Thursday, November 20, 2014

Travel Report from Amsterdam - Andaz, Mercure Arthur Frommer, De Kas and Senses


From Germany, we made our way by train to Amsterdam.

It was my first time in the city of canals and bicycles (not counting getting stuck overnight once at Schiphol airport due to an Italian airline strike).

As I mentioned last month, whenever I travel I try to look for eco-friendly accommodations. In Amsterdam, that meant picking the Mercure Arthur Frommer, which has made a commitment to recycling hotel waste and using green cleaning products.

In fact, the entire hotel represents a sort of large-scale recycling project since the guest rooms are packed into 19 former weaver's houses that were built in the 17th Century. That's adaptive reuse!

As you can imagine with such an old building, the Mercure Arthur Frommer is right near the center of town, while still being on a quiet side street that allows for a good night's sleep.

I liked the artistic touches in the rooms:

The decoration in the sink at the Mercure Arthur Frommer reminded me both of Delft pottery and also of Amsterdam's nautical heritage


The headboard of the bed at the Mercure Arthur Frommer was covered with a large scale reproduction of a work of art. Just the inspiration you need to explore the marvelous collection at the nearby Rijksmuseum, with its famous "Night Watch" painting by Rembrandt.


The other hotel where we stayed in Amsterdam was the Andaz, a fancy Hyatt property with a marvelous Alice in Wonderland themed garden. Only, in this case, as you can see it's actually Alice in AMSTERDAM. :)

Here's a real bed of herbs in the Alice in Amsterdam garden!

The Alice in Amsterdam garden has some big ducks.

Nothing particularly whimsical about this patch of perennial geraniums (I presume) in the Alice in Amsterdam garden, but it sure does look pretty.

A fireplace, a wrought iron bench and a chessboard-motif floor? These are just some of the quirky elements that await you in the Alice in Amsterdam garden.

A pretty hydrangea blooms alongside the fireplace.


The Amsterdam Press Office kindly arranged for me to sample the fare at De Kas, a restaurant built around the appeal of ultra-fresh produce. We took a tram from the center of town to get to De Kas. When we disembarked from the tram, we had to walk on a bridge across a pond. Looking down, I spotted this water bird with its young. I believe it was a Eurasian Coot!

(The Press Office also furnished me with a complimentary 72-hour I amsterdam City Card, which was super helpful not only because it provided free public transport and a free canal cruise, but also because it gave free entry to a number of the most popular Amsterdam attractions including the Van Gogh Museum, Hermitage Amsterdam, National Maritime Museum, Hortus Botanicus and Dutch Resistance Museum.)

Eurasian Coot feeding its young.


Approaching De Kas, the first thing you notice is a large greenhouse. This is where the restaurant grows some of the produce for your meal. Many of the vegetables not produced in the greenhouse are grown (in season) at a farm the restaurant cultivates not too far from the city in the Beemster Polder (land reclaimed from the sea),
All those bicycles outside the greenhouse? Many of the restaurant patrons probably arrived there by bike. That's Amsterdam for you.


A tray of the restaurant's apples greets you when you walk through the door.



In the greenhouse, you'll find cucumbers...


And lots and lots of tomatoes, beans, eggplants and other healthy fresh produce.

I found these melons, persimmons and nuts in the greenhouse near the kitchen. According to the founder and owner Gert Jan Hageman, the restaurant only harvests enough food each morning for that day's dishes, so you know your vegetables and fruits are as fresh as can be!
The restaurant has won praise and attention from international media such as The Telegraph.

Continuing to explore the greenhouse, I came upon these great looking beans. Everything seems so lush and healthy. 

The De Kas manifesto, printed on its menu.
De Kas knows that not all tomatoes taste (or look) the same! 

Not only are the fresh ingredients delicious at De Kas, they're also given the artistic presentation they deserve.
Kicking it old style - traditional Dutch wooden shoes at the entrance to the De Kas greenhouse.

 In addition to De Kas, I made a point to seek out other eco-friendly restaurants during my time in Amsterdam. This search led me to Senses, an aptly-named restaurant inside the Albus Hotel that features organic, local and sustainable ingredients.


