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
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’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
Our ship, CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princesse, sails early in the morning of Day 6 of our Prague-Berlin river cruise for Wittenberg, reaching this historic city, the epicenter of the Reformation lined with noble Renaissance-style houses and a marvelous way of preserving history, in the early afternoon.
The Martin Luther House, which was once an Augustinian monastery and now is the Reformation Museum, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a complete surprise – I might even say a revelation. I never expected to be so fascinated, so captivated by the unfolding of Martin Luther’s personal story so vividly depicted in the furnishings, artifacts, portraits and seeing where he actually lived, preserved pretty much as it would have been when he lived here. You begin to appreciate how one man could set a movement of such enormity – the Reformation! – into motion, how a single person could captivate and change the world.
I start off fairly disinterested but as I go through the house – the museum contains 1000 original objects from the Reformation over the centuries to the present including the many publications he put out – the answer comes quickly: the Guttenberg printing press (there is even a replica). You realize that Luther and the Guttenberg printing press were like today’s social media influencers. Indeed, by 1520, Luther had become a media sensation, unlike anything anyone had seen before.
Among Luther’s ideas that were heretical to the Catholic Church: Sins cannot be redeemed simply through confession, but faith; he reduced the seven sacraments to two, baptism and holy communion; he called ordination, confession, and last rites as “tricks of priests” to exert power. He called for the abolition of celibacy (and used that as the reason he got married, so he would not be a hypocrite); and said, “A Christian is free, subservient to no one (but subservient to all)” and he called upon the “electors and sovereigns” to implement the Reformation.
But the most controversial, which really roiled the entire institution, was the idea you can’t buy redemption with an Indulgence (the next day in a church in Magdeburg, we see the wooden box that would have been used to collect the Indulgences), and that priests can’t rid people of sin,
In June 1520, a Papal Bull accused Luther of 41 errors and gave him 60 days to recant. Instead, he created a media spectacle and burned the papal bull and other items.
Luther basically removed priests as the middle man between a Christian and his faith, and is most famous for translating the Bible into German, to make it more accessible (if I remember correctly, Jesus did the same thing to the priests).
Luther had been a monk and his wife, Katharina von Bora, a nun, given over to a convent because her family could not afford to support her, lived here for 35 years.
In what would have been their bedroom, we learn that Katarina fled the nunnery to marry Luther. A monk at the time, Luther said he should practice what he preached – abolition of celibacy. There is a wonderful quote from him (just about everything he said was dutifully transcribed by adoring followers) describing the surprising changes in his life after marriage, and the pleasures of being part of a couple. They had six children of whom four survived to adulthood.
We also see the living room where he would meet guests, have discussions with adoring followers. It’s like being in “the room where it happened” – where these ideas were formulated, transcribed, transmitted.
The couple became well to do after their marriage. Katarina, who clearly did so much to propel Luther (among the journal accounts is how she poured beer for the guests), farmed, and rented rooms to students.
Having been informed the day before to the importance of artist Lucas Cranach the Elder by my traveling companion, I am alert to seeing several Cranach paintings here, including the first authentic portrait of Luther, several others of Luther, and his monumental panel of 10 Commandments. (The English-language audio tour is invaluable to appreciating what you see.)
At this point, I am admiring of Luther and how he democratized religion, breaking the theocratic authority of the Pope and priests. But I later learn that in two of his later works, Luther expressed violent antisemitic views and called for the burning of synagogues and expulsion of Jews (I wonder if Luther regarded Judaism as a rival for worshippers.)
Luther wrote of a sculpture depicting an antisemitic scene, “Here in Wittenberg, in our parish church,” Luther wrote, “there is a sow carved into the stone under which lie young pigs and Jews who are sucking; behind the sow stands a rabbi who is lifting up the right leg of the sow, raises behind the sow, bows down and looks with great effort into the Talmud under the sow, as if he wanted to read and see something most difficult and exceptional; no doubt they gained their Schem Hamphoras from that place.” The inscription “Rabini Schem HaMphoras” was installed above the sculpture 27 years later, in Luther’s honor.
My traveling companion on the ship – who is from Munich – has told me to look for the sculpture in the church which I assume (incorrectly) is the Castle Church where Luther posted his Theses.
