Tuesday, 30 April 2013

A purple patch

The return to London and everyday life was softened – not inconsiderably – by the improving weather. Or perhaps more accurately, by what a week of improved weather had done to the garden.

Bright red tulips were in flower, along with gloriously rich purple ones, a purple chive-like flower whose name I cannot recall, purple cape daisies and a mass of cornflower blue anenomes.

It's a veritable purple patch.

The mint, which I had moved away from the most direct sunlight, is looking better than it ever has, and the sorrel has begun producing its first new leaves, bright, fresh green with a red vein, while the curly parsley is looking healthier than ever.

Within a few days, the first nasturtiums, which I’d sown just before I went away, were popping their heads above ground.

The vine had been planted, like much else, just a year ago in March (in a heatwave, for goodness sake), but had entered winter looking brittle and dried and dead.

However, last year provided learning exercises in the extraordinary power of plants to revive, and so it has now produced a reminder, with the vine now having some 14 buds, with the ones nearest the top starting to open as the sun makes regular appearances.

The pyracantha has produced delicate new leaves and the first signs of its tiny flowers, while the rose, so sternly pruned back once again, is almost unimaginably suddenly a mass of glossy green, and the oh-so-delicate pink petals of the first clematis buds are just beginning to open.

In the grow house, the two remaining pea plants from the earlier 'boiling' debacle have come on in leaps and bounds and have spent the last week being hardened off. A third one, which I sowed just before my trip, has sprouted, along with three runner beans. And three broad beans are on just visible in their pots.

The rest of the grow house story is a mixed one.

Runner beans.
I may well have to give up on growing tomatoes, strawberries and chillies from seed this year – the erratic weather has done my embryonic knowledge no favours.

But out at the potager, the turnips and the most recent sowing of carrots have finally germinated, while peas that had taken six weeks to even pop their heads above ground are now making steady progress, and two broad beans had emerged too.

And under a canopy of gorgeous pink blossom, the blackcurrant bush is in lush leaf and busy producing buds.

So the weekend demanded that I get outside and do some gardening.

First was weeding – I mention this again simply because it’s worth reiterating that you can do it without pain and without chemicals. One Dutch hoe, the potager and around 15 minutes. All done – no backache. Two weeks of sudden spring growth sorted.

But this subject means it's also worth mentioning what happened yesterday, when the EU acted to ban neonicotinoid pesticides.

A massive step forward, but also one with dangers, given that manufacturers will look to create alternatives – and users may restart using older products that are hardly less 'green'.

Another point worth noting is that the UK government voted against any such ban – its prime constituency remains big business, and big business is not happy at this.

A comment I saw on a forum yesterday observed that, at some point, scientists may be able to create all our food without pollination. But I wonder: why would you want to? Why would that ever be a good thing?

Anyway, I remain a chemical-free gardener – and trust me, I'm not the most energetic. So if I can do it ...

You get the gist, I hope.

The next most urgent task was to sow out the oldest two pea plants from the grow house into the potager and add further copper rings to protect them.

I’d already erected the basic wigwam for the peas and put a bottom row of string around it. By yesterday, the largest of the transplanted peas had wound its first tendrils around the string.

The thing with the copper, as I understand it at present, is that you have to ensure they’re firmly in the ground – I’ve pressed soil against them both on the inside and out – so that nothing can get underneath, and that no plant flops over or debris provides a bridge across it.

Boudi thinks about chasing Basil.
But like so many things, if you check regularly, it’s a matter of moments. And in the battle against slugs and snails, it’s the best basic tactic – so I’m told.

Much remains to be done – and some new planning is in order as I work out what to do with the dead and dying bulbs, and what I actually want to plant on the patio for this summer.

The lemon tree needs some bedding plants around it quickly, to give some protection to the bare soil that loses moisture so rapidly.

It’s recovering now from the long months under a fleece, but given it’s position right against a wall, it probably didn’t get enough moisture during that time – something that I hadn’t fully appreciated and that needs to be remembered for next winter.

