Vintage view: 17th century interiors

Kya deLongchamps is moved by 17th century interiors from the Golden Age in Amsterdam.

There are unexpected places where the membrane between the past and present is almost transparent. 

The streets of Amsterdam flanked in cocked-eyed 17th century terraces are just a bump over the hour by plane from Cork.

The canal-side houses or grachtenpand, their railings bristling with hefty bikes, belted by water and linked by insanely charming bridges, offer that obligatory camera grab. 

They also feature some of the least tramped and intimate museum spaces in a compact city centre heaving with world class maritime, cultural and municipal treasures. 

Slow down, massage the cobbles out of your instep, and let thequeues at the Van Gogh Museum wait.

These warehouses and domestic dwellings were forced into height and close community by a lack of dry room and the ever present danger of flooding. 

Slender (from 18 Amsterdam-feet wide), they reach back in some cases to a garden. 

In a typical, single-fronted house, a ‘mirror house’ or extension with a connecting open area providing light, were put up in the late 1600s.

Even the expensive double-wide houses of five windows across, are relatively workmanlike compared to the genteel Irish Georgian townhouse. 

The pulleys and hooks which swung goods for trade and domestic supplies from boats and carts to upper floors are signalled by surviving beams surrounded by a signature gable. House movers still happily use these lift points today.

Some single houses, runs of houses and ‘twins’ lean slightly forward, to slough off rain which might freeze into the pointing, and to ensure heavy cargo did not wallop off the front of the property on the way up.

The ancient supporting timber piling beneath the house intended to prop them securely on the sand bank under the city, has in some cases rotted out and collapsed. 

One side of many houses has clearly slipped and their facades ‘dance’, presumably now re-enforced with submerged rafts and steel props.

There are houses of every class to explore.

My first, after a flat-white at the Old Bank/Starbucks in Rembrandtplein (a mid-century-staged must) is on a quiet stretch of the elegant Herengracht, off the Amstel river, where the city was born. 

The Willet-Holthuysen house is a double-wide beautyc1687. The curators here reflect the surroundings of the house’s last inhabitants, the connoisseurs and gad-about towners Abraham and Louisa Willet-Holthuysen.

Amid the upper-class elegance of French Louis XIV furniture, crystal chandeliers and Turkish carpets, there’s plenty of the 17th century in the layout and fabric of the building, including paintings of garden birds to the Reading Room windows, and a curry yellow kitchen straight out of an old master. 

Abraham, known as Bram to his adoring friends, had an exquisite eye for the odd and exoticand much of his collection has been raked back to the house.

For a peek up the social scale, the patrician Museum Van Loon (the family still creaking around upstairs, when not in Paris) is just over the bridge on the Keizersgracht. The mansion includes a working carriage, and flocked, magnificent surroundings with a superb Baroque garden.

Built in 1667, it was first rented out to Ferdinand Bol, Rembrandt’s most lauded pupil. 

Most museum mansions of Amsterdam are furnished in Beau-Arts or Italian Neoclassical outfitting, as that is when the aesthetic snobberies of their last owners’ stalled in the oils of the ancestors.

When you visit the Olde Kerk/Church (the outright winner in the joust of the New and Olde Kerk), blush your way through the fringes of the Red Light District around the corner to the Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder/Our Lord in the Attic. 

This recently renovated amalgamation of two canal houses is deftly revealed — its atmosphere, shadow and the ghosts of former inhabitants intact. Having come here to see the magnificent c1663 Catholichurch— it’s deeply moving and a testament not to persecution, but to the tolerance of the city elders – enjoy the incidental, authentic rewards.

The quiet parlour to the front with a box bed for sleeping sitting upright, two kitchens, (one a tiny squeak), and the display of artifacts found under the house during its renovation, bring

the inhabitants forward from a paralysed exhibition to the human and tangible. Have some thick malachite-green pea-soup at the museum café and a golden beer brewed in the garden, great value.

Spoilt for choice, you could move on to the Museum of the Canals/ Het Grachtenhuis to get to the watery bottom of the UNESCO World Heritage site flowing all around you or the Huis Marseille Museum of Photography, housed in another architectural gem.

For the ultimate girly experience, start with silver service tea in the splendid period rooms set around the World’s premiere Museum of Bags and Purses, formerly another gilded townhouse, built for Cornelis de Graeff, former mayor of Amsterdam and also inhabited in the 19th century by feminist heroine Lady Jeltje de Bosch Kemper.

With 500 pieces ornamenting five centuries, including sparkly goodies from Madonna and Imelda Marcos’ wardrobe, it’s situated on Herengracht by the City Archives (also open to you), and won’t disappoint.

Stepping back to popular haunts, Rembrandt’s home, where the artist spent 20 years of his life before being bankrupted and forced into smaller quarters in the Jordaan, offers a stirring hour or so. 

There’s a reverent atmosphere in the reconstructed treasure room, kitchen and front parlour, where he lived and worked with his beloved Saskia, and where he would hawk his paintings and those of his friends. 

The Nightwatch

was painted here and in the studio, the soul of the ambitious genius trembles in ochre shafts of northerly light.

The ‘I Am Amsterdam’ card saves time, oodles of money on museum entry and prompts unexpected exploring. Free transport throughout the immediate city on trams, buses and trains of the GVB is included. Three days from €77.

For affordable luxury, try the Park Hotel in the museum district, 

Aerlingus return from Cork to Schipoll around €125 pp.


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