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.
Bruges, Belgium’s UNESCO World Heritage city, is impossibly beautiful. Walking around, you almost feel like you are in Busch Gardens Colonial Williamsburg themepark or a movie set – it is that perfect, that fantastical, almost unreal in its perfection. The sheer beauty of this extraordinarily picturesque place, gives you such a sense of peace. I walk every route multiple times, entranced.
I feel sorry for the day-trippers who flood into Bruges but leave before they can experience how magic descends in the late afternoon glow, the evening light, the reflected lights on cobblestone streets at night, and the early morning stillness when only the occasional swan makes a ripple in the canal – it’s as if the fairies wait for the people to leave the forest before they come out. I am so grateful to be staying overnight, having come a day early for my eight-day BoatBikeTours’ Bruges-Amsterdam bike trip.
I stay in the Flanders Hotel, a four-star boutique hotel and a member of Historic Hotels of Europe – beautifully renovated and updated for modern tastes, and within the historic district.
The hotel provides the perfect ambiance in which to appreciate and immerse myself in Bruges.
I always seek out historic hotels – they typically are perfectly situated (location, location, location!), have charm and character and embody the stories and heritage of the people – in effect, they offer an “authenticity” and a sense of place. The owners and managers invariably see themselves as stewards, as guardians of that heritage and are fierce protectors, and it shows in the loving care they bring.
Designed by one of Bruges’ foremost architects of the 19th century, the Flanders Hotel building stands where the former Grand Hotel Verriest once served travelers from all over the world. The structure includes a Gothic room, which once was part of a Dominican Monastery dating from 1304.
The Flanders Hotel puts you right in the historic district, and within a short (exceedingly pleasant) walk of all major sights in the historic inner city as well as offering amenities that make the stay here an absolute delight– there is actually a beautiful indoor pool, a stunning lounge-bar connected to an outdoor terrace, gardens with a picturesque pond and a lovely parlor. Much of the hotel has been recently renovated. Inside it’s actually hip.
The Flanders Hotel offers 50 rooms: the classic room type mostly face the garden and pond; spacious club rooms; extra large Grand Double which has a canopy bed and mezzanine bathroom; and Triple and Family rooms set up to accommodate three to five persons, and offer excellent value.
A breakfast buffet is served from 8 to 10:30 am (weekdays) and until 11 am on weekends in its charming restaurant that looks out to the garden and pond.
Its lounge-bar (‘barazar’) is stunning, serving fine wines, cocktails and local specialty beers, as well as other beverages and finger food, daily from 4 pm to 1 am.
I am also impressed by the personal service with attention to detail, as well as online tools that have everything prepared for my stay before I arrive, and arrange for a taxi to bring me to the boat that will be my floating hotel to Amsterdam at the end of my stay.
The hotel is surrounded by loads of restaurants and eateries of all kinds, from Michelin star gourmet cuisine to local specialties and international dishes.
I am delighted with the accommodations, and love that just walking out of the front door, I am immersed in the city’s charm. It’s a very short and picturesque walk to Bruges’ key sites including the Burg and Markt (Town Square).
I quickly discover why it is said that Markt Square is Bruges’ heart and Burg is its soul.
The Markt Square, the beating heart of Bruges, is dominated by the Belfry, 83 meters high and the city’s most prominent building (you can climb to the top for a breath-taking panorama). In the Market Square itself, I marvel at the imposing Provincial Court and a line of buildings with colorful stepped gables. Horse-drawn carriages complete this exquisitely picturesque scene. Here on my first evening I come upon one of the nightly concerts – this one of Flemish music going back 300 years that is coordinated with the bells ringing from the famous Belfry tower.
The Markt Square is the heart of Bruges, but the Burg Square is considered its soul. For centuries this has been the center of power in the city, and Bruges’ city administration still occupies the 14th century Gothic Town Hall. This grand, majestic square is lined with monumental landmark buildings built over the centuries and reflect the building style of their age. They include two palaces of justice, the Liberty of Bruges to the Deanery, and the renowned Basilica of the Holy Blood.
Wandering down a street of shops – chocolate, waffles and such – I come upon a street festival where I mingle with locals.
It says something of the neighborhood that the Flanders Hotel is mere steps away from what is today the Grand Hotel Casselbergh Brugesbut from 1656 to 1659, served as the Royal Palace of England, Scotland and Ireland, where King Charles II held court.
