Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, joining a huge movement of young people who are choosing to live the nomadic life (at least for a time) and travel or work remotely, becoming immersed in local life and culture. They are filing these dispatches periodically. They previously reported about their adventures in Mexico, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia and Indonesia. Here’s their dispatch #5 from the Southern Hemisphere: Australia, New Zealand, Chile.
We took an overnight flight Bali → Melbourne (actually we flew separately though our flights were minutes apart–cheaper!). Food costs in Australia brought us straight back to SF living, at >$20/meal, but we managed to find $1 oysters our budget can always accommodate!
In the colder Melbourne climate, Sarah expanded her small wardrobe when she realized for the first time she doesn’t just fit into Eric’s tops, she fits into his pants too! A whole new world. Feeling fresh in Eric’s khakis, we spent our few days there wandering hipster neighborhoods, catching an AFL game, exploring a winter food fest (including fake snow), and laughing our arses off at a comedy show (we def missed some local references, but Sarah howled when they mentioned anything Bravo-related). We reckon it was a pretty good time.
NEW ZEALAND Lake Hawea, Wanaka
We arrived in New Zealand just in time for winter holidays, which meant that our serendipitous trip planning had met its match. When we began our search for an accommodation just three days before arriving, we knew we’d made a mistake – everything was booked solid. One shout out to friends and we were connected with Jack & Cass – our saviors! Jack and Cass showed us their beautiful town of Lake Hawea, South Island, where we hiked around, marveled at views of the humongous lake, drank flat whites in the morning and craft beers in the evening, and got real local watching the All Blacks (rugby) at a local pub.
At the Mount Iron Track, we got some gorgeous views of South Island mountains, lakes and ski fields 🙂 Did ya’ll know that the only native land mammal in NZ is the bat? Everything else came with the humans…wild. And still to this day, there are no big scary predators or poisonous snakes in all of NZ…paradise. And did we mention the public bathrooms everywhere are beautiful and spotless!? Again, huge shout out to Jack & Cass for showing us their home and such a good time. It was a massive highlight of our whole trip!
Skiing in summer (or actually, our summer, their winter!) was a huge bucket list item. So to round-out our time on the South Island, we hit the slopes at Cardrona ski field with lots of borrowed gear and some thrift store finds Eric couldn’t resist ($8 for a helmet, goggles & gloves?!). It was basically a white-out all day on slippery ice, but Sarah only fell once, whined twice, and we were truly stoked to have the chance to ski on this sabbatical.
When the opportunity came about to ski again at Remarkables a few days later (about an hour south near Queenstown), Eric jumped at it and lucked out with a bluebird day. Sarah audibled and jumped at a local jewelry-making class.
We caught a flight from Queenstown → Auckland, but squeezed in time to explore this charming, twinkly-light town right on the lake. Our Airbnb gave us ghost vibes, so we skipped about town as much as the frigid temps would allow. Notably, we nommed some delicious (and massive) fish n’ chips, and washed it down with fried kiwi for dessert (!!).
Van Life – Coromandel Peninsula
We zipped up to North Island to begin our week-long van life extravaganza. We hit the road after stocking up on pb&j, chips & craft beer. First stop: Coromandel Peninsula. We were treated to neon greenery, the salty ocean, and cool fog (but thankfully little rain despite the forecast!). Also, no road trip is complete without Taco Bell, and Eric wants everyone to know that TB in NZ is unparalleled – perfectly crispy tortilla, succulent pulled pork & it weighed approx. 1KG. Watch out, San Francisco burritos..
Van Life – Rotorua, Taupo
We continued south in the van, coming to find that NZ is bubbling with thermal activity– especially in Rotorua & Taupo. Geothermal steam oozes from ponds at local parks and Eric veered off the road for any and all opportunity to hop in a thermal bath – his favorite being the Hot N’ Cold river where two rivers converge (one piping hot, one ice cold, as the name suggests). It was his dream come true – a natural version of a hot tub and cold plunge!
Our campsite in this region was chosen for us when we got our van thoroughly stuck in the mud. Thankfully a lovely Kiwi helped us MacGyver a way out in the morning:) Sarah also tried mountain biking here for the first time, and basically screamed the entire way down.
CHILE Santiago, Valparaiso
The direct flight from Auckland → Santiago, being loosely in the direction of home (California), was what ultimately led to the decision of concluding our adventure in South America. We touched down in Santiago and immediately had to gear our stomachs up for cream-sauce & mayo-covered-everything (Eric was ready). Sarah’s dad, Joel, joined us for the Chile leg, and we spent the first couple days at parks, drinking pisco sours, and consuming “completos” (local version of a hot dog).
Eric also squeezed in one more day on the slopes of Valle Nevado (ya know, because he had to maximize the return on the thrift store ski gear he picked up in NZ). Then we scooped up a rental car and drove west to Valparaiso, a graffiti-filled port town. We wanted to love Valparaiso, but lots of warnings of crime plus stray dogs and their doodoo on every inch of the street left us feeling a tiny bit meh. Joel did find a really cool hat at the market though——->
We continued on with a stop in Casablanca (wine country) where we sipped some delicious (and inexpensive) vino, ate pizza, and slept in a tiny house overlooking vineyards. We loved the much more chill and less elitist vibes of the wineries we visited (compared to Northern California).
And to round-out the road trip, we visited the mountains of San Jose de Maipo. We stocked up on food and took the hosts 4×4 van up the steep and rocky road to our Airbnb. The cute cabin had one furnace, so Eric and Joel got to practice the manly skill of fire building 24/7, and we all slept in four layers of clothing. We spent the days cooking meals and going for lots of walks with mountain views (the neighbor’s sweet dog accompanied us wherever we went).
Last stop in Chile: The Atacama Desert, the driest and one of the highest deserts in the world. Lots to see in this vast dryland, which often felt like another planet – salt flats, sand dunes, lagoons with flamingos (did you know flamingos are born white, and their diet of exclusively sea monkeys turns them pink!?), multicolored canyons & geothermal springs.
At one point we were locked out of our car in the middle of the desert, but thankfully we are small humans and were able to climb in through the trunk back to mobile safety. After the panic subsided we were treated to a herd of llamas trekking alongside our car for 30 minutes. This desert oasis has an added bonus– a Death-Valley-meets-Albuquerque boho-chic little town called San Pedro de Atacama. Lots of funky cool souvenir shops and live music to check out.
Now off to Peru and Ecuador for trekking and wildlife viewing, the grand finale of our six-month odyssey.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
At the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, I pick up a sheet detailing a walking tour through the Jewish Cultural Quarter which features 37 points (Rembrandthuis and the Waterlooplein flea market are included) and 12 museums, monuments and memorials. It is supposed to take about 90 minutes.
I go off to follow much of the list – which is most interesting because you go into this historic neighborhood where you almost hear the voices of the people who lived there, certainly feel their presence. It feels a bit like time travel.
Across the street from the Jewish Museum, which is housed in four former synagogues including the Great Synagogue, is one of the most beautiful and grandest synagogues of the world, the Portuguese Synagogue. Dating from 1675 (just four years after the Great Synagogue which is across the street), this Sephardic synagogue is in fact a whole religious complex with the synagogue, archives, a mortuary, and a library.
Known as The Esnoga, the Portuguese Synagogue was designed by Elias Bouman, who had also helped design the Great Synagogue of the Ashkenazim across the road. Elias Bouman later became the city’s chief architect. The colossal building dominated its surroundings then, as it still does today. When finished, it was the largest synagogue in the world. And even centuries ago, was a tourist attraction. (Mr. Visserplein 3, jck.nl/en/longread/portuguese-synagogue)
The Portuguese Synagogue is still used for religious services (it’s Saturday so I don’t get to go inside), but on most days you can buy a ticket to see inside. It is renowned for its exquisite 17th century interior. There are also smaller buildings in the complex where there are “treasure chambers” displaying ceremonial objects of silver, gold, brocade and silk. The synagogue also hosts frequent candlelight concerts. (I experienced an extraordinary concert at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague at the start of my European odyssey.)
The Great Synagogue was destroyed in the Holocaust (it was restored and turned into a museum in 1961), but the Portuguese Synagogue was saved apparently because Hitler wanted to leave a trace of the vanished nation (I was told much the same about how Prague’s Jewish Quarter managed to survive.)
The world’s oldest functioning Jewish library, Ets Haim Livraria Montezinos, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is also here in the Portuguese Synagogue (Mr. Visserplein 3). The library has more than 25.000 books and 560 manuscripts in Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Greek, Arabic and Yiddish in its collection. Some of the manuscripts date to13th C. (An appointment is required to visit: for a guided tour phone: +31 20 531 03 80; researchers call +31 20 531 03 98).
Outside the Portuguese Synagogue is the Jonas Daniel Meijerplain, a square named for Jonas Daniel Meijer who in 1796 became the first Dutch Jew to receive a doctoral degree. He was a leader in the Jewish struggle for emancipation and equal rights (which was won in 1796). There are Stolpersteine (small memorial plaques) in front of houses that are along the square (nos. 13, 15, 19) that bear the names of Jews who lived there and were murdered by the Nazis. (I saw these Stolpersteines in Dordrecht, as well.)
In the square is the February Protest Monument commemorating the strike of the Amsterdam dock workers on February 24, 1941, to protest persecution of Jews. The strike has been followed by protest actions all over the city: in public transport, schools and in some companies. Strike actions also took place in several cities around Amsterdam and in Utrecht. Although the Nazi administration, which invaded the Netherlands in 1940, managed to suppress the strike within just a few days, killing nine of the protesters, injuring many and perpetuating several other ruthless actions, the open protest against the Nazis had the symbolic importance for all people in the Netherlands. The monument represents a striking worker called “De Dokwerker”. The sculpture is by Mari Andriessen, a sculptor who during the war refused membership of the Nazi-led artist union and hid Jewish friends at his home to save them from death.
My walking tour takes me to what was the Ashkenazi Jewish Girls Orphanage, which from 1863-1943 was where these orphaned girls received religious education. In the Holocaust, 80 were deported to concentration camps.
The Plancius/Resistance museum, was where the Jewish choral society, Oxfening Baart Kunst (Practice Makes Perfect) was established in 1876; it has been the site of the Dutch Resistance Museum since 1999.
