Category Archives: Travel & Experiences

Because architecture is art: Musee d’Orsay, at last!

A jaunt to the gorgeous Musee d’Orsay made my day today. The museum stays open till late on Thursday, so I wound up work early and walked down from Place St Michel where I’m staying along they Seine. The weather has been exceptionally kind and the walk was leisurely and easy. 


The museum has been on my hot list for Paris not because of the excellent collections it hosts, including a choice selection of works from my favourite French Impressionists, but because of its architecture. And it is indeed a spectacular transformation of a Beaux-Arts station, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even though this rather nasty review of the renovated buildings that appears in 1987 suggests that a breaking up of the volume inside the station was a misstep, I must say that the beauty, intricacy and monumentality of the vault hit me the moment I entered the space! The building combines both elements of the Beaux-Arts style, the structural metalwork as well as the ornamentility and this is still very visible in the current interiors. I do believe the ordering of the galleries has been redone in 2011 though and it is quite easy to figure out how the collections are arranged. 

The icing on the cake, of course, was the special exhibit on the portraits of Cezanne, which I savoured with the aid of the audio commentary! 

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The beautiful solitude of being in the heart of Paris

I arrived in Paris this Sunday past with some excitement and much trepidation. The excitement was not on account of being in arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Three weeks of being here in summer had satiated some of that hunger. The excitement was about having solo time to think and write, something that is hard to carve out in the mad bustle of our lives in the Delhi NCR. The trepidation was the other side of solo time, the loneliness, which for a social person like me is hard to bear.

Luckily, I have found accommodation in the heart of Paris, at St Michel Place, in the Quartier Latin. Everyday I see clumps of tourists being taken around on guided tours. And smaller groups exploring the city. It’s not terribly busy at this time of the year though. Back to the accommodation- the Maison Suger is part of the Fondation Maison des Science de l’Hommes which is dedicated to international cooperation in the field of social sciences through the support of research. From what I understand, the foundation does not run its own educational institutions, but offers post doc fellowships and research residencies for scholars across the world. The Maison Suger is one such residency and I was lucky to get a timely tip-off and support from my colleagues at the CESSMA Lab at University Paris Diderot. So here I am, in a beautiful old building: the Latin Quartier was built in the Middle Ages (I have yet to find out more about the building itself)!

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St Michel fountain…we were all here in summer together as a family!!

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On Day 4 of being in Paris after some initial struggles, I finally feel like being alone is not such a bad thing. I woke up this morning and hit the gym, which I found all to myself. The walk to the gym took me down some labyrinthine stairs, made of solid stone masonry, and that was a treat too! I opened the windows to hear the lovely sounds of little children as they walked with their parents to the nursery next door. Delightfully, the corridor that leads to my room looks onto the inner courtyard of the nursery and I feel happy to know that the little souls are prancing about there through the morning, right next to me!! I have spent my days at work and my evening reading quietly and though I miss home a bit, I feel like this is a chance to dig into myself and concentrate.

Now, as I fix myself breakfast and look forward to my little jaunt through the city’s Metro system, I feel blessed and grateful to all the people and circumstances that are making this possible for me. I know that it does not befit me to complain about being lonely, instead I hope to use my blog (like I have done before) as a tool to vent, keep myself on track, and conjure new possibilities.

A walk along Rue Massena, good urban design in practice #ParisBliss

The weather changed yesterday morning, turning cool, even a bit chilly. And a brisk walk seemed like just the right thing to do. I walked a section of my tram ride to the University today, from Port Choissee to Maries Bastie on Rue Massena, in the 13th Arrondisement of the city. This is not a neighbourhood that the tourist books and blogs write about but it’s bustling nevertheless. It’s clearly an area where many immigrants have settled, especially Asians. Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants line the streets. 

There’s plenty of relatively new high rise affordable and mid-income housing that has come up in this area, amid what look like older mid sized blocks. Mostly these blocks emerge right off the street, with the ground level space accommodating shops, supermarkets and  parking garages. Now and then I see what look like gated enclaves, some with nice little gardens inside. But I can see all of these from the street. There are no solid boundary walls, only see through fences. Eyes on the street all the way! 