“King Charles II lived here with his brothers James, Duke of York, and Henry, Duke of Gloucester until the restoration of the monarchy,” a marker outside states. King Charles II “loved Flanders and Bruges in particular. In 1662, the grateful Monarch wrote, ‘The Flemings are the most honest and true-hearted race of people I have met with.’”
The Flanders Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of Europe, an exclusive collection of independent and unique hotels, castles, palaces, country houses and other properties of historic importance throughout Europe.
Each property has been handpicked for its historical authenticity, quality and unique story. The owners see themselves as guardians of heritage, with a responsibility to cherish each property as a historic national treasure. Accommodating guests provides the economic support to preserve, sustain and improve each property and keep their stories alive.
You can click on Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Montenagro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and Wales to find historic hotels, castles and manors.
You can also search by themed itinerary (cultural routes; gastronomic road trips; wine-lover’s trails, fairytale castles; rooms with the best views) and bookmark an Itinerary Inspiration guide; or search by collections, wedding ideas, experiences. You can also arrange for gift vouchers.
There were ten categories for this eighth edition of the awards to vote in this year, including two new categories – the Historic Hotel Sustainability Award and New Entry Historic Hotel Award:
Historic “A Story To Share” Award 2022: Known as “the hotel from fairytales,” Dalen Hotel in Norway snagged this year’s “Story To Share” award, no doubt because of its “floating” spa, jaw-dropping architecture and exciting common areas that include a terrace and gallery. (Silver Award Winner: Schloss Hertefeld in Germany; Bronze Award Winner: Suter Palace Heritage Hotel in Romania)
Historic Castle Hotel Award: Chateau Liblice in the Czech Republic has perfected the art of blending the old with the new, and combines a classic atmosphere with contemporary comforts, restaurant and spa. (Silver Award Winner: Castello di Gargonza in Italy; Bronze Award Winner: Barberstown Castle in Ireland)
Historic Hotel City Award: Hotel Stefanie has swept the accolade of best historic city hotel for the second time (having won this category in 2020). Having operated since the year 1600, it’s the oldest hotel in Vienna, Austria, and has clearly lost none of its charm or first-rate hospitality over the centuries. (Silver Award Winner: Hotel Britania in Portugal; Bronze Award Winner: Hotel Cattaro in Montenegro)
Historic Hotel Wedding Experience Award: The Slovakian gem Hotel Gino Park Palace, has been named the best place in the Collection to say “I do”. (Silver Award Winner: Villa Bergzauber in Austria; Bronze Award Winner: Villa Cipriani in Italy)
Historic Natural Setting Hotel Award: Overlooking Bantry Bay and Garinish Island on the Eccles Hotel is situated in one of the most enviable places in all of Ireland, the famous Wild Atlantic Way coastline. (Silver Award Winner: Kyrimai Hotel in Greece; Bronze Award Winner: Renvyle House Hotel in Ireland)
Historic Romantic Hideaway Hotel Award:Greece’s island of Santorini has long-been called one of the most romantic places to travel to in Europe… especially if you stay at Esperas Santorini, according to this year’s voters. This pearlescent property contains 17 Greek-style studios complete with such perks as jacuzzis, luxurious beds and bathroom amenities. (Silver Award Winner: Manowce Palace in Poland; Bronze Award Winner: Hotel Villa Schuler in Italy)
Historic Top Hotel Restaurant Award: Foodies are never more delighted than when settling down at a table at Ghan House. This Irish hotel’s restaurant has won numerous awards over the years and is loved by tourists and locals alike for its gourmet dishes. (Silver Award Winner: Twr y Felin Hotel in Wales; Bronze Award Winner: Castel Rundegg in Italy)
Historic Spa & Wellness Hotel Award: The spa and wellness services at Italy’sRelais San Biagio are inspired by the age-old traditions of the property and the monks who once lived there. It’s the place to boost your mind, body and spirit before exploring beautiful Perugia. (Silver Award Winner: Le Bouclier d´Or Hotel & Spa in France; Bronze Award Winner: The Ice House in Ireland)
Historic Hotel Sustainability Award: Schloss Wartegg in Switzerland is Historic Hotels of Europe’s first to be dubbed the best sustainable hotel. Along with its strong focus on cycling and bike tours, the property prizes organic ingredients and makes the most of its extraordinary locale on the shores of Lake Constance, a remarkable slice of Swiss nature. (Silver Award Winner: Hotel Schwarzer Bock in Germany; Bronze Award Winner: Allegory Boutique Hotel in Greece)
New Entry Historic Hotel Award: The peaceful Komierowo Palace in Poland is a wonderful recent addition to the Collection. Not only does the building boast a sauna and jacuzzi house, 16 hectares of enchanting parkland and gorgeously-furnished rooms festooned with Art Deco elements, it has a fascinating history populated with knights, royalty and noble families. (Silver Award Winner: Blue Haven Hotel in Ireland; Bronze Award Winner: Hotel Chesa Grischuna in Switzerland)
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I was so glad I had the cleverness to arrange three full days to explore Prague on my own before embarking on CroisiEurope’s Prague-Berlin river cruise aboard the Elbe Princesse. I could wander, linger, get lost amid the narrow cobblestone streets, be surprised and delighted upon coming upon stunning views of the Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge across the Vltava, the Old Town Square, the Astronomical Clock at night (the most underwhelming scene you can’t miss), contemplate the Lennon Wall, discover the personalities who occupied the tiny houses on Golden Lane in the wall of Prague Castle, follow whimsy and pop into the Lobkowicz Palace to be dazzled, and have the time to really muse over the exhibits, displays and notes in the Jewish Quarter and Prague Castle, and for good measure, visit the National Museum.