The De Castro Pharmacy is Amsterdam’s oldest apothecary (1832). Daniel Henriques de Castro was not only an apothecary but also an administrator of the Portuguese Synagogue and a glass engraver.
The Pinto House (Sint Antoniebreestraat 69), was built in 1603, bought by the wealthy Jewish merchant Isaac de Pinto in 1651 and rebuilt by his son David Emanuel in 1686 with the broad classical facade. Devastated in 20th C. and saved from a demolition, it is a public library today.
I go to the Walter Suskind Bridge – fairly nondescript – named for Walter Suskind (1906-1945) who was the head of Jewish staff of the Hollandsche Schauwburg and in this capacity saved hundreds of Jewish children from deportation and murder.
(Gassan Diamonds is also here in the Jewish Quarter and had an important role in the Jewish community. I book a free tour for the next morning at its website, https://www.gassan.com/en/tours/gassan-historical-tour)
I visit as many of the sites as I can, and finally come to the National Holocaust Memorial, which only opened in September 2021. It’s the first in the Netherlands to name all 102,000 Dutch Jews, Sinti and Roma who were killed by the Nazis during World War II. Designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Liebeskind, the 102,000 bricks, each bearing the name of a victim, form the shape of four Hebrew letters meaning “in memory of.”
I estimate there are 32 rows of 50 bricks just named DeVries. I note some of the names: Frouwkevn Mandenburg Gosschalk, Rooje van Maagdenburg-Frank, Maas, Magtige, Maij – very Dutch, with some of these families I would bet having lived in Amsterdam for hundreds of years. The name plaques seem to go on forever.
Of the 107,000 deported to concentration camps, only 5200 Jews and 30 Santi and Roma survived.
“A warning for all generations, all over the world and in the future,” a plaque reads.
According to reporting of the event, the memorial was unveiled by King Willem-Alexander and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Tickets to all the Jewish Cultural Quarter exhibits may be purchased at any of the participating institutions. Adults – € 12 ; young people age 13 -17, students, Stadspas – € 6 ; children age up to 13; free admission is provided with the Amsterdam Holland Pass, iAmsterdam Pass, Museum Card, Friends of The Jewish Historical Museum, ICOM, Rembrandt Association. Tickets to the Jewish Historical Quarter are valid 1 month for a multiple access to all exhibits. Tickets to concerts at the Portuguese Synagogue: € 13.50.
By now, it is time for me to walk over to the Rijksmuseum for my timed ticket, which brings me through more of the neighborhoods that seem so far removed in time and place from what I had just experienced.
The big attraction at the Rijksmuseum (I only have two hours before closing) is Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch” painting (I hadn’t realized it is the size of an entire wall), and you get to see it as it is being conserved, behind a glass-enclosed studio. A docent is there to answer questions about it.
At the Rembrandthuis, I was told that this painting was one of the reasons that Rembrandt went bankrupt – the three benefactors who paid the most for the painting are not shown prominently, and they conveyed their discontent so that Rembrandt lost commissions. The docent disputes this and points out that was a decade between the painting and his bankruptcy.
By now, I have to get to my COVID19 test that I scheduled, so I get to discover more neighborhoods. As it turns out, the clinic is across the way from Amsterdam’s science museum, along the boulevard that would go to the Central Station. The process is extremely efficient (shortly after, the United States halted requiring COVID tests within 24 hours of entering the country.)
On the way back to Sofitel Legend Grand Amsterdam Hotel, I find myself walking through the Red Light District, jam-packed with people. Here you can also visit museums to Erotica, Prostitution, assorted peep shows and museums devoted to Hash, Marijuana and Hemp . Even the public toilet is titillatingly called the “Sexy Loo.”
Here you find posters on the bridges warning of fines for peeing in the canal or taking alcohol out of the district, and as the evening grows later, more and more police presence.
The next morning, before I have to get to the airport (and after enjoying a terrific breakfast at the Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam Hotel), I tour the Gassan Diamonds, a historic place which had great importance in the Jewish Quarter.
Initially, Jews were not permitted into Amsterdam’s guilds, so the only occupations that were open to them were street trading (hence the giant flea market at Waterlooplein), financing, book printing and diamond cutting. In the 19th century many Jews worked in the flourishing diamond trade and industry.
Amsterdam has been famous for its diamonds since the 16th century, and after 400 years, the city is still regarded as a diamond trading center of the world. The popular brilliant-cut with 57 facets which was developed in Amsterdam is known as the “Amsterdam-cut”.
There are about a dozen diamond factories in Amsterdam left, five which offer guided tours.
Gassan Diamonds has played a pivotal role in Amsterdam’s diamond history, as well as in Jewish life in Amsterdam. The diamond factory was built in 1879 by the Boas brothers, and at the time was the largest diamond factory in Europe. It was shut down during World War II, and resurrected by Samuel Gassan, whose father actually worked there as a diamond cutter.
Samuel Gassan stayed in Switzerland until the end of the war, became a captain in the British Army. Working in the repatriation service, he helped children of diamond workers who had lost their parents and who had been held captive in Bergen-Belsen, return to the Netherlands.
In October 1945, having returned to Amsterdam, Samuel, now 35, opened his own diamond trading company, Firma Gassan, in the Diamond Exchange on the Wesperplein. He traveled all over Europe selling his diamonds. Five years later he owned his own diamond cutting factory on the Zwanenburgerstraat.
On the tour, we get to see the diamond polishers at their craft, while a guide explains how they turn rough diamonds into dazzling brilliants. And Gassan has taken the “Amsterdam cut” to a new level, patenting the technique of the Gassan 121 diamond – a diamond cut with 121 facets to dazzling effect.
I am taken into a room where, even though it is Sunday morning, there are a couple of people polishing diamonds. My guide explains the three-step process: cutting (phosphorous blade, rotates 6400/min, coated with olive oil and diamond dust because only a diamond can cut diamond; shaping and elevating sharp edges (not sparkling yet); and third, polishing with olive oil and diamond dust to make facet. Facets are what make the diamond clear and sparkling.
It takes 3 to 4 working days to prepare one diamond.
A brilliant cut has 57 facets (33 on top, 24 on bottom), which originated in Amsterdam and is known as the “Amsterdam cut.” But, she explains, Gassan (pioneered and patented) a 121-facet diamond with exponentially more refraction (no one else can sell 121 facets)
Luna, who I watch polishing a diamond, has had 3 years experience (it takes two years to learn basics, 10-20 years to perfect, and by the time you are ready to retire, you are a master). A half carat is the biggest diamond she has worked on, she tells me.
All the rough diamonds that come to the Antwerp bourse must have a certificate that they are not conflict diamonds. Diamonds come from all over the world and are found everywhere but Australia, Canada, India, and China, she tells me.
This 1879 building is long and narrow because it was built before electricity, so the workers were dependent upon natural light, and used steam system (you can see the pipes).
In a display case are old pieces of glass with names etched with diamond into it. “This was a Jewish neighborhood and a Jewish company,” she tells me. “A lot of Jews worked here. During World War II, most were killed, so we keep the glass with their names. Gassan’s own father was a diamond worker in the factory here. After the war, Samuel acquired the old factory.
My guide takes me into a small room to explains the different elements that go into the quality (and price) of a diamond – carats, colors, clarity, cuts and, of course, the ultimate Gassan 121- and fortunately, you can buy here at factory price (and get the 16% tax refunded at airport). ”You can choose a diamond today, choose setting and it will be ready within 30 to 60 minutes – ring, necklace, earrings.” You can also peruse the jewelry store, filled with luxury items.
Gassan also offers a VIP tour through the diamond factory and the in-house Rolex boutique which includes a glass of champagne, a goodie bag and the chance to chat with a certified Rolex watchmaker. Or you can take a seat behind the grinder yourself with the Diamond Polishing Experience, where you can apply the final facets to your own diamond!
I time it so I get back to the Sofitel Legend Grand Amsterdam hotel so I can take the tour of this fascinating place that played such an important role in Holland’s history, and still have time for one last walk through the historic district to Amsterdam’s Central Station. It’s a hop-skip-jump on the train to Schiphol Airport (2nd class ticket does just fine), all of about 15 minutes ride.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I have cleverly arranged an extra day in Amsterdam after the eight-day BoatBikeTours Bruges-to Amsterdam bike trip, and I can’t afford to miss a minute. So after checking into my five-star luxury historic hotel, Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam Hotel, marveling at my room (actually a suite), and having the concierge help purchase a timed ticket to the Rijksmuseum, I immediately set out.
In fact, I realize too late that it was necessary to pre-purchase timed tickets to major sites in Amsterdam – Anne Frank House is booked (you have to purchase weeks in advance). So I set out myself to see as much as I could – and in the course of the day, wind up exploring on foot just about all Amsterdam’s historic district neighborhoods. And since I can’t get into the Anne Frank House, I head to the Jewish Quarter (the Anne Frank House is not actually in the Jewish Quarter), which proves a wonderful and satisfying adventure in many ways.
My first stop is most remarkable: The Rembrandt House. This is Rembrandt van Rijn’s actual townhouse, which may surprise people to learn is on a street that used to be in the center of Jewish life in Amsterdam. Although Rembrandt was not Jewish, his paintings often reflect his life among the Jews in the city – scenes from the Old Testament and many portraits of the Jewish people who lived around him. But what is most remarkable are the insights into this master’s life and work and even his creative process as you go around the house, essentially restored and furnished in the way it was, when he lived here. The Rembrandthuis presents Rembrandt’s life, his epoch, an interesting collection of paintings by his contemporaries and his prints.
Rembrandt was doing well when he bought this townhouse, but when his fortunes turned and the house was sold, his possessions were inventoried – the museum recreates the house from that inventory as well as Rembrandt’s drawings, so they knew what was in specific rooms; the audio tour notes the objects (and you can get even more detail on many of the objects).
It is utterly fascinating to be in this space – his bedroom, his printing room (where you can lift leather coverings and see original etchings), his studio, his salon (actually a sales room). I learned that Rembrandt was an art dealer, and would have entertained clients in this parlor where there are a number of paintings on the wall as there would have been.
Rembrandt “would receive his clients with a glass of chilled wine from a marble wine cooler. On the walls hung dozens of paintings from which the client could choose. Rembrandt sold his own works and works by his many pupils. He also dealt in paintings by other masters. This was common practice among artists at this time. Rembrandt had Flemish and Italian works in stock, but most of the paintings were by Dutch masters.”
