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The tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk against a bright blue sky

The Iconic Tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk–Photo of the Week

The Amsterdam Westerkerk, or Western Church, is a much beloved symbol of the Dutch capital. The crowned spire of its tower, the Westertoren, is the tallest church steeple in town, and you can see it from almost anywhere in the city center. It has been a beacon, a time-teller and a source of reassurance for Amsterdammers for hundreds of years.

The tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk against a bright blue sky

The Westertoren, or tower, of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, the most important
Protestant church in the city and a much beloved icon for Amsterdammers.


A Symbol of Reassurance

More than four decades ago, I began a life-long love affair with Amsterdam. I lived in the city for a year, and put a lot of effort into trying to learn Dutch.

One day, when I was house sitting for a friend in the Jordaan neighborhood, I decided it was time to try to read something in Dutch, preferably something not too difficult but not a children’s book either. If it could be something I was already familiar with in English, so much the better.

The obvious answer was Het Achterhuis, Dagboekbrieven–the original version of The Diary of Anne Frank in the language in which she wrote those pages.

Not far into the book, I came across these lines:

In this quote, in the original Dutch, Anne Frank talks about hearing the bells of the Westertorn.

Saturday, July 11, 1942
Dear Kitty,
Father, Mother and Margot still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night.

I put the book down and smiled, because those same damn bells had been keeping me awake night after night in the apartment I was sitting, just a few blocks from where Anne and her family hid all those years ago. That simple line in a young girl’s diary personalized her experience for me more than anything else had.

The Bells of the Westertoren

The bells of the Westertoren, the tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, have been chiming the quarter hour, accompanying lovers, reassuring frightened Jews, helping people get to work on time and generally punctuating the days and nights of Amsterdammers for almost 400 years. And they still do.

The Amsterdam Westerkerk was built between 1620 and 1631 in Renaissance style. It’s the largest church in the Netherlands built for Protestants and is still in use by the Dutch Reformed Church today. The 278 foot (87 meters) tower was added in 1638.

A Trip to the Top

For those able to handle very steep and narrow stairs, and a lot of them, the climb up the Westertoren, the tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, can be a highlight of your visit to the city. You must go on a guided tour, as you will not be allowed to climb it alone. You actually ascend only about halfway, approximately 40 meters (131 feet). The guide will stop at each landing to give some history of the building and point out things you might miss on your own (as well as providing a brief catch-your-breath mini-break, much needed by me!)

You’re not allowed to take a bag or anything with you but a camera and maybe a notebook in your pocket. Your bag will be safely locked away during the tour. Once you begin the climb, you’ll be glad you’re not wrestling a bag or anything else. You need both hands to climb the steep stairs.

Note to Older Women Travelers: The steps begin as a narrow spiral staircase with rope handles. Nearer the top, they turn into straight-up stairs that are really more like ladders, extremely steep. Apparently, people had much smaller feet in the 17th century, because the step treads themselves are narrow. Wear well-fitted shoes, take your time and concentrate on your footing. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to wear a skirt if you don’t want to give those below you a free show! Coming down, you’ll find it easier to descend backwards.

The Best View in Town–and Bells!

At the top of the climb, step out onto the balcony. Prepare to be awed by the view, a seemingly endless 360° panorama of Amsterdam, with views of the canals below, the rooftops, the parks, and everything in between. A short block away, you can look down at the tiny windows of the attic where Anne Frank sat and looked at the tower’s clock, one of the few things she could see. Also, take a minute to look up. Just above you is the coat of arms of the City of Amsterdam, with its white XXX, a design you’ll notice all over the city. The top of the tower is crowned with the Imperial Crown of Maximilian I of Austria, which is also part of the city’s arms.

Up in the tower, you also have a chance to see the magnificent bells of the Amsterdam Westerkerk. They’re among the biggest in the city and were cast by the master bell makers of the 17th century, the Hemony Bros. According to the current carilloneur, “The name Hemony is as much associated with bells as Stradivarius is with fine violins.”

Volunteers from the congregation still ring the bells by hand for Sunday services and special occasions, such as Dutch Remembrance Day. The largest bell, weighing in at 4000kg, is never rung for fear the vibrations will crack the walls of the tower. The carillon is the only one in Amsterdam that still rings out the time for the entire 24 hours every day. On Tuesdays at noon, the city carilloneur plays a delightful hour-long concert on the carillon. You can hear it from many blocks away.

