Two nice days in a row, an unexpected gift according to the locals and so we decided to make the most of it and do some outside stuff.

First on the agenda was the Hortus Botanicus, Amsterdam’s botanical garden. One of the oldest gardens in the world, it was established in 1638 as a place for city doctors and pharmacists to grow medicinal plants, it moved to its present location in 1682. Its collection benefited from the colonial reach of the Dutch East India Company and grew rapidly to surpass other European gardens in not only size but also in the number of unique plants it held. Today it holds more than 6000 unique plants, including a 300-year-old Eastern Kape giant cycad and a 2000-year-old Agave alongside a 154-year-old water lily, Victoria, that opens every night at dusk. In addition to the extensive outdoor plantings, greenhouses provide examples of tropical rainforest, southwestern desert, and Cape climate biomes. A single coffee plant, Coffea Arabica, and two small oil palms in pots brought to Hortus Botanicus during the colonial era are recognized today as the parents for the entire cultures of these plants found across 4 continents.

We’re botanical garden superfans, and always make an effort to visit whenever we find ourselves near a new one. Our long-time favorite is the Jardin Real in Madrid, a place we always stop by whenever we find ourselves in that city. I’ll admit, the Hortus gives our favorite a run for its money. Best of all, it was only a few blocks from the hotel so after breakfast, out we went.

The entrance is tucked into a bend of a road in a quiet residential area. One thing worth noting, since COVID the majority of tourist and public places like this have gone cash-free. You must pay with a credit card. I had a chat with the woman selling tickets about this, reflecting on how no one wants the Euros that I took the time to secure before traveling. She said they felt it was safer to not handle money, odd considering you have to hand the credit card reader and the pen to sign the slip. But rules are rules.

It’s not a large garden, only about 3 acres, but the peace it projects is profound. Full of singing birds, lots of oxygen, and largely insulated from the neighborhood sounds around it, it’s a wonderful place to go for a stroll and to find a bench in the shade to sit and reflect. For us this morning, it was a nice change from pounding the pavement in the crowded city center. We stopped in their very nicely appointed cafe when we finished our tour for a coffee and a chai. While sitting there, a ton of tourists started filing in, no doubt because some tour buses had deposited them at the gate. We exited through the gift shop which had a very nice stock of botany-related gift items. While MLW was browsing, I used a little plant vase to capture a very big hornet that was trapped in a window. I told the cashier that I wasn’t shoplifting the vase on the way out the door, but rather freeing the wasp. She looked at me like I was nuts and smiled.

Next on the agenda, and only a few blocks away was Natura Artis Magistra, the Royal Zoo. Founded in 1838, it is the 5th oldest in the world. Known locally as “Artis,” the park includes a botanical garden, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and an aquarium which was unfortunately (for us) closed for renovations. It was built on the Middenhoff estate which had been acquired by the zoological society in an area known as “The Plantage,” a formerly rural area adjacent to Amsterdam. The zoo library contains more than 20,000 books, 3000 manuscripts, 80,000 animal prints, and the collected papers of Hugo Marie de Vries, a famous 19th-century botanist who (in parallel to Mendel) was one of the first scientists to suggest the existence of genes and for proposing the concept of mutation-based evolution.

It being Sunday, and beautiful outside, it was crawling with families and kids. But the place is big enough to handle the crowd without making it hard to get around. The animal exhibits were thoughtfully designed, with many of them not very restrictive of the animals on display. Lemurs for example are free to wander wherever they want. We spent a lot of time watching the elephants playing a game with one of the workers. He’d spray them with a hose, they’d feign fear and run away, he’d turn off the hose, and they’d come running back to repeat the process. One juvenile among them walked into the pond in their enclosure and completely submerged himself.

The biggest highlight for me was the butterfly pavilion. Effectively an indoor rainforest, it was chock full of moths and butterflies, flitting around and stopping to feed on slices of fruit placed here and there on tables. There is something genuinely peaceful about being surrounded by little fluttering gems.

A couple of hours wandering around and dodging strollers was enough so we exited and went across the street to a pannenkoeken restaurant I’d noted on the way in. We split one with bacon and cheese along with a couple of Cokes. A nice time to refuel and sit in the shade for a half hour. I had a nice chat with the wife of the owner who was Spanish, and on the way out the owner said he was Spanish as well. From Barcelona. Or more precisely as he put it, Barcelona, Tunisia.

After a quick gelato stop on the way home, the first half of our day was over. Tonight, it’s time for our reason for being here – the Vermeer Exhibition at the Rijksmuseum.