And the Prague Cool Pass, which provides free access to over 70 attractions, tours, river cruises, plus discounts to concerts, entertainment and activities, helped maximize my enjoyment and how much I could see and experience in this all too brief time in such a phenomenal destination (praguecoolpass.com).
I lose the better part of a full day when my Delta flight from JFK to Amsterdam was delayed, causing me to miss my connection to Prague (I knew the 50 minute-connection was too good to work out). But if you have to wait eight hours in an airport, Schiphol is one of the most pleasant. Still, instead of arriving at 8 am, I arrive at 5:30 pm, but still in a good mood – largely because I had made a fantastic choice of hotel, the EA ApartHotel Melantrich, which I found on hotels.com, and pre-arranged an airport pick-up through the hotel.
I actually have an entire apartment on a street that strikes me as comparable to New York’s Fifth Avenue – actually Welcelas Square – with the National Museum at one end, and Old Town at the other, walking distance to everything I want to see in my all-too-short time. (Further benefits: the hotel has a gorgeous dining room where an enormous smorgasbord breakfast is served, an outdoor landscaped sitting area, an indoor pool, elevator, bar/lounge.) (EA ApartHotel Melantrich, Praha 1-Vaclavska Namesti 36 Stare Mes Prague, phone +420734596570).
I had used my time in the airport wisely, looking over “Top Attractions in Prague” and “Three Days in Prague” and there was consistency in the must-see list. I only needed to plot out the logistics (only a little tricky because the map (I LOVE a paper map) is in Czech (it takes me a day to figure it out – but I soon figure out that there are also helpful signposts pointing the direction and distance to what most people are looking for). Still, each time I set out, I get a little lost, or rather find a different way, and each time I am surprised and delighted at what I stumble upon.
I drop my bags at the hotel and the concierge points me in the right direction to walk to the Charles Bridge, which has to be the absolute best place to be at sunset. I get there just as the final patches of orange and pink break through clouds. (It turns out was the best of all three nights, proving my maxim to seize every moment) and I get caught up in that whole vibe. There is music, hawkers, a constant flow of people.
I walk back to Old Town Square and come upon the Astronomical Clock (on the hour, there is a 45-second display – the most underwhelming must-see attraction anywhere, but nonetheless, hundreds wait each hour for the show). The square is absolutely stunning. I find my way back to hotel.
The next day, I set out for the Jewish Quarter, stopping again at the Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock (you can’t resist). I present my Prague Cool Pass at the Jewish Museum – actually seven separate sites that each tell a different part of the story of the Jewish experience in Prague, going back to the 13th century. I kind of do the sites in reverse order, which I actually appreciate more.
I start at the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest landmark of “Jewish Town” in Prague and one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe. It has served for more than 700 years as the main synagogue of the Prague’s Jewish community. Why “old new”? Because it wasn’t the oldest or first synagogue – that one was a shul on the site where the Spanish Synagogue, built in 1867, now sits. You go in and see the traditional way the synagogue was laid out – with a bima in center and seats all around the walls (women on other side of the wall). Each of the chairs still has the name plate of the family that has inherited it; one of the chairs has the name of former US Ambassador Norman Eisen, whose family came from here, and the Israeli Ambassador. A banner that hangs high is adorned with a Star of David with a golden hat in the center – the hat was original required for Jewish men to wear, but instead of a humiliation, the Jews made it a badge of identity, so incorporated it into the symbol of the Jewish Quarter.