The guided tour up the tower is offered Monday through Saturday from April to October. They only take up 6 people at a time, so you may have to get your ticket and then wait a bit. The first tour of the day begins at 10 am, and that’s when you are most likely to get in straightaway. The tour lasts 30 minutes and costs 8€. Tickets are only sold on the same day; no reservations are possible. Take cash because they do not accept credit cards.

Be Sure to Visit the Amsterdam Westerkerk Too

While you’re waiting for your tower tour, take a few minutes to explore the interior of the church. The Amsterdam Westerkerk is spare, characteristic of most Dutch Protestant churches. But it is lovely in it simplicity. With chairs instead of pews set out on the flagstone floors, wooden barrel-vaulting high above and some lovely stained glass windows, it’s a peaceful place. Since there are no tall buildings adjacent to the Amsterdam Westerkerk to block the sun, light pours through the 36 large windows to set the whitewashed walls aglow in a glorious “light effect.”

There is also a beautiful Duyschot organ, brass chandeliers, and the usual unassuming pulpit. Rembrandt was buried in the Westerkerk in 1669 but in an unmarked pauper’s grave. As was the custom then, his remains were removed after 20 years to make way for other poor people. There is a memorial to him in the church.

Access to the tower is obviously not accessible for wheelchairs and other people who have difficulty with stairs. The church itself, however, is accessible, though the flagstone floor may be a little uneven in spots.

When you’re looking the things to do in Amsterdam, make sure you take time to see this icon of the city and soak in some of its history. And if you can possisbly manage the climb up the tower, do it. You will be well rewarded for the effort.

The Amsterdam Westerkerk–A Symbol, a History, a Haunting

On July 9, 1942, Anne Frank, her mother and her father, walked through the pouring rain toward her father’s business and its hidden hiding place in the attic of the Achterhuis–the house behind. (Margot would arrive directly from school on her bike.) They sloshed through the city, wearing as many layers of clothing as they dared and carrying as many useful items as they could pack into school bookbags and shopping bags without looking too conspicuous. Their walk took them directly past the Amsterdam Westerkerk and its crown-topped tower.

Today, the tower continues to play out its place in Amsterdam’s history, comforting the people, marking the hours, and celebrating their joys with its magnificent bells.


For more information and a schedule of events, check the Westerkerk website.” It’s in Dutch but pretty easy to understand. If a specific date on the calendar says “kerk gesloten,” that means the church is closed that day. It also lists who will be playing the organ for Sunday services and the free Friday lunch concerts (April to October and highly recommended) and any other performances being offered. The acoustics of the church are marvelous.

The church itself is open year-round Monday through Friday from 11 am to 4 pm. From April 1 to November 1, it is also open on Saturdays. (Hours are sometimes shortened in the off season and shoulder season.) Sunday services are held at 10:30 am, in Dutch.

The Westertoren/Tower opens for tours at 10 am, Monday through Saturday, from April 1 to November 1. The last tour begins at 7:30 pm. 8€ entry fee, cash only.

The church entrance is at #279 Prinsengracht; the tower entrance is just a few feet away. Tram lines 13 and 17 stop right at the corner, at the Westermarkt/Anne Frank House stop.

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Visiting the Amsterdam Westerker and Tower-pinnable imageLearn why Anne Frank loved the bells of the Amsterdam Westerkerk and Tower - pinnable image

Multnomah Falls, 30 minutes drive from Portland, Oregon, is the #1 most visited natural attraction in Oregon.

Multnomah Falls—Portland, Oregon’s Nearby Magic Maiden

Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s #1 most-visited natural attraction, is just a short 30-minute drive from the urban world of Portland. And a place apart. Beware, she is a siren designed to pull you off the highway.

Photo of the Week

Multnomah Falls is a temptress. Inexplicably female in her feathery beauty, she captures you first with her grace and then with her sheer size. With a 690 foot drop, she is the highest waterfall in Oregon.

You might as well give in. Go ahead. Pull off I-84, the highway that wends its way through the spectacular Columbia River Gorge. Multnomah Falls deserves a closer look.

Multnomah Falls, 30 minutes drive from Portland, Oregon, is the #1 most visited natural attraction in Oregon.

The pretty and pwoerful Multnomah Falls is bisected by the Benson Bridge, which merely adds to her beauty.


