This year’s summer trip was the truest representation of the planning strategy for late bookers that we have used more than we wish lately, for the reason mostly related to my work schedule: “find cheap(ish) plane tickets, then find what is interesting to see at that place”. This time this road (or more exactly, flight) took us to Amsterdam, a place that Tamara visited with her parents and me and Anne have never been to.
When we go to Europe we always try to get full 2 weeks of it, and there should be enough to see in The Netherlands and Belgium. Maybe we can even go as far as Strasbourg or Rhine castles? Well, a little research showed that it would probably be too much to cover on this trip, and we decided to concentrate on The Low Countries with a side-trip to Aachen, Germany. Most of it was planned using some old Michelin travel guides and (even older) AT&T “walk maps”, though we got some info from the internet too.
We booked this trip so late, it was less than 2 weeks before the flight when we reserved a hotel in Amsterdam (when we finally decided we want to start there rather than finish). We’ll stay in Amsterdam for 3 days (counting the day of arrival), take a car in the city and drive around for 10 days. Hotel reservation turned out to be a little adventure. Just 4 days before the flight Tamara checked her messages to find out that Hotel Sebastian cancelled our reservation 😧! Why? Only because the name on the reservation (Tamara’s) didn’t match the name on the card (mine), although the last name was the same. They did try to contact us for 2 or 3 days before canceling. However, now we are looking at arriving to Amsterdam without a place to stay 🤦. Fortunately the same hotel had another room for 3 people for the same price (probably the very same room). The emails from the hotel were very courteous, and they even sent us the list of restaurants they recommend.
This time the flight is with United Airlines from Newark (hopefully we are done with Delta, which has caused us disappointments on our previous trips). Our friends in Westfield, NJ kindly let us park our car in their driveway for 2 weeks. We even managed to take a walk with them in a park before parking the car and taking Uber to the airport.
Nice flight with working entertainment system and two meals, one of which included ice cream, but a red-eye one nonetheless. We decided to take a train from the airport as our hotel is located within walking distance from the train station. It’s about 20 min of brisk walk when you are with a suitcase and a backpack, but quite tolerable. It is Monday morning, about 8-8:30AM. Bicycles are whizzing around. We knew everyone is on a bicycle in Amsterdam, but now we also know that in Amsterdam the bicyclists are akin New York City pedestrians – they will yield to nobody except, sometimes, another one of the kind, and will not stop for any traffic light, regardless of the color 😂.
We use my work phone with international roaming enabled and track our progress turn by turn. Once we reach the canals the surroundings turn less crowded and more picturesque.
Finally we are at the hotel, located very nicely on one of the canals. We probably look quite tired after the red-eye so the folks at the hotel offer us free breakfast, which is usually €10 per person. The breakfast is a buffet which is very good, in the best European traditions, and we firmly decide to have our breakfasts in the hotel. The orange juice is exquisite, something we are about to find common in all places in The Netherlands.
The first place to visit in Amsterdam is the great museums, and we take a ride in a tram to Museumplein while trying to orient ourselves (the phone is discharging fast) and get some idea about Dutch pronunciation (hint: it is not easy). One of my Dutch pronunciation questions, the “ij” combo, was resolved quickly: the Dutch “dijk” and the English “dike” are pronounced the same.
Rijksmuseum is a great, well, museum. We get there at about noon local time and get right in.
We do, however, have a problem in Rijksmuseum… The problem is, we haven’t slept for about 24 hours straight. Anne is exhausted and when we find a good spot on a stone bench at the wall she just starts napping in Toma’s lap. It would be cruel to wake her. After about 10 min Toma closes her eyes as well. I check the pictures I made so far, but there is not many and I’m tired too… Long story short, all three of us were napping in a corner of a stair area in Rijksmuseum. I’m pretty sure some tourists from, hopefully, some other country are laughing at our photos right now. That’s ok… I just hope I didn’t snore… Not sure how long it lasted, maybe 10-20 min, but we feel much refreshed and proceed further into the numerous museum halls.
A little connection to the Russian language noticed by Anne: the Dutch for “hall” is “zaal”.
Out of Rijsmuseum, it is about 3PM but we are not a bit hungry, after the superb breakfast. The sun is high and it is rather warm. We are still very tired and have a little rest in a shady spot on Museumplein before going to Van Gogh Museum. The place is teeming with people, dogs, pigeons and jackdaws in all kinds of a repose.
Unfortunately it turns out Van Gogh Museum requires tickets purchased in advance with a preset time slot. We stand in line for a ticket machine and get one of the last spots for today, timed for about an hour and a half from now. To spend some time Tamara takes us to
Royal Coster Diamonds
A diamond polishing company that is in business since 1840, the oldest in the world and I think one of the best known, though at this point it seems to be a pretty small firm. The tour focuses on details of diamond polishing and attempts some sales (unsuccessfully). Pretty interesting for an hour long detour, something new for Anne. After finishing up we get back to
Van Gogh Museum
I did not know much about Vincent van Gogh’s life before and the museum gives great insights into his personal life and artistic development. A rather tragic story… The museum’s collection was created mainly from the paintings belonging to the family of Vincent’s brother, Theo van Gogh.
It is the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings and we spend considerable time there.
By the time we’re out it’s past 5PM, and for us it seems the right time to get back, have a dinner and a good night’s sleep. Back to the tram, getting out at the right stop (without GPS, as the phone is already dead), navigating through some streets past the canals (unscathed and untouched by the bicycles).
A couple of the restaurants recommended by our hotel are nearby, and one of them (De Belhamel) sounds pretty good. I ask about it at the reception but the girl says she has tried to make a reservation for one of the guests for today and it was booked. Such is traveling in the summer! We decide to walk in that direction anyway and find out what’s out there… Passing De Belhamel we check just in case… Turns out it’s totally booked… for 8 o’clock, but since it’s just past 6 we get a table right at the canal… actually, right at the T-intersection of two canals with a great view!
Our second day destination is Jordaan neighborhood of Amsterdam, including the highlight of the city for Anne: Anne Frank’s House. Anne has read the diary and is very interested in visiting the place. Jordaan, turned out, is named for the French word “jardin”, meaning “garden”, and not for anything in the Middle East. Formerly a place where poor Huguenot immigrants lived, it is now an affluent neighborhood in the Dutch capital. Our hotel is conveniently located, basically, on the border between Jordaan and the historical center of the city, making both very reachable on foot.
After our Van Gogh Museum experience Toma had the good sense to check the ticketing policy at Anne Frank’s House. Turned out, it is even stricter: you must have a timed ticket when you arrive 😲! If you happen not to – purchase it online only, and come back when your time slot is due (likely not soon, as they get sold days in advance). Thanks to the timely (no pun intended) Toma’s research we reserve tickets for 11:30AM, which gives us ample time for breakfast and getting there (and sleep). Sleep is a bit of an issue though, as the time difference wakes us up early, but that’s alright…
Out of the hotel, we walk by the beautiful canals with myriad of bicycles parked along the way.
One of the bicycles is covered in green, and I mean totally covered, decorated with flowers. No way anybody would ride on it, it must be just a decoration. I’d like to photograph it, but we need to go, maybe later… Not a lot of space for walking by the way, a pedestrian is bound to be attacked by either an occasional car or a steady stream of bicycles. On the plus side, Amsterdamians seem to really like flowers.
We’re finally at Anne’s Frank’s House, along with many other people it seems. The place changed considerably since Tamara was here long time ago. The adjoining house hosts a small new museum now as well, the entrance is from there, as well as the line of people. There is much more space between that house and the church than there is on the sidewalk, so all-in-all it now seems much better designed to accommodate many people. Since our time slot is 20 min away we are asked to wait elsewhere… So I snap some not-very-good pictures…
Finally our time has come to enter. It’s a interesting experience to see the place, which is preserved fully with the exception of the furniture removed by the Nazis, and it evokes many feelings. To go through it takes time, as visitors are routed through the rooms of the office first, with information related to the Frank family, and then routed through the Annex. Anne can barely contain the excitement as she approaches the bookcase. “Now I understand why they had to crouch and jump,” – she says. If you need to recall details from “The Diary of a Young Girl”, our Anne is your source, she can quote it if you need her to. We go through the house, and also the museum where Anne Frank’s diaries are displayed. I think overall this visit was the one Anne was interested in the most…
After we’re out the plan is to go around Jordaan. Looking back I should say it is a fine place to see the Amsterdam architecture without too much of the crowds and the marijuana smell of the city center. Canals and houses with gables are numerous. From a purely aesthetical view at the old architecture I think I like the old French half-timber houses a bit better than Amsterdam brick ones, but for example Tamara can’t get enough of the gables, the more different ones the merrier. So the walk is quite merry 😀
The old and the new, but still traditional, with an obligatory gable hook.
The hook of course provides the way to lift the goods from the street or canal without taking them up the stairs. In fact, many of the houses have the front wall leaning towards the street. Different houses may have different angle of leaning. My theory is that the ones leaning more must have belonged to piano players, thus having lifted more grand pianos in their lifetimes, which of course caused the additional leaning, while the more upright ones must have belonged to violin players, thus… What? Sounds unlikely? OK, it’s just possible that the front wall is made to lean so that whatever is lifted has less of a chance to hit the wall (or the windows)… Sometimes the difference in the angle is quite pronounced.