I go next to the Ceremonial Hall, adjacent to the Jewish Cemetery, which discusses and describes Jewish burial rituals as well as medical care. Next to the Klausen Synagogue, where the exhibits describe Jewish life – you get the sense that the Prague Jews were actually well off, especially compared to the images you typically see of impoverished Jews in the Russian shetls – and you learn that under Joseph II, who reigned from 1780-90, laws governing Jews were liberalized.
Then on to the Pinkus Synagogue, which dates from 1530, where I was surprised to find it has become a memorial to the Shoah. Some 80,000 names of Jews killed just from this region of Bohemia and Moravia are inscribed all over the walls (you can do a search for names on a computer). A gallery in one room displays paintings by Jewish children who had been deported to Terezin, organized by different themes: longing for home, a dream of Palestine, being taken away, memories of family, with the names of the child and the dates of their birth and too soon death.
Their teacher was Friedle Dicker-Brandeis (born in 1898 in Vienna, died 1944 in Auschwitz), who, from the beginning of her internment in Terezin, devoted herself to drawing lessons for the children in the ghetto. Children signed their drawings and wrote their room number, the group to which they belonged, and lesson hour. Then she classified them. She scoured the camp for paper and paint. When she was deported from Terezin to Auschwitz in a “liquidation” transport, she left behind two suitcases with more than 4000 children’s drawings. This display is heart wrenching.
Outside the synagogue, there is a photo exhibit, “Journeys With No Return,” documenting the Nazi removal.
Then you go through a courtyard to enter the Jewish cemetery. There are some 12,000 tombstones in a tumult – crowded together, pushed over in all directions over time and flooding – but actually some 100,000 are buried here. But after going through the Holocaust Memorial, I felt these people at least had a grave, they had people who buried them, said prayers over them, placed stones to show they had come to pay respects.
Having had this tour, I now go to the Maisel Synagogue (marked as the #1 site) which is a museum that describes the history of Jews in the Bohemian lands from the 10th to 18th centuries, and for me, provides a context for what I had been seeing.
Notably, during the reign of Joseph II (1780-90), Jews could attend university and higher education, but their schools were taught in German instead of Hebrew; under special conditions they were allowed to rent land, learn trades and set up factories, and no longer had to wear “identifying marks.” On the other hand, Jews were compelled to adopt fixed first names and surnames (1787), and only the eldest son was allowed to marry; also the Jewish judiciary was abolished (1784) and Jews now had compulsory military service (1788). It is interesting that the Jewish Quarter is named for Joseph II.
In one of the displays, having to do with the effort to assimilate, integrate and convert Jews, I see an etching of the statue of Jesus that is on the Charles Bridge, which I had noted because of the Hebrew lettering, and in Latin, the word for blasphemy. The notes state that “in 1696, the Hebrew inscription ‘Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh’ (holy, holy holy) on the statue was paid for by a fine imposed on the Jews Elias Backoffen and Berl Tabor for alleged blasphemy against the cross in a coded letter. The letter in question, however, was never deciphered by the authorities.”
(I wondered how these structures, these monuments and artifacts survived the Holocaust. I read somewhere that Hitler loved Prague and had thought to “retire” here. He allowed the Jewish Quarter to survive as a “museum to an extinct [extinguished?} people.” The docent at the Old New Synagogue, though, could not or would not confirm.)
On my way to the Spanish Synagogue, I wander into a gallery devoted to Robert Guttmann, “the Oldest Zionist in Prague”, who was famous in his day – a celebrity – for his long-range hikes and travels that might take 14 ½ weeks at a time (people were in disbelief, so beginning in 1903, he kept diaries). He sketched himself with famous people – very possibly the first great self-promoter, like Dali or Andy Warhol. “He belonged to Prague like the Charles Bridge, the Golem, Kampa Island or the Apostles on the Astronomical Clock. It was impossible to imagine Prague without ‘Professor’ Guttmann, the ‘renowned painter’.”
Then on to the Spanish Synagogue (more accurately known as the Temple on Dusoni Street), built 1867-8 on the site of the demolished oldest shul. It deserves its boast to be “the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.” It’s magnificent, but not so large and overwhelming that you feel enveloped by its beauty. Its design reflects a movement of “Jewish Enlightenment,” under the auspices of the Society for the Improvement of Israelite Religious Worship in Prague that followed a relative emancipation of 1848, aimed at promoting assimilation and integration into the “mainstream.”
The change in synagogue design – which moved the bima to the front from the center to increase the seating in pews – came in conjunction with changes to the liturgy and introduction of music.
