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.

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