Another old Dutch building feature that Toma really likes is brightly colored red window shutters.
On a corner of a street (and a canal) there is a sign “Amsterdam Cheese Museum”. That’s not something we have encountered in tourist guides. An ambitious title for a such a small place but let’s see what’s inside… Inside, it turns out, is a cheese store where you can taste different cheeses paired with sauces, and there is some info about how cheese is made, together with some cheese-related implements in the basement. This concept, i.e. “put some cheese-making info into a cheese store and make it a tourist attraction”, turned out to be quite common in Netherlands 😅. The cheese, especially some of it, is very tasty, and some types are very interesting (one was, for example, a beer cheese), and makes us consider buying a couple of sorts. However, with the road trip coming soon, and some of it including very hot days, we decide against it. Anne also really likes one of the types of mustard. Neither me nor Toma can consume any of it, so we settle on a small jar. The name is “Duyvil Mostard”, which of course means “Devil Mustard”. You get the idea…
Another old tradition of Amsterdam architecture is to have a cute stucco picture above the door that describes who lives here. That must have made real-estate market a bit difficult in 17th century Amsterdam: “I need a house for a shoemaker, urgent!” – “Sorry, the only ones on the market at the moment are baker’s houses”. The concept of house numbers was introduced here only after Napoleon’s conquest.
This one is upside down (it says Lindengracht, “gracht” is Dutch for “canal”)
It has been a pleasant walk along a small street in Jordaan (suggested by one of the old AT&T walking tours). Besides being nice looking, the street also offers shade. A gelato shop looks pretty nice, with walls painted with pseudo-Italian landscapes and a wooden (what else) Pinocchio statue in the corner. My throat feels a little sensitive after the plane and the museums and I decide to abstain, but Toma and Anne dive in enthusiastically. The gelato turns out to be great (the place’s name is Monte Pelmo and it is highly recommended by us).
Step by step, the canals are becoming a bit more familiar… we are getting closer and closer to the hotel. Here is a chance to make a photo of that flowery bicycle. What, it’s not at its usual place! I go up and down the block… no way it is further from our hotel. Where is it? Did it get stolen? Or can it be that the thing actually moves 😲???
Back at the hotel and the sun is still high. There is enough time for us to go in the other direction from our hotel and explore the area close to Amsterdam Centraal train station. Once we reach Singel canal it seems everything explodes: more people, more noise, more space… One thing is right there that attracted my attention when we were walking from the train: Stubbe’s Haring kiosk, a herring stand. It was closed back then, early morning, it is open now. We knew from Rick Steve’s video that Amsterdam herring stands cut the fish to smaller pieces, as opposed to the typical Dutch tradition to offer each filet uncut. I try to say a salutation in Dutch, but not a word is understood. Oh well, I tried. English works (as it does in all places in The Netherlands it turned out) and I make the order (herring with onions and pickles). Maybe Toma joins me, hopefully Anne opens her mind to try it too… Dutch herring turns out to be much less salty than the one traditionally sold in Russian stores in Brooklyn. Toma likes it, Anne loves it! The fish is no more in one minute max, but it’s gonna be dinner time soon, so we decide one is enough.
The train station is a beautiful building, but with with all that clutter around it the view is not ideal.
The view to the south, away from it, on the other hand, has the canal (well, technically I don’t think Damrak is a canal) and buildings standing on water, which always makes for a nice picture. We are looking towards the dam in Amsterdam, the place from where the city started.
Going further east we come to Weeper’s Tower (Schreierstoren) where, allegedly, women shed tears for the men going out to the sea. Formerly on the shore, it now stands on a busy and noisy street. Another interesting fact about it is that it was from this place Henry Hudson started his 1609 voyage that brought him to America and all the lands he discovered here.
The day turns into evening, and we turn into a more touristy area of the city, walking on a lively Warmoesstraat. The street is pedestrian (in terms of traffic, not the looks), with occasional bikes, full of restaurants, tourists and weed shops, but the marijuana smell, so strong on some of the side streets in the center, is not as pronounced here. All three of us really dislike the smell.
We pass by an Indonesian restaurant and I think it’s one of the recommended ones. “Let’s go”, asks Anne. She actually really wants to try some unknown food! That’s almost never happened before. “Come on,” she says, “It’s gonna be spicy!” Well, that’s precisely why Toma and I are reluctant 🙂. We continue to walk but start considering Indonesian for dinner. I mean, if you want Indonesian food the best place to get it outside of Indonesia is, probably, The Netherlands, given that the first time the Indonesian islands were united was as Dutch East Indies. Considering how exceptional Anne’s request is we decide to try it. But first, some more walking around the streets, towards the dam and aside.
Some lions above the doorway. In Anne’s humble opinion, they looks like they’re defecating… We disagree, but, frankly, looking at this photograph, I kind of see where it’s coming from… no, no pun intended…
Looking at Damrak from the other side, there is a family of swans in the distance.
Dinner in Indonesian restaurant! It was good I think, though I bet Toma would have preferred something else. We had rijsttafel (rice table), quite predictably, since the only dinner options are two different “rice tables”. It consisted of variety of shareable meat and vegetable dishes and 2 types of rice: plain and spicy. It was good and none of us stayed hungry.
Today we start with the walk to the center of Amsterdam, through Red Light District, to something that Toma and Anne wanted to see, which is a catholic church hidden in an attic of a house. There were several of such churches in calvinist Amsterdam in 17-19th Century. Although catholic churches were prohibited after the revolution, apparently, in a fine Dutch tradition of relative tolerance, these house churches were not persecuted and they functioned until 19th Century, when the prohibition on Catholicism was lifted. The church is actually quite sizable, built in the space of the upper floors of three co-joined private houses, owned back then by a merchant. It is called “Our lord in the attic” (Amstelkring), and has all the element of the proper church, including an organ.
We walk towards the Waag, or weighing house. One can recognize the importance of trade in the old Netherlands by how important the weighing houses have been in Dutch cities. The old building also housed other things, including a guild hall and an anatomical theater, where Rembrandt witnessed the procedure commemorated famously in his “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”.
Speaking of Rembrandt, another attraction we are about to visit is Rembrandt’s house, to learn more about the life of the great painter. Seemingly an artistic powerhouse in his time, an artist, a teacher and an art dealer, he eventually lost his house because of the debt, essentially defaulting on his mortgage.
Going further we approach Portuguese Synagogue, once the temple for a large Jewish population that was expelled from Portugal (and before that, from Spain) and found a home in Amsterdam.
Right nearby is Jewish History Museum, describing the history of Jews in The Netherlands from middle ages to WWII, with many details. For example, we heard of Westerbork transit camp used by the Nazis in WWII, but didn’t know that it was actually established by Dutch government as a refugee camp in 1939, I guess when the number of Jews trying to flee Germany became too large…
Today we walked a lot, including the museums, and we feel pretty mellow. The neighborhood is lively and busy, and we walk back to where we started, via a completely different route.
passing Pathé Tuschinski, a movie theater of a striking appearance
A market with a picturesque flower shop, we spend a bit of time looking. This market is actually standing on a barge!
We are back at our (yes, our) Keizergracht canal, walking slowly to Hotel Sebastain. And… yes, it’s back! The bicycle! So this thing does move?
After some deliberations we decide to get dinner in one of the restaurants nearby that a) open and has seats outside, and b) not opposed to spending some time helping us translate the menus. Remember, we don’t have lunches here because of our breakfast.
This is a small place and we sit outside looking out onto a rather quiet square and a street with a canal beyond. The meal was good but it was interrupted by a strange sound from behind and something small landing on my sleeve. At first I though somebody spit out some food with great intensity, and we turned to look behind. A further investigation reveals that this was in fact a small piece of bird bomb that, apparently, exploded at the table behind us. We are assessing the damage. Fortunately, there is nothing on the food and we are pretty much done anyway. The voices from behind tell us that their damage is considerably larger. Yeah, those hooks above sure help lifting things up but they have their downside (no pun) as well…
The sun is getting down for our last day in Amsterdam. We are getting to our lovely hotel room with a separate corridor. Tomorrow morning we are getting a car and driving to
When reserving the car I decided to go with an American company (they’re probably are easier to deal with in US in case of a problem later). Enterprise is actually located beyond the train station, on one of the back streets. The walk is much longer than it seems to be on the map. Last time we were walking here it was early morning, this time it is much later and the area around the train station is more crowded. Counting the time it takes to rent a car plus driving we will only be in Delft by lunch time. We’ll see however, we have our Dutch breakfast inside us, so the food is not gonna be required for awhile.
Finally rented Suzuki S-Cross as a compact car. It’s a small SUV, which is perfect for us. On to Delft! The drive is about an hour, not particularly attractive, as we don’t really see much of the countryside.
Delft is a small town famous for Delftware, earthenware developed and produced here since early 17th Century. Based on Chinese porcelain design and concept, and designed to fulfill the demand while the goods from the East were expensive or not easily available, it was very popular until some time in 19th Century when cheaper alternatives pretty much took over.
Our first visit here is Royal Delft factory, the Dutch name for it is Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles. Founded in 1653 as De Porceleyne Fles (The Porcelain Jar) it is the last Delftware factory left out of 32 in their heyday. This factory still makes Delftware pieces using the same method and materials as 350 years ago.