I still have about an hour to explore Wittenberg on my own (the rest of our group are all French-speaking and led by a guide) – really not enough time. I would have loved to have the whole afternoon to wander. But, armed with an excellent map that pinpoints 36 important sites, I set out with an aim of finding the church and the sculpture.
I head to the old market square and the Stadtkirche, also known as the Wittenberg Town Church of St. Mary’s. It was here that Luther delivered most of his sermons, and is the site of the first celebration of Mass in German instead of Latin. Wittenberg in general—and the Stadtkirche in particular—is considered the heart of the Protestant Reformation. There is a statue of Luther outside.
But on the map, behind the church, I see a street name, Judenstrasse (Jew Street) that suggests the Jewish Quarter would have been right here.
I later learn (from an article in Smithsonian, “Hatred in Plain Sight”) that around the back of the Stadtkirche set into the facade is the carved sandstone sculpture depicting a rabbi lifts the tail of a pig to look for his Talmud that Luther referred to, that I was looking for.
“The sandstone sculpture is a once-common form of medieval iconography called a “Judensau,” or’Jew’s pig.’ Its existence predates the Nazi period by nearly 700 years. Sculptures of Jews and pigs started appearing in architecture in the 1300s, and the printing press carried on the motif in everything from books to playing cards well into the modern period,” Carol Schaeffer writes in the Smithsonian. “Today, more than 20 Judensau sculptures are still incorporated into German churches and cathedrals, with a few others in neighboring countries. At least one Judensau—on the wall of a medieval apothecary in Bavaria—was taken down for its offensive nature, but its removal in 1945 is thought to have been ordered by an American soldier. The Judensau in Wittenberg is one of the best preserved—and one of the most visible. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site.”
There was an effort in Wittenberg to “solve its Judensau conundrum” by turning the site into a Mahnmal – a memorial to the Jewish people.
“After five years of deliberation, those in charge of the project decided that the Judensau would remain—but they would add a memorial to the Jewish people. Unveiled in 1988, it is now installed on the ground in bronze. Two crossing lines are surrounded by text that reads: “The proper name of God, the maligned Schem-ha-mphoras, was held holy by the Jews long before the Christians. Six million Jews died under the sign of a cross.” Alongside those German words is a Hebrew quotation, the beginning of Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry unto Thee, O Lord’,” Schaeffer writes.
Neither of these are included on the map, and I miss them entirely, thinking that the sculpture is in the Castle Church.
But I do find the Cranach House. I’ve become fascinated with Lucas Cranach who turns out to have been an apothecary as well as important artist whose portraits filled the Luther House, and whose works decorate many church altars (including the one we had just visited in Meissen). You can visit the original apothecary (it’s still a pharmacy), and then go through to a courtyard where the Cranachs would have lived and today there is an art school. He and his son also served as Wittenberg’s burgomaster (mayor).
I later learn how important Lucas Cranach the Elder was in popularizing – spreading – the Reformation. Cranach was the court painter to the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, ground zero for the Protestant Reformation. His patrons were powerful supporters of Martin Luther and he embraced the movement, using his art to spread the new faith. Cranach made numerous portraits of Luther – several that we see in the Luther House – and provided woodcut illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Cranach became such a close friend of Martin Luther that he was best man at Luther’s wedding and later godfather to his son. At some point, the duke gave Cranach the monopoly for selling medicines at Wittenberg and a printer’s patent with exclusive privileges as to copyright in Bibles. Cranach’s presses were used by Martin Luther. His apothecary shop was open for centuries, and was only lost by fire in 1871.
I notice that apartments on the second floor of many buildings through the town have names of their important occupants: Maxim Gorki (1903), Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, German playwright, poet, and philosopher. Jeremias Trautmann, German physician who performed the first completely documented cesarean section, in Wittenberg, Germany, on April 26, 1610. And very close to the Castle Church, one name really stands out: Harriet Beecher Stowe (who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), who lived here in 1852.
I make it to the famous door of the Castle Church where, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 Theses, challenging the notion that indulgences can buy salvation, setting off The Reformation. The old wooden Theses Door was lost when the church was destroyed by fire in 1760. In 1858, King Frederick William IV of Prussia funded the bronze door with the Latin theses.
I don’t have time to go into the Castle Church (the Elbe Princesse group that was guided did). You can also pay a small fee to climb the tower.
