November 2, 2006
Old-World charm, modern life mingle in Holland
Here's a travel riddle that might send you packing: It's a European capital where culture abounds and permissiveness pervades. Its terrain is marked by 17th-century canals and floating houseboats, and it's home to a relatively small percentage of Jews despite its rich Jewish history.
It's also where to find the Anne Frank House.
By now you've probably guessed: Amsterdam.
In addition to the Anne Frankhuis, as the Dutch call it, popular destinations in this city include such sites as the Rembrandt House, the Van Gogh Museum, the Waterlooplein Market and the former Jewish Quarter, with the Jewish Historical Museum at its heart.
Upon entering the Jewish Historical Museum, the corridors echo with the pleasant sounds of Dutch families singing Hebrew songs to the tune of a guitar. The museum's permanent collection features more than 11,000 ritual objects and works of art, and its complex is home to four synagogues -- the New Synagogue, the Great Synagogue, the Dritt Shul and the Obbene Shul -- that were painstakingly reconstructed following their destruction during World War II. On Dec. 17, the renovated three-story Obbene Shul will debut a children's museum.
The museum doubles as a cultural center for Amsterdam's small Jewish community and offers tours of the adjacent Jewish Quarter, a popular draw for Israeli tourists. The museum also includes a bookshop and kosher cafe, which can be accessed separately without paying an entrance fee. While the cafe's food is kosher, the certification is limited because it's open on Shabbat. There is a glatt kosher, Israeli-style meat restaurant, King Solomon, around the corner from the Jewish Historical Museum, and the museum staff is happy to direct visitors to its location. Across from the museum is Pinto, a new glatt kosher meat restaurant featuring French and Israeli cuisine.
From Nov. 10 until Feb. 4, 2007, the Jewish Historical Museum will feature "The 'Jewish' Rembrandt," an exhibition that will explore the non-Jewish painter's special relationship with prominent Jewish friends and neighbors. And if you find yourself craving more of Mr. Harmenszoon van Rijn's work, be sure to check out the Rembrandt House, a red-shuttered building located at 4-7 Jodenbreestraat. While you won't find any of Rembrandt's paintings there, approximately 250 of his etchings are on display.
After you finish with Rembrandt, consider a trip to the Van Gogh Museum, which boasts the world's largest collection of the pioneer expressionist's work. Linger in the wide-open galleries and peruse 200 paintings and another 500 drawings. From Nov. 24 to March 4, 2007, the museum is featuring "Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism," which explores the painter's impact on German and Austrian expressionists.
In her now-famous diary, Anne Frank wrote about everyday life as she hid from the Nazis. She detailed her fears, the isolation and the hardships she shared with her family, the Van Pels and family friend Fritz Pfeffer.
The Anne Frank House is a 10-minute walk from Centraal Station on Prinsengracht in the western portion of the Canal Ring. A journey through the home transports visitors back to the late 1930s, and as you peer out the window you can spot where Jews were snatched from the street and deported to concentration camps.
Beyond the reconstruction of the movable bookcase, a walk into the concealed entrance and up the stairs brings visitors into the hiding place where Anne Frank lived for more than two years. Her room has been left as it was, with her movie star collection and picture postcards pasted to the wall.
The house also features poignant letters written by her father, Otto Frank, detailing to Swiss relatives his quest for his two daughters and his eventual pain upon discovering they'd both died. After learning of their deaths, Miep Gies, one of the Righteous Gentiles who helped hide the Franks, presented Otto Frank with the diary, which she'd discovered on the floor after the Nazi raid.
The Anne Frank House has steep steps and is not handicapped accessible.
Amsterdam is notorious for pickpockets, who prey on tourists and the elderly. In fact, a pickpocket detection stand is situated outside the Anne Frank House, since many people have had their wallets swiped while waiting in line to enter Amsterdam's most popular attraction.
The city offers a variety of transportation options, including bicycles, buses, trams and canal boats. Bicycles are by far the most popular choice among tourists and residents alike, adding another element of charm to an already charmed city. The city offers bike lanes, so that pedestrians, vehicles and bicycles don't accidentally mingle, although unacquainted tourists can be spotted meandering along the bike lane, oblivious to the sounds of ringing bicycle bells and dodging cyclists.
If peddling is not your thing, information, maps and tickets for canal travel or trams can be obtained at Central Station, which is a short train ride from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, which in itself is a tourist hub of shops, a miniature golf course, spas, a free museum with rotating artwork, and even a casino. While there are many organized cruises and canal buses to choose from, Canal Bus offers a low-cost, convenient tour with 14 stops. Passengers can hop on and off all day long for only 16 euros, and packages are available that include museum passes.
On the one hand, Amsterdam is a medieval city replete with old-world architecture surrounded by semi-circles of canals. On the other hand, it's a modern, active society that moves from place to place on bicycles, happily oblivious to its chilly wind and rain. Despite its turbulent Jewish history, today's Amsterdam offers Jewish travelers a vibrant, beautiful destination that pays homage to its past.
Jewish Community of Amsterdam (NIHS)
Jewish Historical Museum
Van Gogh Museum
Anne Frank House