We watch an artist painting a vase, and go over a museum with a courtyard, a small warehouse and a gift shop 🙂
Typically painted with cobalt blue, there were some methods developed over the centuries to use other colors.
The center of the town is within walking distance from here but we don’t know where we’ll stay for the night, so we drive and park in a parking lot, near a small mall, and go to the market square. Today is the market day, which is one of the reasons we got here on Thursday. I really like small town markets and wanted to see at least one on our trip. Unfortunately, it seems we won’t be able to visit any cheese markets, so at least I managed to see this one. Tamara likes markets in general but not when they clutter the square, which is the case for Delft market. The large buildings here are the cathedral and town hall.
William Of Orange (or William The Silent) is pretty much the most important historical figure for the Dutch, and it shows in many places. He had selected Deft as his residence for the well-built town’s defenses after several assassination attempts on his life, with the price on his head set by the Spanish crown. The town defenses didn’t help though, as he was assassinated here in 1584. He is buried in the cathedral, with a statue of his dog Pompey (who, apparently, thwarted an attempt on his life once) at his feet.
Cluttering or not, but the market provides an opportunity to buy some fruits and berries, which we do. There are also waffle stands (among others) and Anne uses her chance to get some of it. After all, we are skipping lunch…
There are some charming houses and canals around the market square.
One of them is Johannes Vermeer’s house. The famous artist lived all his life in Delft and painted here. The museum, however, does not really have that much to exhibit…
The canal nearby is busy with a family of Coots babysitting
We leave the market square area to proceed to Prinsenhof. A former monastery, it was William Of Orange’s residence at the time of the murder. Now a museum, it provides some more details about the Dutch War of Independence, William’s life and the assassination.
We now saw everything we wanted here, and now strolling slowly in the direction of the parking lot, along a canal. There are multiple hotels nearby and I attempt to get a room for three. None available… Well, the evening is young and we don’t have to stay in Delft…
Just like yesterday, our restaurant preference is with a place that has people ready to help us with interpreting the menu. Sitting at the table, with Google Translate at our fingertips, it is quite possible to do without additional help, but looking at the menu at the entrance and trying to decide whether Anne is going to eat anything here or not, a help is preferred. The place we pick has a sitting area on a barge on the canal, which makes for picturesque surroundings. The service is slow but it gives us enough time to talk over and look up hotels online. Even better, though some us were a bit bored…
The hotel question was eventually resolved by remembering that Toma has an old Ibis Hotel account, and we decided to look for one in The Hague. The chain includes Ibis, Novotel and Mercure Hotels and they are everywhere in Western Europe it appears. Turns out that parking (which is marked “available” on the hotel page) means simply that we have a small discount for parking in a nearby lot. At least we already had dinner and are ready to to go to bed.
It is morning, the first one outside of Amsterdam on this trip. Breakfast is not included and we are not too thrilled with the look and prices of the hotel’s cafe. But we do have fruits and have a light breakfast in the room. Leaving the car behind, we walk towards Binnenhof, a place where the Netherlands parliament (Staten-Generaal) sits. It turns out to be a quiet looking place (at least today, on a summer Thursday), with old buildings around and attractive rectangular pond teeming with bird and a little island with trees in a middle.
I think the only sign of anything governmental here is a fountain in a middle of the pond. Not many people or cars around.
Binnenhof building was actually built in 13th Century and is considered the oldest parliamental building in the world. It used to be a residence of the feudal lords of the area, first counts of Holland and, later, counts of Hainaut. During the Burgundian rule Binnenhof lost its importance until 1584, when it became the government building for the brand new Dutch Republic.
We walk slowly around the pool…
The eventual goal of our walk is Mauritshuis (Maurice’s house, not to be confused with Mauritius 🙂).
The museum is not necessary large, but contains many great paintings of Dutch and Flemish artists including Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. A meticulous audio guide contains description of almost all the paintings, a pleasant surprise.
After spending time in the museum we go through an archway into the Binnenhof courtyard with an elaborate fountain.
The Hague, of course, is also where the International Court of Justice is located, but it is not particularly close and, as an attraction, we decide that it is not high enough on our list. Let’s just say, we strongly believe it is still there, to such an extent that we don’t really have to visit it 🙂.
Across the street from Binnenhof there is a long passage. Now, if markets is something I enjoy visiting, Tamara loves passages. I think if there were a city with a lot of passages, she probably wouldn’t see any buildings there altogether. Of course we go right in and pass by shops and cafes.
There is also… an art piece…
Speaking of cafes, this is already a “late-ish lunch” sort of time of day, and our breakfast today was less than filling, consisting of fruits and berries. Here is a cafe we can hop in, a casual kind of place. The food is good and the orange juice is stellar (again), and the whole procedure takes less than half an hour including the service. Wow, that’s good cause we have another place we want to visit today, and it’s another hour and half away, not including getting back to our hotel and the car.
We are in The Netherlands, so we came here to see the windmills, right? So, why is it that we have been here for almost a week now and saw what, one windmill only, from the highway between Amsterdam and Delft? Are we in the right country? Shouldn’t there be windmills everywhere? At any rate, this drought ends now as we follow a long narrow winding street (running on the top of a dike by the way) towards Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We are rather late, as it is now after 3PM, so we quickly get tickets and hop on on a “hop on/hop off” boat. The panorama is indeed beautiful. You wanted Dutch countryside? Here’s some Dutch countryside for ya! Yes I did thank you very much and let me take my camera out…
Kinderdijk (translated of course as “children dike”) is a place where two rivers join. Nineteen windmills were build here in mid-18th Century with a specific purpose of draining the area of water. This is a two-stage drainage process, with two groups of windmills working to move water into a separate canal, which is then drained out into the river by another group. This is the first stop on our path of actually seeing how darn important the fight against water has been to the Netherlands’ past and present. Dry facts (no pun intended) can give all the information, but seeing it and finding out details brings one much closer to this amazing country. Comparing modern maps to the maps of medieval territories gives some idea just how much land the Dutch people got from water, but they won’t express how difficult of a process it actually was.
The legend ties the name of Kinderdijk to St. Elizabeth flood of 1421 which is listed in Wikipedia as the 20th worst flood in human history. The day when the dikes broke caused death of thousands of people. The legend says that a man surveying the damage after the flood found a cradle with a cat trying to keep it afloat by moving from spot to spot to keep it balanced. Getting the cradle out of the water, the man found a baby sleeping inside. That gave the name for the dike and became the origin of “A Cat in the Cradle” folktale.
Some of the windmills are open for entry. In each of them a family lived and worked, as windmills have to be ready on a very short notice even in the middle of the night. Water drainage is a very important business on the polders. “Polder”, by the way, means an area of land retaken from water, and protected by dikes. It can also be defined as “a word unknown to zenfolio spell checker.” 😀
The mechanisms are wooden, and constructed in such a way so that the sails can be turned to catch the wind coming from any direction.
On one of the stops we miss a boat by a couple of minutes, the next one is in about 25 min so we got time to sit around and enjoy the surroundings. As the day is very sunny, it is best done from shade.
A short ride in the boat past some nature and waterbirds takes us to the next stop. It offers probably the best vantage point if one enjoys views of windmills and canals. I do…
A couple is doing a pre-wedding photoshoot… they have to go everywhere in the sun, but seem to be fine with it.
We complete our boat tour by taking the next one back to the entrance. It’s 5PM and the visitor center (which, assumingly, we supposed to have visited before going to the windmills) is closing and we are just allowed to sneak in to watch the remainder of the last movie. Oh well, thanks to the internet, we can get the missed info elsewhere.
Our next destination is going to be Antwerp. That’s right, we are crossing the border! But first, we try to pick a hotel. It is not easy. There seem to be no hotels around here known to google map, and we have not seen any on the local street leading to Kinderdijk. It seems to be the height of the tourist season and 3 person rooms are not readily available. Settled on a Best Western in the northern outskirts of Antwerp (so we don’t have to cross the city), we get there at the right time for dinner. Oh yeah, we crossed the country borders! Didn’t even notice…
A restaurant in the hotel turns out to be quite good. As we are now in Belgium let’s order some beer! We are familiar with Belgian Lambic beer, but don’t recognize any of the regular beer brands on the menu (with the exception of Stella Artois). We order Tripel Karmeliet for me and Kriek extra cherry (sounds good) for Toma. Kriek is a Lambic beer, this one made sour cherry actually. I expected a good beer but those two were great.
Our explorations of the land of chocolate, beer and Belgian waffles begin on
Time estimate to the center of Antwerp is about the same via highways or local roads, and I vote for the local roads. I like to explore the surroundings, provided they are reasonably safe, and so far we have no reason to suspect otherwise. Breakfast in the hotel is expensive and we decide to find some place in the city and try another Belgian specialty, Belgian waffles. The drive proves to be much less scenic than I hoped for, taking us through utterly uninteresting suburbs and an industrial looking port, featuring, among other things, a drawbridge that was drawn, so we had to find another route on tiny roads among port buildings. Finally the surroundings look more residential-like and, in just several more blocks, we’re here. It really sounds worse than it was, the whole (very slow) drive took about 25 min.
Parked in a lot and we are out to the market square (or, rather, one of the market squares). The city hall seems to be under a heavy construction, but nevertheless it is a rather pleasant place with guild hall buildings and a cathedral.
