Category Archives: Amsterdam

Oh, Niccolò

There are many reasons to visit Bruges.  It’s a beautifully preserved medieval city whose center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (cross another off the list).  It houses a great collection of Flemish Primitive art, at the Groeninge Museum and the Memling.  It’s filled with canals, gables, beer and frites.reflections

But most of all, dear reader, it’s about Niccolò.  The first book in Dorothy Dunnett’s masterful series,  Niccolò Rising, is set in Bruges, where Niccolò, an open-faced apprentice in a dye shop, is gradually revealed to be a maker of puzzles, a shrewd businessman, a reader of character and a complex character in his own right. The 15th century world of trade and diplomacy is described as only Dunnett can do – obliquely, allusively, but with the discerning eye of the miniaturist painter she was.

But enough – you have to read it yourself.  My mission on this trip was to see as many Niccolò sights as possible without annoying my traveling companion. (I think I succeeded.)

Luckily, the Dorothy Dunnett Society has published a booklet on Bruges that points out many of the highlights (though I must say that a map consisting of numbered dots on a square with no streets is not a map, for heaven’s sake).

The first sighting was the bear on the facade of the Porterslogie.the white bear at the Poorterslogie!!!

The White Bear, the het beertje van der logie, does not look down at his peers but up, to the clouds and the rooftops.  He wears a high golden collar, and golden straps cross the white painted fur of his chest, and between his two paws he clutches the red and gold shield of the city.

Niccolò is escaping from Simon in a wild chase that involves dogs and cats both alive and dead, a jump from a bridge into a barge along the canal and finally Niccolò appearing (to Simon’s rage) next to this bear, the symbol of Bruges, high up on the building.  As other Dunnetters have pointed out, there is really no room here for Niccolò, who’s a big man, but no matter.  Just seeing this was very exciting.

In the Market is, of course, the Belfort, the center of trading in the 15th century.  Announcements were made from its tower via speaking trumpets.  Simon is walking through the Market when he hears the bells and trumpets from the tower warning of the fire at the Charetty dyeworks.famous BelfortYou have to imagine at least this many people swirling around, but of course the square would have been of packed earth back then.  One of the buildings here is posited as the house where Katelina stayed during the Carnival.

The other major site is the Jerusalemkerk associated with Anselm Adorne, a historical figure who appears throughout the eight-book series.  His father and uncle, having lots of money and being very religious, built this church as a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  DSC04585Marian and Niccolò were married here, and the Adornes were, in real life, buried here – at least Anselm’s heart was, his body is in Scotland where he was murdered.  Here is their tomb.  DSC04595It’s a very small church with a morbid altar covered in skeletons and skulls.DSC04586The church also contains a sliver of the true cross (so they say).  The picture is a bit blurry because I was so excited – no, actually because it was up high and behind bars.DSC04591And here is a naked life-sized effigy of the body of Jesus, tucked into a tiny crypt you enter by crouching down and going through a hobbit door to the side of the chapel.DSC04588

In recent months the Adorne Foundation has installed a terrific short film and s display of artifacts in the former almshouses adjoining the church.  The film in particular gives a very good overview of Adorne’s accomplishments as a diplomat and civic figure (I know that’s a dull description, but Dunnett brings it all thrillingly to life).  I was very chuffed to see it all.

Speaking of holy relics, we also saw a vial of Christ’s blood – really and truly!  It was at the Chapel of the Holy Blood, of course, which is referred to in the books in conjunction with the annual procession on Ascension Day.  It’s still celebrated as a religious holiday as well as for the release of Flanders from French rule.Our Lady of the Precious Blood!