You walk through with your own audio device which gives a really excellent tour (allocate at least an hour), and notes the personal aspects, and you can point the sensor to a number and hear more details, like about the painting of an old man with bears, which was by one of his students).
“We know from paintings his wife was lying on the bed – she died at 29 giving birth to their son.”
In the kitchen, we see a stove which would have been an innovation in his day.
Rembrandt was ‘a ground-breaking etcher” and my favorite room is his print shop where we can see original etchings (they are put under leather covers in a darkened room to best preserve them, and are rotated every three months ). It is absolutely thrilling to see.
We go into a studio where Rembrandt taught art students – you could have been a Rembrandt pupil for 50 guilders a month (he had 40 students). “They would already have had a basis in art.”
Rembrandt had two mistresses after his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, died at the age of 29, giving birth to their son.
The first was his housekeeper and nanny to his son and they developed an intimate relationship. She wanted to marry; Rembrandt couldn’t because under the terms of his (wealthier, noble) wife’s will, his inheritance would have reverted to her other relatives. So when he couldn’t marry, she sued him for a very large amount of alimony. He had her committed to a madhouse for five years.
Then he met Hendrickje Stoffels, very much younger than Rembrandt. They had a loving relationship, had children, and were together for 15 years until she died at the age of 38.
Rembrandt had 16 children but only three – a son and two daughters – survived to adulthood. His son became an art dealer, and after Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, rented a house for himself and father and his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels. His son died one year before Rembrandt.
I ask how Rembrandt went bankrupt. “He spent too much. Also, ‘Nightwatch’ – the three people who paid the most for the painting were not well represented in the painting; it went around that Rembrandt wasn’t a good portrait painter and he lost commissions (100G, equivalent to yearly salary). With commissions down, he went bankrupt.” [Later, I get to ask the docent at the Rijksmuseum when I visit “Nightwatch” who disputes this account.]
The Rembrandt House museum has a broad collection of Rembrandt’s works, but only a small portion is on view at any one time (they rotate to preserve the art).
In the modern building that is attached, there are exhibitions of modern artists reinterpreting Rembrandt’s concept of painting people as they are, not idealized. (I don’t care for them at all).
I realize that though I so admired Rembrandt, I actually knew very little about who he was. You come away seeing, understanding Rembrandt in such a different light as you tour his house.
It’s Saturday and just near the Rembrandthuis there is a regular – and massive – Waterlooplein (Waterloo square) flea market, started ages ago by Jewish peddlers (one of the few occupations allowed to Jews) and today is the largest flea market in Amsterdam. It’s definitely fun to visit (www.amsterdam.info/markets/waterlooplein/)
Even this early in the tourist season, Amsterdam seems pretty crowded with visitor s (especially in the Red Light District), but I set out to explore more of the historic Jewish Quarter where I find myself on a sort of hunt to locate sites. It seems more the “real Amsterdam” – less impacted by tourists – where I can time travel.
Peering Back at350 Years in the Jewish Quarter
The Jodenbuurt (Jewish Quarter) was inhabited by the Jewish community for 350 years, from the late 16th century up to the Holocaust.
Jewish people, culture and religion became an important element of life in Amsterdam from the early 1600s. Several countries in Europe guided by the Catholic Church, starting from the 13th C, had laws aimed at expelling Jews. During the counter-reformation in the 16th C, persecutions of Jews increased. While subject to many restrictions, Jews were permitted to settle in Amsterdam and peacefully observe their religion.
In 1593, a century after the Spanish Inquisition, Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain settled in this neighborhood of Amsterdam. In the course of the 17th century Ashkenazi Jews from Central, Eastern, and parts of Western Europe also moved into the district. By 1602, the Jews started to build their first synagogues. And in the centuries that followed, many more synagogues opened.
The absolutely best place to start my odyssey is the Jewish Museum (previously known as the Jewish Historical Museum)
The Jewish Museum is the only museum in the Netherlands that focuses on Jewish history, religion and culture. The museum is set in a group of four 17th and 18th century Ashkenazi synagogues at the heart of the former Jewish quarter in the centre of Amsterdam. The permanent exhibition follows several themes: the role of religion and tradition, the links with Israel, the persecution of Jews during the Second World War, personal life stories and the mutual influence of Jewish and Dutch culture.
The main part of the museum is housed in the stunning Great Synagogue, the Ashkenazi “Gathering Place” that dates from 1671. The exhibits here are enlightening and inspiring.
Jewish Museum is more focused on the 350-year long history of Jews in Amsterdam. it’s about their migration and integration into Holland, though the period from 1900 to present is also on display in a very moving way, how they integrated into Dutch society, and how they thrived and contributed to the community when restrictions were lifted.
It’s a museum of stories and surprises – it’s uncanny how much personal information they have to connect with the portraits and personal effects on view – so much more meaningful than looking at paintings and artifacts. I especially loved seeing these gorgeous portraits of Jewish Amsterdamers from the 17th and 18th centuries, – how they looked like any other Amsterdamer of the time, a testament to how secular and assimilated people can come when they are free to interact in the broader society.
Here you see Rembrandt etchings of his Jewish neighbors but with canny personal detail. So attached to Rembrandt’s etching of a distinguished looking man, we learn, “This is the Sephardi doctor Ephraim Bueno (1599-1665). When he was a child, he and his parents fled Portugal to Bordeaux where studied medicine, then later settled in Amsterdam. Father and son gained a good reputation as doctors, both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Ephraim Bueno lived near Rembrandt, who etched his likeness.”
Amsterdam, a legendarily liberal city for sex, drugs (as today), was also comparatively liberal for Jews back in the day. William of Orange fought a revolution for religious freedom from Catholic Spain. Jews won comparative emancipation in the Netherlands in 1796.
The combination of economic success and a relatively tolerant religious environment – unusual in Europe – made Amsterdam attractive to foreigners.
Portuguese “New Christians” – descendents from the Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert but practiced secretly – found that here in Amsterdam, Jews could practice without having to wear distinguishing marks or live in ghetto. We meet several (in portraits) who took up again their Jewish lives once they settled in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam at the start of 18th C developed into the biggest, most important Jewish city in world. No other city had the synagogues of the size and majesty of the Great Synagogue and Portuguese Synagogue (the largest synagogue in the world) – which served as a symbol of liberation enjoyed by Jews here.
You walk through to another building, also a former synagogue, where the exhibit basically tells the “modern” story of Jews here, from 1900 to the present, and especially, the horrifying history of what happened to real people before, during and after the Holocaust.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, there were 80,000 Jews living in Amsterdam (- approximately 10% of the city population. Throughout the years of German occupation not many survived. Almost all were deported and exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.
When the Nazis came, Jews tried to hide in basements, attics, secret rooms. Anne Frank is best known because of her diary.
Some 25,000 Jews went into hiding, of whom 18,000 survived, the rest were discovered or betrayed. ”Those in hiding often received help from non-Jewish acquaintances. Later on, resistance organizations set up a system: besides hiding places, they supplied ration cards and forged identity papers and arranged means of transport.
Hiding places ranged from back rooms and converted cupboards to sheds and ditches and carefully concealed holes in the ground. Jewish children were sometimes given new identities and assimilated into non-Jewish foster families.” Some were successful, most found out, betrayed, or gave up. On average, Jews in hiding paid 100 guilders a month for protection.
Some 30,000 Dutch Jews out of 140,000 survived the war, most of them by going into hiding. After the war ended only 5,200 Jews returned to Amsterdam from the camps, and the life of the city changed forever.
“Their repatriation to the Netherlands was a laborious process and they met with a cold and bureaucratic reception in their home country. Jews who returned were… scarcely received any support in trying to rebuild their lives. Survivors often had nothing left – their relatives and friends had been murdered and their possessions stolen. The government declined to take any measures to address the specific problems of the Jewish population, arguing that they did not wish to discriminate as the German occupying forces had done…. There was little interest in or understanding for the plight of survivors among the Dutch population, which was coping with its own poverty and distress.”
The perspective you get at the Jewish Museum is unusual – to see how the community lived for 350 years and then the aftermath holds lessons for today.
Today Jewish Amsterdam community numbers 20,000 persons, is well organized, has a rich religious and cultural life, nevertheless the old Jewish Amsterdam belongs to history.
The Jewish Museum also manages the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the Holocaust Memorial. The former theater was used during the Nazi occupation as a deportation center for Jews. Today it is a monument to the memory of those who died, with a special exhibition for school children. (It is being renovated with reopening expected beginning 2023). https://www.amsterdam.info/jewish/hollandsche_schouwburg/
At the Jewish Museum, I pick up a sheet describing a walking tour through the Jewish Cultural Quarter. I go off to follow much of the list. It is like a mystery tour, peeking back in time to people’s lives.
I march myself from the Princesse Royal, the ship that has been my floating hotel for the eight-day BoatBikeTours’ Bruges to Amsterdam bike trip the few steps from where we are docked to the free ferry to Amsterdam’s Central Station and into Amsterdam’s historic city center and on to the hotel Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam.
The level of service, luxury and elegance in this five-star hotel makes you feel you are staying in a palace, and frankly, it was, as I soon learn on the hotel’s daily tour.
I always seek out historic hotels when I travel because they tend to be so much more interesting, so connected to place, so full of personality, character and yes, authenticity, but rarely have I stayed in a hotel that played such an integral role in a nation’s history.
A hotel only since 1992, the original buildings and tower that have been repurposed for The Grand were built in 1411 and actually were two convents – one on the northern side and one on the southern side, with canals on both.
In 1578, with the success of William of Orange’s revolt against Catholic Spain, Protestantism swept the Netherlands and Amsterdam. The two convents were given to the city. The northern side was empty for a time, but the southern building became the Royal residence – The Princenhof (still the name). The Maria de’ Medici, Queen of France, and William of Orange himself stayed here at some point.
In 1652, after a fire at Dam Square destroyed the building where the Council met, they moved into the northern part of the building, which served as the Council Chamber for three years until Dam Square was renovated (the room is still set up as a Council Chamber).
