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2nd-9th MAY 2013

Amsterdam was en fête for our arrival. Well, not specifically for us, for there was the matter of the inauguration of their new king to celebrate, but the flags and splashes of orange (including fountains) everywhere augured well for the success of this trip around the waterways of the Netherlands. And a great success it was, as the sun shone every day, the boat, Noble-Caledonia’s Johann Strauss, was comfortable, the food was good and the company agreeable… so what more could one want?

Firstly to the Rijksmuseum, newly emerged from its cocoon of scaffolding, this vast brick edifice is now geared up to receive the milling throngs that assail its walls. And what splendours are within!

We all know of the staggering paintings but what is sometimes forgotten is the wealth of the Dutch nation in the 17th and 18th centuries. If that is the case, then that magnitude is recalled in the elegantly displayed decorative art objects which appear at every corner. The silver of the Van Vianens and the extraordinary tortoiseshell-veneered doll’s house of Petronella Oortman are just two that come to mind.

At this time of year it would be folly not to go to the gardens of Keukenhof. Here the Dutch set out for the amazement of the world the bewildering range of bulbs which are at their best in May. Staggering swathes of colour from seven million flowers contrast with the green of the grass and the over-arching trees, backed by gushing fountains.

Whilst some of the party visited the newly restored gardens and palace of Het Loo, themselves afflicted by the prevalent box- blight, others went of to the Kröller-Műller Gallery. Set in a vast woodland park and financed in the early 20th century by a shipping fortune, this is one of Europe’s most beguiling small museums. Here, surrounded by trees in an austere “moderne” structure is to be found one of the world’s greatest collections of paintings by Van Gogh. But they are as nothing compare with the works of the Impressionists, Cubists and Symbolists, not to mention more conventional artists such as Fantin-Latour, Millet and Courbet. An unexpected companion to these is a portrait by Isaac Israels of that femme fatale, Mata Hari. If these wonders are not enough the gardens are filled with contemporary sculpture including Barbara Hepworth, Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore… all this seen at a leisurely pace in the ever present sunshine.

Not to be forgotten are the charming little towns of Veere and Middleburg. Once thriving ports, witness the handsome brick-built houses and imposing Town Halls, these places are now isolated in the inland sea which the Dutch have ingeniously created in their constant struggle to keep back the North Sea. Middleburg particularly could lay claim to some of the handsomest houses and streets, largely intact from the 18th century, with wide, large expanses of window and imposing doorways. Delft displayed more houses in the vernacular style with crow-step gables and fenestration reminiscent of Vermeer. It is fascinating to recall that Veere traded for centuries with Scotland, where this style again manifests itself in Fife and the East Coast.

So, a delightful expedition, accompanied by lectures on the Gardens, and Fine Arts of the Golden Age, all serenely accomplished as we glided through the flat Dutch countryside under a warm sun and a gentle breeze.

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