Sunday, November 10, 2013

Travelbog 9: More to Holland: Rotterdam and Leonardo

The city of Rotterdam surrounds the busiest port in the world. Several miles upstream from the point where the Waal River meets the North Sea, Rotterdam is a jumping off point for cargo shipping up through the rivers of Western Europe. The Waal is a major tributary of the Rhine, making Rotterdam a key port city and industrial center for the Netherlands. Rotterdam held such strategic importance that, on May 14, 1940, the German Luftwaffe made a carpet bombing run against the city that leveled over twenty-eight thousand buildings in the medieval centrum and outlying residential area, and killed nearly a thousand civilians. The death toll would have been much higher, but the city officials enacted a thorough evacuation, anticipating the oncoming German army in an assault that did not happen. Instead, the Germans made an ultimatum. Seeing the horror they had inflicted, the Germans told the Dutch to surrender, or the Luftwaffe would attack and level Utrecht. The Dutch capitulated after five days of fighting, on May 15, to avoid any more civilian deaths. Rotterdam rebuilt itself. It is, perhaps, the most modern major city in the Netherlands, at least by appearance. Its harbor is breath-taking. We toured the harbor by boat on an earlier trip to Holland. My nephew took a photo then that graces my office wall. It lines up the old Holland-America Shipping Line office building, which is now a restaurant, the adjacent pier from which the Blokker family embarked for America in 1952 when I was just two years old; a modern circular office building that rises up like a glass tube; and the Erasmus Bridge, a Bascule (drawbridge) using a single asymmetrical pylon. The bridge is affectionately called “the Swan.” The three features combine old and new, and link me to my own history is a unique way. On this trip, however, we had a different goal in mind: a rotating museum exhibit in the old Postkantoor (Post Office) that focused on the career and achievements of Leonardo da Vinci. Erik does not do museums, so our friend Hanneke joined Diane, Annemieke and me for this adventure. In fact, Hanneke organized the trip and Annemieke arranged the train fare. It’s good to have friends to rely upon where you travel! The train ride from Utrecht to Rotterdam was wonderful and relatively quick. It is amazing how much building is going on throughout the Netherlands. Utrecht central station, called the Hoog Catharijne, is being virtually doubled in size to accommodate the growing train traffic. Along with the trains come commuters, of course, and once again shopping opportunities are rampant, and increasing. The Winkelcentrum Hoog Catharijne (High Catherine Shopping Center) is a city unto itself, and expanding along with the station. The Rotterdam central station is already well established. Both are bigger and busier than Schiphol International, I suspect. Before we went to the exhibit, we went to a mystic shop and restaurant. Mystic shops are always interesting and fun, even when everything is in Dutch. They are filled with books, Tarot cards, statues, rocks and jewelry. This one was perhaps the largest and best organized I had ever seen. We had both a wonderful lunch and a good long look. Then we went to meet Leonardo. The exhibit encapsulated his entire career in copies of original materials plus mock-ups of what his inventions would have looked like. The most interesting part was a long room dedicated to the Mona Lisa, with detailed blow-ups and a series leading us backward to what the painting probably looked like originally. Using a sophisticated spectrograph camera with something like a quarter million pixels, scientists photographed the original and then subjected the images to a long process of analysis. The results decorated the walls around us, and brought us close to truly understanding the mind of the genius who created the Mona Lisa. I lingered at this exhibit for a long time. I then went to find my three lovely companions. I found them huddled together, and as I approached them, they moved toward me as one. It seems that they all had left their wallets in the lockers provided before we entered, but everyone wanted coffee. Did I have my wallet? Yes. Did I have any cash in it? Yes. Could we all get some coffee – and carrot cake? Of course. As nice as it is to have guides who happen to love you, it’s equally nice to be needed by them, in turn, even in a small way, and no one can ever dispute the crucial nature of a cuppa after exhaustive touring.

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