I really would have liked more time to explore Wittenberg, a truly beautiful and well preserved historic village. (You can purchase an audio tour of the sites.)
We get back on the bus and then back on the ship for lunch, and then a relaxing afternoon sailing to Burg. In the evening, we have another marvelous dinner and entertainment. Tomorrow, we discover why Magdeburg is so interesting.
Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Deadwood, South Dakota – the endpoint of the 109-mile Mickelson Trail on the Wilderness
Voyageurs’ six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour – is a shrine to
the Old Wild West, Rapid City is what the American West is today.
The Wilderness-Voyageurs Badlands trip (800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com) starts in Rapid City where I cleverly organize my trip to arrive the day before, staying at the famous, historic Alex Johnson Hotel (famous on its own, but made eternally famous for the part it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – an autographed caricature of Hitchcock is behind the front desk).
Indeed, the Alex Johnson Hotel is a major attraction in itself (it’s red and white sign atop the building is iconic symbol of the city) – the hotel, still the third tallest in South Dakota, even provides a walking tour of many artifacts and architectural features that in their own way tell the story of Rapid City.
The Alex Johnson Hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, which means that successive owners have recognized their responsibility as stewards of these place-making hotels that harbor the story of their respective destination. To be accepted into the prestigious HHA program, which has nearly 300 members, a hotel has to faithfully maintain authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity, be at least 50 years old; designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark or listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; and recognized as having historic significance. (More information at HistoricHotels.org)
The Alex Johnson Hotel is all of these things and more. The hotel
was built by Alex Carlton Johnson (1861-1938), who was vice president of the
Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Johnson was unusual for his time in that he
respected and admired the Native Americans who lived in the area and developed
his hotel as a tribute to the Sioux Indian Nation and honor its heritage. The
structural design of the hotel integrates the heritage of the Plains Indians
and the Germanic Tudor architecture representing German immigration into the
Construction began in 1927, coincidentally, just the day before work began on nearby Mount Rushmore. The hotel opened less than a year later, on July 1, 1928.
follow the walking tour:
the entrance of the hotel are sculpted Indian heads, taken from the design of
Indian-head nickels and pennies.
The entrance has an “AJ” tepee symbol embedded in the entry walkway. The lobby itself is designed in Native American tradition with “Sacred Four Directions” integrated in the lobby tiles. The Lakota Sioux people believed their four sacred powers were derived from the four directions: north (white) a symbol for the “Cleansing Snow.”; east (red), the “Morning Star” which gives “Daybreak Knowledge”; south (yellow) is “Warm Winds” which replenishes the land; west (black) is “Thunder Being,” giving strength and power in times of trouble. Among the signs is a symbol that resembles a swastika, but was long used by Native Americans since prehistoric times.
Suspended with chains, the chandelier that dominates the center is actually formed of war lances. It is in the shape of a teepee and made of concentric, decreasing-sized copper-clad wooden rings. The rings are decorated in authentic Sioux patterns.
The exquisite ceiling incorporates stenciled Sioux designs between open beams. The brightly-colored patterns, originally painted with natural materials, are in the traditional “box and border” design. There are eight plaster-cast busts of Indian men that hold the beams.
The fireplace is formed of Black Hills stones. A huge rock in the keystone was selected for its resemblance to a buffalo head. The mantle is decorated with brands of local ranchers. Above the fireplace is a striking portrait of Alex Johnson in Sioux attire. Johnson was made an honorary blood brother of Chief Iron Horse in 1933, and named “Chief Red Star.” Another portrait of Johnson, in a more typical businessman pose, was commissioned by the 580 members of the Chicago Rotary Club in appreciation for his service as president (1924-25).
There are two bison heads mounted over the southwest entrance of the AJ’s Mercantile shop (American buffalo are apparently not buffalo at all, but one of two species of bison). I learn that “buffalo” was a corruption of “boeuf,” the name the French explorers used for the animal.
mezzanine and second floor are graced with carved wood railings and provide a
gorgeous vantage point to appreciate the Indian busts, ceiling painting and
The ballroom, which also served as a nightclub back in the day, has four murals painted by Max Rheiner, an artist from Chicago, that realistically depict four well known areas of the region: Harney Peak, the Needles (which we will soon visit on the bike tour), the Badlands (we will soon visit) and Spearfish Canyon.
