Category Archives: Places to Explore

Hortus Botanicus: More than a Break



If you have had enough museums, canal houses and crowds, slip away to the Hortus Botanicus.  For the last 375 years, it has been a beacon for botanists, but also for ordinary people seeking peace and quiet.  Although the area is small (a little less than a standard city block), the Hortus is packed with treasures, and if you want to learn something about plants, it is also the most engaging possible textbook. Originally a garden for herbal medicines, the garden took on a new role with the Dutch explorations around the world, cultivating many plants which were brought back as a few seedlings.  Some were the backbone of important commercial ventures, coffee being the most notable example.


You can simply wander around the garden and look at the huge mature trees from around the world, or enjoy the flowers.  Except in the dead of winter, there’s always something in bloom, and even then you can probably find a hellebore peeking out. If it’s pouring, take refuge in the huge contemporary greenhouse with its many climates, or keep company with one of the oldest potted plants in the world in the convservatory from the early 20th century.  It’s a male Eastern Cape Giant Cycad, its female companion a mere 200 years old, whom the gardeners pollinate to produce seed which is distributed around the world.



If you want to do more than wander, two trails will guide you around:  one which gives information on some of the garden’s magnificent trees (everything from the ancient gingko to the contemporary London plane), and another which will do no less than teach you how plant life developed on earth!  Having only the vaguest idea about this, I was fascinated to discover the huge advance that seeds represented over “blowing in the wind” as Bob Dylan put it.  The information about each era is signposted in Dutch and English right in the middle of the plants which were typical of that time.

If you’re a gardener, you’ll love the huge variety of plants, representing seven different climates (indoors and out).  Look closely at the half moon of boxwood-lined beds right in front of the main building.  They are newly arranged to represent the latest classification of plants using their molecular (DNA) characteristics rather than external appearances. Even just looking at them aesthetically is a pleasure.

Finally, when you want a break from your break, the Orangery will gladly (if expensively) serve you some chewy and well-spiced carrot and walnut cake along with a cup of tea.  If you have really lucked out, you can sit outdoors and gaze into hundreds of shades of green while white clouds float overhead, just as I am now.


Marionettes and Mozart?!

Marionette Theatre Poster - Version 2I confess that I used to think of puppets as a fun diversion for children — but not at the Amsterdam Marionette Theatre.  I happened to bumble into the wide alley where it’s located, and the poster I saw was so compelling that I decided to investigate further.  Mozart?  Really?  I knew it would be in Dutch, of course, but how complex could the story line be?  The main thing was to hear the music and enjoy the visual spectacle.

After reserving tickets online, we arrived 20 minutes early — but after the aficionados, who had long since occupied their tables and were sipping their wine and tea.  A wise strategy, because the seating area is level, and the first row is quite rightly reserved for children and their parents.  The rest of us were grouped around tables for 4, and positioning ourselves politely but assertively to see the small, somewhat elevated stage.  Next time we’ll come earlier, as should you if you go.

What we stumbled into is an art form that dates back indirectly to the 16th century, when nomadic performers brought this form of theatre throughout central Europe, and directly to the 18th century, when the likes of Haydn composed music specifically to be performed with marionettes.  It turns out that the opera singers of the day weren’t always great actors — but the marionettes were.

As we waited for the performance of an adapted version Mozart’s comedy “The Impresario” to begin, we learned that all the music was recorded only on original instruments, by a specific orchestra assembled for this theatre, and opera singers who work with them.  When they tour around the world, which they do regularly, the musicians and singers accompany them, but for the repeated performances in Amsterdam they understandably use recordings.

They don’t allow photography during the performance, but frankly it wouldn’t tell you much.  It’s the absolute magic of scenery as carefully constructed as the Metropolitan Opera’s, and the movement of figures just as carefully carved, painted, and clothed in exquisite garments.  Technically speaking, the star of the show to me was a frou-frou poodle which could raise its ears separately or together, of course wag its tail and prance or jump or shake its head.  The opening scene in which the impresario, Frank, is confronted with the extent of his bills had us weeping with laughter — not to mention the classic duel of the sopranos.

IMG_2722At the end, as a curtain call, they let us all crowd up to the edge of the stage and see the amazing art of the six people overhead, out of sight, each controlling a marionette or sometimes two, moving around each other with unbelievable deftness.  We could even see the intricate embroidery on our hero’s waistcoat.

Like so many good things in Amsterdam, this wonderfully successful and delightful enterprise is run by eccentrics.  The founder, Hendrik Bonneur, is a retired clinical psychologist who studied with the Aicher family of Salzburg, one of two families in Europe who have practiced this art for generations.  If you can possibly go, do.  It will open your eyes, whether or not you have a child you can drag along.