Travels & Traditions: Amsterdam to Cologne - #1202

BURT WOLF: Each year millions of tourist visit Europe. They come from all over the world to walk through the great museums. They look at the celebrated monuments. They visit the historic homes. They taste the traditional foods and drinks.

And this has been going on for almost 500 years. Beginning in the late 1500s, it became fashionable for wealthy aristocrats to send their sons on a tour of Europe, in the hope of completing their education with a look at Europe’s classical art and architecture. Eventually it became known as the Grand Tour.

They saw the great Gothic Cathedrals of France. The Renaissance frescos of Italy. The Rembrandts of Holland. They were exposed to Europe’s finest works of art. But they were also exposed to a variety of less scholarly experiences.

I have been traveling since I was 6 years old. My mother would put me on a plane and I would fly, by myself, from New York to Boston where my aunt would pick me up and take me to see everything she thought I was old enough to appreciate. I loved it. The Toll House cookies were the best.

Traveling always brings back my sense of childhood wonder. It takes me away from the familiar comforts and the security of my home. Suddenly I am alone. I have a heightened sense of awareness. I’m forced to pay attention to everything that is going on around me because it is all new. The Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier said that when you travel you are more open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight. 

That’s why I always bring a new pair of glasses and that’s how I met my wife.

During the past few years I have made two alterations in my approach to travel. First, unless there’s a special reason, I like to travel to a particular location when most other people aren’t. If you avoid the peak travel periods almost everything is easier and less expensive.

You don’t want to show up in Asia during the weeks of the Lunar New Year celebration --- usually in late February or March. Everyone is coming home for the holidays and its fun but it’s a madhouse.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): I often go in the early spring or the fall. And I never worry about the weather. I remember what my youngest son tells me. ‘There is no bad weather, there’s just inappropriate clothing. And that from a five year old.

BURT WOLF: This is the first of a series of programs that present my personal, slightly off beaten Grand Tour of Europe. I decided to base them on one of the modern river cruisers. They offer the extraordinary convenience of having your hotel come with you as you travel. This is the Amadolce which is one of the AMAWaterways ships.

We started in Amsterdam in early November. Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities. It’s filled with art, architecture, great museums and places to shop.

One of the guides on the AMA ship told me about Amsterdam’s Museum of Handbags and Purses. It has over 4,000 objects with some that date back to the 14th century. I’d been to Amsterdam dozens of times and I thought I knew the city. But this museum was an extraordinary surprise.

The collection was started by Hendrikje Ivo. Today it’s run by her daughter Sigrid.

SEGRID IVO (ON CAMERA): My mother, she was an antique dealer traveling through Europe to find her antiques, small silver items on the table. Cutlery and those kinds of things. 

SEGRID IVO: And then she saw a very beautiful bag made of tortoise shell inlaid with mother-of-pearl and she fell in love. 

BURT WOLF: Her mother spent over 30 years collecting hand bags and displaying them in her home on the outskirts of Amsterdam, but eventually she needed a bigger space.

SEGRID IVO (ON CAMERA)L: And we spoke a lot with the local government but that didn't work out. And then she put a sign on the door ... and ... saying ... "S.O.S. Who can help us for a new location?" And she asked also a lot of people, "Can you help me with a new location. Do you know a millionaire? I don't like to have them only for myself. But half of it maybe." 

BURT WOLF: And then one Sunday afternoon a millionaire came along, visited the museum, read the sign, and bought them a building in the middle of Amsterdam. 

BURT WOLF: The museum illustrates the history of the handbag from the 14th century to the present. The earliest women’s handbags were worn underneath their dresses.

SEGRID IVO: They had a ribbon with two pockets hanging on it. And then you have two or three underskirts. Then this ribbon goes around your waist. And then your nice dress goes over it and there's an opening in the dress. So you could reach your pockets.

In the late 19th century it changed because the fashion got very slim. And we are looking back to the Greek and Roman periods and the waist goes up into the breast. And then you get very slim tiny dresses. They have to look like a Greek dress. Because that was fashionable in that period. 

SIGRID IVO: And they were made of fine muslin, a very fine material, sometimes very transparent. So then you can't wear these pockets inside. Then you see that the ladies wear, for the first time the bag in the hand.