Multnomah Falls has several ways to rein you in. The sound beckons you from the parking area. After your short walk to the viewing platform at the lower pool, she plunges you into a natural fantasy—green, damp, pine-scented and vibrating from the power of the water. Crane your neck up to take in her whole beautiful length. A railed footbridge bisects the feathery fall, like a sash at the waist of a wedding dress. You want to get closer. Do it. Lean in on the railing, close your eyes and let the cool spray of the water caress your face.

Look around you, deep into the green—and blue, and gold. The firs and ferns, the mosses and the gray rocks. Let her speak to you.

If you want to get closer still, hike up the 1/4-mile paved trail to the Benson Bridge, that sash on the wedding dress. Built in 1914 by a wealthy lumber baron, it’s a great spot to look up at the 542′(165m) fall top tier of the twin-layered cascade, and down onto the lower one, which adds another 69′ (21m) to her majesty.

At Any Season, Multnomah Falls is Nothing Short of Gorgeous.

Spring at Multnomah Falls treats you to the greatest volume of flow, as the snow melt and rainwater run-off from high up in the mountains feeds into the streams and the natural spring that feeds the Falls year-round. In Summer, you can wear shorts, let the spray cool you and quite possibly see one of the many weddings that are staged here.

Oh, but then, there is Autumn. When the water pushes its way through yellows, golds and reds, it can stop your heart. And in Winter, you can capture a special still moment of her frozen beauty.

If You Go to Multnomah Falls

Driving Directions:
Driving to Multnomah Falls from Portland is super easy. For the shortest route, just a 30-minute drive, take I-84 eastbound. Get off at exit 31 (which is an unusual left-side exit ramp). This takes you directly to the parking area. Follow the path from there back under the highway to the viewing area for the falls.

For a more scenic drive of about an hour or so, again take I-84 eastbound from Portland. Take the Troutdale exit then follow the signs for the Scenic Loop Trail. This will take you along the old Columbia River Highway, the first drive in the country to be named a National Historic Landmark. It’s easy to see why. The drive offers up a feast of beautiful views of the Columbia Gorge, Mount Hood and several smaller waterfalls along the way.

Services, Fees and Amenities:
There is no fee to visit Multnomah Falls and a Forest Service pass is not required.

There are several bathrooms available on the grounds.

The Multnomah Falls Lodge is just to one side of the lower viewing platform. Built in 1925 using every kind of stone found in the gorge, it’s a popular destination wedding location. The Lodge includes a restaurant, snack bar, bar, espresso bar and gift shop. The amazing views of the Falls are free.

Also located at the Multnomah Falls Lodge is a US Forest Service Information Center. You’ll find information about the Falls, brochures, and trail maps. There are many books for sale to tell you more about the Falls’ history and legends. Open 9 am-5pm daily.

Pets are allowed at the Falls viewing area. They must be leashed and fully controlled at all times.

Accessibility:
The visitor center and the restaurant and facilities in the Lodge are all fully accessible.

Both the short distance from the parking area to the lower viewing area and the hiking path to the Benson Bridge are paved. The more difficult climb to the very top of the Falls, a distance of about a mile (.6km) is more rigorous, with many switchbacks. Parts of the hike can be damp and slippery. Older travelers who are unsure of their footing should considering sticking to the lower viewpoints.

A Bonus Look at Oregon’s Multnomah Falls

Still not convinced you need to visit Multnomah Falls? Check out this aerial drone video of Her Majesty, Multnomah. I’m betting it will have you packing your bags or loading the car for a trip to Portland and the Columbia River Gorge.


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Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people's homes overlooking the whole thing -- a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

POTW: Restos: The Cemetery in San Miguel de Allende

At the rear of the Panteón Municipál, the city cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is a columbarium, the wall of nichos where the urns of ashes of those cremated are interred. It holds memories and tells stories. It also tells us about cultural differences and ideas about life and death.

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people's homes overlooking the whole thing -- a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people’s homes overlooking the whole thing
— a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.


I like Mexican cemeteries. To me, they seem very real and very human. They are not sterile, tidy places. They are not manicured. They are certainly not uniform. They are a reflection of the life that came before them, the untidy lives lived by the people that now inhabit—and perhaps haunt—them.