Indeed, Frantisek Skroup (1801-1862), the organist here from 1836-45, composed the Czech national anthem, and the reformed worship music introduced by Skroup later spread to most other synagogues in Bohemia.
There is a 7 pm concert at the synagogue consisting of favorite compositions of favorite composers – Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, Bizet, Smetana, Dvorak, Bernstein and Gershwin. I purchase a ticket. (Actually, it is amazing how many of the important churches and sites hold concerts almost nightly, including the St. Francis of Assisi Church, right at the entrance to the Charles Bridge, which claims the second oldest organ in Prague, 1702, which Mozart played, www.organconcerts.cz).
Just outside the Spanish Synagogue is a terrific sculpture of Franz Kafka (a square at the entrance to the Jewish Quarter is named for him, where the National Library is located.
Next, I go in search of the Lennon Wall, on Kampa Island, just under the Charles Bridge. In my search, I come upon a fascinating historical display documenting the 1967 uprising against the Communist Regime, led by university students. One of the panels notes that the American beat poet Alan Ginsburg who describes being detained by police, deported, and writing “this poem on a jet seat in mid Heaven.”
I ask a woman I see walking through the park where the Lennon Wall is and she says she works at the French Embassy, directly across from the Wall, so we walk there together. (To get to the Wall, walk down stairs from Charles Bridge, turn right on Hroznova.)
Notably, John Lennon never visited Prague, but the wall began as street art, capturing his spirit of peace. The wall keeps changing – people add to it, and all of it is whitewashed so the process begins again. At this time, poems printed on paper in support of Ukraine, are hung on string in front.
“The John Lennon Wall was chosen to host the event because of its apparent symbolism. For decades the wall has served as a place to share messages of peace, love and hope. Lennon, former lead singer of the Beatles, was an avid anti-war activist, who, until the day he died, encouraged the world to ‘Give Peace a Chance’.“
I still have some time before I need to go back to the Spanish Synagogue for the concert, so I walk over to the National Museum, and flash my Prague Cool Pass. There is a very condensed history (actually there is a second building), so I find it quite interesting that there is a note that after Joseph II’s liberalization of laws suppressing Jews, repression was reestablished with the rise of a nationalist movement. Emancipation did not come until 1848. And there is one panel that refers to ‘The culmination of anti-Semitism was the so-called Hilsner Affair, 1899-1900), in which T.G. Masaryk, a founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, stood up for Hilsner, a Jew convicted in a show trial of ritual murder. It draws a parallel to the Dreyfus Affair in France, when an accused Jewish officer was defended by the writer Emile Zola.
In addition to history, the museum also contains exhibits of Czechia’s natural history. I take note of the country’s gold rush, when I visit the Golden Lane in Prague Castle.
After stopping off at my hotel to regroup, I walk back to the Spanish Synagogue. The concert is one of the best I’ve ever heard – the five musicians of the Czech Collegium, plus soprano Michaela Srumova and trumpeter Miroslav Kejmar sound like an orchestra of 60 and perform one of the most thoroughly magnificent programs.
After the concert, I wander back to the Charles Bridge and catch the end of the setting sun’s afterglow, linger in Old Town Square, before making my way back to the hotel.
The next day, I will continue to work down my Prague Cool Pass list of attractions, starting with the Prague Castle.
One of the smartest
choices I make in preparation for a week-long self-guided bike tour from Venice
to Trieste to Istria (Slovenia to Croatia) is to arrive a day earlier. This
gives me the unsurpassed luxury of spending a day wandering around Venice
without a plan or an objective, just to follow whim and whimsy and take in the
incomparable essence of this enchanting city. I am transfixed by Venice – the
colors, the constant motion, the angles, the architecture, how you never know
what you will see around any corner, how getting lost leads to new discovery. I
have that cherished time to really focus on details.
Eric, my son who will be
biking with me, will be arriving the next day, and I have made my way from
Marco Polo International Airport to the Hotel Alexander, on the mainland, in
Mestre by public bus (following the directions provided by FunActive, the tour
company). I drop my bags and have most of the day to explore on my own.
The hotel that has been
selected on the FunActiv tour (self-guided means that they have booked the inns
and laid out the route, provide the rental bikes and support, a ferry the
luggage each day to the next inn) which I booked through Biketours.com, is well
located, just a short walk to a tram that comes frequently (they tell me where
to buy the ticket, at a convenience store) and whisks me in comfort to the
magnificent old city in 15 minutes.