BURT WOLF: And what did they put in their bag? 

SIGRID IVO: A coin purse, you had a letter case for your letters. They were writing a lot. Maybe also the card, a calling card holder. Because when you went to visit somebody, you go there and then you say to the servant I would like to visit the lady of the house. Then she's giving the calling card to the lady of the house. And she is deciding if she wants to see you.

BURT WOLF: I've always wondered about the Queen of England. What does she have in her handbag? Cab fare? A Swiss Army Knife? Keys to the Palace? Enquiring minds need to know.

SIGRID IVO: She has never money with her. No, she has a camera because she wants always to show where she is to her children and grandchildren. A lipstick. She has a powder compact because that was given by her husband 50 years ago, 60 years ago. Sometimes for her dogs things because she likes her dogs. 

BURT WOLF: I also noticed that in the last maybe ten or fifteen years handbags have become a status symbol.

SIGRID IVO: Until the 60s, you could show that you were rich or you're different by your clothing. But in the last decades, it's getting more and more difficult. Because what we see in the fashion show in Paris or Milan or New York, you can buy it a little bit later in the shops and you can buy it expensive or cheap. It's copied all over. So it's very difficult to be different.

SIGRID IVO: And that you see that these big brands, they come with handbags because that's something you can show that you can be different. Not everything that’s in fashion will be fit you very nice. But a handbag will always fit you. So the brands have more emphasis on the handbags because everybody can buy a handbag from a brand if you have the money, of course. But it's everybody will shoot a handbag. Everybody will fit a handbag.

BURT WOLF: I may not be able to get into that dress.

SIGRID IVO: Exactly.

BURT WOLF: But I certainly can carry that handbag.

SIGRID IVO: Yea. The handbag is the soul of women because all your personal items go into it. And you don't want to show it to other people. 

SIGRID IVO (ON CAMERA): But there are an also lot of things people, ladies don't want to tell about.

BURT WOLF: For instance? 

SIGRID IVO (ON CAMERA): That I can't tell you, because that's a secret. 

BURT WOLF: Quite honestly, I think this is one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever seen. And I strongly recommend it to you.

At lunch time we headed back to the ship. Each day on board there was a buffet with appetizers, soups, sandwiches, cold cuts, breads, a salad bar, two main courses, one of which is usually a carving station, a dessert table.

PASSENGER (ON CAMERA): Delicious. I love ice cream.

BURT WOLF: A cheese board and fresh fruit.

One of the keys to an enjoyable river cruise is the knowledge of the cruise directors. They need to know what is going on in town and the right time for you to make your visit.

At the suggestion of the AMAWaterways Cruise Director we spent the afternoon on a tour of the Hermitage Museum.

FRANS VAN DER VERT: It’s an old building, it’s an Amsterdam building, it’s a landmark building on the river Amstel which is interesting because the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is also on a river, on the Neva.

FRANS VAN DER VERT (ON CAMERA): Well the relationships between Russia and Netherlands are very old.

FRANS VAN DER VERT: Peter the Great already came in the 18th Century to Amsterdam to get inspiration for his new city St. Petersburg. And the museum in St. Petersburg is very large, and they really wanted to share their collection with the rest of the world. Since we already here in Amsterdam organize so many exhibitions from the collection of St. Petersburg, naturally we sort of started talking about a way of cooperation. Then this wonderful building came available and then finally in 2010 we decided to open up this beautiful museum. 

What we do here is we make exhibitions. We make large big exhibitions every six months from the holdings of The State Hermitage Museum. But also from other museums. So in the future we will do work with other museums too. Behind me now you see part of the new exhibitions we have on Alexander the Great. But we’re doing exhibitions on Rubens, we’re doing exhibitions on Russian icons. They are all exhibitions with topics you can’t find in Dutch museums. And one of the most beautiful things the golden crown we have here, from the beginning of the 2nd Century. 

It’s a building from 1683. And actually built not for a museum, but built for old ladies, to take care of old ladies. It was a church institution and it stayed that way until 2007 when the last person left the building

FRANS VAN DER VERT (ON CAMERA): And we could start renovating and building the museum here. 