They are not like the cemetery in southern California where my mother lies buried. It is one of those “Green Hills” type places, the kind they don’t even call a cemetery anymore. It’s a “Memorial Park” or something like that and looks more like a golf course. Like no one is buried there. You are not allowed to have an actual gravestone in such a place. Nope. No monuments or statues or mausoleums. None of these overdone, over-wrought tombs with weeping Victorian angels like the ones that adorn and beckon from the cemeteries we love to visit on our travels, cemeteries like the lovely Pére Lachaise in Paris or Highgate Cemetery in London.

No, these “memorial park” pseudo-golf courses allow only a simple plaque marking the plot where love now resides. A stone or metal rectangle, flush with the manicured lawn. No headstone or tomb or even a cross is allowed to break the clean, un-dead line of the rolling hills of grass.

No Grass… but Ahhh… Life Among the Dead

But Mexican cemeteries! Ahhh, now here we have signs aplenty of the actual people behind the graves, both living and dead. The Mexican graveyards I know and love are much like life in this rich and colorful country—varied and many, often untidy, frequently haphazard, exuberant and overdone. Ranging from the professionally correct to the lovingly hand-crafted. Seldom perfect but invariably heartfelt. There are large and fine mausoleums housing whole families with carved marble columns and weeping angels aplenty. They sit next to roughly hewn crosses with hand-painted remembrances. There are live flowers, in full flush or wilted, but they are usually outnumbered by an overabundance of plastic posies, frequently red, often faded to old-lady dusty rose.

At the back of the Panteón Municipál, the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, is the columbarium, a wall of small nichos where the urns or boxes of ashes of those who have been cremated are placed. Each nicho has its plaque, its shelf for vases of flowers or perhaps a candle. But except for their square size, the nichos’ only uniformity is their lack of sameness. Some are bricked up. Others have rather plain cement slab fronts. Some have marble, others stone. Some are white, others pink; some have the names and dates carved, others are written by an unsteady hand. The creators of my mother’s cemetery would, ahem, be turning in their graves at the untidiness of it all.

But to me, the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende is a far more inviting place, despite the fact that at my age I have way too many friends now silently residing there. It is vivid… in the true sense of that word. It reflects life rather than death. It is vibrant with the whole mess of human feelings and actions and levels of being.

At my mother’s “memorial park,” every one of those dead souls, who was so much a vibrant being full of individual tastes and feelings and favorites and hates and loves, is reduced to the exact same-sized plaque in a rectangle of pesticide-fed lawn, all marching in lockstep down the rolling hillsides of the “park” at the precise same distance apart.

A flat carved grave plaque in a flat lawn in a cemetery in California, with roses.

My mother’s grave plaque in a “Green Hills” type cemetery in Calfornia–just like every other stone


The Music in the Air of the Cemetery in San Miguel

When I visit an American “memorial park,” I never hear music in my head. The only notes I might hear would be the somber hymn of a funeral in progress under a tent canopy on the next rolling hillside over. But in a Mexican graveyard, I always fancy I hear music, even when the place is empty. It might be the Cucurrrrucucu of “La Paloma Triste” or the weeping notes of “La Llorona.” Or maybe I just hear the small voice of a child singing “Las Mañanitas,” the birthday song. But it is always there, just below the surface.

During the night of Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, the music rises up and becomes real. For days beforehand, the cemetery in San Miguel, like those across the country, is cleaned and weeded, the graves scrubbed and painted. Flowers, especially cempazúchitl, the Mexican marigold, are carried in by the armload. Candles, sugar skulls, gold paper decorations, and other items are brought in to decorate the graves.

On the night itself, the whole place becomes party central. Whole families basically camp out at the graves of their loves ones, eating and drinking and having a fine fiesta. The music might be a radio or iPod. Or it could be mariachis. By morning, it could turn into a fairly drunken version of “Caminos de Guanajuato” with its refrain loudly declaring “No vale nada la vida…” “Life is worth nothing…”

Yes, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Make Mine Mexican

For me, the choice is pretty clear. Unless you can sprinkle me over a mountain top or throw me wildly to the wind and the waves, I’ll take the messy but vivid life and fullness of a Mexican cemetery over the tidy uniformity and dullness of a Stateside “Memorial Park.” Just bury my heart in the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende.

Blue doors, a rose-colored step and fuchsia bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

POTW: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico-It’s the Little Things

On how a photo presented itself to me in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and reminded me to pay attention. To look up.  To look down. To listen and smell and feel the air. To notice the “little things” that can turn any trip into a rich and fulfilling adventure.

On Noticing the Little Things Along the Way

Blue doors. A rose-colored step.  A sprinkling of fuchsia-colored bougainvillea petals.