It’s a totally walkable area and well connected with public transport like all of Paris. In fact, the tramway runs in the centre, two lanes of motorable road on either side, a lane of parallel on street parking, cycle paths and a wide pavement on both sides. Definitely more square metre area for public transport, cycling and walking than for motorised traffic!

I’ve been watching these sights from the tram the past week but walking down the street today made me realise that these kind of neighbourhoods are an excellent case study for how modern redevelopment projects can build on the positive aspects of traditional cities by retaining and even enhancing public facilities like public space, schools, markets and sports grounds. In this way, the neighbourhood can cater to additional densities and remain efficient and compact, improving life for the able bodied and differently abled, young and old. The sheer diversity of people I encounter everyday while riding public transport speaks to this.

Please don’t forget to watch the accompanying video on FB which shows boundary details of the apartment blocks and how they relate to the street. Link below

Fete de la Musique: Celebrating the summer solstice in the Marais #ParisBliss

Last evening on the longest day of 2017, I met the kids and mums on the banks of the Seine where they had been lounging for a while. We were facing the tip of the Ile Saint-Louis, the smaller of the two islands that are amidst the Seine in the centre of Paris. The idea was to make our way through the streets catching what we could of the citywide festival of music, where performances both organised and impromptu were to be the order of the day.

We started ambling down Rue St Paul past sun kissed facades. Turning left on Rue Saint Antoine, the mothers were ensnared by an eager fruit seller while the kids and me dove into the less conspicuous but absolutely breathtaking Church of St Paul St Louis. It was cool inside the church, a welcome respite from the sweaty heat outside. Aadyaa was thrilled to be able to light another candle at yet another church, her latest fixation as we explore Paris.



The Rue Sevigne frames the facade of the church beautifully. I caught this frame as I turned back to make sure Udai was behind me. There he is to the right of the frame cooling himself in front of one of the ventilation ducts (yes, we are amid a heat wave here)! The street also has some delightful shops with lovely and enticing facades. I was reminded of Ho Chi Minh City where I fell in love with the shops decor. I’m wondering if it was the Parisian influence or the other way around!!

Turning left onto Rue des Franc Bourgeois we saw a string of heritage buildings, many of them hotels. This area is within the Marais, where the epicentre of 17th century Parisian society was during the time of Henry IV. One can only imagine how the hotels, designed in classical style with front courtyards and back gardens, were at the heart of aristocratic life in those times!

The Musee Caranavalet is at the corner and a few others including the delightful little Jardin de l’hotel Lamoignon that popped up to our left. We had begun to see signages inviting us into various buildings hosting the Fete de la Musique. The EDM sounds streaming from the Uniqlo premises perked Udai up a bit, but my expression must have told him how enthusiastic I am about that genre of music. So we walked on.

Amidst the beautiful framed entrances and detailed stone masonry, we found another treasure, the Notre-Dame des Blancs-Manteaux. A sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary, there has been a church in existence here since 1258 though the present structure is more recent (1685). We sat inside absorbing the calmness and spirituality of the space. And just as we were leaving, the priest broke into the most melodious Latin incantations I have heard. Much credit, of course, to the acoustics of the church!


Our first musical encounter as part of the Fete was inside the premises of the Credit Municipal de Paris. A swing quartet if you please! Delightfully balanced and with strong vocals, this was a pleasure especially because of the scale of the little courtyard that made it an intimate experience. Watch the dancing and you’ll know what it felt like. Aadyaa and me joined in too briefly!


Next we heard young talent inside the historic premises of the Archives Nationales which used to be the Hotel de Rohan, one of the many 18th century mansions in Marais that used to belong to the Strasbourg bishops. Post the revolution, the building became the French government’s printing press and then the archives. The open to public courtyard was impressive as were the few performances we took in, featuring instrumental ensembles as well as opera singing!!



Our walk back to the Chatelet Metro comprised a pit stop to grab a drink and some dessert, a few more glimpses of interesting monuments framed by these historic streets (see the Tower of St Jacques below) and then we navigated our way through the growing crowds, hordes of people enjoying the fete, a giant outdoor party!!