FRANS VAN DER VERT: This is the Amstel River which is the heart of Amsterdam. And you can see also all the big houses are here. And it’s interesting that this building is on the central river here in Amsterdam. Like the state rooms you usually see in the center of St. Petersburg. 

FRANS VAN DER VERT (ON CAMERA): This used to be a church. It was a Protestant building. So everybody came here every Sunday to have supper here. But also went to the church.

FRANS VAN DER VERT: So this what you see here is the organ which was given by a lady called Mrs. Contaler in 1810. For the dinners here. And now we have sort of changed it in a different room we have music and concerts here. But you see some of the things here still. What we tried to do is also make a modern design. That’s why we did this lamp.

FRANS VAN DER VERT (ON CAMERA): It’s very interesting because you think it’s paper, then in the end you see it’s all very very thin porcelain. It’s very difficult to make. Of course the nice thing you see here is the garden and you see the river there. This is a beaching field where people used to bleach the laundry. And these used to be in Amsterdam everywhere.

BURT WOLF: Where they do the laundry out here.

FRANS VAN DER VERT: They do the laundry, and put it on the grass and then it bleaches. 

FRANS VAN DER VERT (ON CAMERA): And know an architect sort of reinvented this whole thing.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): I should have brought my laundry.

BURT WOLF: That evening we returned to our ship for dinner. Dinner is a traditional four course meal: appetizer, soup, main course, and desert. And there is always a red wine, a white wine and a selection of beers and soft drinks that are free. 

Another great suggestion from the AMA crew sent us to The Dutch East Indiaman.

The period between 1579 and the end of the1700s is described as Amsterdam’s golden age, and much of that gold came from importing spices from the islands of Bali, Java, Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea. Islands which are now part of Indonesia.

In 1748, that trade was dominated by the Dutch East India Company which was the largest trading company in the world. A replica of one of their ships is docked in Amsterdam’s harbor.

HENK DESSINS: So from here you can see the compasses that were used during steering.

BURT WOLF: The director of collections, Dr. Henk Dessens showed me around.

HENK DESSENS: In the beginning they used just the ships that were used to sail with in European waters.

HENK DESSENS (ON CAMERA): But in a short time the East India Company discovered that it was important to make more standardized vessels.

HENK DESSENS: The journey was very long, the ships were expensive. So it was very important to plan all the journeys as much as possible. 

Ship building was a kind of a magic art. It was an art which was brought over from father to son, and the governors of the company didn’t like that. They wanted to have more grip on the technical aspects of the ship. 

The main space onboard was of course the hold. That was the place that the ship was built for essentially. Because she had to get spices and other trade from Asia and bring it back for high profits to the Netherlands. 

Most of the crew lived on the quarter deck. You must imagine that on this quarter deck here lived about 300 people. There was no daylight in this space. Many people died during the voyage and people who survived got more space.

The captain had in fact two cabins on board. One was his working cabin, where he did navigation, had a meeting with his mates, with officers. And he also had a separate bedroom. He was the only person onboard with his own bedroom, with an ordinary bed. He didn’t sleep in a hammock. But he had more privacy. 

BURT WOLF: I notice he had two toilets. How did he choose?

HENK DESSENS (ON CAMERA): I think that was dependant on the direction of the wind.

BURT WOLF: One of the things I liked about the AMA itineraries is the open times they give you. You can do whatever you want to and the staff supplies you with the information you need to make the best use of that time. Which I spent shopping. 

I have two favorite spots. One of them is a beer store.

BEER MAN: It’s a beer store with 12 hundred different kinds of beer from all over the world. And all different styles. This is the German section lots of lagers and wheat beers. The Dutch people love wheat beers now a days.

BURT WOLF: You know I learned a years ago that when you clink glasses with regular beer you go straight, but if you have a wheat beer you only clink the bottom. A great wheat beer glass is very thin at the top, as opposed to the mass the ones you can bang.


BURT WOLF VO: There was also a large section of beers from the United States. It appears that small breweries in the U.S. are experimenting with different styles and that they are becoming more and more popular in Europe.

