In our traveling lives, Western European destinations have always loomed large. We’ve returned time and again to the big countries – The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. When we’ve thought of the smaller places, it’s often been with the idea that one day we’d go there. Well, that day came this spring for the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, collectively known as Benelux.
We weren’t entirely ignorant of them. We had enjoyed Amsterdam and The Hague years ago, and we had very briefly been to Brussels and Luxembourg, but so long ago that those visits didn’t signify. This time we decided to see Brussels again, along with Belgium’s Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres. In the Netherlands, it would be Lisse, Delft, Rotterdam, and Maastricht. We would save Luxembourg City and its environs for the end. In terms of time, resources, and energy this was an ambitious adventure, what Kay and I like to characterize as a trip of a lifetime.
How would we travel? At an earlier time in our lives, a car would have made sense, but nowadays, with increased traffic congestion, limited parking, and the difficulty of navigation – even with the help of GPS – we thought driving would have been too stressful. Our particular destinations, being located not far from each other and connected almost hourly by train, made train travel seem right, and it was, except that trains these days don’t accommodate large, heavy suitcases easily. It was sometimes a struggle to place ours without interfering with other passengers. And we also often had to lug them – to and from stations, and up and down ramps, stairs, and escalators. Such are the vicissitudes of independent travel. They go with the territory, and I won’t make too much of them.
It was not entirely a non-driving trip. In Lisse, Holland, where we went in mid-April to experience the beauty of the seasonal flowers, we rented an electric vehicle for about three hours to take us into the countryside and to a gorgeous tulip farm. It had four wheels like a car and was open on the sides. It was tiny with just enough room for me, the driver, and Kay seated directly behind me, and who had the greatest difficulty getting in and out of the contraption. It guided us by means of GPS voice prompts that were fine until they failed and left us stranded on narrow roads bordered by colorful fields. Oh well, to paraphrase the title of an essay by David Foster Wallace, it was a supposedly fun thing that we’ll never do again.
Starting our journey in the town of Lisse made sense for the pleasure of walking around the nearby Keukenhof Gardens. These world-famous gardens, open only during a few weeks of the year, are enormous, so large that despite the thousands that visit them daily, they don’t feel crowded except at the various food stalls and restaurants where long lines form.
Kay and I travel in search of beauty, and at Keukenhof, beauty is in the flowers and especially in the artful ways they are grown and arranged.
In the Netherlands, tulips take pride of place, of course, but hyacinths, daffodils, and a few others like fritillaria compete for attention.
They are arranged in many different kinds of beds against backgrounds of flowering trees, various park structures, and along wide paths filled with strolling visitors.
It was in Lisse, too, that we had the first of our memorable meals. We had gotten lost on our arrival while looking for our hotel, and when we asked a kind man, who gave us a lift in his car, where to eat, he told us that we could do no better than De Heerekamer (Gentleman’s Room) right below where we would be staying. It became our go-to eating place in Lisse, and, as an example of its cuisine, here was my first meal: A dish with the odd name of 12-Hour Fish consisted of a cup of mustard soup with three lovely shrimp, some small pieces of smoked white fish atop a bed of fresh salad greens, a small filet of sea bass, and a croquette filled with a mixture of tiny shrimp and white fish blood. Along with a bottle of San Pellegrino, it was an elegant meal.
Whereas Lisse is thoroughly modern looking in architecture and topography, Delft is not, at least not Old Delft that was the center of interest for us. Dragging our cases from the station to our hotel, we followed the herringbone patterns of red brick streets that cross the city’s frequent canals on hump-backed bridges. Historic buildings, some centuries old, line these streets that lead to squares, the largest of which is in front of Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) whose construction began in 1381.
We arrived on a Thursday, market day, and the square was filled with vendors’ stalls. Kay and I split up that morning, agreeing to meet at the base of a statue honoring Hugo de Groot, once known as the Prodigy of Europe.
For my part, I found the market very interesting. The weather was lovely and mild, as I wandered among the stalls, selling clothing, produce, cheeses, spices, jewelry, etc. At one stall I bought a bar of jasmine-scented soap while at another I bought a bag of mixed nuts. Kay found three tops that will be perfect for hot summer weather.
Delft’s greatest claim to fame, especially these days, is as the city where Johannes Vermeer, one of the greatest Dutch artists, lived his entire life, leaving behind 34 remarkable paintings that have captured the world’s interest in ways that the works of few other artists have. Delft’s commerce makes the most of this connection. The “Girl with the Pearl Earing” adorns ads, posters, coffee mugs, and even candy wrappers.
It’s sadly ironic that none of Vermeer’s paintings are to be found in Delft; however, there is the Vermeer Centrum, a kind of museum that houses reproductions of nearly all of them, some of which we’ve never seen in museums. These reproductions serve as visual aids to explain aspects of Vermeer’s techniques and intentions, as far as they can be inferred. For us, this was a chance to comprehend some of the paintings’ common motifs.
Besides Vermeer, Delft venerates the memory of William of Orange, aka William the Silent, the resistance leader who fought to free Holland from the Spanish and its Catholic king, Philip II, in the 16th century. At Philip’s instigation, William was assassinated in the city in 1584.
His mausoleum is located in the Nieuwe Kerk.
Rotterdam has the feel of a large city. It was nearly flattened by the Nazis during World War II and rebuilt along contemporary lines. Here is a good place to digress and make some comments about the Dutch and bicycles. Netherlands, of course, means “low countries” because they lie so close to sea level. They are also flat countries, which makes them ideal for cyclists.