There are several cafes open but none seem to serve breakfast. Apparently, Antwerpians’ priority on a Saturday morning is beer… which is becoming a bit less surprising now that I think about it, but still quite disappointing for us today. Most places start serving food at 10AM. It is now about 9:30 but we are really hungry and settle on a place near the cathedral, I think the only one available that early.
The cathedral itself is a nice looking building, with a, what seems to be obligatory around here, construction.
A very cute statue on the Cathedral plaza of a child and a dog
After that the walking tour takes us towards a street called simply Meir. For me it’s a bit more difficult to accept that it should be, I mean, “Meir what?” Meir Straat, or some Meir Avenue, Meir Drive? What? No, just Meir? Very odd. That’s in addition to The Hague as a city name, and let’s not forget that it is really The Netherlands altogether… I understand that we are now in Belgium, but they formed The Low Countries together… Anyway, where were we? Ah, walking on Meir. This is a very nice looking shopping area, with some beautiful and elaborate 19th Century buildings and a couple of street performers.
Belgium is, of course, famous not only for its eponymous waffles but also chocolate, and there are shops around, but buying chocolate here to transport it in a hot car makes even less sense than cheese.
A perpendicular street is leading towards Rubenshuis Museum, a home of Peter Paul Rubens. We decide to finish our Meir stroll first and get there on the way back. A statue in the middle of Meir is Anthony van Dyck, another famous Flemish painter.
Back to the middle point of Meir, we turn left and arrive at Rubens’ house.
One thing we have to say about our experience visiting Rubens’ house is that, from a financial point of view, being a successful 17th Century Flemish artist is highly preferred to being a successful 17th Century Dutch artist. Maybe real-estate in Amsterdam was that much more expensive than in Antwerp (told you those stucco pictures were a problem 😅), or, more likely, Flemish nobility under Spanish crown was paying more readily, and let’s not forget the proudly modest customs of Protestantism in Holland and more luxurious traditions of Catholicism in Habsburg domain, but, if Rembrandt lost his house to creditors, Rubens built his house with not only artistic business in mind, but also splendor and extravagance. Gilded leather, carved wood… The house itself is designed in a style of Italian villa. Every room carries a message of riches, quite different from a practical simplicity of Rembrandt’s house.
He even built a statue gallery with a dome for crying out loud!
We walk through the museum, looking at the paintings.
The way back is almost the same and we return to the street near the city hall. A picturesque (according to the guide) street is completely blocked by the construction, but another one is open, quiet and looks rather attractive.
We get back to the parking lot and cast another look at the surroundings. This castle, formerly a prison, now hosts a maritime museum. In the best Belgian traditions, a part of it is currently under construction. It seems the tourism business is going well…
Our next stop is
We fail to reserve a hotel for us in the center of Ghent, and instead pick one on the outskirts of the city, conveniently located near an intersection of two highways. Going there, however, turns into a quintessential tourist drive. We miss our exit, re-adjust the directions to take a different road, miss our exit again, then drive through a rather quaint and very clean suburbs via local streets, and finally arrive at our destination.
When looking at the pictures online and in Michelin tour guide book Ghent did not look too impressive, but Tamara insisted that it should be interesting enough for us to visit. Also, apparently, there is some lighting of the buildings at night, so maybe we’ll stay until after sunset to see it. A man at the hotel, however, said that they only do it in the winter, so, maybe, we won’t see it after all… We decide to decide later, figure local people are likely to know better that this guy.
Trying to get to a parking lot, a street is blocked. Why not? It seems the whole Belgium is generally under construction this summer… The only other way would be via a lengthy detour. We try to park on the street but the signs are very uncertain about how long we can park here (they are very wordy, and in Dutch only). We finally conclude that parking here is a bad idea and go for the detour. That’s half an hour wasted…
Finally parked and out, we walk towards the historic center to be pleasantly surprised by the expanse of the cobbled streets and an ensemble of nice looking old buildings. Ghent’s historic center is, in fact, the largest car free area in Belgium, though it does have an occasional tram or bicycle (but not nearly on the Dutch scale).
One of the buildings is the town hall, curiously combining a newer and an older parts.
A large cover on the outside hosts horse drawn carriages. A feeble attempt by Anne to coerce us into hiring one goes nowhere. We are here to explore on foot.
This house features an ambitious gable.
A large building that gives an impression of a cathedral or a large church turns out to be cloth maker guild hall, another testament of the importance of trade around here in the early modern period. Instead of a typical rooster the top is taken by a gilded dragon. Anne really likes it 🙂.
This area turns out to be more or less a “tourist transit” block, as most of the tourists head in the direction of the river.
Ghent used to be an important medieval city, in fact the 2nd largest city north of Alps at one point (after Paris). It was also the birthplace of Charles V of Habsburg, who ruled the great 16th Century Spanish Empire in its peak, the original “empire on which the sun never sets”. The city lost a lot of its importance after the Dutch War of Independence, when the Dutch Republic blocked trade traffic on Scheldt river after the Spanish troops sacked the city of Antwerp. This blockade was in place for more than 200 years and significantly decreased economic importance of both Antwerp and Ghent (in favor of Dutch cities, such as Amsterdam).
Scheldt river meets Ghent-Therneuzen canal in a picturesque old center, where we spend some time exploring.
Crossing the river, the view is even better from the other side.
We walk towards Gravensteen Castle. The castle was originally built in 12th Century, but pretty much abandoned in 15th. It sure seems to have been the fate of many mansions in the Low Countries, clearly related to the change of lordship over the lands to Dukes of Burgundy. The current castle had been run down before it was renovated in 19th Century, and is now a museum. According to many, it offers a nice view on the town, something we, unfortunately, cannot personally attest to because it’s already closed for today 🙁.
We didn’t have lunch so it’s time for an early dinner and we get a spot outside in a restaurant and use this opportunity to ask our waitress about a potential evening lighting. She doesn’t know anything about it 🙁. Looks like she comes from Eastern Europe, so we are not sure she fully understood what we wanted to know though. On the plus side, the food is very good and beer sabayon is so tasty we have to order another one.
We decide to take a boat tour, there is one nearby on the other side of the bridge.
We are unlucky again – they just finished the last one for the day! A couple of young tour guides start a lively conversation with us and when Toma asked them if they’ve heard anything about the evening lighting, their answer is: “Oh yes, it’s beautiful!” The guy proceeds with telling us which buildings are going to be lighted, what are the best vantage points in different areas of the city and so forth… So it does happen! Armed with this information we pick a spot on the wall to wait until dark.
I get bored and take a photo walk…
Today’s weather was beautiful, albeit a tad hot, but the evening is turning positively chilly for our summer outfits. After waiting for some time we get cold and decide to find some place to get tea. A cozy place serving drinks and waffles does very nicely… So much that I almost miss the sunset!
The sunset is over, the darkness is upon Ghent, and some buildings and trees are indeed lighted up.
Like a fairy tale” – says Anne. It reminds her of the night time in Magic Kingdom many years ago… except these buildings are more authentic I might add 😀.
We are not in too much of a hurry, but it’s time to slowly walk back.
This time the drive back to our hotel is actually according to the directions, and we do not miss our exit, but when we are literally 300 yards from the hotel door the traffic stops dead. The reason turns out to be a steady stream of pedestrians completely filling the sidewalks and intersections, and even spilling a little to the roadway. They are going and going and another look tells us that that their starting point must have been a nearby football stadium. We got back right when the game ended! Thanks to the police, traffic starts to be somewhat regulated, after 20-25 min. Finally! Looking it up, the game appears to be one of the first in the new season, a 1-1 draw against Waregem. Gent equalized on 95th minute, 5 minutes into the stoppage time! No wonder they were excited.
Sanctuary Woods, Ypres
This destination was something we were not 100% sure we will go to. However, upon some deliberations and reassurance from Toma that Bruges should not take much time to explore, we decided, why not? Ypres is a town that saw a lot of action (and inaction) during World War I. It is also the origin for the name of mustard gas (or Yprite), first used here by Germans against British and Canadian troops. Now, if World War II is something that we have discussed with Anne on a number of occasions, this is a chance to introduce to her a bit of history from WWI time.
There are a couple of tourist attractions related to WWI near Ypres, we selected Sanctuary Woods. The small forest area was, at first, the place where Canadians moved the soldiers wounded defending the nearby hill away from the battle. This hill, however, was destined to see a lot of battles, and Sanctuary Woods also became a place zigzagged with trenches. This was a site of a standoff and battles for 3 years, from 1914 to 1917.
Most farms that were dug with WWI trenches had them filled in, but not this one. The land owner preserved the trenches and collected the artifacts now housed in a small museum together with some photographs of the time (including some 100 year old 3-D photographs).
I was a bit concerned that Anne would be bored here, but no, not at all. She immersed herself in going over the photographs and old newspaper articles. While it is somewhat difficult to make a 13 year old girl excited about guns and shells, she was interested. After going through the museum we are outside in the woods, going through the trenches.
A group of young bulls are breakfasting near a corn field.
We walk around the forest, finding some wild blackberries on its edge and helping ourselves.
Out of the woods, we walk along a meadow with a patch of beautiful wild flowers.
We walk up the hill, so desired by the World War I army commanders. There is a memorial on the top, and a view of the surroundings with Ypres afar.