Before I left the hotel,
I had spotted a flyer about a new Leonardo Da Vinci Museum and am delighted
when, serendipitously, I find myself right in front of it, next door to Chiesa
di San Rocco, a church where a concert is underway. I listen for awhile and
then go into the Museum.
What distinguishes the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum is that it is designed as a laboratory for experimentation and curiosity – actually giving you insights into the mind of Leonardo da Vinci by bringing his manuscripts, schematics and drawings to reality. Engineers have recreated large-scale models of Da Vinci’s inventions from his own plans “created through the skillful craftsmanship typical of the Renaissance workshops” which you can touch and maneuver. Essentially, you get to play with DaVinci’s inventions – delighting children of all ages. The museum also exhibits DaVinci’s anatomical studies. A special space is dedicated to his main pictorial works including the Mona Lisa and Annunciation, reproduced using high-resolution backlight technology.(Open daily, Scuola Grand di San Rocco, www.davincimuseum.it).
My motto, “Seize the day” (and waste
no time) serves me well, because my first day is sunny, bringing out the colors
of Venice – along with everyone else. Venice is unbelievably crowded with
tourists– like Times Square but on a much, much bigger scale– and quite warm
and humid. But I don’t mind and I find myself wandering down streets and alleys
in neighborhoods (and they are really neighborhoods, where Venetians live) that
are amazingly uncrowded and quiet.
I periodically take refuge in churches
to get out of the heat and take a bit of a rest and often am pleasantly
surprised to discover art and music.
One of the delights of
Venice is that it is set up like a labyrinth of warrens, alleys, bridges over
canals, so you are constantly surprised by the scenes that come into view as
you walk about.
The most popular is the
famous view from the Rialto Bridge at the center of the city where you
literally have to wait your turn to get a photo.
The narrow alleys all of a sudden
open up into the famous square of San Marco and I come upon the Basilica of San
Marco with its ornate decoration. There is so much to see and do here in the
piazza, which remarkably has retained the same look as depicted in Renaissance
At San Marco, I stand on a bridge
the gondoliers go under to get to the Bridge of Sighs – that famous place in
the Doge Palace where prisoners would be taken to their cramped, damp cells,
across this bridge with the last view of the open sky and their last breath of
fresh air. It’s like rush hour of the gondolas. I admire the skill with which
they deftly turn 90-degree corners and avoid hitting each other or smack into
the pilings. The choreography of their floating dance is amazing – I notice the
oar lock the gondoliers use, shaped in such a way that they get a different
angle to control their stroke.
What really strikes me is that
despite the crowds, how clean Venice’s streets are (though there is graffiti,
more a reflection of political climate) and how fresh. This wasn’t the case
when I last visited, 10 years ago.
I linger in the Piazza San Marco for
a time, and am sitting on marble benches under an archway
at the Doge Palace when I hear thunder. Last time I was here, the city was
flooded – platforms mysteriously would appear on the streets that you had to
walk over to avoid wading in six inches of water – a worrisome warning that
Venice may at some point become submerged altogether with rising sea level.
No one seems particularly bothered
by the thunder, not even the street vendors. I take the tram back to the hotel,
and just before I get there, the thunderstorm starts.
The next morning is raining, but no
matter. I hop the tram again, a five-minute walk from the Hotel Alexander
through the neighborhood for the ride into Venice, and this time, after
crossing over the bridge that provides entrance to the Old City (and apparently
closes at night to those who aren’t living or staying here) go left at the fork
instead of right. I walk over a bridge and see a sign pointing to the Jewish
Ghetto and follow it. I come upon a group of Israeli tourists huddled under a
passageway leading into the Jewish quarter as their guide gives her talk. I
walk ahead and find the synagogue, where Sabbath services are just finishing,
guarded by city soldiers who don’t let me in.
The last time I was in Venice, I
happened upon Chabad gathering for Shabbat dinner and was invited in. The
Chabad are actively repopulating European cities that emptied their Jewish
communities during the Holocaust.
I have a few hours before Eric
arrives and we have our orientation with a FunActive guide for our bike tour. I
make my way to San Marco again, before walking back to the depot to get the
tram back to the hotel, in time for Eric and the guide to arrive.
We spend about an hour with Anthony,
the FunActive guide, actually hurrying him along because we are so anxious to
get back to Venice so Eric can have some time there. Anthony persists: going
over the day-by-day maps, pointing out sights we might look out for, and
alternative routes we can take, and then fits us to the bikes we will be
By the time we get to Venice in the
afternoon, the rain has cleared. We return together to the Jewish Ghetto and
wander from there. I let Eric take the lead so he can have that same delight in
discovering Venice for himself.
