Saturday, October 27, 2012

Worth a detour

Jacob van Ruisdael

Actually, Haarlem is worth more than a detour. It's worth a visit in itself. Oh, sod it, I'm starting to sound like I toil for the Dutch convention and visitors bureau.

All right, let's pause to look at the gray side for a minute. Haarlem is chaarming, but getting there isn't. You take a tram to Amsterdam's Centraal Station, okaay? I mean, okay? Right through the heart of Amsterdam's grotty moron-IQ-tourist district. Cup your ear and I'll whisper a secret: don't ever harbor a moment's thought about staying in this area. Close your cranium to guidebooks telling you how convenient it is. Unless you are so twisted I don't want you reading my blog, stay away. Amsterdam has so many fine districts there is simply no need to kip anywhere near the railroad station.

Right, so Centraal Station is in Holland, which means it's no more than 75 percent as hideous as U.S. or U.K. big city stations. Still, unless you have a Euro-style credit card with a chip on its shoulder -- most machines won't read U.S. plastic without an embedded chip -- you are condemned to queue up to buy your ticket to Haarlem with caash.

Now, after a wait of from 0:00 minutes to 0:30 on a cold windy platform, you get to ride second class (the only class) in a commuter train. If you are very old and decrepit, you might be offered a seat by a kindly soul. I was not that old and decrepit. When I boarded.

I mention these trifling details only in the far-fetched hope that James Howard Kunstler, the apostle of public transportation and population density, happens on these words. James, here is your Nirvana.

You arrive at Haarlem and the world looks brighter. It was described to me by several people as like a smaller Amsterdam, and there's something to that: at least one canal, streets of those picture-book gabled houses, neatly lettered signs for the residents and occupants.

A taxi ride and we're at the Frans Hals Museum, with a detour (again worthwhile) around the corner for some sustenance before tackling the long museum corridors. I'm here to tell you that the Ristorante Napoli makes the best pizza ai quattro formaggio in the universe. As their sign says, Een Klasse Apart.

I love Dutch painting of the 16th and 17th centuries, but Hals least of all. Sure I appreciate from a vanishingly long distance his technique, quasi-impressionist before it was revolutionary and then a bore, but still -- how many pictures of black-robed, Sphinx-faced dignitaries can a body stand to see at one sitting, or sit still for at one standing?

But the halls of Hals aren't the only paintings to greet the eye. There are three Jacob Ruisdaels, not among his best, just better than those of any other Dutch landscapist.  And those great genre artists such as Jan Steen: you don't know whether to be fascinated by the details of life of the gentry and peasantry, astonished by the staggeringly assured technique, or laugh at the sardonic humor. So you do all of that at the same time.

Speaking of humor, there are a couple of delightful satirical paintings (circa 1640) about the famous tulip mania that made and destroyed fortunes, always cited in economic history surveys as an early example of a "bubble," a term we've become all too familiar with. One portrays the whole tulip industry, including richly dressed salesmen, aristocratic customers, tulip stockbrokers, bankrupts, and one figure indicating his contempt for the maniacal bidding war by pissing on a bunch of tulips. The characters are all monkeys.

One more day for me in Amsterdam (my wife will say a few more days), then Schiphol and home.

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