Bruges used to be an important city in the Middle Ages, a capital of the county of Flanders and a center of weaving and cloth production. Its fortunes shifted in 14th Century when much of the trade moved to other cities such as Antwerp, for many reasons including silting of river Zwin. Bruges was “rediscovered” in 19th Century as a medieval town ready for tourism, many restorations happened in the second half of 20th Century, so it maintained the status of a major tourist attraction right to the present time. Of course the canals and the willows do help!
These couple of days are going to be very hot. Back in the woods and before the sun was very high that was ok, but now we begin to feel it.
On the busy street near the tourist area chocolate stores and waffle shops are in abundance, but one place has me stopped in my tracks. When did chocolate shops start selling old tools? Here’re a rusty pliers in a pile with old bolts and a small hammer 😯…
Of course they’re made from dark chocolate but the quality of craftsmanship is indeed impressive. We decide to postpone chocolate shopping until later, so we can see other local offerings.
A walk around a canal eventually brings us to the market square, with guild halls (of course), a church with an unusual entrance, and a statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, leaders of 14th Century revolt against the king of France.
This is Sunday and there is a rare relic on display in the church, an event that does not entice us to stay in line, so we go outside.
We already walked through a significant part of the historic center, and we feel hungry. The chocolate shops on our way didn’t look super impressive, and we return to the one we saw first, Chocoholic. I get a lock and a key because I have a little idea with a video in mind. Toma is still not too impressed by their pralines but our eye catches a glimpse of a lavish looking Belgian waffle with berries in the hands of a customer. There is a place nearby that makes them and we go there. This waffle was the best any of us have had in our experience, served with red currants, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, and is large enough for a snack for… maybe not 3, but 2.5 people. Waffle or not, but there is also Leonidas store nearby (present, by the way, in all touristy Belgian places, as is Neuhaus). We know Leonidas by its New York location, and find our favorite flavors (not always found in NY) for about half the price 👍. Really, the only reason we didn’t load our suitcase with them is the heat…
Sitting on a bench on a quiet square between a couple of cafes, we also help ourselves to some chocolate, and I attempt to record a video with a lock and a key. Unfortunately, my attempt failed because of technical difficulties.
Done with a good snack, we are now ready for a boat ride! There are several available, the line at the one we pick is pretty long and we wait, for about 20 min.
The tour take us to most of the Bruges canals. The guide is making the tour in 3 languages: English, Dutch and French.
One of the canals is teeming with waterbirds.
A bit of more walk, and we visit the Church of Our Lady, which basically looks like a museum, at least on this day. It hosts a sculpture by Michelangelo, believed to be the only one that left Italy during the artist’s lifetime.
Time for dinner, and we go back to that quiet square we visited, take a seat in a cafe outside and order some tasty food and good beer. Of course each beer comes in its own glass of distinguishable shape. One of them, Kwak, comes in a glass that features a sphere on the bottom, such that it would not stand on a table by itself and requires a special wooden stand! A slight concern, since the beer is >8% alcohol, and Toma attempts to put it down twice without a stand before the glass is empty. Fortunately, a spill was avoided both times… Also she discovers the likely reason this sphere is there: when the glass is almost empty it provides the splashing space for beer, producing more foam, something that Belgians appreciate, at least according to Rick Steves’ travel videos…
That 3rd glass, by the way, is not beer but apple juice, a fact easily detectable by the normalness of the glass. And the straw.
Time to leave Bruges, we saw a lot of it in half a day, just as Tamara said. There are more things to do here, like climbing up the tower, but a hint of it is vehemently rejected by Anne, quite predictably after a long day in 90F temperature.
Our next destination is Brussels. Originally we planned 2 days in Brussels, but I’m a bit pessimistic. Also there are at least 2 days that definitely look rainy in the forecast. Also it looks like we may have miscalculated our time a bit and don’t necessarily have that many extra days. Also, Atomium and Mini-Europe look curious on paper but hardly a must. Long story short, we settled on one day an then we’ll see.
It’s a good thing that we left rather early and the sunset around here is pretty late (around 9:30). First of all, the traffic is bad, which is understandable for Sunday evening. Also, the directions from google maps were wrong. Not imprecise or anything, it just sent us in the opposite direction. We rather quickly detected and corrected that, but this kind of issue was not singular on this trip. Another thing, unfortunately the signs here never mention cardinal directions, so, entering a highway we don’t always know this side’s general direction, we need to pick between the town names on the sign, names which we are not intimately familiar with. By the time we enter Brussels it starts getting late.
Entering Brussels from the west, the neighborhoods we pass through do not look very safe or particularly clean. At one point our directions bring us to a dead end which we pass via some garbage filled yard, but eventually we are on our way to Ibis hotel smack in the middle of the historic center and, fortunately, it has a room and parking. Well, not really parking as it turns out, as we have to just park in the nearby lot (at least it’s really nearby this time). Also turns out they don’t really have a room for 3 either, our room has only one bed. I guess they took our reservation just for laughs… It is resolved to everybody’s satisfaction by giving us 2 neighboring rooms.
It is now late and dark but Toma urges us to take a (really short) walk to the market square. It is well worth it, with the buildings looking awesome in the dark.
The place is filled with people, most are just sitting on the cobblestones and hanging around.
I actually left my camera in the hotel, somehow I didn’t think there would be anything bright enough to photograph, but for that I’m going back to get it.
I have some free time in the morning and I use it to do another take on my hardware movie, as I’ve got another lock and key set. The settings are not the same as a bench in the nice square in Bruges, but, as a Dutch painter probably said looking at the prices for ultramarine, sometimes we have to make artistic sacrifices, right?
Do not adjust your headphones, this is a silent movie…
Now we are ready to explore Brussels. We start, of course, with the market square that we visited yesterday. Filled with people last night, it is now featuring a few tourists squinting in the already bright and hot sun. Today’s high according to the forecast: 93F.
We spend some time admiring the details on the glinting guild halls.
We follow another old AT&T walking tour, past mostly closed (too early) chocolate and souvenir shops, towards the most famous attraction in Brussels, Manneken Pis, clearly an indication of the enterprising spirit of the Flemish. I mean, if they managed to make this a major attraction they can sell anything to anybody 😂. In my humble opinion, the only interesting part of the below photo is the ladies. Also, did you know that the statue is a copy placed here after numerous attempts (some successful) to steal it? The original is on display in Museum of the City of Brussels.
We walk further passing leftovers of the medieval city wall
and visit a very old church. I don’t know why, but my expectations of Brussels were way higher. In my opinion this just looks like a church, with the main attraction of being old offset by the rundown looks and the smell of urine outside. The surroundings look not that much better.
We reach the gigantic courthouse. The building looks as enormous as it is rundown. I mean, there are things growing on this building! Is this thing from the Roman times? Hint: no, you wish…
This hill does provide a broad view of the city, moderately attractive and hazy in today’s heat, but it does little to impress me.
We walk down an avenue until we reach Place du Petit Sablon, and enter a little park with a statue of counts Egmon and Hoorn, the leaders (along with William of Orange) of the Dutch War of Independence. When Spanish commander Duke of Alba entered the Low Countries with his army and established “Council of Troubles” (also known locally as “Council of Blood”), he targeted not only the protestant leaders, but also the powerful local nobles. Counts of Egmon and Hoorn were executed in 1568, but William of Orange managed to escape to his lands in Nassau, outside of Habsburg’s possessions, and continued the resistance that succeeded in 1584, after his own death.
While it is a good statue, I’m generally unimpressed with the capital of EU and suggest to cut our visit short and instead, possibly, visit Mini-Europe (maybe it will get Anne more interested in European travel). So far her interest has been rather selective…
We return to the market square area and walk through a passage looking for a place to eat. After lunch we decide that another walking tour is worth doing. The walk is up the hill in a heat. We have a water bottle but it’s not enough. I haven’t counted the water bottles (many of them sparkling) that we purchased on that day but there were many.
This walk goes through Mont des Arts, a plaza situated between two large buildings, Royal Library and National Archives. The place is beautiful, with an excellent view. Now we’re talking!
We’ve seen several interesting Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels, and here is another one.
We want to visit Palais de Beaux-Arts, a museum, but it is closed on Mondays. So our visit will be cut short.
Taking a look at the king’s palace.
The park nearby looks nice but what are the chances we’re gonna have a long walk in this heat? We turn back. There is still enough time to drive to Atomium and Mini-Europe. It’s out of our way to our next destination, but so what?
While walking back through Mont des Arts garden we notice a very interesting clock on the building wall. The clock itself is alright, but there are many bells accompanying it. Also, there are many niches with figurines. Each bell symbolizes a Belgian province. The figurines probably rotate when the bells are chiming, and include Rubens, Charles V, Godfrey of Bouillon, Count of Egmont (he is the headless one) and others.
Atomium is located in the northern outskirts of Brussels, in a large park, in a rather posh looking area. The drive there is more pleasant than our drive from the west yesterday, past an impressive Notre-Dame de Laeken church. We only take one wrong turn, and eventually park right near Atomium.
It is more challenging to find Mini-Europe, there are no signs for it. Turns out it’s a part of a larger park complex. Eventually we found it thought it took some browsing around. Here is a magpie on the way. This is a bird featuring in many Russian stories, but not found in US.