In 1655, the powerful Dutch East India Trading Company made this their headquarters. The company, which set up trade, exploration and colonization around the globe, functioned as a military power, government, and even agricultural producer and helped make this small nation a global power, from 1602 to 1800. (A little research reveals the Dutch had an advantage in resources because they were on the cutting edge of capitalism. The Dutch East India Company had a more successful strategy because of sound money, an efficient tax system and a system of public debt by which the government could borrow from its citizens at low interest rates. See https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/what-made-east-india-company-so-successful)
In 1808, the French took over and Napoleon installed his brother, Louis Napoleon, as King of Netherlands. He wanted Dam Square for his palace, so the Council came back to this building for the next 108 years (until as recently as 1988, which explains why the room is still set up as a Council chamber.)
We see an astonishing five-story high wall of stained glass by Roland Holst (1868-1938), given to the city of Amsterdam in 1925 by the city of Rotterdam on the occasion of the capital’s 650th anniversary. The first nine stained windows present the founder of Amsterdam, Gijsbrecht van Amstel. The others depict dike constructors, fishermen, floral patterns, symbols of trade, education and jurisdiction. There are three crosses of Amsterdam symbolizing fire (a lot of fires afflicted the city); water (the city is below sea level) and plague (to show respect for people).
In 1925, the Wedding Chamber was painted with a most magnificent Art Deco series of murals that our guide, Donna van der Heul, of guest relations, relates, tell the story of a couple who meets, are seduced in a sneaky way (symbolized by a snake), stay true, meet each other (there is a little flame between their legs), become engaged (the flame becomes bigger), a wedding showing the happy couple. Another panel shows the couple with a child with a flame of her own, and another panel shows them as an old couple, still together. (We have to rush through the chamber because a wedding is getting underway shortly).
We visit the Council Chamber (which looks like parliament). Princess Beatrix and Prince Klaus (the present king’s parents) in 1966 and you can see a photo of their wedding .
We visit the beautifully decorated Oriole Garden Bistro where there is a mural that was painted in 1949 when the building was City Hall. Titled, “Inquisitive Children,” by artist Karel Appel, it depicts begging, crying children, with sad eyes, in the aftermath of World War II’s human destruction. “The Council Staff thought it would make people feel uncomfortable so they put it behind a wall. But when the building became a hotel and the painting was found, the artist, Karel Appel, had by then become a famous painter. They had Appel sign it and repair the painting. Now it is behind glass and doesn’t look sad,” our guide relates.
She also points out the marble floor with pieces that are arranged with a “book marking” design that form a butterfly, so the butterfly images and theme is around hotel .
The Princenhof – once the royal residence – is used for meetings. Obviously an immensely popular venue for weddings, the hotel has its own florist and wedding planner.
Located between two historical canals in the heart of the historic city, the hotel Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam has turned its pedigree from a 15th century convent to royal residence to Dutch admiralty headquarters to Amsterdam’s city hall, into a five-star luxury hotel with a particular “Amsterdam” ambiance, French elegance and grandeur. You feel the five-star luxury in every aspect of the hotel, from the moment you check in. The lordly complex became a hotel in 1992.
It offers the restaurant Bridges, the Oriole Garden Bistro serving Mediterranean-style cuisine, the Garden Terrace within an inner garden, the Library ‘Or’ where Grand Afternoon Tea is served, and the Flying Deer pop-up bar and a spa.
The Sofitel SPA offers a heated indoor pool, sauna, hammam (Turkish steam bath) and fitness area where you can also order from a spa menu.
The Grand is one of the Sofitel Legend’s collection of stately heritage hotels and palaces found in iconic cities around the world, “exclusive hotels in legendary places, offering world-class service, stunning décor and inspiring culinary experiences. Step into a timeless story that’s still unfolding to this day at Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam.”
The Grand features 178 guest rooms of which 52 are luxury suites. Throughout, you see a harmonious blend of traditional and contemporary French design and typical Dutch style elements. The rich heritage of the structure has been carefully preserved, while ensuring that the accommodations are updated with the amenities and advanced technology travelers today savor. (I can testify to the exemplary service.)
Guests who stay in the suites are provided an extra layer of luxury: Butler Service, with exclusive benefits, such as “personalized rooming” – (un)packing of suitcases and presenting the “pillow menus” and “bath rituals”.
Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam is a member of Historic Hotels Worldwide®, an official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the USA, and an international companion to Historic Hotels of America (historichotels.org). Historic Hotels Worldwide is a prestigious collection of 360 historic treasures that include historic hotels, castles, chateaus, palaces, academies, haciendas, villas, monasteries, and other historic lodging spanning ten centuries and more than 45 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
The Sofitel Legend exemplifies the mission and criteria of the membership. Hotels inducted into Historic Hotels Worldwide® are authentic historic treasures, demonstrate historic preservation, and celebrate historic significance. With a growing global collection of hotels that have faithfully maintained their authenticity, sense of place, and architectural integrity, Historic Hotels Worldwide® membership is comprised of the world’s finest hospitality brands, chains, collections, and independently owned and operated properties.
Historic Hotels Worldwide® is dedicated to promoting heritage and cultural travel to these prestigious historic treasures. Membership in Historic Hotels Worldwide® encourages revitalization and enhances preservation of magnificent architectural and cultural legacies.
To participate in Historic Hotels Worldwide, historical lodging properties must be at least 75 years old; utilize historic accommodations; serve as the former home or be located on the grounds of the former home of famous persons or a significant location for an event in history; be located in or within walking distance to a historic district, historically significant landmark, place of historic event, or historic city center; be recognized by local preservation organization or national trust; and display historic memorabilia, artwork, photography, and other examples of its historic significance. Hotels located in the United States must be a current member of Historic Hotels of America to qualify for participation in Historic Hotels Worldwide.
Hotels are in diverse cultural settings, ranging from a 12th-century castle set among the rolling hills, prehistoric monuments, and Celtic landmarks of Ireland’s Ancient Eastin, (Kilkea Castle, Castledermot Ireland, circa 1180) to a medieval village nestled in the Tuscan countryside that dates back to the 11th century (La Bagnaia Golf & Spa Resort Siena, Curio Collection by Hilton, Siena, Italy circa 1081).
Travelers can find and book these historic hotels them at HistoricHotels.org, which since 2012 has served as a global travel website, or call 1-800-678-8946. The Annual Directory can be found by visiting HistoricHotels.org/Directory.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Day 6 of our BoatBikeTours bike trip from Bruges to Amsterdam proves to be the absolute highlight (out of many) and not just for the iconic attractions (spoiler alert: windmills!), but the serendipitous experiences that are the essence of travel.
We set out for this day’s ride, 35 miles from Dordrecht to Vianen, riding along a berm that looks down on the river where we can see our ship, the Princesse Royal, sailing along on the left while on the right, just behind a row of houses, we see windmills.
We soon come to Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site where you can see one of the best collections of these centuries old windmills (the name literally means children’s dike).
I always thought of windmills as industrial engines to grind grain or saw wood, and windmills had that function in Holland as well, but in the mid-1700s, Holland used windmills as pumps to drain water to create farm land that otherwise would have been below sealevel. They began by reclaiming two huge patches of land with a system of canals, dykes and windmills to pump water out. Methods changed over time, with the addition of steam engines, electric pumps, that are in a race to take the water out of reclaimed land. But it is expected that this place will eventually succumb to the sea and be below sea level. (Like Venice, see the windmills now!).
The Dutch have been building hydraulic works for the drainage of land for agriculture and settlement since the Middle Ages and have continued to the present day. And these windmills’ most critical task was the ongoing water drainage because 26 percent of The Netherlands is below sea level. Each year, 5 trillion gallons of water must be pumped out to avoid flooding the low-lying parts of the Netherlands. (https://netherlandsinsiders.com/why-is-the-netherlands-known-for-windmills/)
At its peak, there were more than 10.000 windmills operating in The Netherlands. Today, there still are more than 1,000 (and we encounter many of them along our ride – along with the modern day version, wind turbines).
Two of the mills at Kinderdijk, Nederwaard Museum Mill (built in 1738), and Blokweer Museum Mill (which shows what life was like in the 1950s) are opened daily to the public, in addition to boat tours, which can be visited with an entrance ticket .
Kinderdijk is an enchanting place – like a Dutch painting come to life – and after giving us a good amount of time to explore on our own, we get back on the bikes and follow the trail through this entire expanse to continue on our way to Schoonhoven.
We bike to where we are having lunch – a delightful market and a marvelous shop, which usually has tables outside. But they are doing construction so we sit at tables in the barn, with cows, goats, rabbit, lambs. (Unexpected!).
Rain is expected and sure enough, it comes in like clockwork (1 pm) as a furious downpour with thunder and wind. We are cozy inside with the cows and goats. (I’m just so grateful the rain waited until after we visited Kinderdijk.)
Right on time, the thunderstorm passes, but more is expected, so our leaders decide not to offer the option of the longer ride (we were looking forward to riding through peoples’ backyards, as our leader, Arnold Thurko, described), and so set out.
The atmosphere is utterly magical – a milky/creamy quality washing over the green/grey landscape with touches of yellow and orange, dotted with windmills.
The ship meets us at Schoonhoven and takes us on to Vianen.
Dinner this evening is a delicious broccoli soup with cucumber; cod with white herb sauce; vegetables, potatoes; and for dessert, a white chocolate mousse with pistachio.
Vianen: Free City
After dinner, we walk off the ship and our leader, Corrie Stein, guides us on a tour of of Vianen, delighting us with her storytelling. Vianen, she says, calls itself a “free town,” by which I take to mean they are libertarians, resistant to national authority, like paying taxes, and not too welcoming to outsiders. “The city is proud of being a free town.” “Libre” is proclaimed on a sign as we walk in.
She points out other aspects of culture: “Dutch symmetry”. “People will have two of the same planters for symmetry/balance” and the tradition of keeping curtains open (so others can see how nice it is inside).
The local hero here is Hendrik von Brederode, a nobleman who lived from 1531-1568. He became important during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish king for religious freedom, the Eighty Years War.
“In the Netherlands, when we want something badly, we can petition parliament. Nobles sent Hendrik to the representative of the Spanish king in Brussels to petition for freedom of religion. But in translation, the word ‘beggar” or ‘begging’ was attached to him. “From then on, they called themselves ‘beggars’.” Hendrik was nicknamed the “Grote Geus” or the “big beggar”.