Beyond the garden – and the carpark – trees seem to springing suddenly to life; green is everywhere, and people are flooding out of their workplaces during the day to sit outside. The relief is obvious and widespread.

The cats are all pleased too – Boudi is managing almost daily patio rolls on the warmed concrete every time that I let them out.

She's also enjoying being able to see of Basil and Reggie – the carpark's two 'visitor' moggies – and, in general, behaving not remotely like a cat who is on the cusp of 'senior' status.

Otto and Loki are also revelling in being able to re-explore the spots they discovered last year.

So here’s hoping that we get enough of both a (late) spring and a summer to build us all back up after such a dismal start to the year. We all really need it – cats and plants included.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

A changing Dutch interior

Still life with asparagus.
The forecast for Friday involved rain, so one of the big set-piece visits of my entire trip – to the newly-re-opened Rijksmuseum – had been scheduled for our last day in Amsterdam.

The mock-gothic building was designed by Pierre Cuypers and originally opened in 1885.

Ten years ago, it was closed for a major refurbishment and redesign, with a limited amount of the collection temporarily housed in a smaller part of the building.

On 13 April, it was finally reopened by Queen Beatrix – her last public engagement before her planned abdication and the inauguration of her son, Willem-Alexander, at the end of this month.

We’d visited before – both prior to the refurbishment was begun and since.

It has a collection of treasures that is always worth taking a look at – and not least of these is the collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, a period that covered the 17th century and came at a time of huge growth for the Netherlands as a whole, in a variety of walks of life.

But the day started with breakfast at Cobra, the café near the Rijksmuseum on Museumplein: coffee and a plate each of poffertjes.

Poffertjes – not health food.
Now, let’s be clear: by no stretch of the imagination could poffertjes ever be described as health food.

These delightful pancake pillows are served warm, drenched in icing sugar and melting butter. And oh, they’re gorgeous.

It was the perfect way to set yourself up for some serious culture vultury.

I had – in a fit of sensible behaviour – booked tickets online beforehand so that we could avoid the queues that were gathering early.

Since the re-opening, the Rijksmuseum is looking as popular as the Louvre – certainly on the basis of the coach parties that are heading to it.

Medieval chalice.
On our first visit, we’d started with the gallery of painting of Dutch naval might. By the time we got to the best stuff, I was both knackered and deeply bored.

Today, the ground floor has, on one side, a collection of medieval art and objects, and the Asian collection. We headed to the former.

This isn’t just a shuffling around of exhibits, but a groundbreaking decision to display objects and paintings and sculpture together.

Apparently there have been complaints – someone wanting to see all the cabinets together, for instance. However, this arrangement gives a far rounder sense of a period than simply seeing things according to individual discipline.

On a personal level, I would probably not, for instance, have gone somewhere to look at bishops’ crosiers, but because they were in a display case in a room with paintings I looked at them, and they added to my knowledge and appreciation and experience.

And that was repeated over and over, in a whole range of periods.

The Annunciation by Tilman Riemenschneider.
If you’d told me, 10-15 years ago, that I’d be interested in matters medieval, I’d have laughed as much as if you’d told me that I’d pay to see a silent film.

The breakthrough was probably a visit to the Louvre a few years ago.

We were among the first through the doors, but the mass rush toward the Mona Lisa sent us scurrying in the opposite direction.

And this led to a magnificent collection, and names such as Rogier van der Weyden that I hadn’t thought of since my days studying art at school.

The Virgin as Mater Doloroso.
And there was hardly anyone else there, making it even more enjoyable.

Last year’s trip to Bruges hardly damaged my interest and, of course, the trip to Lübeck had involved matters medieval.

Here, there was plenty to be astonished by.

The Annunciation by Tilman Riemenschneider in Würzburg (c1485-87) is regarded as unusual because, while it shows Mary receiving the news that she is to bear the Christ child in a subdued, shocked fashion – which seems a tad heretical, to be honest.