BEER MAN: Because the hopy beers are getting very very popular with the real beer geeks. But what is also very popular are the Belgium ales. That’s where the beer lovers start their hobby. The Belgium beers are very accessible. 

BURT WOLF: St. Arnold the patron saint of Brewers is credited with spreading the brewer’s skill throughout Belgium.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): He was curious as to why the rich seemed to live longer than the poor. And he finally decided it was because they drank beer instead of water. And he was absolutely right. For centuries the safest thing to drink was beer.

BURT WOLF: Today, Belgium produces over six hundred different beers and beer experts have chosen some of them as best of class, worldwide. The beer brewers of Belgium are the great artists in the business. And one of the oldest brewers is Lindemans.

It’s been in the same family for over 200 years. Their most unusual beers are called Lambics. Lambics are fermented by natural yeasts in the air and the fermentation process takes place over many months in wooden barrels and tanks.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Lambic is the meeting point between a beer and a wine. It is made from wild yeast in a process that’s very similar to that used for making sherry. And like a sherry it’s aged for years in wooden casks.

BURT WOLF: Some lambics are blended together and aged to make a gueuze which has a wine-like flavor and complexity. Lambic brewers never want to make the slightest physical change to their brewery buildings because it might disturb the yeast.

Belgian beers are also fermented with cherries to produce a drink called kriek or with raspberries to make a brew called framboise. Kriek is the Flemish word for black cherry. Lindemans adds cherries to their lambic and the fresh pure fruit flavor makes a great pairing with the tart complexity of the lambic.

The bar on the ship had a nice selection of Belgian beers and we put them to good use.

The next shop we visited is one of the finest shops in the city. It’s called the Cheese Room of Amsterdam and it carries over 400 different cheeses. The owner is Luke De Lure. He took me through the shop and had me taste an assortment of different cheeses, pointing out that as cheese gets older it gets stronger, as opposed to my own pattern which appears to be quite the opposite.

LUKE DE LURE (ON CAMERA): And this is organic. You add nothing, just milk. Here you are. Ya.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Oh amazing. A very different taste.

LUKE DE LURE (ON CAMERA): Ya. Also different farmers. Every farmer has his own specialty of making cheese.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Like the wine makers.

LUKE DE LURE (ON CAMERA): Ya. Exactly. Ya. 

BURT WOLF: Cheese is one of our oldest foods dating back at least 3,000 years. One theory is that someone in Central Asia or the Near East was carrying milk in a bag made from the stomach of a calf and the acid in the stomach, known as rennet, interacted with the milk and caused the liquid called whey to separate from the solids know as curds. The liquid was drained away and curds pressed together to form the solid cheese.

In terms of survival, cheese has some distinct advantages over milk. It lasts longer, than milk without spoiling. It’s easy to carry. And it takes up less space – about one-tenth of the volume of the milk from which it was made.

I only have one problem with cheeses. If some cheeses are aged for months, even years by the cheese makers, how come they only last for weeks in my refrigerator? Is this some kind of manufacturers built in obsolesces. Enquiring minds need to know.

CAMERAMAN: What do you call it?

LUKE DE LURE (ON CAMERA): Sticky finger. Do you want to smell?

CAMERAMAN: No thank you.

BURT WOLF: This was the first leg of the voyage that took us from Amsterdam to Luxembourg.

Along the way we stopped in Cologne, Rudesheim, Koblenz, Winningen, Cochem, Zell, Bernkastel and Trier. Some of the passenger went on to Paris and some to Luxembourg. 

BURT WOLF: In part two of this series our ship docks in Cologne. We’ll take a tour of the city, visit the great cathedral which has become the most visited tourist attraction in Germany, stop into a museum that is totally devoted to chocolate and serves a chocolate drink that made my day.

We’ll find out the origin of Eau de Cologne, and drink some of the local beer called Kolch. Then we’ll sail on to Rudesheim to visit Siegfried’s mechanical music museum, a collection of robotic and self-playing instruments. And we’ll meet the great Siegfried.

We taste the local specialties, encounter the challenge of the drinking log and finish off with a cup of Rudesheimer Coffee spiked with the local brandy.

I hope you’ll join us.