evolved over time.

I don't spend a lot of time in art museums but I have always been drawn to the wonderful display of colors and interesting textures of the Impressionist painters. If you are particularly fond of Van Gogh, you will enjoy the collection of Van Gogh's paintings at the Kröller-Müller Museum; it is one of the largest collection of his works in the world.

The Kröller-Müller Museum also includes a sculpture gallery and a 75-acre sculpture garden which contains a unique collection of more than 160 sculptures by world-famous artists. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to really explore the sculpture garden and the weather didn't cooperate much either.

Although we spent about as much time in the bus getting to and from the museum as we spent at the museum it was well worth the trip.

More photos of the Kröller-Müller Museum collection

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Keukenhof Gardens and Volendam

During our Rhine River cruise aboard Uniworld's River Empress, we had the opportunity to visit the Keukenhof Gardens and Volendam.

Keukenhof Gardens is located an hour southwest of Amsterdam and is the largest bulb flower park in the world; there are 7 million bulbs, of which 4.5 million are tulips, planted by hand on 70 acres! Given that it is only open for two months each year, we were lucky to be able to visit. Although we were there in late March, which is early in the season, I was struck by its beauty and design. I was told during my visit that the best time to see the gardens is at the end of April. My feeling is that you won't be disappointed whenever you go.

Although many of the tulips and other flowers weren't yet blooming outside in the gardens, Steve and I saw many colorful flowers in all their glory in the Willem-Alexander Pavilion including fiery tulips that I had never seen before, gorgeous lilies, and bright pink and blue hyacinths and hydrangeas. Keukenhof Gardens is also the largest sculpture park in the Netherlands and Steve, who is the photographer in the family, took many wonderful photos of the sculptures framed by lovely garden landscapes.

I was so excited to see so many tulips, I couldn't resist buying a collection of 105 exotic tulip bulbs; in October I expect to receive 15 Angelique, 15 Blue Heron, 15 West Point, 15 Flaming Parrot, 15 Princess Charmante, 15 Prinses Irene and 15 Captein's Favourite bulbs complete with instructions. Maybe I'm being silly but somehow I thought I was buying the "real thing" at Keukenhof Gardens. I can't wait to see how these tulips will flourish in my very own garden.

From Keukenhof Gardens, we took a motorcoach to Volendam, an idyllic fishing village whose early Dutch character has been well preserved.

The high point of my visit was to dress up in traditional Dutch clothing, complete with the high pointed bonnet. When asked whether I wanted to take my photo in a kitchen scene or among fishing nets, I chose the fishing nets because the kitchen would be too much out of character. Steve is the chef in the family and he won't even allow me to go in the kitchen!

After visiting some of the shops, we made our way to the Doolhof, which is a labyrinth of intimate streets that wind through the cluster of cottages nestled along the water. While I was making my way through the narrow streets, I couldn't help thinking about the advantages of a laid-back, uncomplicated lifestyle.

It was windy along the water as we walked to the River Empress which had left Amsterdam earlier in the day to meet us at Volendam. It was gusty enough to turn my cheap umbrella inside out and render it useless. Thank God the River Empress had good-quality umbrellas for our use while we were on board.

More photos of Keukenhof Gardens and Volendam

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Holland in Days Gone By

One of the many benefits of river cruising is that there is a shore excursion at each port included in the price of the cruise. As experienced ocean cruisers will tell you, shore excursions can be very pricey. As a Cruise Diva, I can tell you that the major cruise lines make a lot of money selling shore excursions to passengers. So it's reassuring to know that when you're on a river cruise, there will always be a shore excursion included in every port that will at least give you an interesting overview of the city or village that you're visiting.

On our cruise aboard Uniworld's River Empress, our included shore excursion in Amsterdam was a visit to the Anne Frank House and a canal cruise and I enjoyed them both. That being said, Uniworld offered an optional tour to Zaanse Schans which cost 49€ and I was happy that I spent the money to visit this charming village on the banks of the river Zaan.

When I entered Zaanse Schans I felt like I was transported back in time to Holland as it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though it's often referred to as an open-air museum, Zaanse Schans is actually a living, working hamlet where the traditional crafts of the region are still practiced.

It was unbelievable but we actually had the opportunity to visit an industrial windmill where peanut oil is being made to this day and to chat with the resident windmill operator. He really did look like a throwback from days gone by. It's too bad I forgot to ask him if he was still having fun. After looking at all of the huge cogs, wheels and machinery in the windmill, I left thinking that it must be the world's most complicated way to produce peanut oil.

After the windmill, we were whisked to the cheese factory where a sweet young Dutch girl showed us how to make Gouda cheese. After the demonstration, we indulged in a Gouda cheese tasting frenzy, trying everything from natural Gouda, Gouda with herbs and garlic, Gouda with cumin seeds and Gouda with pesto.

We were then escorted to the wooden shoe factory where I was lucky to get a front row seat to watch the wooden shoe-making demonstration. Although you might think it's difficult to carve a wooden shoe there were two machines that did it in no time flat. There was one that carved the outside of the shoe from a block of wood and another that carved a hole in the inside of the shoe where you would put your foot. And, of course, there was the opportunity to buy wooden shoes in any color and style that your heart desired. I tried one on but found it to be uncomfortable. The trick is that you need to wear heavy socks and buy a shoe that is one size larger than your normal size.

The most fun moment for me was watching my husband play on a pair of stilts -- by God I didn't know he had it in him!

More photos of Zaanse Schans

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Amsterdam is a Trip!

I've always wanted to go to Amsterdam because it had the reputable of being a free-thinking city where people were much more open about sexuality than they are in the U.S. Let me just say that I was not disappointed. I think that Europeans in general are more comfortable discussing sex than Americans but the Dutch take it to a whole new level. I have never seen so many shops selling sex toys, IPod vibrators, magic mushrooms, aphrodisiacs and fancy condoms.

Although Rik Sprengers, our Cruise Director on Uniworld's River Empress, told us that all drugs are technically illegal in The Netherlands, you don't find anybody getting arrested for smoking pot in Amsterdam. In fact, many Dutch openly indulge in cannabis and according to Rik, one can buy up to five grams for personal use at a "coffee shop" and grow up to three plants for personal use. There are also no shortage of shops in Amsterdam that sell smoking paraphernalia. As for me, I'll stick with my glass of buttery Chardonnay when it's time to relax.

Do you suppose that the Dutch inclination to enjoy life has anything to do with the fact that 40% of their country is below sea level?

There are bicycles everything in Amsterdam and it's important to watch where you're going. I had two very close encounters with bicycles that seemingly came out of nowhere. I noticed that most of the bikes lying around were old and rusty and thought to myself that it was a good thing that Amsterdam is flat because these bikes would fall apart going up even a small hill. I later found out that people use old bikes in Amsterdam because theft is a real problem.

The excursions that were included in our cruise were a tour of the Anne Frank House, which was a moving experience and a canal boat tour of Prinsengracht and Keizergracht, two of Amsterdam's main canals which were dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age. Along the canals we saw stately tall narrow homes built wall-to-wall; the reason they were built so narrow is because people were taxed based on the width of their homes. We learned that the only way furniture could be moved in and out of these homes was with a hoist located near the roof. No wonder people keep these homes in their families for generations -- it would be a real pain in the neck to move!