The Virgin as Mater Doloroso(1507-10) attributed to Pietro Torrigiano – an Italian who lived in Bruges – struck me as looking particularly naturalistic for its era: it's also an example of the excellent new lighting in the museum.

The Rijksmuseum’s collection has a number of works by Dürer – the first I’d seen ‘in the flesh’, and they are marvellous – and there was plenty more to fascinate.

There were other works that delighted me too. 

The Shop of Bookdealer Pieter Meijer.
The Shop of the Bookdealer Pieter Meijer, by Johannes Jelgerhuis, from 1820, is a delightful take on the Dutch interior.

Parts of a surtout de table, in gilt bronze, made by Karl Friederich Schinkel in 1820-25 for Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia was yet another example of the sort of object that I would not otherwise have gone out of my way to look at had the exhibits been displayed in a more traditional manner.

There were also a number of Adriaen Coorte's still life paintings of food, including Still life with asparagus from 1696.

There were other pictures that featured food too – but we'll look at that another time.

The Other Half particularly wanted to see The Milkmaid again, Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece from around 1658.

This was the juncture at which I got a bit thrusting. Crowds were milling around, shoving; people demanding to have their friends take a picture of them next to X or Y work, and The Other Half was about to turn away.

Surtout – Prussian eagle detail.
I pretty much waded through as gaps fleetingly appeared, summoning him behind until he could get an unobscured view – at least for a few seconds; just long enough to admire the brush work and observe (I’d not noticed it before) the Delft-style tile detail on the skirting board of the room.

But the most important reason of all for another visit – from my perspective – was the chance to view, yet again, some of the extraordinary work of Rembrandt van Rijn.

We barely bothered with The Night Watch: over a decade ago, I sat down on a bench some way back from it, able to get lost in this huge canvas. There was no chance of anything like that on this visit, as a scrum some half a dozen people deep at least had formed at that end of the room.

Is it snobbery to wish that you could have a little more space to be able to view a work?

Just to be clear: I fully believe that culture should be accessible to everybody; not an exclusive thing.

Scrum at The Night Watch.
I also believe that it can enrich lives and teach us all sorts of things. We know, for instance, that teaching children a musical instrument can help them to develop other skills, including concentration – never mind introducing them to aspects of our culture.

But if you’re racing through a gallery or museum, in large parties, squealing and paying little more attention than wanting a tick-box record of your visit on your smartphone, what is the point?

And for clarity, this is not a matter of generations: the problem occurs with people of all ages.

Fortunately, the gallery containing some of Rembrandt’s less well-known works was far less packed, and here you did indeed have time to stand and look and take in what you were seeing – as did other visitors.

Born in 1606 and dead by the end of 1669, Rembrandt produced a staggering body of work in those 63 years.

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem.
Two works from that particular gallery stand out for me.

First, there’s the picture of Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, from 1630.

Like so many of Rembrandt’s pictures, the lighting is stunning.

The background is minimal and all the concentration is on the figure of Jeremiah and the treasures that give him no comfort. The detail on the clothing is extraordinary – as is that on the face.

This is not heroic or idealised painting of a Bible scene, but something far more down-to-earth; more recognisably real and human.

The composition, the way the main subject and background create a curve, again takes us away from the formal arrangements of so much that had gone before.

My second pick of the bunch is the Self portrait as the apostle Paul, from 1661.

Self-portrait as the apostle Paul.
The apostle that Rembrandt painted himself as can be identified by the hilt of the sword and the manuscript that the subject/artist is holding in the picture.

But although he painted a number of other people in the guise of Biblical characters, it seems quite an extraordinary act of ego to portray yourself in such a role.

Yet at the same time, the portrait is brutally honest. There is nothing glamorous here – the face is lined, the nose enlarged and with a blackhead visible, the hair grey and disordered.

And look at the eyes – a combination of questions and challenge.

In the 18th century, a taste for Dutch painting was viewed, in England, as being ‘a Whig’ one, and in France it was associated with the Enlightenment and desires for political reform.