Mini-Europe is nice, and it’s good to see some places that we’ve already seen elsewhere in miniature (I mean in miniature here, not elsewhere), but I think at the end of the day it fails to impress Anne sufficiently, and the weather is to blame. It is very hard to keep our attention on the exhibits and not on the building with shade.
Out of the park, Anne and Toma are visibly glad to be in an air-conditioned car. Our next stop is
It was my fault. We got used to expect at least the basics from Ibis hotels: a bed, a shower, an AC and electrical outlets. Things could be tiny, or not of the greatest quality, but they will be there. Turns out, maybe not. The truth is, the app page for this hotel in the town of Waterloo does have an AC icon with tiny letters “not available” next to it, but I missed it on the cluttered phone screen. This fact is discovered by Toma and Anne when they go up to the room only to find a floor fan standing in a middle of it. The building is a split level and our room is on the top floor, with slanted ceiling and the only window located on that ceiling. The window opens by rotating the frame (no insect screen). Of course, the room is very hot after the sizzling day… We cannot cancel this booking anymore, gotta do the best we can. At least the temperature at night is supposed to drop to 70F. I walk down to the reception… No, they don’t have rooms with AC… Bottom floor? No, all 3-persons rooms are on the top floor… Can we have another fan?… The girl looks around and gives me a fan from the office. Thank you very much, I’ll have that… Toma noticed that the parking lot next to our hotel belongs to a supermarket. That’s a place that should have an AC!
We spend a good half an hour in the supermarket and get some juices, water, peaches and an assortment of berries: great looking red currant, gooseberries (I haven’t had decent gooseberries since my childhood), blackberries, raspberries. We’d love to get some more substantial things for breakfast but not without a refrigerator… The locals seem to be very nice people, and invite us to cut the line just cause we have relatively few items (about 10). None of the people seem to speak any English, but that’s OK. After a dinner we take showers (makes it easier in the heat) and go to sleep. Two fans produce a noticeable level of noise but we’re from Brooklyn so there should be no complaints. It was quite tolerable, with the window open a bit.
We noted that the supermarket opens at 8AM, and we’re there a bit past that to get ourselves a breakfast. Those sandwiches could be better, but they’ll do. A short drive takes us to the battlefield. The place changed since Toma was here last. Instead of wandering around the visitors are directed through a museum, given some background info about Napoleon, his ventures, the coalition leaders, Napoleonic wars, some weapons and uniforms from that time, and a panoramic film in the language of choice dubbed through an audio guide, quite clever if you ask me.
Only then a visitor can go outside towards Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo, the Lion’s Mound and the battlefield. And, of course, the return path to the parking lot leads through the museum shop…
Lion’s Mound is a hill created by the order of William I of the Netherlands at the place where his son William (future William II) was wounded during the battle. The abundance of Williams in the Netherlands history may be a tad confusing, but we just need to remember that the provinces rebelling against Philip II of Spain in 16th Century created a republic and thus did not have a king. William the Silent was not a king, but a Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Friesland, which was not a hereditary position. Of course he was also known as William, Prince of Orange, but “prince” not as in “prince, a son of a king”, but rather “prince, a head of principality”. The kingdom of the Netherlands was only created after the first defeat of Napoleon, at the congress of Vienna in 1815. So, at the time of the battle of Waterloo William II, the son of William I, was a prince (a son of a king) for the whole 3 months… Of course, William I, the first King of the Netherlands, was also Prince of Orange (head of principality) before being appointed for kingdom, as he was a descendant of William the Silent. By the way, did you know that the father of William the Silent was also named William? Who’s surprised 😀?
I hope I confused things enough by now to go straight to Lion’s Mound…
Our hope to get up the hill early has been squashed by the museum. By the time we’re out, the sun is high. The way up is 225 steps, which sounds scary but really not bad at all with these handrails, even in a heat. Besides a chance to try to imagine how the battle unfolded (the film helps some), it offers a beautiful view at the countryside.
After enjoying the view we get down to the car. Another glance at the hill, covered with grass that turned yellow by the august heat
and we start towards
Dinant doesn’t feature prominently in tour guides, but if one googles something like “most beautiful places in Belgium” the name comes up often. This tiny city is located about 100km south of Brussels. Situated on Meuse river, surrounded by hills, it is indisputably a picturesque place. Because of the strategic location, it was overrun by many armies in many wars, but the remains of an old citadel are still up on the hill and an interesting looking church is standing right under it. Yep, judging by this stop on the road, we are in a hilly area.
Arrived and parked, we realize that we are really hungry. There is a cafe on our way with just a couple of customers… Turns out it’s more of a coffee shop, named Maison Jacobs (yep, south of Brussels the language definitely turns from Dutch to French). We buy some tasty pastries and tea, and have this sort of lunch. Anne asks for more. Here are some cookies, in fact they lie among beautifully looking (at sometimes very large) cookies that really remind me of пряники. We pick the smallest and the plainest ones (the cheapest too, but pretty expensive for what they are), since Anne is a big fan of cookies, but now she faces a problem… the cookies are hard as stone 😯! She manages to bite a couple of pieces before we order her to stop – she’ll have no teeth left by the time she finishes them. Looking around the cookies I see some info. Turns out, this place has been making these cookies since 1860! I guess we stumbled upon some pieces from the original batch 😅. Only after returning to US we found that what we saw were Couque de Dinant (I think the photo on Wikipedia is actually of Maison Jacob), a concept very similar to пряники in fact, and this particular pastry is not supposed to be bitten like regular cookies. Oh well, the fate of the tourists, always look silly. Maybe the ladies in the shop would’ve told us that, looking at Anne’s efforts, but they didn’t speak English anyway.
Hot sun and hard couques notwithstanding, we proceed to the citadel on the top of the hill, fortunately by means of a funicular.
Citadel provides some info about Dinant military history, and also some wonderful shade and coolness.
The view is not the best, and it’s against the sun. The best view is probably from some place on the hill across the river, though the hills and trees may be blocking it.
After getting down from the citadel we drive over the bridge and park near the river bank instead. The view is very nice from here too.
Dinant is the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of saxophone. This fact is commemorated on the main bridge in town, Pont Charles de Gaulle.
About an hour drive east of Dinant is a city of
Many places seem to have received their city charters a long time ago (Durbuy, for example, in 1331AD) and are now relatively small, Dinant and Durbuy are a little more than ten thousand people each, but they are still cities. Durbuy is another charming old city, the kind that we like so much, with cobbled streets and old houses.
Like Dinant, there is not a lot about Durbuy in the travel guide. The main attraction is actually Parc de Topiaires, the largest in the world topiary park open to the public. That’s where we’re headed first.
There is a nice view of the castle (built in 19th Century) from the park, but we find a better one from the bridge.
An interesting hill formation right near the city shows layers of the ground spreading out from a cave, like there was an explosion that pushed them out of the epicenter.
Time for dinner. The numerous restaurants on one modern street, clearly, have never heard of AC, and we select one that has water periodically spraying from the ceiling.
After dinner, another walk around the town. The streets are getting emptier…
We consider staying in one of the cute town hotels, but they probably don’t have AC either, so we settle on a boring one near Liege. It was a hot hot day and I’m thirsty. This is our last night in Belgium and, seeing that some folks watching soccer downstairs are drinking beer, I inquire at the reception and purchase the same set as our first beer selection in this country: Krieg cherry and Tripel Karmeliet, plus sparkling water for Anne. The beer is put accurately on a tray, each with an appropriate glass of course!
This heatwave comes to a thundering end with a powerful storm in the middle of the night. It’s good that we didn’t catch it earlier…
We are already kind of used to Belgian highways and pay better attention to the directions and the map (google maps works well, though directions sometimes lie). As we noticed from the cities, Belgium does like to repair things, and the roads are no exception. Speed limit drops dramatically as the road surface is being redone in multiple places, and exits after exits are simply closed 🙁. We thought we’ll miss our exit, but no, the way to Spa is still open…
We haven’t heard of Theux before the trip and we don’t know much about it now (and still can’t pronounce it 🙂), but the roads in Belgium are often picturesque and this time we are driving on a small road with no reason not to stop and make some photographs.
Just down the hill from this place is a town of Theux that looked rather good to us and we stop. We spend a short time there.
The word “spa” comes from the Belgian town Spa, famous for its mineral springs. Very popular at some point among European nobility, it has been visited by many famous people. Formula One Belgian Grand Prix race happens nearby. From the point of view of a casual tourist, however, I thought it’s unlikely to offer that much of interest, based on the photos I’ve seen, but Toma really wanted to try some of the mineral water.
The spring is there, flowing inside a nice looking building. A sign, however, warns not to drink the water because the thunderstorm last night may have rendered it unsuitable for drinking. The water has a characteristic sulfuric smell. A stone table aside is a present from Peter The Great, who spent about a month here in 1717 and claimed that this water did improve his health. Apparently, it was prescribed for him to drink 21 glass of this water per day.
We walk around Spa, not many people around this time of morning.
Looking at architecture, Spa doesn’t offer that much and soon enough we are ready to proceed to our next stop.
Our time in Belgium is now officially over and we are about to cross the border to the 3rd part of our trip.
Yep, we are crossing borders again!
Aachen is a German city right near the border with Belgium, that was the place of Charlemagne’s palace and the center of his vast empire. Palatine Chapel, now a cathedral, is a part of his palace that still remains here, together with his remains. Aachen was also the place of coronation of most Holy Roman Emperors (starting with the first of them, Charlemagne) for several centuries. When we arrive the chapel is closed for some service and we wait 15-20 min until it opens and people leave.