“Eventually we got freedom of religion, after the 80-year revolt.”
Most villages have a main square. Vianen – being so independent, I guess – has a boulevard instead.
Napoleon made a road from Paris to Amsterdam and armies and Napoleon came here (& Dordrecht) and drank red wine.
At the Town Hall, Corrie explains that the ground does not support tall towers, and there is not a lot of stone to build with, so it is very prestigious to build with natural stone instead of brick.
On the chimney on top of the Town Hall we see a stork nest – Corrie says the story that associates storks with delivering babies comes from Dutch tradition.
On the outside of the apothecary, there is a bust of a taste tester “to show the medicine was safe.”
Where the historic castle used to stand today there is a water tower – the first in Netherlands to be made of concrete – which turns out to be an icon of Vianen.
She also points to a tree – the Queen Wilhelmia tree. “The House of Orange was depending upon one small girl to keep the house going – would she stay alive? Communities planted trees of hope. The House of Orange had one child – Queen Juliana – who had four daughters.”
In the morning of Day 7, our last day of cycling, our ship, the Princesse Royal, sails from Vianen to Breukelein, which I learn (most delightedly) that this is where the first settlers of Brooklyn came from. (Corrie jokes that it has its own Breukelen bridge; we stop at for photos). We will bike from here to Amsterdam (New York, you will remember, was originally New Amsterdam) – our last stop on our boat/bike tour.
The path from Breukelein along the River Feckt that goes up to Amsterdam is gorgeous, dotted with literal mansions built by textile magnates. “400 years ago this was an important place- the wealthy from Utrecht and Amsterdam would flee the city in summer –heat, diseases – and built impressive summer houses,” Corrie tells us.
They were built over a 400 year period and French destroyed many and many were replaced, so they have different styles. Many have impressive gardens and tea houses. It is reminiscent of Newport’s “cottages.”
“It was scary for people to be outside city, so they even “controlled” their gardens and would buy the view across the river (that remains true today).
We cycle on to a dairy farm and cheese factory, Willigen, in Vreeland and are given a truly fascinating tour by owner Corey, (her brother, Henry Villa, is famous for his cheese shops but his sister, who uses the same recipes, prefers to stay small scale). I’m fascinated by the sophisticated, computerized operation. (They also have a bnb, www.dewilligenlogies.nl/nl/)
They have 80 milking cows on 180 acres of land. The cows come in for milking at 5:30 am and 5:30 pm – 10 cows on each side. One person can milk the 80 cows in an hour. The cows all have computer IDs – when their head is inserted, the computer knows the cow, how many kilos and type of food pellets every cow needs. Each cow is milked 300 days of the year and produces 30 liters of milk a day.
The milk, just five minutes old, goes to the cheese-making factory. “The difference between farmer cheese and factory is the farmer is not allowed to pasteurize milk. Milk that is three days old is used as starter milk for the cows.It takes 10 liters of milk to make 1 kilo of cheese.
We bike along the River Vecht where there are number of houseboats – we are getting closer to Amsterdam.
At Muiden, we take a bit of a detour to see Amsterdam Castle Muiderslot, one of the oldest and best preserved castles in the Netherlands. The castle was built around 1285 and has a long and turbulent history. It forms part of the Defense Line of Amsterdam and the New Dutch Waterline, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It has been a museum since 1878.The castle is surrounded by gardens (muiderslot.nl).
We set out again for Amsterdam, our end point, but the option to take the longer route is taken away because of concern for a severe rainstorm.
We ride fast to get to the ship before the rain, meet the ship and sail into Amsterdam, where it is already raining.
We are docked on the opposite shore from Amsterdam’s city center, but Amsterdam is so bike/pedestrian friendly, the city offers free ferries that run constantly.
We literally step out of where the Princesse Royal is docked and walk a few steps to the ferry to Amsterdam’s Central Station and the historic city center. So I hop on one to go into the historic center for a walk-about in the rain before our gala, farewell dinner.
Corrie and Arnold also help those who need to get a COVID test before traveling back to the US make the appointment (an extremely efficient system from Spoedtest.nl in Amsterdam, and helping us organize for our departure.
This is an ideal trip especially if you are traveling on your own, if you are new to biketouring, or with a family or just want a relaxing, incredibly scenic and interesting ride. The scheduling, route, itinerary, tours and excursions are excellent – and I especially love how our ship in most cases docks right at the town so we can walk off and visit.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Day 5 on our BoatBikeTours eight-day Bruges-to-Amsterdam bike trip, we sail in the early morning from Antwerp in Belgium to Kreekrak and cycle 23 miles to Tholen (new harbor) in the Netherlands, where the ship meets us to sail on to Dordrecht – not places that I would bet most of us have ever heard of before.
We stop to visit to the Canadian war cemetery where there are 80 graves of Canadian soldiers who fought trying to free Netherlands from the Nazis. “They try to give the graves a face,” so each one is personalized.
Our lunch stop is at Fort De Roovere, built in 1628, the largest of four forts that formed the West-Brabantse Waterline, a water-based defensive fortification. Located along the edge of a sandy embankment between Bergen op Zoom and Steenbergen, it was built during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) – the Dutch war of independence against Spanish rule.
After the fall of the French Empire of Napoleon in 1816, Fort de Roovere no longer had a military purpose and was reclaimed by nature. It was designated a national monument in 1975. The earthen-fortress was restored in 2010 as much as possible to its original state, along the same design configuration as in 1784, and today is a lovely park where I watch dragon flies on a lily pond, and climb an interesting modern tower to get a sense of how, in a siege, the approaching enemy forces could be bombarded from protruding bastions by batteries of cannon..
We bike into a charming village of Tholen which has a surprising windmill (converted to a restaurant), and have some time to explore.
Our ship, the Princesse Royal, meets us here and we spend a pleasant afternoon sailing to Dordrecht, going through locks which I learn are not to level the water (like on the Erie Canal) but to keep salt water separate from fresh so the reclaimed land can be farmed. Apparently, it’s also an interesting water defense system – areas could be flooded to stop an invader.
This day proves a nice, relaxing combination of cycling and sailing, but the highlight is yet to come.
We are supposed to dock at the historic city of Dordrecht, but there is an important steam-engine ship festival about to get underway and the harbormaster has refused to let us dock. So Captain Roy van der Veen finds a spot at a boat-building marina across the river.
Our leader, Corrie Stein, not to be deterred because we can’t just walk off the ship into the historic center, organizes a ride back into Dordrecht for her guided walking tour because this is a city that is not to be missed. Dordrecht, as I learn, is like our Philadelphia in 1776, and this place and this adventure proves to be a highlight of our trip.
Here we also get to see the extraordinary infrastructure for bikes – to get up/down the very high bridge, there is actually a track and even an escalator for the bike, as well as dedicated path on the highway bridge.
Dordrecht is 800 years old, the oldest city of Holland (not Netherlands), with a population of 120,000 and some 900 monuments. It has always been a garrison town.
At the main church we learn that they wanted to build a tower 120 meters high (to compete with another city’s tower), but the ground wouldn’t support it. So with the money left over, they built four clocks and a bell. But when the bell tolled, windows broke, so they stopped.
We see these “schooske” – special historic sailing ships that are iconic to Dordrecht (and why there is the special festival). They are allowed to stay in this marina for free.
The original, ornately decorated entrance gate to the town is where Napoleon entered Dordrecht, Corrie says.
Walking down a cobblestone street, I see stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) – bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalk as a memorial to the Jewish families who were taken from their home during the Holocaust. There are stolpersteines to commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime in more than 1,100 locations in 17 European countries
On this street, Corrie points out a special Dordrecht style façade of buildings dating from the 17th century, which she says would have been designed by a mason in order to qualify to join a guild. “There were hundreds of these buildings but they fell out of fashion.
We come to what seems a simple courtyard of a 1275 Augustine monastery, but here, in 1572, a meeting was held to decide to revolt against Philip of Spain and to choose William of Orange as the leader. “The Netherlands was born in Dordrecht,” Corrie tells us.
“Netherlands formed after a revolt against Spain. It started with representatives choosing William of Orange as leader and agreeing to fight for freedom – a political moment – a thought out idea – freedom of religion,” which took place right here. (It sounds so much like the Continental Congress of 1776; Dordrecht in 1572 was Philadelphia in 1776.)
“William wanted their own church” not like Catholic churches, but rounded with 8 sides. And they wanted their own Bible translated in Dutch.”
In 2019, the King of Netherlands, a descendent of William of Orange, came here to Dordrecht with an original family bible, and computerized art projected the writings from the old text on the building.
By now, darkness has all but descended. We put on our bike lights, and ride back to the ship, everyone giggling over how we look like a line of fireflies.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our BoatBikeTours route on Day 4 of our Bruges-Amsterdam bike tour into Antwerp would normally involve going through an interesting 500-meter long tunnel. But our leader, Arnold Thurko, tells us that the 1930s-vintage elevators broke and they haven’t been able to find the spare parts to fix it, so we ride over a bridge and take a ferry into the city instead, which proves a delightful ride with gorgeous views of the city and a fun (quick) ferry ride.
We park our bikes (Arnold stays with them) and go off with our leader, Corrie Stein, for a guided walking tour of Antwerp’s historic city center.
Antwerp’s Golden Age was the 1500s (earlier than Amsterdam), largely because of the advantage its Suikerrui (canal) provided traders by connecting the city to the sea. (Today it is closed off but you can visit the De Ruien, the underground waterway. You get to walk along old vaulted ceilings, narrow canals, bridges, sewers and sluices, and see the city’s underbelly. You can visit The Ruien by booking a guided group walk, walk on your own with an interactive tablet at fixed times or navigate a small section of The Ruien by boat. Go to www.deruien.be). I have this on top of my list for a return visit to Antwerp.
Antwerp was apparently spared bombing in World War II. As a result, we can still marvel at the City Hall, which dates from 1560, and a magnificent square ringed with Guild Houses, one for each guild and each with its own decoration.
The square has as its center the Silvius Brabo statue, a mythical Roman soldier. According to legend, Corrie relates, a giant, Druon Antigoon, who lived on river, would demand a toll from people who wanted to pass the bridge over the river Scheldt. If they refused, the giant would cut off their hand and throw it into the river. Brabo killed the giant, cut off his hand and threw it into the river. This is supposed to have been the origin of the city’s name, Antwerp, translated as “hand throw.”