William II of the Netherlands.
When you see how Rembrandt painted real human beings – and how others of the age painted scenes from real lives (Vermeer’s Milkmaid is just one example) – then you can see why it became associated with such ideas.

As a slight diversion on this theme, one of the paintings we saw as we wandered around was a very informal picture of William II of the Netherlands  (1792-1849), painted by Jan Adam Kruseman in 1840.

It’s an extraordinarily informal pose when we consider pictures of British monarchs, both then and right up to the present.
This was the Dutch king who, in 1848, saw what the future held as revolutionary turmoil affected the continent – and decided that the best way to avoid such unrest in Amsterdam was to initiate moves to draw up a constitution.

I changed from conservative to liberal in one night,” he apparently said at the time.

In the process, he quite possible saved his own house.

And Beatrix herself seems to continue with that certain relaxation.

A different sort of art – salmon.
In a bookshop window, I spotted this cover. But remove the print and you’re left with an intriguing portrait.

In the light and very limited palette, it could be harking back to Rembrandt. But as with Kruseman’s portrait of her ancestor, she appears relaxed and, in this case, almost shy.

Anyway, that – in a nutshell – was the Rijksmuseum.

Chocolate mousse.
To say that it's worth a visit is an understatement. The refurbishment is a superb job – the building as a whole is now so much lighter and more pleasant to spend time in.

But if you do, then I suggest that you get your ticket online (it doesn't limit you to any one day or time).

Get there for that day's opening and head right to the second floor and The Night Watch before the coach parties arrive. Once you've seen that, then you can take a little more time to wander in the less popular galleries.

We headed back to the hotel, needing food – a late lunch. And finally, the Café Americain properly came up trumps.

Salmon, with a crusty topping, the apparently obligatory trio of cherry tomatoes and a very nice buttery sauce.

It came with more handcut chips and a bowl of salad – and was by far the best thing we’d eaten there during this short stay, and we both followed it with a chocolate mousse that came covered in piped cream that had had a torch passed over it, and sitting in a 'fruits of the forest' compote.

Cheaper when alive (Rodin's Eve next to it)
And very pleasant it was too.

So that was pretty much that for our trip.

Later, we took an evening wander, where we spotted art shops that were selling a real Bruegel, a doubly signed print by Picasso and some bronzes (second castings) of Adam and Eve by Rodin.

Which really rather left me astounded – I always assume that every single such work is already in a museum or gallery – or in a private collection certainly not likely to be spotted in the window of a gallery on a street in Amsterdam.

Or anywhere else I happen to be strolling, for that matter. 

And that’s without mentioning the work by modern, living artists that was also on display in the shops on, some of which was absolutely delightful – and, in one shop, work by living artists had a nice discount.

And then we hit Café Hevel.

But if this trip illustrated one thing, it is that it is a nonsense to claim that Amsterdam is only sex and drugs and that you cannot visit without encountering both.

And as a final note: Eurostar – your food may not be 'disgusting', but Thalys rather left you in the shade on our return. And the fare cost less.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Variable Dutch cooking and excellent German music

'Van Dobben' croquettes, with odd accompaniments.
Amsterdam, day two: it dawned rather brightly, but with winds of around 25mph mitigating against any desire to wander very much.

Besides, we’d done a lot of walking the day before and very much felt the need for an easy day – not least since a concert awaited in the evening.

More than once I’ve made the mistake of thinking one has to run around – and forgetting that the day’s main event is in the evening and needs treating with due respect.

So after a stroll and a coffee in blustery Vondel Park, where the wind roared in the still-bare trees, we headed back to the Centrum and had lunch at the Café Americain, an Art Deco glory, where Mata Hari legendarily had her wedding breakfast.

I opted for the ‘Van Dobben’ – beef croquettes on sourdough bread, with mustard. Croquettes are popular in many forms in the Netherlands – another national dish is bitterballen, which is like a small, spherical croquette.

These were okay – although the vast doorsteps of bread seemed rather off-putting.