Dangling our feet over the Seine #ParisBliss

So 2017 is the year of discovering Paris for me. Sometimes stuff you never even dreamt of comes true. I’ve spent the last couple of months steeped in logistics for this stint here, chiefly to manoeuvre things so the family could join me for some time, but without actually thinking about what it would be like. Delayed gratification, have you heard of it? 

When we actually got here, it’s in the middle of a heat wave. It’s like we brought the bad weather with us from Delhi. Ever tried 37 degrees without ACS and fans? 

I’ve been at work during the day, in a stifling office with the nicest people wading through literature as part of a research stay. In the evenings, I’ve tried to join the mums and kids as they explore the city. Museums in the heat is the mantra they are loosely following, spending the mornings in our rental apartment and dashing into a museum in the hot afternoon. 

Yesterday I met them outside the Musee Rodin and we walked around the area, ending up in the courtyard of les Invalides, which houses the Military Museum. In this beautifully proportioned space, Aadyaa was inspired to sketch and Udai conjured up fantasies about cannon balls, fire and destruction. The walk across the vast lawns towards the Seine felt good, with the cool grass under our feet and the winds beginning to blow. 

We ambled pointlessly wondering where to eat. Food was very much on the mind of the young man, who can be super fussy  and was likely imagining a proper Parisian meal. Down the steps right next to Seine, the city was settling into a long evening of fun and partying. On a whim, we ordered burgers and joined the picnic. What bliss to sit dangling our feet over the lovely Seine watching the world go by, hearing laughter and conversation and sharing a hearty meal. Doesn’t Aadyaa’s expression say it all? 

Broadening engagement: amidst the crowds at JLF

Don’t ask my why this is my first visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the literary event that seems to have caught the fancy of the public owing to its curious mix of the eclectic and popular. To be honest, it hasn’t been high on my radar but this year work took me to the Pink City during Litfest week and the coincidence was too much to ignore.

I managed to squeeze in a few sessions, all of them invigorating. Whether it was Pavan Varma quizzing Naqvi on his reading of history or Manu Joseph making tongue-in-cheek remarks about the difficulties writers face putting themselves in the opposite gender’s shoes, the content was rich and engaging. Every single venue was full. The ones with Bollywood  personalities were distinctly overflowing. But sessions on Sanskrit writing and the literature of anger as expressed by Dalit and tribal writers were full as well. I wondered why.

One way of looking at it is that there are simply too many people at JLF and they have to go somewhere and do something! And while this is true, I suspect there’s a lot more going on here beyond the thrill of attending a mela.

I identified a few distinct types of visitors- the artistic and creative community, the must-be-seen-here types, the book lovers, the firangs, the senior citizens and a large number of  school and college students. After a point, I opted out of the sessions and just sat and watched the crowd, overheard the conversations and chatted with folks. I met college kids from Jaipur who had chosen sessions because they were about subjects that were new to them. A friend who attends every year comes here to meet authors and expand his book collection. One young couple told me that it is exciting to be at an event like this where you get a chance to rub shoulders (literally) with everyone from popular Bollywood personalities to your favorite author. For some students I met here, being at JLF was like traveling the world, gaining a new set of experiences. Neither can I complain about passive audiences; I found questions from the floor were very sharp across age groups in the sessions I attended.

Clearly, JLF means different things to different people. All things said, it is certainly a step forward in taking literature, art and academic writing out of its elitist bastion (and may I say, pushing those in the bastion to learn a thing or two from the real world outside!). This is a new world where young people explore many ways to engage with new ideas and fresh content. Our schools and colleges are hard pressed to offer that novelty and excitement and maybe events like this, in some infinitesimally small way, fill that gap. Can we do more?

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#Demonetisation as ritual sacrifice: In light of a recent trip to Inka territory

Anthropologist and friend Durba Chattaraj, in this insightful piece, compares the ‘inconvenience’ experienced by ordinary and honest people as a consequence of Modi’s bold demonetization announcement to the ritual sacrifice of innocents in ancient civilizations across the world. “In many cultures across the world,” she writes, “the logic of sacrifice to expiate collective sin demanded that the purest, rather than the most corrupt, be offered up to the gods.” She goes on to wonder whether this concept is still valid if the majority, and not the symbolic few, are on the sacrificial altar.