We walk over to the Cathedral of Our Lady, built 1550-1800 in Gothic style. The belfry, 1339 meters high is included in the Belfries of Belgium and France list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cathedral possesses some major works of art: including three major works by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens (two of which were confiscated by Napoleon and moved to France but returned to the Cathedral in the 19th century).
We get back on our bikes and ride to where our ship, the Princesse Royal, is tied up at the dock, and walk a few blocks away to the Red Star Museum, which BoatBikeTours has arranged for us to visit.
This is a fascinating museum that is a kind of bookend to our Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City. Indeed, Ellis Island is where 2 million Europeans who boarded the Red Star Lines at Antwerp to come to America would have wound up. But this museum does more – it tells the age-old story of migration through individual people, going back to the Neanderthal, and why migration is such a fundamental quality of being human.
The commentary doesn’t shy away from condemning phrases (that are factually true) – for example, describing the brutal, impoverished conditions these desperate people were escaping, or taken by force as slaves, or fleeing persecution, and up to modern day anti-immigrant policies and speech that has lead to the plight of so many undocumented immigrants.
Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island, with a whopping 1,004,756 entering the United States in 1907 alone. Of these, only 2% were turned away (and if were sent back, it was at Red Star’s expense, which is why, we learn, the line was so very scrupulous with their own medical evaluations)
Anti-immigrant fervor took hold in the United States after World War I; the Great Depression, effectively brought an end to migration to America. By then, almost 20 million Europeans had emigrated to America – settling the West, populating the factories of new Industrial cities. The Red Star Line ceased sailing in 1934.
The exhibits are candid about the difference in how the wealthy traveled in such luxury and style compared to those in steerage. You get to see how passengers in different classes were treated – ‘livid’ – don’t disguise how tough steerage was (but compared to what leaving?). The inescapable conclusion that steerage class was actually key to the company’s revenue and profit.
The exhibits are remarkably personal. It is amazing to see these old photos and recognize the buildings, to see postcards, passports, ID papers, and personal effects.
What I loved most is the display on the first floor which so vividly conveys the central theme: there has always been migration, from beginning of man – and they personalize with one representative person for each era – even Neanderthal.
They show what compels migration in a honest way.
Interestingly, for many, Antwerp became their final stop and today there are some 170 nationalities in Antwerp (another similarity to New York City). You can see it in the faces of school children on their outings, in restaurants that represent all nationalities.-Vietnam, Indonesia, Argentina, Italy, France.
This is the evening we are on our own for dinner. (I miss out on visiting the Red Building, which houses an important museum, but even though it is closed, you can take escalators up eight floors to see the photos of people, old and young, then climb two stories higher to the top for a view.
I go off to wander Antwerp myself and on my way back to the ship, find myself in Antwerp’s Red Light District.
I have a story to tell when we are all back on board.
The Oklahoma couple says they wound up at a French restaurant, Bistro de Pottenbrug. They saw steak on the menu and wind up feasting on flattened pig heads, escargots, eel soup in creamy base.
“On this trip,” Lindsey says, “I decided instead of saying ‘no,’ to say ‘yes’.”
She asks what others’ weirdest meals have been: Anne’s weird meal – bone marrow from buffalo; Janet’s was fish eye. Lindsey says, “Last night’s pressed pig head – but it could have been marketed better.”
What is so notable about Antwerp, which is still a major industrial city, is that in one view, you can see dozens of wind turbines, coal being shipped, even a nuclear plant billowing smoke, which we see as we sail out of Antwerp the next morning.
Antwerp is really worth a longer stay. The Antwerp City Card provides free entrance to the city’s top museums, churches, attractions and public transport; as well as some great discounts (www.visitantwerpen.be/en/antwerp-city-card).
We leave Belgium and continue on into The Netherlands.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Though technically our Day 2 of BoatBikeTours’ eight-day Bruges-Amsterdam bike tour, our first ride takes us 35 miles from Bruges to Ghent along waterways, through farmland and villages and we get oriented to how they organize the ride, the gorgeous bikeways, local culture, and stunning scenery.
We stop at a very interesting Canadian War memorial – it’s actually the mangled tank turned into sculpture – and our leader, Arnold Thurkow (who spent a career in the military) tells us the story of these World War II defenders.
We stop next at Castle Lovendegem where our leader, Corrie Stein, tells the story of this place: it is privately owned by a Paris-based prominent wine merchant who grew up here and uses the castle for wine tastings (funny how contemporary history sounds more like gossip). We have a coffee break in the town of Aalter where I get to wander around and look into a bakery and a church.
One of the most unusual sights along the trail that winds beside farms comes when Corrie stops at vending machines where you can purchase a basket of the freshest, sweetest strawberries you have ever savored (Corrie says there are even vending machines to buy fresh chicken!).
As we set out, we quickly see just how popular cycling is in Belgium – one biking club after another and families on an outing, come as a steady stream on these magnificent bike paths, trails and dedicated roadways.
Our group on this first day of riding has been a bit slow (not my fault, I swear) so we have divided into two. I join the slower group so I don’t feel self-conscious shooting photos as I ride. As a result, we reach Ghent about 40 minutes after the first group, just in time to rush to meet up with the rest of our group for the pre-arranged sightseeing canal boat tour of the city (but the other group had 40 minutes to explore – we won’t make that mistake again).
During the sightseeing canal boat trip, the guide points out a grain depot from the 1200s; a toll booth; a tiny tax house; a 16th century guild house; one of the historic city gates; a fish market that operated from the 15th century to the 1950s when it became a car wash but now is the visitor center. He points out a statue of a boy peeing – it’s a famous image – but he said it actually represents the leather tanners union because they used the urine of boys to smooth the leather (it was tasted to determine if the urine was of good quality), so there are many of these pissing statues.
Ghent was one of first industrialized cities that made textile barons wealthy. But the men, women and children who worked in factories lived in pollution, overcrowding and squalor – they worked in 16 hour shifts for low wages. This, along with the university, helps explain why Flemish Socialism was born in Ghent (still a liberal/progressive city, with Socialists still in the majority).
He points to a cannon dating from the 15th century that was installed here in the 16th century for defense. “It was only used once – two people died operating it. Today it is a peace symbol.”
Ghent, I learn, was the birthplace of Charles V who became the Holy Roman Emperor. At the time, Ghent was the 3rd largest city in Europe. To honor their favorite son for his 500th birthday, the city built the Bridge of Imperial Delight decorated with his bust. (Nearby is a sign, “Boat Tourism. Noise Pollution.)
We see a formidable castle, called the Hall of Justice, which (interestingly? ironically?) became a torture chamber. In 1949, students occupied the Castle to protest rising beer prices. “They didn’t change anything, but every November, they celebrate.”
After the canalboat tour (really excellent and appreciated), we still have another few miles to ride to get to St. Michael where our ship, the Princesse Royal is docked.
This day’s ride turns out to be the longest and also the hottest of our trip and when we return to the ship we are greeted with fruit-infused ice water and snacks.
We relax onboard the Princesse Royal and enjoy our dinner: a delectable pumpkin soup with basil; beef stew prepared like chili; a superb mango sorbet for dessert.
An Artist’s Gallery
Day 3’s ride, from Ghent to Merelbeke is 32 miles (or 24 for those wanting a shorter route) to Dendermonde-St. Amands.
We start cycling along the canal and stop at Castle Van Laarne, and visit the small village for our coffee break.(The sign reads: Kasteel Van Laarne-Dit Domein is Prive Eigendom”)
We ride on to Lake Donk, Belgium’s second biggest lake and a popular recreational center where we have the relaxing lunch we packed from the ship.
Continuing on we take a free ferry across a small river, and bike along the river.
We ride into the city of Dendermonde. Corrie points out a statue of Queen Astrid, who is like Belgium’s Princess Di. She died in the 1920s in a car accident when her husband was driving. “He was so distraught, he couldn’t bear to look at his kids and they were sent to live with someone else.” Many squares in the country have statutes to her. Across the way is the International Court of Justice, where apparently “smaller” conflicts than are handled at The Hague (mostly about money) are heard.
Corrie tells us about this town’s most unique and important festival, held every 10 years (the 2020 festival was delayed until May 28, 2022 because of COVID; 85,000 watched). There are banners all over the city featuring the Horse Bayard with four boys on its back.
The legend (which I really can’t understand why this would be celebrated), goes like this: Aymon, Lord of Dendermonde who was related to Charles the Great (Charlemagne), had four boys who were on track to become knights. One boy was very strong (and apparently aggressive) and had to have strong horse. Bayard, to match. The boy played chess with Charlemagne’s son and in a fit, killed Charles’ son. Charles took their father captive, told the boy that to get his father back, he would have to give up his horse, Bayard. Reluctantly, the boy gave up the horse, which Charlemagne had drowned.
So, every 10 years, the small town commemorates this event with a huge horse, 4 meters high, who carries 4 boys on its back. The boys who are chosen have to have grandparents and parents from here, be four boys born in a row (no sisters) and be between ages of 16-25.
Dendermonde also holds a Traditional Giants Parade, Katuit, each year on the last Thursday of August when three giants – lndiaan, Mars and Goliath – parade through the town, accompanied by 1000 actors in medieval attire, floats, bands, flag-tossers, professional street performers and torchbearers.
We bike to St. Amands where the ship is docked (actually next to another BoatBikeTours’ ship, the Magnifique IV) and can walk into this quiet village before dinner.
After dinner (beef carpaccio with truffles, pasta with salmon and lobster sauce), Corrie and Arnold lead us on an excursion to visit Sahara Stones, a gallery and home of artist Joris Maes and his wife, who gives us a tour and explains his extraordinary art.
Joris built his house and everything in it, and spends his winter in the Sahara, driving down in a van, to collect fossils and stones which he sculpts for his art. The fossils are embedded along with stones in the walls of his house. “The house is the history of my life,” he tells us.
The fossils, some of them absolutely enormous, encapsulate the history of earth, and Joris has turned them into rather marvelous sculptures – birds, animals. You think how the heck has he been able to acquire these pieces that you would think would be the nation’s heritage or in a museum. They are 360 million year old fossils, “before the continents formed,” he tells us. (sahara-art-stones.com)
On Day 4, we set out from St. Amands for a 30 mile ride to Antwerp (the shorter option is 21 miles).