The place was not doing particularly well. Since we were staying at the adjoining hotel, we’d had breakfast there the day before, and decided that it was both overpriced and limited.

Latté – with caramel!
Indeed, the buffet breakfasts that I’d enjoyed in Lübeck had been far, far superior in so many ways. So that morning we’d settled for a coffee (latté with a caramel swirl! Who knew that burnt sugar could be so wonderful?) and a choc chip muffin at one of the cafés on the Liedseplein.

After lunch, the next few hours were spent in rest – much needed – before we headed back out and down to the Concertgeboew.

It had largely been a question of deciding, once we knew when we were going to be in the city, of looking to see if anything was on.

Since it turned out that Riccardo Chailly was conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in a performance of Mendelssohn’s second symphony, with a modern piece by Hans Werner Henze to complete the programme, I had booked tickets.

We’ve been to the hall before twice. First, to a ‘family’ matinee to hear Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals and Ravel’s Bolero, and then on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2009 we were there to see a traditional Netherlands concert that left us simply confused, turning out to be nothing that we could understand – not least because we had no clue who the TV personalities that were involved were.

This, however, was a horse of an entirely different musical colour.

But to start with, it’s worth noting that the hall, which was designed by Adolf Leonard van Gendt and opened in April 1888, has a reputation for some of the best acoustics around.

We had decided that, since there is a café, we’d eat there in the evening.

It didn’t look promising when we discovered that there was just the one option for a hot meal – chicken breast with a crust, served with a whole, roasted apple with a coconut meringue on top, and gratinéed endive.

Chicken, gratinéed endive and a baked apple.
As it happened, it also came with huge bowls of salad and more doorsteps of dark bread. And it turned out to be really very pleasant.

It was perfectly complimented by a glass of Grüner Veltiner 2010, an Austrian white wine, on the side.

And so to the music.

The Henze piece (a Dutch premiere) was Elogium Musicum, a choral piece, written in 2008, just four years before the composer’s own death at the age of 86, and as a form of obituary for his partner of 40-odd years, Fausto Moroni.

It is a setting of a specially-commissioned libretto by Latin scholar Franco Serpa – but the Latin here is not liturgical.

We had a sheet that gave a translation into Dutch, but I was able to find one into English via my phone: just as Amsterdam is not merely Sodom and Gomorrah, the internet is not just about porn and kittens.

At present, there is no recording of the work – although it has been performed in a number of countries and been critically acclaimed. It’s not difficult to understand why.

The music is fascinating – very modern, but with moments that hark back, in places, to the lyricism of the 19th century.

A rather fine concert hall.
There is a great sense of the natural world here, rather than any religious one – although the final poem does suggest a more deist idea of life.

But this is not a pastoral idea of nature – rather, it seems to link to that German forest again: here is darkness; foreboding; threatening sounds hidden amongst the trees; something at once primal and ancient.

It reminded me of the echoing crows in that small wood on the way back to the station at Travamünde.

Indeed, the second piece, for instance, talks of “vultures, dark crows, black menacing monsters raucously cawing”: this is Henze’s pain and loss reflected through a nature that is dark and threatening.

In the third piece, the female voices become chattering crickets, with the male voices complaining, and it ends with a dramatic ‘Basta!’ (‘Enough’).

I do hope that someone records this soon, because I very much want to listen to this again.

In sharp contrast, Mendelssohn’s second is the choral symphony known as ‘Lobgesang’, or ‘Hymn of Praise’, and has three orchestral movements, followed by 11 vocal ones.

The perfect end to an evening.
It was written in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of printing – which rather reminded me of the little corner of the Marienkirche in Lübeck, where a replica Gutenberg press stands, ready to turn a coin into a medal to mark your visit.

The role of printing in the Reformation is a point of reference too – not least in that original Catholic and later Lutheran church.

The music soared in true 19th century Romantic fashion, with fine singing from both the choir and the three soloists. In particular, Genia Kühmeier has a beautiful, crystal-clear soprano.