Lincoln Room, the site of the original restaurant, has been restored to its
original elegance. The ceiling lights are original. The wallpaper custom,
hand-printed paper and the same design used in Abraham Lincoln’s home in
Springfield Illinois. An original 19th century Lincoln print is on
the wall. Meeting rooms are named after the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.
The hotel also offers Paddy O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Grill, named after the hotel’s first guest.
is a kind of museum of exhibits – you can see Johnson’s actual headdress and
that is not all. I learn that the Alex Johnson hotel is haunted – there is an
entire book of testimonials from guests who have had sightings, and recently.
Ross Goldman, the front-desk fellow who has been giving me an orientation to the hotel and to Rapid City, points me to an entire Haunting book filled with people’s letters and descriptions of encounters.
of the rooms that is supposedly haunted, 304, was Alex Johnson’s private room
where he stayed when he was in Rapid City, and where he died at the age of 90.
But years before, his young daughter died in that room. People, especially
children, say they have seen a child ghost
In the Haunting book, I find a drawing by a little girl who stayed in
room 304, who drew herself, her brother, and another girl with a dark, long dress
you can see through (the ghost), dated July 5 2019. Children say they see ball
rolling and that there is a knock on doors all at once.
haunted room, 812, was where 60 years ago, a bride on her wedding night jumped,
was pushed or fell out of window. Guests say that doors open, lights go on and
some say when they sleep, they feel something pressing on their chest.
macabre legends must have appealed to Alfred Hitchcock who used the Alex Johnson
Hotel in his iconic thriller, “North by Northwest” and stayed here through the
filming of the Mount Rushmore scenes– there is an autographed photo of
Hitchcock behind reception desk (the lobby seemed much larger in the movie).
(the only Goldman in South Dakota, he notes), tells me his father is from
Brooklyn, and came to Rapid City for his medical residency and stayed. What a
small world: Goldman’s cousins live on my block in Long Island, New York. (He
says there are just 300 Jews in the entire state; they hold their Passover
seder in the hotel’s ballroom).
after exploring Rapid City, I get to appreciate the Vertex Sky Bar on the
hotel’s tenth floor (the Alex Johnson hotel is the third tallest building in
South Dakota). Originally, there was a solarium here and an observation tower
that was later used by KOTA radio station. Today, it is an upscale rooftop bar exclusively
for members and hotel guests. It provides a wonderful view for the sunset
behind the hills.
Goldman gives me some great tips for our bike trip – especially in Deadwood City, where he tells me to be sure to visit the cemetery where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, and where there is also a Jewish section.
he orients me to Rapid City: Memorial Park was created after a major flood in
1972 collapsed the dam, in which 238 people died (signs in the park tell the
story), leveling the poorest section of city. He tells me where to get the best
buffalo burger (Thirsty’s).
so I am off to discover Rapid City.
City makes the absolute most of whatever it has. The architecture except for a
small historic district is mostly nondescript, but there is sheer brilliance in
that 20 years ago, an artist began an ambitious program to have almost
life-sized sculptures of every president on every corner of the two downtown
boulevards, Main Street and St. Joseph’s Boulevard. This turned Rapid City into
“The City of Presidents.”
is fascinating and fun to go in search of them (they aren’t in chronological or
alphabetical order). Six artists produced the 43 sculptures, beginning in 2000:Obama’s
statue, depicting the Election night scene when he came out holding his
daughter’s hand, only went up a couple of months before; Lincoln is also
portrayed with his son, Tad; FDR is shown standing at a podium with radio mics;
Taft looking amazingly svelte, shown as the first president to throw out the
first pitch at a baseball game. There is a self-guided walking tour and a
Presidential Scavenger Hunt. It is really fun to try to see all of the
presidents. What is most interesting is how these significant personages are
set in such ordinary circumstance on nondescript small-town America street
notable exception to the presidents is a bust, “Mitakuye Oyasin” (“We are all
related”) by DC Lamphere, from a drawing by Richard Under Baggage, representing
“hope for reconciliation, dignity and respect for all the human race.” The
earth is in the shape of a hoop or circle of life; crossed pipes represent
world peace; the eagle symbolizes all flying creatures, and communication with
Tunka Sila; wisdom and the healing arts are represented by a grizzly bear, and
a long and productive life is symbolized by a turtle. “The bison reminds us of
our ancestors’ healthy lifestyles, free from famine, and also of the white
Buffalo Calf Woman who brought us the pipe.”