I thought Senses did a great job of engaging all the senses - nice relaxing lounge music, sexy decor, plush materials and of course delicious food. I'll be honest - I can't recall whether the fish served here was herring or sardine, but either way, it was fantastic. Being so close to the sea, you can find some wonderful seafood in the Netherlands.

I don't know if I'd ever eaten goose before, but the version that Senses served was fantastic. And as you can see, it was a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth. In fact, the colors and arrangement on the plate are truly a work of art.

Senses did not skimp on the details. Notice the high quality tea and the fair trade honey. That's a sweet deal.

Full disclosure: 

The Mercure Arthur Frommer hotel provided me with a two-night complimentary stay and two additional nights at a discounted media rate in exchange for this review. I did not receive any special treatment from the Andaz hotel.

As mentioned, the Amsterdam Press Office arranged for me to have a complimentary lunch at De Kas. The management of the Albus Hotel was kind enough to provide me with a complimentary dinner at Senses restaurant. 

All of that being said, all of the opinions expressed in this blog post are my own and I stand by them wholeheartedly. I would not hesitate to suggest De Kas or Senses to a friend visiting Amsterdam. They were two of my favorite meals from my entire three weeks in Europe - both for their eco-friendly qualities and in terms of taste, ambiance and service. 

As for the hotels, frankly I preferred the Andaz to the Mercure Arthur Frommer, but the Andaz can literally be almost four times as expensive. For a three-night stay around the Christmas holiday, for instance, you might have to pay almost $400/night at the Andaz, but only a little more than $100/night at the Arthur Frommer. For the location alone, that makes the Arthur Frommer a great value in pricey Amsterdam!


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Travel Report - Rhine River Valley, Pumpkin Sculptures, Elvis Presley, Red Squirrel Sighting, Steep Vineyards and Sheep


From eastern Germany, we traveled south and west along the Rhine River on our way to the Netherlands. Here are some natural and horticultural photos from along the journey:

You might think of Germany as being the Land of Beer, but the Rhine is all about Wine!
In many places - as here in the town of Bacharach - you'll see steep hillsides blanketed with vineyards.
Just climbing this hill seems like it would be a challenge, never mind planting, tending and harvesting the grapes!
Here and there, you see sheep on the hillsides...   :)


The town of Ludwigsburg, Germany claims to have the World's Largest Pumpkin Festival. Typically, more than 400,000 pumpkins are pressed into service to make larger-than-life sculptures.
Here two medieval pumpkin knights on horseback prepare to joust before a royal audience (and a cafeteria).



Some of the pumpkin kings are of the playing card variety...
(although wouldn't Jack say he was the real Pumpkin King?)


And then there's the King of Rock and Roll!



Have you ever seen such a conical tree?!
And with a statue sheltering beneath it like an umbrella?
This is not my taste at all, but I had to admire the moxie of the designer and/or pruner in this palace garden in Wurzburg, Germany.




Grey squirrels are super common in the States.
In fact, my mother used to get her exercise chasing squirrels off our back porch. (They were always trying to steal from the birdfeeders.)
But if you want to see a Red Squirrel, you have to head to Europe.
And even then, you better keep your eyes open, because the red squirrel seems much more shy, elusive and rare than its grey North American counterpart.
Here was my best attempt at snapping a pic of a red squirrel in a Wurzburg garden.
Now I know how those photographers feel when they try to convince people that their photos really do depict Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.
Honestly folks, that blur is a red squirrel!
(Incidentally, Germans apparently cannot say the word "squirrel".)


Beautiful vista from this formal hilltop garden in Wurzburg, Germany
And on that exposed hilltop garden was a palm tree!
(The palm was surrounded by a very nice patch of Sweet Alyssum.)
I'm no expert, but I think this could be a Chinese Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei).
What do you think?

Finally, a field of orange flowers (poppies? marigolds?) makes a delightful carpet leading up to this Wurzburg palace.