It was a fascinating counterpoint to the Henze.

But by gum – what an energetic conductor is Chailly: it intrigues me just what utterly different styles different conductors have.

Back at the hotel, we hit the cocktail bar to finish the night.

There we were, sitting sipping a Black Widow in my case, and something blue in The Other Half’s, when a woman nearby suddenly asked what they were.

No, ‘excuse me’ or ‘pardon’ – just: “What are those?”

Older people these days, eh?

Friday, 26 April 2013

In which a culture vulture meets a vulture

Vulture – non-culture variety.
Amsterdam has a reputation – quite a reputation, come to that. With its red light district and its grey cafés, it is, in the minds of some, the very model of a modern Sodom and Gomorrah; to others, a pleasure palace.

It has been said that those two aspects of the city are impossible to escape from, even in a limited visit: but that is either a rather wild exaggeration or a somewhat Freudian interpretation, depending on your own analysis.

Now, in the interests of clarity: I have never spent time in one of the grey cafés, but I have smoked the odd joint and have no problem with that aspect of Amsterdam. Equally, I’ve spent time – on my own – in the red light district too, and the only thing that nearly freaked me out was the sight of two of Mother Teresa’s nuns heading in my direction.

So this is not some sort of puritanical, crusading piece against that part of the city’s existence. In the posts about this part of my spring break, there will simply be an attempt to rectify that myth and broaden horizons.

If it is simplistic to describe Lübeck as “terrifyingly cultured”, then it’s equally simplistic to portray Amsterdam in a way that forgets hugely significant aspects of its culture.

In keeping with the first leg of this trip, there was to be no shortage of delights for a culture vulture abroad. I had pre-booked tickets for the Rijksmuseum, which was due to reopen after a 10-year restoration/refurbishment just a few days before my arrival, and also for an evening at the Concertgebouw, the city's magnificent concert hall. And more of those in following posts.

But Wednesday dawned bright and mild, and we decided to head to Artis, the city’s zoo.

Short for Natura Artis Magistra (itself, Latin for ‘Nature is the teacher of art’), Artis was founded in 1838.

The main entrance bears the name above it, but ‘Artis’ was the word above the central gate. It was the one that was most often open, and thus people looked up and saw this one word – and the zoo became known by that word.

In addition to the zoo itself, the site also houses a planetarium, zoological and geological museums and an aquarium, plus a substantial library – all of which declares it’s educative qualifications.

We’d never visited before and the size of it proved a surprise – for some reason – presumably the general size of a grachtenhuis in the Centrum – I’d expected it to be small and not much more than a children’s petting zoo.

It’s light years from that.

We started at one of the old buildings, just near the planetarium, where there were birds outside and inside, some monkeys.

Having wandered along the outer enclosures, we headed in. I hadn’t spotted the signs saying that there were loose animals beyond the doors, so it was an even bigger surprise to walk into a tropical forest and find a large, blue bird wandering around.

The surprises were only about to begin, though, as a monkey swung past nearby and we spotted three little, apparently rodent-like creatures chasing past thought the plants.

Guinea fowl. 'Are you lookin' at me?'
I have never seen such small monkeys – and being able to see them so near, without glass or Perspex or wire between you is utterly astonishing. Judging by the smile on the face of one of the keepers, having clocked my own grin, such a response is frequent.

As we moved through the different parts of this house, we came across a group of guinea fowl toddling around. One, though, was determined that anyone who came near must, by dint of bird-brained logic, be in possession of food.

'Is that camera food? I bet that camera's food really,' it seemed to be demanding as it headed straight for me.

It was four years ago, in Berlin, that I really ‘discovered’ zoos as an adult – not least for the purposes of photography.

Chimp and baby.
There, the specific revelations had included vultures, which I had never imagined I would find remotely interesting, but, having made eye contact with a king vulture, I now find them awesome, and was delighted that Amsterdam had a number of European Griffon vultures.