Inside is a neo-Gothic chapel with a gorgeous pulpit carved from a single tree trunk.beautiful pulpit carved from one oak  A few more sights:

The Gruuthuse mansion was unfortunately closed for renovation, but we did get to see the outside. DSC04552Here Niccolo meets Katelina when she tells him about her marriage to Simon, and then meets Gelis after his African journey.
Right next to the Gruuthuse is the Church of Our Lady, Notre Dame towerswhere Simon, Katelina, et al. attend a requiem mass for the King of Scotland and where the Gruuthuse family had an oratory that allowed them to attend church without leaving home. There’s also a Michelangelo Madonna and child sculpture here, which you can see for a small fee.Michelangelo's Madonna and Child, Bruges


A man-powered crane lifted goods from the barges on the canals into the warehouses.  It was a treat to see the crane in a couple of paintings, including this one at the Groeninge Museum.  Look carefully to see the men walking along the steps of a crane like hamsters in a cage.

the crane! in a picture at the GroeningeA replica of the crane was built a dozen years ago, and though I missed seeing it, here’s an image of the replica when it was placed in Jan Van Eyck square, a few blocks from where we were staying. (Not sure which painting this is, but its presence demonstrates the importance of the crane  in the daily life of  Bruges.)db22

Finally, the first book opens in Damme, a small town about four miles from Bruges where goods came in starting in the 12th century, and also where I biked on a half-day bike tour (more to come).  It’s here that we meet Claes in the opening pages as he and his friends are sailing down the canal in a bathtub meant for the Duke of  Burgundy, and where Claes manages to sink the cannon.  More significantly, it’s where Claes first meets Simon and Katelina.   here we areMy bike ride to Damme was delightful on a bright sunny day, but that’s a story for another post.

Amsterdam Food Tour

We met our guide, Chris, at a brown cafe just a few blocks from our apartment. We had passed it repeatedly but never stopped in. It turns out to be a very old and beloved place, run by the third generation of the family. Chris got us started with a piece of the best apple pie I have ever eaten. The crust was not flaky like American crust but crumbly though not cake-like either. Served with whipped cream on the side, it was perfectly delicious.


Chris explained to us that the Dutch would eat a piece of apple pie almost any time of day, including breakfast – and here I thought the Parrs had invented the custom! Bill Clinton had stopped by here (in his pre-vegan days) and there was an article and a thank you letter from Bill on the wall to prove it. If it’s good enough for Bill, it’s good enough for me.DSC04386
Here’s a picture of the enormous pie he cut our pieces from.DSC04388

Our next stop was a little storefront that served Surinamese food.  Former colony, you know.  We had pom, a sandwich filled with a mixture of chicken and some kind of starchy root – good enough that we came back for take-out at the end of the day.  The other thing was a delicious satay sauce served with something I’ve forgotten…

After this we wended our way to a butcher shop that has been in business since 1890 (or 1888, the owner asserted, “but we claim 1890”). Chris told us this was her favorite butcher and that she would travel from where she lives in the southern end of the city to come here for the best meat.DSC04392
It was certainly beautifully displayed: ranks of sausages and salads followed by gorgeous cuts of meat. DSC04390DSC04391Yes, you have to like sausages to enjoy the photo above.

Since there were only two of us on the tour (the other two people never showed up), we got special treatment. I tasted the blood sausage, which has a very grainy texture but was good, and Alison joked that she would go for a spare rib. The next thing we knew, the butcher had pulled off a couple of glistening shreds of deliciousness from the spare ribs in front of him. Then we came to the planned tasting: oxen sausage (made with beef these days) and a meatball.
The sausage must be an acquired taste. Although it is smoked, it had the texture of raw meat. Not sure about that one. The meatball, traditionally served for diners at home on Wednesdays and the size of a baseball in traditional cooking, was fine but not remarkable. We left after taking pictures with the butcher, who grabbed a big hunk of raw meat to pose with.

Just down the street was another butcher, a shop called The Fat Pig. DSC04393However, it’s recently been taken over by a halal butcher, so no pig can be found there any more…

The Barking Fish was our next stop. By this time it was after noon, so we were ready (apparently!) for a bit of beer and some bitterballen. The latter are like Dutch tapas, essentially beef croquettes that you dip into mustard. People buy them frozen and deep fry them at home. The crunchy outside gives way to a smooth inside that Chris described as stewed meat, but it’s better than that sounds – it has a very creamy texture. The beer was from a local Amsterdam brewery, an IPA that was light and a bit sour, very refreshing.DSC04396

Chris described how this bar/cafe was known for its celebration of King’s Day (on the birthday of the reigning monarch). They make an affectionately mocking portrayal of the royals and turn it into a billboard (?) in front of the building. Apparently hundreds of people gather in their orange regalia and drink and celebrate. Last year’s billboard featured the queen photo-shopped into an image from Miley Cyrus’s wrecking ball video, which gives you a sense of the celebration. A good time is had by all.