We stop briefly to see a16th century castle which, Corrie tells us, was once owned by a cousin of William of Orange who led the Dutch revolt against Spanish King Philip II. The revolt – largely over religion (they call it religious freedom) began in 1568 and was finally won 80 years later. The castle is privately owned today.
The cycle path follows the river. At Kruibeke, Corrie introduces us to what she calls their “statue of liberty” – a modern, sensuous statue of a woman, “curvey like the bends of the river.”
The town is significant because Gerardus Mercator, the 16th-century geographer, cosmographer and cartographer, most famous for creating a revolutionary 1569 world map, was born here (by accident – his parents were visiting relatives).
Mercator’s map represented sailing courses as a path of constant bearing, measured relative to true north (Rhumb lines)—an innovation that is still employed in nautical charts. In their day, they were as revolutionary as GPS, and improved navigation at a time when global shipping was the key industry contributing to a nation’s wealth.
He wound up being imprisoned here in 1543 by the Catholic Church “for radical thinking. “When he couldn’t work, he became poor.” We ride passed Graventoren (Earl’s Tower) where he was imprisoned. There is also the remnants of a castle in Rupelmonde in the town of Kruibeke, where there is a statue of Mercator and a museum.
A bit further on, we stop to eat our picnic lunch at a restaurant that is also a farm museum, the VZW Museum De Schuur, with interesting antique implements that belonged to the proprietor’s husband (we see black and white photos of him). (www.museumdeschuur.be)
It is just down the road from a stunning (privately owned) castle (Kasteel Wissekerke) and garden which presents a gorgeous scene.
There has been a castle here since the 10th century, but the present one was largely built in the 15th century with lake, park and a suspension bridge. In fact, it is the suspension bridge, rather than the castle, that is of major importance: the bridge is one of the oldest surviving wrought iron suspension bridges in Europe, designed in 1824 by Jean-Baptiste Vifquain, an engineer from Brussels. “Though it only spans 23 meters, the bridge is of great industrial archaeological importance because of its historical and structural uniqueness,” notes read. The bridge, castle, gatehouse and pigeon tower were designated a protected historical monument in 1981.
Among the important people who lived at Wissekerke, was the influential family of Vilain XIIII –who were mayors of the town of Bazel for 139 years. In 1989, the castle was purchased by the town of Kruibeke, which has since handled the restoration work. The castle is also venue to many cultural activities, tours and exhibitions.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I have been wanting to do this bike tour from Bruges to Amsterdam (or reverse) for years, and like so many having come out of the trauma of a global pandemic, decided not to it put off any longer, but seize the day! I booked with BoatBikeTours.com.
Besides offering a great biking route, the eight-day/seven-night trip is by boat – so your room (and stuff) floats along with you (in fact, we see our boat frequently from the bike trail). The boat itself provides other marvelous experiences – a couple of afternoons relaxing (there’s even a hot tub!) while watching the gorgeous scenery go by, and the camaraderie on the ship. (Even better, as it turns out, the boat meets us to pick us up on two afternoons when a thunderstorm is expected).
I am surprised at how many Americans there are on this biketrip since BoatBikeTours is based in the Netherlands, but I am sure the other Americans, who are in the majority on this trip, are as delighted as I am in finding this bike tour operator.
The Europeans include a couple and a group of four from England and a family of four from Dresden (where I had just visited) which adds to the pleasure of this trip. The Americans come from all over – Oklahoma (who protest that they are not like those rabidly red Oklahomans), Michigan (actually Holland, Michigan), Seattle, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, California, New York. (Two couples who were expected had to cancel for COVID.)
Each evening, our guides Corrie Stein and Arnold Thurkow – as pleasant and personable as they are expert leaders – discuss what we will see and do on the next day’s ride, and typically, there is a short option for the longer ride.
Everything we experience is exactly as it is presented in the brochure – which is saying a lot. Each day is an absolute delight in every respect, and my longtime dream is realized even better than I imagined it would be.
We are quickly introduced to the fabulous bike trails, paths, roadways that we will follow from Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp all the way to Amsterdam in this most bicycle-friendly region of the world, where biking is a predominant culture. In fact, it seems we see more bikes than cars in the course of our trip.
We cycle through gorgeously scenic – and flat –western Flanders region of Belgium, famous for its medieval towns and castles, and Dutch countryside of Zeeland, a big river delta of the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt Rivers. Among the highlights: we see Ghent by canal boat, tour the fascinating Red Star Line immigration museum in Antwerp, explore the iconic UNESCO World Heritage Dutch windmills of Kinderdijk, visit an artist’s gallery in a tiny village, and tour a Dutch cheese farm.
And then there are the serendipitous experiences – like the downpour while we lunch in a barn with cows and goats, and biking back to the boat from Dordrecht at night, our bike lights making us look like a line of fireflies, a highlight for everybody. We find something of interest around every bend, in towns, villages and landscapes you would otherwise never see – Dendermonde, St. Amands, Tholen, Breukelen (immigrants from here settled Brooklyn!).
In between cycling excursions, we cruise along these lovely canals and rivers, the scenery absolutely gorgeous. Each place we dock, we are able to get off and with marvelous narration by Corrie and Arnold that adds immeasurably to the experience.
Importantly for me, we generally spend sufficient time in places to get a sense of them – I don’t feel hurried away – like when we visit the Kinderdijk windmills and Antwerp (though this is a city I would definitely come back to, to really explore). Our route takes us passed privately owned castles (just look, don’t visit), a very unexpected farm museum, a Canadian soldiers’ war cemetery.
Our ship, the Princesse Royal, is extremely pleasant – just the right size, marvelous fun and comfortable for our travel.
Its hull is constructed along the lines of a seagoing sailing vessel, giving it a somewhat unique shape, but the vessel has been converted to a passenger barge for inland waterways. The boat was restyled and refurbished in 2010 and during the winter of 2012-3, extended by 14 meters. There is a very pleasant dining room/lounge area as well as outdoor seating area (even a hot tub!). There is even WiFi (free).
The Princesse Royal, which sails under the Dutch flag and management, plies the inland waterways of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany with an crew of seven, led by Roy van der Veen who is the owner and captain of the ship and not above hauling in lines himself; a mate, a chef, housekeeper, host and two tour leaders. The crew all speak Dutch, English and German.
The Princesse Royal accommodates 33 passengers in 16 comfortably appointed cabins. All cabins have portholes (which are fixed for safety reasons), shower, toilet, a washing bin, individually regulated air conditioning, flat screen TV (satellite), 220/230 Volt electric sockets, a small safe and hair dryer. The cabins are cleaned daily.
The meals are marvelous and wonderfully served – breakfast is a buffet with some special hot item each day and a selection of items laid out for us to pack a lunch to take along. In the evening the chef serves a three-course dinner – surprisingly exotic and diverse, always extremely flavorful, substantial and healthy. Though we don’t get a choice of entrée, accommodations are made for dietary restrictions with advance notice; more strict diets are accommodated at an additional charge. One evening (during our overnight stop in Antwerp), dinner is on our own (our guides offer helpful recommendations).
Coffee and tea are available all day long (there is a very sophisticated coffee maker). In addition, there is a bar serving beer, red and white wine and various kind of liquors which does a brisk business (they keep a tab that is paid in cash at the end of the trip).
It is important to also emphasize that travelling by small ship and bike is one of the most sustainable, responsible ways to travel, with the least adverse impact on environment or community, while also providing the economic wherewithal to sustain the heritage we have come to see. The tour company notes that wastewater is collected in a separate tank that is regularly emptied; we are provided a water bottle to refill with tap water (all the ship’s water is filtered) and we are given paper bags instead of plastic to wrap our lunch. In addition, the company makes a carbon offset payment to the non-profit organization Justdiggit.
Each day, we are given written cue card directions, as well as have the opportunity to download RideGPS to our smartphones (it operates just like your car GPS, with a map and voice navigation and a means of using it off-line). But there is no need, because we follow our leader (one of us volunteers to be the sweep), though I enjoy following our progress on the cue sheets.
We are also supplied with helmet, waterproof pannier bag, water bottle, and the tour includes the fees for ferries.
I’ve done some hard trails – like the five miles up Cadillac Mountain Road in Arcadia National Park last summer on Discovery Bicycle’s Coastal Maine (you’d think “coastal” meant flat, well you’d be wrong, but this part of the ride was optional); South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills with Wilderness Voyageurs which featured a five-mile straight up the road in Custer State Park; Albania with BikeTours (I had an e-bike for the first time, which opened a whole new dimension).
I was in the mood for something more relaxing and the Bruges-Amsterdam bike/boat trip is exactly that. Not only the comfort (and fun!) of being on the boat, but the itinerary is absolutely perfect – especially for first-time biketour goers, for families, and those looking for the most picturesque route you could imagine, with options for shorter or longer rides. And this route is incredibly flat and easy – the only “hills” involved riding over bridges – so that our 7-speed hybrid bikes are more than sufficient.
The daily rides are absolutely perfect – constantly scenic, endlessly interesting, very fun. Biking is the best – bringing you through villages, neighborhoods, even to people’s backyards and discovering places and their interesting stories – like Dendermonde, St. Amands, Tholen, Vianen, Dordrecht – that you otherwise would be unlikely to discover. You travel at a pace so you can really enjoy the view – slow enough to really observe, fast enough so there is an endless change in scene, almost like a movie. And you can stop for a photo or just to take it all in. And then there is the physical pleasure of biking – the endorphins that get revved up, the fresh air.
And everybody bikes in Belgium and the Netherlands (I’m told Utrecht has the largest bike parking lot in the world, accommodating 12,500 bikes but the one at Amsterdam’s Central Station is the most enormous I’ve ever encountered). You’d see a guy coming toward you looking like he was riding the Tour de France and realize as he sped by he was a wrinkled old yet incredibly fit man; little kids bike; families had their kids in Bakfiets (literally translates as “box bike,” a popular cargo bike that the Dutch use to carry almost anything, including children) from place to place.