Blue doors, a rose-colored step and fuchsia bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

A perfect still life in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, one of the “small moments” we must slow down to notice as we travel.

This lovey composition was just there, being itself in all its beauty, not waiting for me to come along, not posed for the camera or “set-up” as a perfect shot. I just happened to be walking by. I was on my way home from a meeting, my mind spinning with ideas and “must-dos”—what to fix for dinner, a business call I had to make, a bank balance I had to check. I was half-writing my next blog post in my head while keeping one eye on the ground to avoid tripping over the cobblestones or an all-too-common hole in the sidewalk here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. My only real point of focus was getting home.

But something made me turn my head to the side. A flash of color. A piece of composition. It barely registered and I kept walking. But then I stopped, turned around, walked back the few steps to look at it again. I realized it was beautiful, a perfect composition of color and form, shape and placement. It was a little piece of Mexican art handed to me on a plate.

I whipped my phone out of my pocket and snapped a few photos of it before going back on my busy way.

Later that evening, I looked at the photo again, and I liked it. I decided to put it up on my Instagram page. I post quite a few pphotos of my home town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico there and they usually get a nice response. I also shared that photo on my NomadWomen Facebook page. I didn’t think too much about it for the rest of the evening.

But when I looked at my page the next day, I realized that this one photo was getting a much greater response than usual. Something about this pretty color composition had struck a chord. People were liking, it, commenting on it, and sharing it like crazy, this little photo that was basically an afterthought.

And that got me thinking. How many of these small moments, these little gifts of noticing, do we let go right past us in our normal lives and even in our travels? If you’d been walking up Calle Hernandez Macias on that sunny afternoon, would you have seen that blue door with its rose-colored step and its sprinkling of fuchsia petals? How many times have I passed something very similar in this town and NOT seen it myself?

The Lesson for Travelers from my San Miguel de Allende, Mexico Moment

The moral here, I think, is a simple one. First: Slow down and pay attention. Let your senses run free. Look around you. Smell the wind. Taste the air. Feel the stucco or the water or the wooden door.

Ask yourself: What “small things” and precious moments do we miss on our travels as we rush from place to place? When we go from one “must-see” attraction to the next, when we focus our attention on the street ahead and the day ahead instead of being fully present in the moment, what wonders go right past us unseen, unheard, unnoticed and lost forever to our conscious enjoyment of our trip?

Some Examples from my Own Recent Travels (with Bonus Photos)

If I had rushed through the Rijksmusem, seen the paintings I love, and then run off to the next thing on my Amsterdam “must-do” list, I would not have stopped to rest on a chair in the gardens behind the museum. I would not have noticed how the sun shining through the dancing fountain there created a rainbow that gave me great delight as I watched its changing stripes of color weave through the droplets while the fountain danced its rhythms.

A rainbow in the fountain behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

A rainbow plays with the dancing fountain in the garden behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

If I had been solidly focused on getting to the Charles Bridge in Prague, a highlight of any trip to that magical city, I might not have been hit so hard by the divine smell of chocolate when someone opened the door of the Choco Cafe just as I passed by. I might not have realized I could take a break to rest my sore feet, step inside and order what turned out to be the most decadent, most sensory-fulfilling, most delicious cup of thick hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

The facade of Choco Cafe, near Old Town Square, Prague

The facade of the Choco Cafe, at Liliová 250/4, near Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic.
Photo courtesy of Choco Cafe.

 

If I had not been paying close attention as I strolled the aisles of La Boqueria market in Barcelona, my nose might never have taken in the full variety of the different fish smells and my eyes may not have taught me that barracudas have wicked sharp teeth and are apparently a popular food fish in Catalunya. Or that the movements of the man slicing Jamon Iberico from a large hanging shank of that specially cured and especially delicious ham are a beautifully choreographed ballet.

Head of a barracuda with sharp teeth on a bed of ice at La Boqueria market in Barcelona.

A barracuda with its wicked sharp teeth, resting on a of ice at La Boqueria Market in Barcelona….
not someone you’d want to meet out in a wine-dark sea, or even a sunny one.

 

And I never would have caught, from the corner of my eye as I hurried home, the perfect abstract composition of a pair of blue doors, a rose-colored step and a handful of fallen bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.


Pinnable Image of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with Text Overlay--How Noticing the Little Things Can Turn Your Trip into an Adventure

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