Taking a non-food detour, we stopped inside a hofje, originally built by the church to take care of single women. The hofje is open to the public, though you are asked to respect the privacy of the inhabitants as you wander through the courtyard. This one had two gardens separated by a brick walkway with water spouts in the shape of dolphins. Above the doorway is the symbol of Amsterdam. sChris told us that hofjes are now quite desirable places to live, I guess partly because of the communal garden space. (Note the billowing Japanese anemones, which inspired me on last year’s trip to Wales to plant some of my own.)DSC04399

But back to the food, if food you can call it. Mariska is the proprietor of a candy shop that purveys the old-fashioned candies that people remember from their youth. DSC04401Primary among these is licorice. She admonished us not to call red licorice real licorice, it is simply gum and red food coloring (I’m with her there) and that real licorice is made from the root of the licorice tree. The roots are usually imported from Syria, but not lately, for obvious reasons. They come from somewhere else (Canary Islands??), so there’s no need to worry about a world-wide licorice shortage, in case you were wondering…

Mariska has dozens of varieties, and she had us try one with anise, one with honey and one salty. I can’t say I liked any of them though they were interesting to try. On instructions from Judy, I bought some licorice for the children: 100 grams each of mixed varieties including double salt. May they enjoy them!

More Than Fish was our next stop, a fish shop run by a Dutch man and an American. Chris told us that they went to the fish markets early every day to make sure the fish was as fresh as could be. Having tried some raw herring at a stand near the Bloememarkt, I was interested to see if I could taste the difference here. Indeed I could!

Chris came out with a big blue and white tray with raw herring and fried cod (side of tartar sauce). DSC04404You eat the herring “with the flag,” spearing the herring, dipping it into the chopped onion, and topping it with a pickle. The fresh herring really was more delicate and delicious that what I had had before. And the fried cod was fresh, light, crunchy, delicious. As we said farewell, the proprietors pointed out their fishy doorknob. Bye-bye!DSC04408

You would hardly credit that we could eat another thing, but almost four hours had gone by and we had really just nibbled (well, except for the apple pie and the bitterballen, which disappeared immediately). Our last stop was a cafe where we had pofferjes, little yeasty pancakes served with powdered sugar and maple syrup. They were so little that we kept having just one more until the two of us had eaten them all (one serving shared, I rush to point out). They were a delightful end to the tour.DSC04409

We thanked Chris profusely for a fascinating experience, where we learned something about Dutch customs and culture as well as eating mostly delicious food. Though the history tours can be fascinating, there’s something about the food tours that makes them more fun. Could it be the food?

And here’s what they look like

A selection of cyclists.  I don’t yet have a photo of a cyclist in high heels, but it will come along.

Taking your children along.DSC04265

Carrying lots of bags
carrying lots of bags

Carrying a bouquet of flowers on a Saturday evening
Wearing your party clothes



Cyclists in Amsterdam

They are everywhere, just as everyone said they would be.  They behave like my Prius – suddenly and silently they are right behind you.  On the first day, we learned quickly which were the bike lanes and they do mostly keep to them.  Some of them even signal when they’re about to make a turn, and some fewer of them even ring their bells when they’re right behind you.

Leaving Central Station, we saw this enormous bicycle parking garage.  DSC04173There are, roughly, zillions of them.  We wondered whether this meant that people parked their bikes here and then commuted into a different part of the city, or what.  You’d think a commuter lot would be in the suburbs somewhere…

Here is how people ride bikes here.

  • wearing high heels
  • wearing a mini-skirt
  • wearing high heels AND a mini-skirt
  • wearing a suit and dress shoes
  • wearing stockings, short shorts and sandals
  • wearing flip-flops
  • smoking
  • talking on the telephone
  • smoking AND talking on the telephone
  • carrying a toddler on a seat perched on the handlebars
  • carrying a child in a seat perched behind yours
  • carrying a child/groceries/unknown stuff in a little wooden cart attached to back of the bike
  • carrying a plastic bag in one hand in which rests a bakery box, balancing it upright lest the cake be smushed
  • carrying a cat in a fabric cat carrier behind your seat

To be continued…