It seemed to us that in Lisse and Delft nearly half the population travels by bike. They are everywhere, and pedestrians beware, because they arrive behind you silently, so close and at such speed that they can feel menacing. Bicycle lanes abound, of course, but on open squares and other pedestrian areas, cyclists race around freely. In this regard, we noticed a change in Rotterdam where its wide avenues and frequent stoplights control cycling as well as automobile traffic.
In spite of its brilliantly weird post-modern architecture, Rotterdam didn’t thrill us much. Partly, we were mislead by our guidebook into making a couple of poor choices.
We boarded a Waterbus to Kinderdijk, a UNESCO site of marshes and windmills a few kilometers from Rotterdam whose descriptions intrigued us.
It was Easter Monday, though, a holiday that might have accounted for the hordes of people, including families with children, dogs, and bicycles that made it impossible to move freely and spoiled the visit for us.
That said, Rotterdam did offer a couple of memorable exceptions.
In the calm, watery, district of Delfthaven stands a church where the pilgrims prayed before boarding the Speedwell about 1620 and setting sail for North America. The Speedwell not being seaworthy, the pilgrims found the Mayflower in England and began to make history by sailing to North America. This prelude to the history of our country fascinated us. The Pilgrim Church, as it is known, seems in good condition and has plaques describing its history and importance.
The second exception was not in Rotterdam itself but in the Netherlands’ Hoge Veluwe National Park a couple of hours from the city. On the day of our visit, not only was the weather fine but the Kröller-Müller Art Museum in the park was a showplace. It is a world-class gallery with one of largest collections of Van Goghs to be seen anywhere.
The building has a single-storey and is set on a manicured lawn surrounded by the trees of the park.
Besides its indoor collections, it has an excellent large sculpture park that extends out past the grounds into the surrounding woods.
The museum and the park were the creation of a husband and wife team in the last century. Helene Kröller-Müller and her husband Anton bought almost 11,500 pieces of art between 1907 and 1922. She wanted a museum to display the art while he wanted a lodge and a park in which to hunt. The result is what exists today.
Besides the Van Goghs that include a self-portrait and a portrait of Joseph Roulin,
there are George Seurat’s La Chahut and Paul Signac’s La Salle à Manger, Opus 152. Among the sculptures, there are at least four of Barbara Hepworth’s from the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
We were thrilled to have been able to see the Kröller-Müller under such superb conditions.
Maastricht, way down in the spur of the country that extends into Belgium and Germany, was one of most pleasant surprises of the trip. Persuaded by good recommendations in our guidebook,
we went there, yet we didn’t know quite what to expect. One immediate difference was the weather. During our trip’s early days, instead of the cold rain we had been expecting, we had warmth and sunshine. Now, it became more seasonal, cooler with some rain.
After settling into a small, cozy apartment belonging to a local artist named Michael Besselaar who lived above it, we went out to explore its historic neighborhood with cobbled streets, venerable churches, and other old brick buildings. It rained while we sat in comfort sipping wine and eating nachos on a café terrace under a canopy with an electric heater above us. Across from where we sat on the city’s largest square known as Vrijthof were the two greatest churches of the city.
The large Romanesque Sint Servaasbasiliek dates from the year 1000 and contains a treasury with medieval gold artifacts.
Next to it, stands the tall Gothic Sint Janskerk with a tower the color of blood. Kay learned that it was originally painted with real ox blood. I would climb the two hundred odd steps of that tower, as I do most towers, and get a birds-eye view of the city. I don’t know why I climb towers. Certainly, the narrow spiral staircases aren’t much fun, especially when meeting others descending. Perhaps I do it just to test myself.
Up north, the Netherlands is Protestant; however, down here in Limburg province next to eastern Flanders we were in Roman Catholic territory. These great churches, built to extend and reflect the power of their religion in ages when societies were filled with observant Catholics, are often absent of the faithful today. Yet, with the splendor of their architecture and the art they contain, they remain places of spiritual access for all of us.
We ate well in Maastricht. At a delicious late lunch at the (pronounced ‘chic’), when I learned that the catch of the day was Dover sole, I had to order it. I find it so rarely on menus that when I do, I always choose it. It came with crusty brown skin and served with fries and sautéed vegetables.
Kay loves white asparagus, and it was everywhere at that time of year. On this occasion, it came with ham, a hard-boiled egg, and a butter sauce.
We ate another lovely lunch at the cafe in the Bonnefantenmuseum. My salad of various greens mixed with small bits of sweet pepper, large couscous, string beans, and topped with thin slices of smoked chicken was delicious, as was Kay’s quiche. We ate lightly in anticipation of dinner at Bistro Croquant, an unusual restaurant that serves no main courses and instead offers a variety of delicious croquettes, which are a restaurant staple in the Netherlands. Before we sampled them, we tasted an unforgettable cream of asparagus soup garnished with tiny Dutch shrimps. Then, came the croquettes, mine filled with chicory and farmer’s ham and served with mustard cream while Kay’s was with a delicious asparagus preparation. We shared a plate of what are called bitterballs. They are croquettes, also, but smaller and round, designed to be eaten with the fingers at parties. While we ate, the restaurant’s manager, who I thought was the owner, such was his attention to every detail, talked to us frequently. The young waitress, a student at the local university, was voluble, too. They commented on and explained every item.
Near our apartment was a delightful shop called le Salonard that sold breads, cheeses, charcuterie, and wine. Such was the appeal and quality of its merchandise that I think I could have enjoyed every item it sold. As it was, le Salonard provisioned each breakfast of our stay in Maastricht.
Maastricht was our last destination in the Netherlands. From there we went on to Antwerp and other cities in Belgium. I’ll write of those further adventures in Part 2.