A meeting of travel and literature
I love city trips but there never seems to be enough time during a short stay to fit in all a city has to offer. And so, I have developed a really simple strategy for getting the most out of a short time in a new place. This is it: I take a couple of books I have read and loved that relate somehow or other to that place and I use these as a reference point for planning where to go and what to see. I should probably say here that I am a bibliophile and so this makes perfect sense to me.
Recently I was planning a 24 hour stay in Amsterdam and first on my list of places to see was the Anne Frank House for there can be no other book set in Amsterdam that comes even close in terms of impact and significance to The Secret Diary of Anne Frank.
Located on the Prinsengracht, on a quintessential canal-side street, with picturesque buildings on either side, cyclists peddling breezily by, canal boats meandering along, it is hard to believe this idyllic setting could have been besieged less than a century ago. The former warehouse of Otto Frank’s business (Otto was the only one of the 7 who hid here to survive the war) contained a secret annex which concealed two families for 26 months. The threshold to the hidden rooms a bookcase and stepping past this point feels like stepping inside the pages of the diary that immortalized the lives lived in the darkened rooms beyond and that teaches us that truth and beauty can be found in the young and inexperienced.
‘One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!’
11 April 1944
The lightest of touches regarding preservation has been applied and barely a whisper is uttered by visitors so palpable is the sense of the stolen lives of its last occupants; their absence is felt profoundly and this feeling stills the soul.
The museum section expands on the events and provides a broader interpretation of the significance of this building. Recordings of Otto Frank brings his personal loss into sharper focus. Among the archive is a moving image (the only one) of the young Anne smiling and waving from a window in happier times; her innocence and youth beautiful. The horror of war and hatred, pain and suffering, man’s inhumanity to man, cause the visitor to reflect on the sanctity of peace and love.
For tickets, the website of the Anne Frank House opens online booking two months in advance and early booking is a must to get a time slot that suits your itinerary. The introductory program is highly advisable as it sets the scene with social, historical and biographical facts, provides a timeline of events and the opportunity to see the actual gingham-covered diary as well as the writing desk used by Anne. Allow at least 2 hours here. Bring tissues!
I had chosen The Miniaturist, a historical novel by Jessie Burton, as my reading companion for the trip.The novel tells the tale of a wealthy 17th century merchant, Johannes Brandt, who purchases an exquisite replica of their house for his 18 year old bride, Petronella Oortmann, a folly the rich indulged in at that time. Having since finished this book I can vouch for it as a real page-turner belonging to the literary fiction genre. As I moved around the city I felt like I was physically dipping in and out of its pages stumbling quite by accident across some of its key locations, such as the Herengracht canal and the Kalverstraat.
But to get a fuller sense of the world of this book a visit to the second floor of the Rijksmuseum is a must. Here the art work of the 1600's is on display including pieces by the Dutch masters Vermeer and Rembrandt (Nightwatch). The delightful thing though is that the museum’s collection includes the Petronella Oortmann cabinet. This is no dolls’ house; it is immense and splendid, made of oak and veneered with tortoiseshell and pewter exactly as described in the book. Peering into its rooms you almost expect to be met by one of the household.
As if that wasn’t enough to tantalise the reader from this level you can step on to the balcony of the museum library; its’ spiral staircase drawing the eye heavenwards…
Amsterdam is a city that is relaxed and vibrant, easy to navigate and full of character and my stay there delightfully bookish!
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