Durba’s analogy has appealed to me because I am fascinated by the emotional logic and perhaps habitual hopefulness with which the poor in this country have taken this enormously disruptive move in their stride. And because I had the fortune of spending some time amidst Inka ruins a few weeks ago, I’m equally fascinated by her bid to compare the mores of a territorial and if I may say so, fairly aggressive people to the supposedly civilized and democratic setup of modern India. So let me take the opportunity to recall that journey….

Our journey to Ingapirca, an Inka site in the Canar district of Ecuador in October this year took us through winding mountain roads and fertile terrain. Far less dramatic that Macchu Pichu, the ruins of Ingapirca hug the terrain close but the Temple of the Sun, probably built as an astronomical observatory stands out. These were a people obsessed and vastly knowledgeable about the movements of the sun, which they worshiped as the ultimate power not unlike contemporary and even older civilizations across the world. What makes Ingapirca different though, in a departure from the usual script of war and conquer, circumstances forced them to settle differences with the local Canari people and they ended up intermarrying with them and living peacefully. The Canaris worshipped the moon and the Ingapirca ruins clearly demonstrate that both lunar and solar worship became part of the unique Inka-Canari culture.

We were fortunate to be assigned a passionate guide, whose enthusiasm and knowledge enabled him to surpass his language difficulties. Whenever he was unsure, he didn’t hesitate to take help the lady in our group who spoke both Spanish and English reasonably well. Interacting with him not only revealed the deeper secrets of the site but also offered some insights into the ongoing attempts by Ecuador and other Andean nations to preserve the language and oral histories of the indigenous people; his own attempts to learn Kechwa, the indigenous tongue, made an interesting tale.

Getting back to the ruins themselves, and the starting point in my post today, we had an animated discussion in Ingapirca about the practice of ritual sacrifice. We stared down at the grave of the High Priestess, with whom over a dozen children had been buried alive  to tend to her in her journey after death. Children were considered the purest beings and hence ideal for sacrifice. They were fattened and treated well before the sacrifice and usually drugged to make it painless. In Ingapirca, archaeologists believe they were given a highly intoxicating drink made of coca leaves (we found the plant growing right there on the site!).

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The Inka Temple of the Sun looms up in the background but in the foreground are Canari vessels for lunar rituals

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Grain storage

 

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Granaries, residences, and sacrificial spaces

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The sacrifical stone, aligned with solar solstices

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Nestles low amid the spectacular Andean mountains

 

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The Temple of the Sun dominates the valley

 

The Temple of the Sun

Walking away from the Temple of the Sun

In present day India, the poor may well be the innocents who have made sacrifices post-demonetisation, losing work and wages for sure, and the state has indeed ordered rather than requested that they make it. While the Inka fattened the innocents for sacrifice, the poor have been promised redistribution or reward at a later date. The parallels make me want to question a bit our belief that choice, rationalism, debate and dialogue are hallmarks of the modern era we live in. In evolutionary terms, the span of time between the Inkas and us is only a blink and maybe as citizens we are still very much in that psychological space: content to not have a choice, accustomed to the powers taking our fate in their hands, always placing the survival of the clan above our own, happy for the rewards we might get but not necessarily assuming they will come….

59, Rivoli: A glimpse of the alternative in Paris

Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.

In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.

On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!

59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?

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Paris: Where grey is beautiful

Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!

Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.

We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.

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Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris je t’aime!

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The perfectly grey sets off the pyramid very nicely. Located outside the Louvre, it is one of the most understated architectural icon in the world

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Inside the lobby of The Louvre Museum

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Looking out

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Looking in

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Art for everyone

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Crossing the Seine in line with La Institut

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We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.

Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!

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In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!

We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!

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Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.

Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.

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Through the door….

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To the narrow court inside

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We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!

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Another serene space in busy Paris

Another serene space in busy Paris

 

Ooh-ing and Ah-ing at the renovated Rijksmuseum

I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012! 

This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place. 

Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work. 

Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings. 

Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred! 

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