Another marked contrast to the presidents on every other corner is outside a remarkable shop, Prairie Edge: “Hunkayapi” also was created by local artist Dale Lamphere. The statue, depicting a Lakota naming ceremony, is intended to reflect the warmth in Lakota families, the wisdom of a Lakota elder and the teaching of the Lakota heritage to the next generation.
Edge is one of the most fantastic Native American shops anywhere. It is almost
a museum, with numerous contemporary Native artists who have their own
displays, biography and museum-quality art (I learn about quillwork). There is
also clothing, including Pendleton & Pilson, blankets and housewares, books
and music, and a Sioux Trading Post, and tee shirts and souvenirs and yes items
popular in tourist shops on sale, like an old-fashioned mercantile store.
shop contains a fine art Plains Indian Gallery, a Buffalo Room with bison
leather furnishings. There is also the Italian glass bead library boasting the
world’s largest selection of glass beads, with over 2,600 different styles and colors, from
the same Venetian guild that supplied fur traders in the 19th
century used for trade, including used in trade for the island of Manhattan;
after the Societa Veneziana Conterie closed in 1992, Prairie Edge bought the
remaining inventory of 70 tons of beads. (Prairie Edge, 606 Main Street, Rapid
City SD 57701, 800-541-2388, 605-342-3086, www.prairieedge.com).
I think about what Goldman told me about continued tension between Native Americans and the “settlers” (for lack of a better word), “Other places are more assimilated. South Dakota has nine Indian reservations. The two largest reservations – Pine Ridge, Rosebud – make Appalachia look like Beverly Hills.,” he told me. And his remarks echo for me later when I visit the Crazy Horse Memorial on our Mickelson Trail ride.
Edge is housed in an 1886 building in Italianate style that began as the L.
Morris Dry Goods and Clothing store with a dentist’s office on the second floor
and rooms to rent. Known as the Clower Building, it is most famously remembered
as the Jack Clower Saloon (1895-1917), a cowboy bar ion its day. It is one of
the most beautiful buildings in Rapid City.
you do expect in an open-carry state that still prides itself as being the wild
west, are the gun shops. There is the biggest gun shop I’ve ever seen, First
Stop Gun & Coin. (I am amazed at how heavy rifles are; there are “My First
Rifle,” child-sized like starter violins, and some pink and decorated rifles
geared for women.
wander over to Main Street Square, with a spray fountain, Astroturf and
stage for performances, and public restroom.
There is a surprising variety of restaurants you wouldn’t expect in a place that calls itself “City of Presidents” – Nepali, Mexican (considering how far from the Mexican border we are). Goldman has recommended Thirsty’s, which looks like a pool hall, as having the best buffalo burger in town. I opt for the Firehouse Brewing Company in the historic firehouse next door to Prairie Edge. I take note of a large 1883 photo mural depicting the store that had stood on the site with store names of Jewish proprietors: Herrmann Treber & Goldberg Groceries, Liquors and Cigars Wholesale.
Back at the Alex Johnson Hotel, I go up to the Vertex Sky Bar on the 10th floor to take in the sunset.
The Alex Johnson Hotel today is independently owned by the Bradsky family of Rapid City, acquired in 2008 on the hotel’s 80th anniversary, and refurbished with respect and sense of stewardship for its historic significance and importance to the city. (The family owns several properties, under the Liv Hospitality banner, in Deadwood and Rapid City, including Cadillac Jack’s and Tin Lizzie’s in Deadwood and Watiki water park in Rapid City. (www.LivHotelGroup.com)
Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton, 523 Sixth Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 605-342-1210, alexjohnson.com.
More information at Visit Rapid City, 512 Main Street, Rapid City SD 57701, 800-487-3223, 605-718-8484, www.VisitRapidCity.com.
