Those of us who detest air travel watch keenly as the list of reasonable European rail destinations expands. The latest addition is Amsterdam, now within reach from London in less than four hours via the new direct Eurostar service. So far there are just trains two a day: one at 8.31, the other at 17.31, both arriving at Amsterdam Central in 3 hours 41 minutes.
So it was that we pitched up at St Pancras bright and early one morning in mid-July. The security queues looked daunting but we were through them in about 20 minutes. Our cases were scanned but there was none of the nonsense about not carrying liquids in your hand baggage. The list of banned items looked entirely reasonable: no explosives, no unlicensed hand-guns – who could object to that?
Then we were gliding out of the station, anticipation sharpened. There had been some alluring promotional deals and so we were seated in Standard Premier class, comparable to first class in regular British trains, with comfortable seats, ample table room, and periodic visits from a trolley serving free tea, coffee, juice and snacks. Before long we were thundering through the channel tunnel, then slicing through the French countryside at more than 200mph. We stopped just twice, at Brussels and Rotterdam, and then precisely on time at 13.12 we came to a graceful halt at Amsterdam Central. We had to show our passports but the formalities were minimal and within 20 minutes of arriving we were ensconced in a taxi bound for our hotel.
We stayed at the Hotel Lita, a friendly and unpretentious lodging within a few minutes walk of our two major objectives: the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum. The Rijksmuseum was newly opened after a ten-year refurbishment and we headed there after checking in, negotiating the I amsterdam sign (see photo above) en route. There were predictable crowds around the stellar exhibit in the Hall of Honour, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, (see photo below) but otherwise the key paintings, more Rembrandts, the three Vermeers, and the best of the Dutch landscape artists, were refreshingly uncluttered.
Beyond the main hall lay a treasure trove of smaller galleries, where paintings mingled with other artefacts, from weapons to chinaware, with the interwoven political, military and cultural narratives told in admirably clear display panels, enlightening us on key aspects of the Netherlands’ history that had so far passed us by. We learned the full story of the battle of Waterloo, where Wellington headed an Allied army with a sizeable Netherlands contingent, bolstered by a Prussian force whose arrival turned the tide in the allies’ favour.
If the Rijksmuseum was enlightening, the Van Gogh Museum was overwhelming. Around 200 of Van Gogh’s 600 paintings are on display, marshalled in a chronological sequence that leads inexorably to the creative fervour of his final year in France, first at Arles and then Auvers. We puzzled over two self-portraits made after he sliced off his left ear, as they appear to show the bandages covering his right ear; then we realised that van Gogh had painted himself as he looked into a mirror. Three paintings above all from his final days were profoundly moving: Wheatfield with Crows, Wheatfield under Thunderclouds, and Landscape at Twilight.
Breath-taking as they were, we puzzled once again over why his genius went unrecognised by almost the entire European art establishment, leaving a few visionaries, notably his art-dealer brother Theo, to take up his cause. There were excellent ancillary displays on his painting techniques, his family and friends, and the shifting diagnosis of the nature of his illness, now considered most likely to have been a series of psychotic episodes.
Our understanding of Van Gogh’s final period was vastly enhanced by a superb investigative book by Bernadette Murphy, who dispelled some key myths surrounding his time in Arles. In particular, the woman to whom he donated his ear was not a prostitute but a maid and cleaner; and the supposed petition by his neighbours to expel him from Arles was in fact instigated by an estate agent who wanted to recover the Yellow House which van Gogh was renting.
These two museums gave us everything we had been looking for. We found a bonus third in an exhibition at the Moco museum featuring the British street artist Banksy. Although there were some smaller examples of his public art, most of the pieces consisted of commercial work bought by private collectors. They showed Banksy’s coruscating irreverence and radical humour, debunking the police and other authority figures, although also with the art-buying classes in his sights. The exhibition was packed with young people, Dutch as well as tourists, revealing a European reputation we had been unware of.
During our brief stay we tried to take our fill of Amsterdam’s buzzy street life, with its countless cafes, restaurants and bars, tables lining the streets as if this were France or Italy. We glimpsed several coffee shops, apparently still plying their heady trade despite rumours that they had been clamped down on. Then, two days after we arrived, it was back to the central station for our return. Sadly there are no direct trains back to London yet, as this would require purpose-built passport and security facilities – all there is so far is a forlorn Eurostar check-in suite whose doors remain firmly closed (see photo below).
Instead we took a Thalys train to Brussels where we switched to Eurostar. There were no bargain fares on offer so we travelled standard class which was perfectly comfortable and relaxing. The journey took 4 hours 48 minutes, bringing us into St Pancras soon after 7pm, and we were back home in South London not much more than an hour later.
At the time of posting, there are still promotional fares of £42 for the direct London-Amsterdam leg (£79 in standard premier) – but the best (indirect) return leg is £78.50, and some fares go as high as £200, so you need to book ahead and be canny about which time you select. We felt our stay had been all too brief and are already planning a more relaxed return!