Monday, November 10, 2014

On Snout Houses, Vast Lawns and Deafening Blowers

I find the sound of leaf blowers a bit grating...
Photo courtesy of Guian Bolisay

This post will be a (brief) rant.

I came across a couple of interesting blog posts on the Interwebs recently.

One dealt with the phenomenon of what we might politely call car-centric architecture. Or bluntly call a Snout House.

The other showcased a comparison of American suburban streetscapes (sprawling, dominated by lawn) and European streetscapes (compact, no front lawn to speak of).

Both posts were fun, trenchant reads.

Storm Trooper in the grass
Apparently lawns are only able to support plastic life forms...
Photo courtesy of JD Hancock

So, here's my question to you all:

Is it too late?

Is this the ideal landscape for many Americans?
Photo courtesy of Tiger Pixel

Are we too far gone down that path of suburban soullessness where each house shall be fronted by a sea of green grass (or weeds) to be beaten each week into submission by the loud, whirring, pollution-spewing lawnmower (+ edger/trimmer + blower)?


Just blowing some leaves...and dirt...and perhaps some dust, fecal matter, fungi, chemicals, spores, lead, etc. etc.
Photo courtesy of Dale


Or is there a chance that someday these green carpets - lifeless except for the amputated grass blades, drenched with fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides - will be replaced with a rich array of trees, shrubs and perennials buzzing and twittering (not Tweeting) with life?

I know which future I'd prefer. But I suspect I'm in the minority.

Attack of the Blower People?
Someone call Mulder and Scully!
Photo courtesy of Surat Lozowick

Friday, November 7, 2014

Travel Report - Potsdam Karl Foerster Garden


Ah the famous and eponymous Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis acutiflora "Karl Foerster" at the Karl Foerster nursery in Potsdam, Germany
Karl Foerster (1874-1970) was a famous German plantsman and nursery owner. Apparently, he and some friends are the ones who propagated and popularized the Goldsturm rudbeckia. He also is credited with finding and propagating the Feather Reed Grass that was named after him - Calamagrostis acutiflora "Karl Foerster".

While taking a daytrip from Berlin to Potsdam to see the palaces there, we made a detour to the Karl Foerster garden. It turned out to be a longer detour than expected, because the bus was not running that day, which meant we had to take a rather loooooooooooooong walk.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting visit. Here are some of the plants and sights that stood out:

The striking "Bishop of Llandaff" dahlia.  The dark foliage with the red flowers makes for a stunning color combination.
I believe this is some sort of Japanese Anemone, but I couldn't find a plant label to confirm my belief or provide any further detail.

I never saw such nice Bergenia cordifolia before visiting Germany and the Netherlands. It seems to be a favorite groundcover / filler over there and appears to be very happy in the climatic conditions. 

These yellow flowers were not labeled. They look to me like some sort of perennial sunflower, but I certainly appreciate a specific ID if any clever readers would like to chime in. I took this photo in large part because I thought it was a very effective and beautiful combination of sculpture, foliage and flowers in the garden. 
Japanese Forest Grass - Hakonechloa macra. I tried growing some of this in 2014, but I think it needs a shadier and cooler setting than I could offer in Tennessee. Love the combination and foliar contrast of the Bergenia growing alongside the Forest Grass. 

A towering stand of Miscanthus floridulus, at least 8-feet tall! 
A wall of morning glory in the garden. I believe this vine is an annual, so presumably this is a single season's foliage! 
No name on this plant in the parking lot. But I love the rainbow colors on the foliage. 
This was a lovely fragrant and floriferous rose called Angela.  
A cat keeps a close eye on things from a window.  
This is the actual working nursery part of the operation. It was closed when we visited, but a sign on the fence listed the hours as being Monday to Saturday from 9-7 and Sunday from 11-4. If you're planning to shop there, you might want to check in advance to make sure these hours have not changed according to the season. 


Finally a bit of whimsy. It's a little hard to tell from this angle, but I think whoever trimmed this boxwood was aiming to create a bunny topiary. Can you see the ears and the tail ;-)