Missile National Historic Site
With better planning, I would have also
plugged into my itinerary a visit to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The
site provides an opportunity to explore the Minuteman II system’s role as a
nuclear deterrent during the Cold War and visit sites rarely seen by civilians
while in use, but that nevertheless loomed large on the geo-political
landscape, and in these tense times, be reminded about what a threat nuclear
I first became aware of the site
watching an extraordinary documentary, “The Man who Saved the World,” about
Stanislav Petrov, a former
lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air
Defense Forces and his role in preventing the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident from leading
to nuclear holocaust. Now, with Trump and Putin at odds over
renegotiating a nuclear arms treaty while boasting about new weapons, it is
more important than ever to be reminded of how quickly things can go
Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
It’s our last
day of the Wilderness Voyageurs six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike
tour of South Dakota, when we would have biked back a portion of the Mickelson
Trail that we cycled yesterday before visiting Mount Rushmore. But as luck
would have it (and it is actually lucky), it rains as we leave Deadwood. It is
lucky because the rest of our rides have been glorious and we did get to
complete the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, in addition to riding through
Badlands National Park and Custer State Park. Our guides, James Oerding and
John Buehlhorn, offer us alternatives: instead of doing the Mickelson 18 miles
from Dumont to Mystic (the same trail we did yesterday but downhill) we go
directly to Mount Rushmore and see if the weather dries out.
Rushmore is such a familiar American icon, it may be a cliché. But seeing it “in
person” makes you rethink what it is all about.
sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, wrote “Let us place
there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders,
their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a
prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall
wear them away.”
Borglum also wrote, “The purpose of
the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and
unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington,
Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”
National Park Service offers this about Mount Rushmore National Monument:
“Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt
and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South
Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of
this country. From the history of the first inhabitants to the diversity of
America today, Mount Rushmore brings visitors face to face with the rich
heritage we all share.”
The NPS posits that Borglum “selected these four presidents
because from his perspective, they represented the most important events in the
history of the United States. Would another artist at that time, or perhaps a
modern artist choose differently? As you read more about Borglum’s choices,
think about what you might have done if the decision was up to you.”
I stumble upon a
15-minute Ranger talk in the Sculptor’s Studio about Gutzon Borglum,
the carving process and the lives of the workers – how they
dynamited away 90 percent of the stone, leaving just 3 to 6 inches of material
to chisel off by hand, how they hang a weight to where the nose should be and
create the facial features from that reference point.
stands in front of a model of how a completed Mount Rushmore was envisioned by
Borglum. Who knew there was more? I’ve always taken for granted that what we
see was all that was meant to be. The model shows that it would have had their
jackets down to their waist and hands.
see the scale of the sculpture, it is hard to contemplate the challenge of
blasting away all that rock and carving that stone. But we learn that getting
this project underway was a challenge unto itself.
South Dakota historian
Doane Robinson is credited with conceiving the idea of carving the
likenesses of noted figures into the mountains of the Black Hills of South
Dakota in order to promote tourism in the region. But once Doane
Robinson and others had found a sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, they had to get
permission to do the carving. Senator Peter Norbeck (the man who created the
Needles Highway through Custer State Park) and Congressman William Williamson
were instrumental in getting the legislation passed to allow the carving. The
bill requesting permission to use federal land for the memorial easily passed
through Congress. But a bill sent to the South Dakota Legislature faced more
Robinson’s initial idea
was to feature heroes of the American West, such as Lewis and Clark, Oglala
Lakota chief Red cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. But Borglum wanted the sculpture to
have broader appeal, so chose the four presidents, who would each symbolize an
important aspect of American history. (That might be why Robinson was not
chosen for the 12-member commission to oversee the project.)
Early in the project, money was hard
to find, despite Borglum’s guarantee that eastern businessmen would gladly make
large donations. He also promised South Dakotans that they would not be
responsible for paying for any of the mountain carving. Borglum got Treasury
Secretary Andrew Mellon on board, but only asked for half of the funding he
needed, believing he would be able to match federal funding ($250,000) dollar
for dollar with private donations.
Borglum worked on the project from
1927, the presidents’ faces were carved from 1933-1939, with his son, Lincoln. Meanwhile,
in 1929, the stock market crashed; in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt placed
Mount Rushmore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
In March, 1941, as a final dedication was being planned,
Gutzon Borglum died. This fact, along with the impending American involvement
in World War II, led to the end of further carving on the mountain. With the
money – and enthusiasm – running out, Congress refused to allocate any more
funding. On October 31, 1941, the last day of work, Mount Rushmore National
Memorial was declared a completed project.
explains that the death of the artist raised an ethical issue for anyone who
would take over the work. And, the Ranger said, “The country had moved on. They
were not as interested in presidents as they were in the 1930s; when Mount
Rushmore was a shrine to democracy. And what if the new artist made a mistake?”