It is important to realize that
Venice is a place where people live (signs ask visitors to respect the
residents), and coming in this way, through the Jewish Ghetto, we find many
streets – very quiet streets – that are simply neighborhoods off the beaten
tourist track. Laundry stretched across the canal.
Eric uses his tech prowess (and the
AFAR app) to find a restaurant, which gives a purpose and focus to our
wandering through the streets. We arrive at Al
Portego just in time before all the tables would be reserved for dinner.
After dinner, we walk to San Marco,
which is especially magical at night. I have saved visiting the Doge Palace for
the evening (the Doge Palace and three other museums stay open on Fridays and
Saturdays until 11 pm, last entrance at 10 pm) so that Eric could see it as
well. But Eric is too exhausted after having traveled all day and heads back to
I waltz in at 7:30 pm without
waiting at all – such a contrast to the daytime when the lines are long and
hundreds of people, including massive tour groups, funnel in at once. The
ticket, I learn, is valid at all four museums and good for three months.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to take advantage, but the ticket is well worth
Priceless, in fact.
I find myself in these rooms – grand
doesn’t begin to describe it – by myself or with at most five other people. All
of us are breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.
The art work – monumental pieces by
titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One
room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at
this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.
Next: A Night Visit to the Doge Palace
(We booked our 8-day self-guided
“Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker
which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and
bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors.
Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street , Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com,
We are only a few miles to the last lock before Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, and the French landscape, though still predominantly countryside, becomes more and more populated and commercial as we come closer.
After breakfast on board the Caprice, our charming barge hotel, we take bikes and explore a village.
Back on board the Caprice, Chef Herve treats us to a cooking demonstration – he is preparing salt-encrusted salmon, which is the lunch entree, along with a variety of salads.
The wine is a 2010 Musadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie, from the Loire Valley, with a fresh, sharp, neutral flavor to compliment fish; and a 2010 Burgundy red, Saint Armour, named for the village which was named for a martyred Roman soldier, with a fruity flavor of currants.
The last bridge before we enter Dijon’s port is one where we all have to duck – it seems the barge uses every inch of space above.
We come into the port of Dijon, where we will stay overnight.
Guy, who has been our guide and bus driver throughout our journey, takes us for a guided tour into the Dijon’s old city, the climax to an incredible week-long journey into Burgundy’s countryside. Dijon is the crowning jewel.
The historic district is just a 15-20 minute from where the Caprice is docked, so we can return on our own and have a couple of extra hours to explore.
As always, Guy, who is a former journalist, is fascinating, illuminating with stories and anecdotes what we can appreciate visually.
He reminds us of the popular Burgundy drink, Kir, which was named for a mayor who served from 1946-1960, was a priest, a canon, and a member of Parliament- the famous drink is named for him. “He did nothing in Dijon – that was reason it is well preserved.” The current mayor, on the other hand, wants to modernize, and is constructing a street car (light rail).
Dijon is a household name because of the mustard, which is still produced here, but these days, they import seeds from Canada. It is also a center for artificial flavors and fragrances.
Dijon is the capital of Burgundy – hospitals, university, administrative services (government), and the main stop between Paris and Lyon.
Burgundy was an independent state, and allied with Britain against France. The last Duke was killed 1463 – his enemy was King Louis XI of France, known here as “the Sneaky One” because though France had a treaty with Burgundy but the King still invaded Dijon.
One of the highlights is the main indoor market – a marvel of steel architecture that goes back to Eiffel, though his colleague finished the project.
It is just across from the church of Notre Dame with a marvelous bell clock. “The King of France tried to bribe a town in Burgundy to rebel, and when it did, the Duke besieged it and as punishment, in 1673, took the clock. At the time, it only had a man with the pipe; then in 17C, the people of Dijon (who have a good sense of humor), added a woman so the man wouldn’t be lonely, and in 18C, added two children.” The man strikes the bell on the hour; the woman on the half, and the children on the quarter hour.
Notre Dame has stunning gargoyles, but Guy tells us that a usurer was killed when a gargoyle broke off and fell on him. As a result, the “corporation” of loan sharks demanded they all be taken down; but finally, they were cleaned and replaced in 18C. Notre Dame was defaced during the 1793 Terror, and the anti-religious furor that swept through.
The Plaza Royale was renamed Place de la Revolution, and the avenue renamed Avenue de la Liberte.
What is astonishing is how many famous people are associated with Dijon: the architect of Versailles, Jules Mansart, also designed the Plaza Royale; Francois Ronde, who designed the Arc d’Triomphe in Paris, is from here.