In fact, on that trip, I’d found myself far more interested in several of the birds than I had expected – and here things started well with a delightful pair of kookaburras.

The meerkats, as always, delighted, with chances to observe (and snap) their lookout behaviour.

Half a dozen small turtles proved excellent models for a couple of pictures, as did a camel that looked at me with the sort of expression that could have come straight from one of the grey cafés.

But on this trip, special pleasures awaited in the form of baby animals.

First, there were a pair of baby maras curled up together outside a little burrow, with a trio of older ones watching on carefully. They had been born only the weekend previously, but are so developed that they can sometimes graze within a day of birth.

Then, in the gorilla enclosure, a magnificent silverback was leading his troupe in a charge around as they waited to go inside for dinner: we spotted at least three babies on their mothers’ backs.

But perhaps the most glorious of these treats came watching a chimpanzee sitting on a large trunk, poking a stick into a hole in search of insects, and all the time holding her sleeping baby in her other arm. He or she had such an old little face.

The question from a photographic perspective became not simply getting the shot, but trying to avoid the flare on the windows of the enclosure. Some shots were better than others – and Photoshop can then help further.

It’s one thing to see such sights on the television: it’s entirely another to see them in the flesh.

Zoos are still a contentious idea for some people, but good ones – like this and Berlin – have enormously important roles to play in terms of conservation and education.

In terms of the latter: yes, you can see so much on television – and in the UK, we’ve been blessed to have David Attenborough and the BBC wildlife unit at Bristol educating us for many years.

But I offer my own changed view on vultures as an example of the difference that seeing in the flesh can make.

And indeed, a couple of years after that, we spotted and were able to identify a Lammergeier over Foix in the French Pyrenees.

And here, we watched as two vultures tore apart a dead rabbit, with a much larger carcass close by.

For all the cuteness, nature is truly red in tooth and claw.

There were, of course, plenty of herons around – you can't avoid them in Amsterdam, and they're wonderful to see. And flowers in full colour offered a pleasure that perhaps might be less so in other when, by this time of year, we'd have seen plenty.

Sculpture of a young chimp.
But one other thing I really liked about Artis were the sculptures that can be seen throughout the grounds.

There are some that clearly date back many years, but others that are far more modern.

That evening, we headed for Kop van Jut, one of a trio of eateries in the touristy food streets around the Leidseplein, that actually serve Dutch food.

Oh, you can find Argentinian and Uruguayan steaks aplenty, and there is no shortage of those thin frites and burgers and dogs, plus a few Indonesian restaurants – the culinary legacy of the Netherlands’ imperial history – but little in that area that provides Dutch cooking.

Most people would probably struggle to think of a Dutch dish, but in keeping with the sort of culinary links that I mentioned in terms of lobskaus, there are plenty here too.

For instance, Erwtensoep is simply a version of pea and ham soup – the Germans have one too (erbsensuppe), while the Scandinavians have artsoppa, a pea soup.

Stamppot is a dish made with mashed potato, which is added to vegetables and sometimes also bacon: colcannon or bubble and squeak, anyone?

Anyway, we’d dined at Jut van Kop some years ago and thought it well worth a return.

I ordered cod with spinach, beans and a sort of pesto dressing: fairly typical Northern European ingredients, with a rather more southern twist thrown in, and all done rather well.

And it came with a large serving of handcut chips – with homemade mayo on the side.

That’s a filthy little habit that I picked up in Amsterdam years ago and is now my go-to condiment for chips.

The Other Half had two small (but not that small) soles.

And, for dessert, ice cream.

The menu was far shorter than we remembered, but that's no bad thing. The staff were almost taking youthfulness to the point of frightening. And it had never really struck me as the sort of establishment that would ask you to 'like' on Facebook (although I have done that). It's a changing world.

It had been a very enjoyable day – and I offer it up as early evidence in my case that Amsterdam is not simply Sodom and Gomorrah: unless you want it to be, of course.

* A full set of Artis photographs can be viewed here.

* The Berlin Zoo photographs can be viewed here.