Simon Calder: A new encounter with Old Masters
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 22 June 2013
Amsterdam in midwinter can feel dismal when the Arctic breeze sweeps down from northern Russia unimpeded by mountain ranges and proceeds to punish every excursion beyond the door of your hotel or café. The gentlest city in Europe seems unusually harsh. But bear with me, because in the course of researching today's 48 hours in Amsterdam, I stumbled upon what may prove the best city-break bargain of the year: two midwinter nights in Holland's biggest city for the appealing price of £97.97. That includes flights from the UK and a room in the agreeable Quentin England Hotel – an elegant 18th-century property which, in the 21st century, offers free Wi-Fi.
Terms and conditions, as the travel industry is all too prone to say, apply to this deal, which I tracked down at Expedia.co.uk. The first hurdle is that the price applies only when two people go Dutch together. Next, you can fly on any day you like, from any airport you like, so long as it is Christmas Eve morning from Southend. Other airports are available, though more expensive. Yet the timing, I promise, is excellent, for a new encounter with some Old Masters. As you know, the Rijksmuseum is fresh from the second-longest makeover in museum history (the longest being the RAF-assisted 68-year hiatus at the Neues Museum in Berlin). To compensate for the decade-long shut-down the Dutch national museum is to open 365 days a year.
On Christmas morning you can get from your hotel room to the front door in five minutes flat, and probably have the Gallery of Honour to yourself – appreciating Vermeer's dazzling Milkmaid rather than wilting mistletoe and revelling in the company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his pals in The Night Watch.
The neighbouring Van Gogh Museum has always opened on 25 December, so you can view the exhibition Van Gogh at Work while you're not. And as the Dutch public transport system recognises that people quite like to travel on Christmas Day, you can hop over to Haarlem to the Frans Hals Museum – which is opening on 25 December for the first time this year.
If it's Tuesday, it must be closing day
The British Museum and the National Gallery in London are not so festive in their outlook; these premier UK collections turn tourists away on four days a year, all in quick succession: 24, 25, 26 December and New Year's Day. They should take a lesson from Edinburgh's marvellous National Museum of Scotland, which closes only on Christmas Day. At least we're not French (well, I'm not; speak for yourself). Tourists in Paris are especially irritable on Mondays and Tuesdays. The reason: they try vainly to make sense of the bizarre opening hours – or rather, closing days – of the capital's great museums.
The Musée d'Orsay closes on Mondays, the Louvre on Tuesdays. A neat arrangement, you might imagine, to ensure that at least one world-class collection is open every day of the week. But because many visitors are on tight schedules, and may have fondly assumed that Europe's cultural treasures are surely on display every day at least in summer, the "if it's Tuesday it must be Paris" brigade will miss out on the Louvre. And the Musée d'Orsay warns that the queues and crowds on Tuesdays are worse than any other weekday, because its rival is closed.
At least another great city is correcting its decision to close on Mondays. From 1 July, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will reverse the policy adopted in 1971 and open seven days a week. That applies to both the Met itself and The Cloisters, the astonishing collection of medieval Mediterranean architecture purloined from the Pyrenees and transplanted to the northern tip of Manhattan.
The director, Thomas Campbell, says: "Art is a seven-day-a-week passion and we want the Met to be accessible whenever visitors have the urge to experience this great museum. Last year we had record-breaking attendance of 6.28 million visitors and yet were turning away many thousands more on Mondays." The move could see this year's visitor figure top 7 million – approaching the population of New York City.
No sign of the Guggenheim relenting from its insistence on closing each Thursday. The sister museum in Bilbao doesn't like Mondays, while the Venetian branch shuts on Tuesdays. As the franchise expands (Abu Dhabi is next for a Guggenheim), we could soon be at the stage where a globetrotting tourist could inadvertently be turned away from a different Guggenheim every day for a week.
Back in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam ... I am sure I can hear some whispering along the lines of "But isn't The Hague the capital of Holland," in the same way that Australia, Brazil and the US have capitals well apart from their largest cities. True, the Hague is the seat of government and home to the Netherlands supreme court. But despite these political and judicial attributes, it isn't the capital. Don't take my word for it: I wrote to Sandra Ishmael, director of the Netherlands Board of Tourism, and she wrote back: "The capital of the Netherlands is Amsterdam".
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