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Its canals are iconic

Courtesy Van Gogh Museum

The best of Dutch art
Culturally, Amsterdam rivals any other city in Europe, with more than 40 museums and a long history of world-class artwork. My half-day orientation tour included a guided visit to the Rijksmuseum, the largest and most important museum in the Netherlands.

The museum exhibits the best of Dutch art, especially pieces from the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century. The museum is in the midst of a massive renovation project that will last until 2013, but a temporary display of its 400 most important works allows visitors to see some breathtaking art, including paintings by Rembrandt and other Dutch masters.

“In the 17th century, the artists here used to specialize in one kind of painting,” said Zusanna, another Monograms guide who accompanied our group through the museum. “That’s part of why 17th-century Dutch painting was so good. When you see it, you might think you’re looking at something real, and that’s what the artists want you to think.”

Perhaps the most famous painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt painted many realistic pieces, and a number of them hang in the Rijksmuseum. Zusanna showed us some of these early works, including one lifelike portrait of a 20-year-old unmarried woman.

“This was kind of like an advertisement painting,” she said. “Rembrandt tried to make her look as beautiful and as rich as possible. And two years after he painted this, she got married.”

The galleries trace the development of Rembrandt and other artists, leading to works later in his life that were more color-saturated. At the center of the exhibition is the massive painting “The Night Watch,” one of Rembrandt’s most famous work.

Impressions of van Gogh
Three centuries after Rembrandt, another Dutch painter revolutionized how artists and art lovers saw the world. I used one of my free days in Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh Museum, the city’s shrine to one of its great hometown artists. Touring the museum, I discovered how Vincent van Gogh’s 19th-century impressionism influenced the way we interpret images in the world around us.

The Van Gogh Museum has some 200 paintings of his paintings, which it presents in chronological order, displaying them with parallel stories of the artist’s life and struggles. Van Gogh took up painting as an adult with no formal art training and went most of his career without ever selling a painting. Only after his death did the art community recognize him as one of the foremost fathers of modern painting.

Although the story is dark at points, the museum’s exhibits are beautiful. I saw how van Gogh mastered impressionist techniques. From a distance, his paintings all look clear; when you take a step closer, though, you see that they are all composed of thick, short and colorful brushstrokes. The strokes alone could pass for haphazard, but when you take them together, you see that they are carefully designed to depict farmland, cityscapes and human portraits in a colorful, innovative way.

Pancakes for lunch
Walking through Amsterdam allows visitors to discover some of the city’s smaller gems that may not be included on a traditional tour itinerary. One of my favorite finds was the Dutch pancake.

Although we know pancakes as an American breakfast food, in Amsterdam and throughout the Netherlands, they are favorite dishes for lunch or dinner. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pancake houses throughout the city serve locals and tourists alike. Wherever you go, chances are you’ll not be far from one.

Pancakes! is a small restaurant in an old historic home that would not hold a traditional group; but it was the perfect size for a meal with three friends I met on the Monograms trip. With the first bite, I was hooked.

Unlike their thick, fluffy American cousins, Dutch pancakes are wide, floppy affairs that cover a dinner plate from rim to rim. They are a bit spongier than their American cousins and more chewy perhaps. But their real strength is their diversity: At Pancakes! and other pancake houses around town, the dish is served with a wide variety of toppings and fillings. Guests can order traditional combinations, such as pancakes with strawberries or bananas, or more savory and spicy creations.

I opted for a pancake full of shredded bacon, sliced bananas and ground red pepper. These ingredients weren’t piled on top of the pancake but rather cooked right into the batter. It may sound like an odd combination of flavors, but drizzled liberally with maple syrup, this pancake was a sweet, spicy and savory delight.