The insides of the chapel are very impressive indeed, with beautiful mosaic, clearly designed in Byzantine style.
After visiting the chapel we process to Aachen Cathedral Treasury, a museum housing art pieces many of which are related to Charlemagne.
I’m not a huge fan of religious art, and, frankly, relics tend to give me creeps, but the quality of gold work of these pieces is impressive indeed.
We exit the Treasury through the inner yard with a nice looking fountain where I make some pictures. This one captures a moment of “photo wrestling”, a sport Anne apparently likes, which features her trying to stand in front of Toma in such a way to block her as much as possible, now that she possesses enough height to do that. I envision a great future for this sport 🤣…
Next thing we need is some lunch. But first we go to the nice looking marketplace with Rathaus, which means a town hall, and not a house of rats 🙂.
Frankly, it’s not in a much better shape than Palais de Justice in Brussels, but it is considerably older, with much richer history. Also, it offers a nice view on the square.
Turns out we can enter Rathaus, which has some rooms restored to the same view as in the 18th Century, look around and take a self-guided tour.
Here is the ball room, now apparently a photo bomb room. Well, saboteurs are punished by having their faces distorted in photographs by wide angle lenses!
Now we can have lunch in a restaurant on the market square, where Anne finally gets a green light on ordering sausages 🙂. We are in Germany after all… After lunch we go for a bit of walk around the area.
Like Spa, Aachen has also been known for its mineral springs and in a little terrace open to public we find hot water streaming down just like that. Yep, the same sulfuric smell. We don’t know whether it’s drinkable and, frankly, the smell is not that enticing, not to mention the fact that it’s hot, so we pass. A tableau on the wall of the terrace lists important figures that favored this place though history for the hot springs, including Pepin The Short and going as far as Roman times. Curiously, the list ends with Peter The Great, which starts us wondering, just what did Peter do in Aachen that made it unattractive to the famous and powerful 🤣? Interesting… One theory that comes to mind is that he drank too little of mineral water here and too much of something else… German beer maybe? His stay in Spa, when he was required to drink 21 glasses of sulfuric water per day, may have been more effective in controlling the intake of other substances… No wonder his health improved 😅! Just a theory…
According to the forecast, the next 2 days will be rainy, with the last remaining day probably dry. We have a couple of places that we really want to see and we leave them for the last day. Now the planning commences for the rainy days…
We did not know anything about Nijmegen before the trip but our plan has changed and this Dutch town lies conveniently on the way from Aachen to a museum we now want to visit. The morning sure is rainy with a thunderstorm setting in just as we pull out of the hotel’s parking lot. The rain ends right when we park our car near Waal river.
There has been a city here since the time of Roman conquests, in fact the name originates from the Latin name of the city, Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum, where Noviomagus means “new market”.
Nijmegen has a charming market square (Grote Markt) and a cathedral nearby.
A walk around the town leads us to a park with an old ruin.
An old round window makes a nice frame.
The ruins turn out to be leftovers of Valkhof Castle built by Charlemagne here on the hill near the river. Destroyed later by vikings, it was rebuilt again by Frederick Barbarossa in 1155, to be destroyed again in 1795 by the Dutch, during the time of Batavian Republic, for its materials, as mundane as it sounds.
Another old building nearby is a round chapel. Inside there is a model of the castle after it was rebuilt by Frederick Barbarossa, and a very knowledgeable gentleman who explains to us in details the history of the castle. Turns out both the chapel and the ruins were parts of the large castle, and in fact the chapel that still stands strong (literally, the walls are very thick) is actually the oldest part of the castle, built originally by Charlemagne, with a special direct private entrance from the castle to its second floor.
In fact, the chapel is still in use today after about 1200 years. There are religious services performed here, such as wedding ceremonies.
Outside there is a bit of photo wrestling competition.
Altogether we have been in Nijmegen for only, maybe, 2 hours, and we should definitely leave now because both weather radar and the sky predict a lot of activity soon. As soon as we drive out of Nijmegen it starts really pouring…
This is the highlight of our rainy day plan. Kröller-Müller Museum is an art museum located inside Hoge Veluwe National Park. An art museum inside a national park is a novel concept for us, but why not? One of the things we noticed in the Netherlands is not only the multitude of canals and roads typically laid on top of dikes, but the surroundings are more or less pastoral. There are some trees around but we have yet so pass near an actual forest. Well, Hoge Veluwe National Park is certainly a forest, maybe not too wild and not that large but still… Driving through it, we again admire the toughness of the Dutch. There are multiple bicyclists riding through the park, including families with kids wearing rain coats, and that’s on a day riddled with thunderstorms!
Another one of those catches us right in front of the museum.
Kröller-Müller Museum was created by Helene Kröller-Müller, a daughter of a wealthy German businessman and a wife of a wealthy Dutch businessman, who assembled an impressive collection of impressionist paintings. The collection is indeed excellent, and includes a dedicated Van Gogh section, 2nd largest collection of his works, the first being Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Helene Kröller-Müller organized the building of the museum in 1930s with a specific goal to create a public art museum, and she donated all her collection to display in the museum immediately after it was finished. Hoge Veluwe National Park, by the way, is a former Kröller estate, which was converted to a foundation by the family.
There is, apparently, a sizable sculpture collection in the park nearby, but we won’t see much of it for the obvious reason. The museum is perfect for such a rainy day, but eventually we start feeling hungry. To our shock we find that the museum restaurant is actually designed to be an open space and only has outdoor seating. It is now closed (and soaked). We’ll have to think of something else, which makes the mood a bit gloomier.
Searching for a hotel for tonight proves difficult too. Our way goes north-west from here, with the first stop tomorrow, probably, Alkmaar, where we hope to see a cheese market. However, I fail to find a hotel there. Finding a hotel on the way from about Amsterdam area to Alkmaar is not that easy. I finally discover a hotel with nice reviews, which turns out to be a chain, Van der Valk, in Almere. We’ll have a dinner there.
The hotel turns out to be quite modern, with the best amenities we’ve afforded ourselves on this trip thus far. The restaurant is also very good.
Alkmaar is one of the four Dutch cities that hosts traditional cheese market once a week in the summer, in case of Alkmaar, on Fridays. This is an event at which newly prepared cheese is weighed and the price is set, but done in accordance with the tradition going back centuries, and in that era’s costumes. Tamara saw a travel video and is not excited about it, but me and Anne would like to see it.
This time we don’t get so lucky, rain starts right when we exit the parking garage. Fortunately, it stops soon and we proceed. Alkmaar is also a cute town with canals, though seemingly not as striking or as old as Bruges or Ghent or Amsterdam.
If our walk was rather dry, the situation changes as soon as we approach the market square. The rain begins to pour violently and we find ourselves near the Waag (weighing building) in a midst of a packed, wet, mildly irritated, slowly moving umbrella crowd. The stewards in the Waag are not handling cheese (the cheese is outside covered with tarpaulin), instead carrying and weighing small children. I hope they don’t start setting prices 😂…
The realization creeps in that the cheese is covered and the time is ticking and we probably won’t see the market as it was intended to be witnessed, so we might as well go and have some brunch. The rain has subsided and we have a short walk around the town center and select a restaurant to get some very nice sandwiches (and orange juice of course).
The brunch is over and we are moving back to the market square. Rain is starting again. I guess it’s time to move to the car. Except that right when we’re ready to start crossing the square the rain strengthens again to the level of violent downpour. Somehow we find a cover under some cafe awnings and stand patiently for another 15 min, enjoying the sight of the market square being slowly flooded.
The rain is over and this time we don’t waste any time, especially since another one is, clearly, not very far. Now we know why Dutch artists liked to paint the sky so much…
Well, our Alkmaar outing can’t be called successful, but it was not high on our priority list, which is why we are here now, on a rainy day. Another destination that we wanted to visit but won’t despair if we don’t is
Zaanse Schanse is a living history museum, an idea similar to what Mystic Seaport is for New England.
Driving through the rain we are admiring Dutch countryside. North of Amsterdam it is filled with meadows lined with canals sprinkled with grazing cows, sheep, horses and goats. Right now everything and everybody is also generously sprinkled with rainwater 😅. Curiously, canals seem to be not only a source of water to the livestock, but also a way to separate different herds and make sure they stay in place. I just had to stop where I could on the highway to make a couple of pictures.
Zaanse Schans is located very close to Amsterdam and we already see what it does to a tourist attraction. It’s a good thing that the territory is spread over a somewhat large area because the place is full of tourists. It appears to be a typical Dutch landscape of meadows and canals, but also with old farmhouses and windmills. As opposed to Kinderdijk, they were not built here, but brought in to create the park.
The windmills are in working condition and they can be entered (for a price). Different windmills have different applications: sawing wood, milling dye, spices, making oil. This one is used for milling dye for paint.
The wind today is very strong and most of the windmills are on.
A heron at the canal nearby comes up with a fish.
We specifically went to the windmills first, while it’s not raining, and now looks like it’s time to move indoors.
There are several craftsmen houses in Zaanse Schans.