I wander on my own, and am fascinated with the street names, many with biographical information
Rue Danton was named for “conventionnel organisateur de la defense nationale, ne en 1759, mort sur l’echafaud en 1794.” I am fascinated and subsequently learn that Georges Danton was a French Revolutionary leader and orator, often credited as the chief force in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic (September 21, 1792). He later became the first president of the Committee of Public Safety, but his increasing moderation and eventual opposition to the Reign of Terror led to his own death at the guillotine.
I come upon Eglese Saint Philibert, originally built in 12th century, and destroyed in the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. It is now undergoing a restoration.
I am so happy that I will have two extra days in Dijon (see story).
I walk back to the Caprice in time for our gala farewell dinner.
The last night of our cruise is a gala dinner (we “dress” in our finest, that is what we have with us) – the table, in a U-shaped banquet formation, is set magnificently, with fresh lilies and zinnias.
The menu consists of foie gras with leek salad with a sweet fig jam; filet de boeuf with red wine sauce, potatoes from Noirmoutier and mushrooms.
The 2007 Sainte Croix du Mont, a Sauvignon Blanc, Tina tells us, is produced at a vineyard on right bank of Bordeaux in southeast France, where there are early morning mists (usually not good for wine) is difficult to produce. “You need a lot of luck. The grapes have to develop a ‘local rot’ – a fungus – which actually produces a bursting sweetness. The yield is small – you have to pick the grapes by hand when ripest – a lot of work. It’s lighter than a dessert wine but full bodied.”
The red is a Grand Barrail Larose St Emilion 2009, a Bordeaux.
The cheese tonight is a Roquefort – the quintessential sheep’s milk blue cheese from Avignon in the south of France, owes its distinctive character to a mold found in the soil of local caves
The second cheese is a Brie de Meaux, from the Ile de France, a creamy cow’s milk similar to Camembert. “King Louis XIV had 3 passions: poetry, wine and cheese,” Tina, the general manager, says. “He would send a damsel a cheese with a poem”
The dessert is a Chef’s surprise (actually a birthday cake for one of the guests).
Friday morning, after breakfast, we depart the Caprice. The whole crew, wearing their Barging Through France shirts, line up to greet us and bid us farewell. It is that most amazing and gratifying feeling that only travel provides when you get to realize how everyone has bonded and formed friendships in just a week’s time.
Incomparable Value in France Canal Cruising
In reflection, I think this is as perfect a trip as it could have been, vastly exceeding my expectations – in terms of the sights we have seen, the interesting attractions and excursions, the quality of the wining and dining, the cruise experience – France Cruises, the American agent for Barging through Burgundy which owns and operates the Caprice, really offers superb value for money.
The passengers onboard have really bonded – gives you plenty of opportunity – we are not on top of one another, but the meals, where you basically sit where you want or where there is room, so the table groupings always change, and you get to know one another, or when walking or biking along the canal, or on the bus or walking through the villages during our excursions, or in the evening sitting around in the lounge or on deck… people came from all over and many different backgrounds, but shared an interest and eagerness to learn and experience things, and we each shared from our own experience and knowledge base.
The immersion into French food and wine – especially with the selection of wines and cheeses at lunch and dinner – has been very satisfying and also interesting, since food and wine are so inextricably linked to culture and heritage of a place.
The size of the boat and the service makes it ideal for families, family reunions and groups of friends traveling together. There are barge boats that a single family can hire and guide themselves , though it seemed to me to be tricky process to go through the canals – some were automatic, operated by sensors, some had attendants, but some involved hand-cranking the bridge or pulling a chain to activate the doors.
Many people have the concern that you can get bored on a barge cruise or feel confined, but we are never bored or stir crazy – because of the opportunity to go off the boat and explore, especially by bike, and also the excursions. Those who want a more sedentary experience can have it, as well.
This size boat and the itinerary are perfect for us – not too small that you are forced to be on top of people or lacking in level and quality of service, and not too big.
The daily excursions are marvelous and interesting and take you to places you might not have known to visit, and into the essence of what the region is -particularly the visit to the Chateau Rully with the Count – just seeing the portraits on wall of his ancestors, the very mug his 14th century ancestor had drunk from (that he still uses), the personal artifacts of the family were amazing.
Considering all that is provided, and the high level of service, the experience fulfills France Cruses’ boast that this cruise affords some of the best value in canal cruising in France (particularly with the special offers and packages that are available from time to time). I am a believer.