The trails, paths, roads, and segregated bikeways, with their own traffic signs and signals and traffic-calming systems that keep shared roads safe for cyclists, add to the absolute delight and sense of security so you can just enjoy the scene. In fact, cycling accidents are rare – the Dutch don’t even use helmets.
Everything is set up for bikes. And the rules of the road are very specific. On our first afternoon Arnold reviews all the different signs and signals (shark teeth pointing at you means “take care, give priority to traffic”). “Don’t assume,” Arnold tells us finally. “Look in the eyes of the driver, if he stops and waves you through. Don’t take the right of way. Give it.”
Our first night’s dinner sets the table for the rest: the first course is shrimp fried in garlic and white wine; the main course is pork fillet with red wine sauce, green beans, zucchini, potato au gratin; and dessert is a puff pastry with vanilla cream.
It is followed by Corrie and Arnold leading us on a walking tour of Bruges which we enjoy measurably.
The next morning, we set out. Today’s ride takes us from Bruges to Ghent, 35 miles.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I’ve come to Bruges for an eight-day BoatBikeTours trip from here to Amsterdam and smartly (actually following the operator’s advice) have come a day early to have time to explore this UNESCO World Heritage city, known as the “Pearl of Flanders.”
So I wake in the Flanders Hotel, nestled within the historic district, enjoy a marvelous breakfast in their lovely breakfast room overlooking a garden with a koi pond, and have time to wander, immersing myself in the extraordinary beauty and peacefulness of this place, before getting myself to the ship, the Princesse Royal, that will be my floating hotel to Amsterdam.
I come upon a street market just across from one of the city’s prominent art museums, Groeninge Museum, near the Church of Our Lady, with an extensive collection of Flemish primitive, 18th and 19th century and modern art. In my wanderings, I take note of some of the city’s museums and attractions: Historium Bruges, Gruuthusemuseum, Chocolate Story, Bruges Beer Experience (this is extremely popular and I can’t resist going inside), and Old St. John’s (Memling Museum).
The hotel has given me a late checkout, so I time my wanderings to return to collect myself and get myself to the ship.
I am greeted by our tour leaders, Corrie Stein and Arnold Thurkow, and shown to my cabin – a pleasant single with its own bathroom (!!). We are fitted for our bikes and get to take a bit of a spin that takes us to visit Bruges’ historic windmills, located on top of what would have been the city’s ramparts along the canalside bike path from our ship.
These four windmills, between the Dampoort and Kruispoort, are what’s left of 23 that once stood here, principally to grind grain, and were part of the town walls since the end of 13th century.
Sint-Janshuismill, the oldest windmill, built in 1770, is the only one still standing on its original site and is the only one with a museum inside that is open for public. Incredibly, the wooden mill is still grinding flour.
Back on the ship, Arnold leads a bike safety talk and orientation about our week-long bike trip – there is surprisingly a lot to learn about the various traffic signs and rules just for cyclists, a testament to how prevalent biking is in this region – we will even have our own trails, paths, roads and traffic signals. (Arnold, after explaining right-of-way at the yield signs – these triangles painted on the pavement – counsels, “Don’t take the right of way. Give it.”).
After a delightful dinner that sets the tone for the rest of our cruise, Corrie and Arnold take us for a walking tour of Bruges and I get more insights into what I had been seeing on my own walks.
Corrie (as we discover throughout our bike trip, since these narrated excursions of interesting places are the routine everywhere we stop at something of interest) is a fabulous storyteller, able to impart insights and call your attention to things that would otherwise escape notice.
Interesting in the scheme of world history, Bruges, she says, was a leading trading center in the 14th century because of its innovative canals that linked the city to the sea, the source of its wealth and prosperity; international merchants built Bruges into one of the largest Hanse cities. But Bruges was displaced by Ghent’ rise as a trading center because of technology and events in the 15th, Antwerp in the 16th century and Amsterdam in the 17th century.
Corrie calls Bruges a “Sleeping Beauty” with exquisitely beautiful buildings but, as it lost its economic base, its inhabitants got poorer and poorer. Ironically, the result was that Bruges’ medieval heritage remained intact as the city was ignored by development. But a 19th century novel, “Bruges la Morte,” by the Belgian author Georges Rodenbach was like the kiss that awakened the Sleeping Beauty. First published in 1892, it was the first work of fiction to be illustrated with photographs, and the photos spurred tourists to see the city as it was in its Golden Century, with its canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings. UNESCO designated the entire city center as a World Heritage site. Today, some 2 million visit Bruges, providing the economic base to sustain its heritage and exquisite architecture.
Our ship, the Princesse Royal, is docked just across from Minnewater Park. We walk across an intriguing, modern red bridge into the park, one of the most romantic sites in this romantic city (you can see why Bruges attracts so many couples). Legend has it that Minnewater, the Lake of Love, is where water nymphs (“minnen” in Dutch) lived, giving the lake its name. Add to that a tragic love story and trees with intriguing shapes and you get a place overflowing with romance.
We see swans (so picturesque!) and learn that they are not only legendary in Bruges, but an obligation. Corrie relates that at the end of the 15th century, the oppressed people of Bruges revolted against the unpopular Emperor Maximilian of Austria, capturing him and imprisoning him in the Craenenburg House on the Markt Square, together with his equally unpopular chief of police, Pieter Lanckhals (he was executed). After four months, the Emperor was freed by his army. The people tried to placate him, reminding him that their revolt was because the Emperor’s wife had made promises she failed to keep. Maybe that worked, because his “revenge” on the town seems fairly tame: he decreed that ‘until the end of time’ the city would be required at its own expense to keep swans on all its lakes and canals. Why swans? Because swans have long necks, and the Dutch for “long neck” is “lange hals,” or “lanckhals”. (The beautiful benches that are so popular with couples have swans.) You can see wrought iron swans on the park benches where couples sit.
We go to a walled complex that Corrie says was built by Countess Mary of Constantinople to shelter widowed ladies, who engaged in spinning and weaving. “She took care of the ill and the poor. They wanted the sheltered life to be safe.” In 1927, the complex was taken over by Benedictine nuns.
We stop in front of Bruges’ most famous brewery, Brewery of Halve Moon, which has operated here since 1856. Bruges has been brewing beer since the Mid Ages – it was important because water was not safe, so everyone, even kids, drank beer at every meal, Arnold relates. (One of Bruges most popular attractions is the Beer Experience.)
Corrie points out a building that would have been a hospital in the Middle Ages and where there is an entrance from the canal. “They knew some diseases were contagious, so had a separate entrance for those people.”
We stop outside the Notre-Dame de Bruges, with a 115.5 meter-high church tower (the second tallest in the world, we are told). It is notable for having the only statue by Michelangelo outside Italy. Corrie relates that the statue was of a naked child and wasn’t deemed acceptable to display in Italy, so a Bruges merchant bought it and brought it here. The church has many art treasures, paintings, 13th and 14th century painted crypts and 15th and 16th century tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold.
We come to The Burg, the seat of power in the city: the 14th century Stadhuis, the Gothic Town Hall, two palaces of justice, the original gate to the city bordering a majestic square.
In a corner of the Burg square, too, is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The chapel is behind a richly decorated facade which is actually a 16th century staircase connecting the Romanesque Saint-Basilius chapel on the ground floor with the neo-Gothic Holy Blood Chapel on the upper floor. It seems to me this chapel has singularly put Bruges on the map.
Originally built in the 12th century as the chapel of the residence of the Count of Flanders, the church is famous because it houses a venerated relic – a phial said to contain a cloth with the blood of Jesus Christ, allegedly collected by Joseph of Arimathea and brought from the Holy Land by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders.
The relic is kept in a silver tabernacle with a sculpture of the Lamb of God in the large side chapel of the upper church.
I’m intrigued to learn more from Bruges’ visitor site: “Legend has it that after the Crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea wiped blood from the body of Christ and preserved the cloth. The relic remained in the Holy Land until the Second Crusade, when the King of Jerusalem Baldwin III gave it to his brother-in-law, Count of Flanders Diederik van de Elzas. The count arrived with it in Bruges on April 7, 1150 and placed it in a chapel he had built on Burg Square…
“However, recent research found no evidences of the presence of the relic in Bruges before the 1250s. In all likelihood, the relic originated from the 1204 sack of Constantinople by the army of the Count of Flanders, Baldwin IX during the Fourth Crusade. Ever since, the phial has played no small part in the religious life of the city. Pope Clement V issued a papal bull in 1310 granting indulgences to pilgrims who visited the chapel to view the relic.” (https://visit-bruges.be/see/churches/basilica-holy-blood)
The relic is shown to the public every Friday and also each day from May 3-17. Outside the chapel is the Holy Blood museum, which contains the shrine for the Holy Blood and other treasures belonging to the chapel. (You can visit the first floor chapel for free, but there is a fee to go to the upper floor. https://visit-bruges.be/see/churches/basilica-holy-blood)
I see the banners that herald a Bruges tradition that dates back to 1304 – the relic of the Holy Blood carried around the city in the Holy Blood Procession on Ascension Day. This folk tradition involves everyone in the city and was recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.
In 2014, Belgian carilloneurs were also given significant international recognition. The sound of the carillons can be heard all around Bruges throughout the year, but one of the best places to listen is on the Markt Square or in the Belfry courtyard. (I get to hear it during a concert of re-orchestrated 300-year old Flemish music coordinated with the bells).
The 13th-century Belfort (belfry) with a 47-bell carillon and 83m high tower dominates The Markt Square, which is called the “beating heart of Bruges.” You can buy a ticket to climb it for panoramic views. There is the magnificent Bruges City Hall building, the Historium Bruges (fictional characters tell a story of medieval Bruges). The architecture all around the square is breathtaking – there is the imposing Provincial Court and colorful buildings with stepped gables. The scene is all the more picturesque for the many horse-drawn carriages.
There is so much to see and enjoy, Bruges really warrants a longer stay: What seems to be the most popular, must-see is the “Bruges Beer Experience” just around the corner from the Belfort; chocolate museum (Choco-Story). Also: torture museum; Diamond Museum, Lace Centre, archeology museum, Our Lady of the Pottery (historic Gothic church with baroque decor, a famous statue and a hospital now serving as a museum). (Must come back.)
I am sad to leave Bruges, but excited to start our bike journey. Tomorrow we will bike to Ghent.