The first we visit is cheese farm, which is a similar concept to Amsterdam Cheese Museum except it’s a bit larger, has a little lecture/demonstration with video for tours (we sneaked in) about how cheese is made, has much fewer sorts of cheese to offer, waaay more people inside, and virtually no cheese to taste (it gets swept by the hurricane of tourists in a blink of an eye 😅). We also visit the Weaver’s House, a much quieter place where we’re introduced to some details about weavers’ lives and how they manufactured sail cloth from hemp, and the Clog Workshop (unfortunately, the clog making presentations were only for tours).
The rain is over and we complete our walk of Zaanse Schans grounds, visiting Time Museum (with some ancient clocks) on the way.
This is already afternoon, the main museum is about to close and we really just walk very fast through it, though we do manage to learn a few things including the fact that the term “linoleum” originates from linseed oil (lin oleum). Some of the Dutch windmills were used to make linseed oil in the early production of linoleum. The 1st floor of the museum has some equipment from a 19th Century sweets factory.
The day is not over yet and it seems we have enough time to visit a port town, and after short deliberation between Volendam and Marken we settle on Volendam for no particular reason. Volendam has a good looking port filled with cafes on the top of the dike, and parked boats.
The wind is particularly strong here but the ladies persevere a short photo session.
I was secretly hoping Volendam would have a herring stand, and it does but it’s already closed. Anne is hungry and we get some waffles.
Like any self-respecting Dutch city, Volendam has some canals.
We decide against having dinner in Volendam (although it would be nice) because we actually want to see another interesting place today. It has to be done before dark and it’s up north, quite a bit of a drive away. Generally, the Netherlands is small enough to plan the trip such a way that no drive is longer than an hour. This one, however, together with the drive we have to make back south, will be by far the longest drive on our trip.
What Afsluitdijk is, is a word with a challenging spelling and pronunciation 🙃. It is actually very easy to pronounce if you approach it with the question “What is the name of this dijk?” – “Afsluit”. In reality it is a very impressive landmark, especially considering what it means for The Netherlands. The name is aptly translated as “the closing dike”, as it literally blocks the North Sea from its large bay that has brought in so many storms and floods historically. 30km long, this dike turned the bay, named formerly Zuiderzee (Zuider sea), into a freshwater lake, now IJsselmeer (IJssel lake) and enabled the Dutch to free up enough polders to create a whole new province, Flevoland, which, by the way, includes the town we stayed in last night, Almere. We drive through the dike, stopping briefly to just look around, as the wind and the rain are still here.
Yep, the right part of this photograph is the saltwater North Sea, the left – freshwater IJsselmeer!
Tonight we stay in another Van der Valk hotel, near Zwolle. If anything, it is even cleaner and more attractive than the one in Almere, though a bit more expensive as well.
Breakfast in the hotel wows me. We have become used to the awesome orange juice and nice European style breakfasts but this exceeded my expectations as it offered, I think, a double or triple variety on everything. This breakfast should last for awhile…
In the searches of “the most picturesque places in Netherlands” Giethoorn usually comes out on the top. The village consist of farmhouses standing on small canals, and is sometimes refers to, like so many other places (including Bruges and Amsterdam), as “Venice of the North”. In case of Giethoorn the only things that are really in common between it and Venice is the presence of canals and the prohibition on cars. The village can only be fully accessed by boat, and, most places, on foot. This place was a site for peat harvesting, and the canals were built initially for peat transportation, the soil being too unstable for heavy duty roads. Canals and old houses made it into a tourist attraction in the second half of 20th Century.
We rent a small boat with an electrical motor (very quiet), and ride slowly through the lake, and then through the village via canals. Stirring and making pictures at the same time is not easy, and I made enough steering mistakes to provide for some entertainment for Anne, Toma and innocent bystanders (no humans or animals were harmed during our boat ride, though I think for one duck it may have been close).
There are 180 bridges in this small village, many simply provide access from houses to the walking path.
After the boat ride is over we go through the village, no rush, on foot.
Most of the buildings have thatched roof, made of a thick pressed layer of, probably, water reed. We’ve never seen that type of roof before.
One thing I can say for it, this kind of roof can me made into any shape.
The Netherlands are supposed to be the land of storks, but I have not seen any, and Toma has only seen one from a highway, but here is a stork flying around.
Back to the car, we have only one more tourist attraction to visit, and it is
The history of this place is rather sad. In the ancient times Schokland was a peninsula with some wetlands. People built settlement here during Middle Ages, but draining of the lands contributed to compressing the soil and lowering the ground level.
It is curious sometimes to find out that draining of the water and peat harvesting lowered the ground level in some places in the Netherlands, bringing in more floods and fight with the sea. Sometimes this is the price to pay to have a place to live… It appears the sea levels also generally rose in Middle Ages, possibly due to the end of the Little Ice Age… For example Almere, now a town on a polder, was recently a part of a sea (Zuiderzee), but originally was a lake (“ael meer” translates as “eel lake”)!
At any rate, Schockland gradually decreased in size and became an island, getting smaller and smaller, and constantly struggling with sea storms and devastating floods. About 300 years ago the island became too small for agriculture and turned entirely to fishing, and in 1859 it was officially deemed unfit for living, and the residents were ordered to relocate. Only a few people were left here to tend to the lighthouse. The story goes that the last lighthouse keeper went insane because of the loneliness. The story changed in 20th Century, when Afsluitdijk allowed the Dutch to start draining vast areas of the land. To make a long story… well, a little shorter, Schokland is now surrounded by land. This became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in The Netherlands, to commemorate the tireless fight of the Dutch people against the sea.
Now the island is surrounded by meadows with grazing cows. These are not sea cows 🙂…
A piece of a wall, the kind that used to protect the island from the sea. Now it protects it from… tourists climbing up the former shore, I guess…
The island had some difficult times when these walls were devastated by shipworms, when they traveled here from the far seas. This one is a copy, only a little piece of the walls that were here before Schockland became dry survived.
A buoy that doesn’t do its job anymore
Wooden paths like this one was a way for people to pass from one part of the island to another when the water made it difficult. That led to what people called “Schokker dance” when two people, going in the opposite directions, met somewhere on the path…
Now that Schokland is a hill, it offers a nice view
After the museum visit we get back to the car. When we arrived here we were greeted (well, Anne was because she made an effort to be) by a family of goats, relaxing. Of course, Anne has to say goodbye 🙂.
Well, the cultural, historical and architectural part of our trip is now over, we need to drive to a hotel near the airport and, hopefully, wake up early, in time for our flight. There is also a “linner” to attend to. Choosing a restaurant between here and Amsterdam is tough, too many choices. We finally decide to eat close by, as there is a restaurant with rather good reviews a very short drive from here, in
The directions are as easy as they get, but I fear we’re lost… Here we are, moving, according to the map, straight towards the sea (well, lake nowadays), and should be very close now, but all I see ahead is a grass meadow, as far as the horizon. Don’t worry, Toma says, this is just a dike. And indeed, in another 200m or so we arrive to a straight dike covered in grass. No wonder I got confused…
Schokkerhaven turns out to be a beach. There is a parking lot, a restaurant and a marina. The wind is strong and the beach is empty, although we do see a swimmer in the lake.
The menu in the restaurant is in Dutch only, and while trying to use google translate we realize that the dishes are named rather cleverly, with humor. It does, however, makes us uncertain about our understanding of the translation, and we end up asking for some assistance from a helpful waitress. This restaurant also features a “pay want you want” menu, the idea is that if you order a dish from this menu you pay what you think it’s worth. We ordered a couple of dishes from it, including a very tasty and imaginative dessert.
Our linner took awhile but there’s still plenty of time to drive to the hotel, Best Western near Amsterdam Airport. When we enter into a small lobby the first thing we see is a grand looking, huge Bernese Mountain Dog resting at the feet of a man. We start our check-in process when a lady with a pair of beautiful white greyhounds enters from the outside. This just looks surreal… Have we somehow dropped into Anne’s dream world with picture perfect dogs everywhere? I mean, if this is what we see in a hotel, what must be happening outside? And what are they all doing near the airport? We ask a girl at the reception, “Is there some kind of dog show in town”? – “Yes, and I think they are all staying in this hotel.” The man with the Bernese turns out to be a fluent English speaker. “Yes, there is a competition, thirty one and and half thousand dogs!” – “Ah, the reception lady says. In this case I take it back, not all of them are here. I think half is at the Radisson…” Anne uses the opportunity to ask the owner to pet the Bernese, so she is busy. While we’ve been talking now there are 4 different dog groups in the tiny lobby, all behaving quite well, and Anne doesn’t know which one deserves to concentrate on. The dog competition in question turns out to be just the modestly named World Dog Show. Judging by what we’ve seen and heard, it may deserve the name…
Well, an exciting evening caps an exciting two weeks.
No, we do not get back to the city of Amsterdam, we just drive to the airport, return the car, finally purchase some Belgian chocolates, mostly for presents, now that we are not going to melt them in the heat, and take another uneventful (in the best sense of this word) UA flight. I just didn’t want to end with Day 13…
It’s the end of our trip, though not, technically, the end of our vacation, as we arrive to Newark on a Sunday morning and spend some quality time with our friends in the town of Westfield, NJ. If it were in Belgium, it would’ve definitely been a city.
P.S. After spending several days in New York summer humidity, couques de Dinant became significantly softer, so we definitely have some culinary plans for them 👍.