I can see how
Mount Rushmore was a cautionary tale for the Crazy Horse Memorial and why
sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who worked on Mount Rushmore before being tasked
to do Crazy Horse, refused any federal funding, instead establishing a foundation
funded with private donations and admissions. Some 70 years after he began his
work, his grandchildren are involved in continuing to carve the memorial.
I walk the
Presidential Trail (just 0.6 miles long, 422 stairs, weather
permitting) to get up close and personal with the mountain
sculpture and perhaps glimpse some of the area wildlife.
million visitors come to Mount Rushmore each year.
Among the activities offered: the Junior
Ranger program (booklets are available at the information desks for ages
three to four, five to twelve and 13 and up), and the Carvers’ Café, Ice Cream Shop and Gift Shop.
Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore
the history of the Black Hills and the American Indian tribes who have
populated this land for thousands of years. Located next to the Borglum View
Terrace for 2019, this area highlights the customs and traditions of local
American Indian communities. Open 10:30 am to 3 pm, early June through mid-August, weather
Youth Exploration Area (10 – 30 mins., free): Explore the natural, cultural and historical aspects of Mount Rushmore with interactive programs. Located at the Borglum View Terrace for 2019. Open early June through early August.
(30 – 120 mins; rental fee): Rent an
audio tour wand or multimedia device to hear the story of Mount
Rushmore through music, narration, interviews, historic recordings and sound
effects while walking a scenic route around the park. Available at the Audio
Tour Building across from the Information Center (rentals available inside the
Information Center during the winter months). The tour and accompanying
brochure are available in English, French, German, Lakota, and Spanish.
It had been gray
and drizzly when we first arrived making the monument look dull, but as we are
leaving, blue sky breaks through and for the first time, I realize that George
Washington has a jacket.
visit, the Visitor Center and amphitheater are closed for construction.)
(Just recently, the last living Mount
Rushmore construction worker, Donald ‘Nick” Clifford, who worked on the
monument from 1938-40, passed away at the age of 98.)
Even thought the weather has cleared up
just as we are leaving Mount Rushmore, because it is a getaway travel day, the
group decides not to bike (the trail James suggests is impractical because it
requires the guides to take off the roof racks in order to fit through the
tunnel). We decide instead, to go straight to Rapid City, our departure point,
for lunch before we all go our separate ways.
Our last lunch
together, in Rapid City, is at Tally’s Silver Spoon (best Reuben sandwich
outside of NYC!) – just across the street from the historic Alex Johnson Hotel,
where I began my South Dakota odyssey a week ago.
What I love best
about Wilderness Voyageurs’ “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour are the
varied experiences: Badlands – fossils – Circle View Guest Ranch – Black Hills
– Crazy Horse – Custer State Park – stone spires – wildlife – buffalo – Blue
Bell Lodge – Mount Rushmore – biking the 109-mile long Mickelson rail trail.
Guided bike trips are not cheap, but what I look for is value for money – my test is whether I could reproduce the trip for less out-of-pocket, to make up for the decided increase in convenience of having the itinerary already plotted out. I found Wilderness Voyageurs excellent value – in the services provided, wonderful accommodations (especially the guest ranch and the lodge), dining, creating an itinerary that was idyllic, entrances to attractions (Badlands National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore), and also considerate, superb guides, a relaxed, unpressured atmosphere (“You’re on vacation!”).
The destination, South Dakota, is quite sensational and unexpectedly varied – spectacular scenery, nature and wildlife, fossils (!), culture and history – a microcosm of North America, really. Indeed, it is an ideal destination for international visitors to plunge into the American frontier west mythology of the past, but more interestingly, to see the American West as it is today. And frankly, even if I rented a bike and paid for shuttle services, I couldn’t have duplicated the itinerary, or the camaraderie, or the expertise and care.
Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has
developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of
biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even
Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails
like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and
Katy Trail in Missouri.
At the start of Leg 6 of the Global Scavenger Hunt in Amman,
Jordan, only four of the original 10 teams competing are still in contention to
win, so several of the teams can now join together, use their cell phones for
planning and booking, get help from the hotel concierge, and be generally
unrestricted by the rules but still enthralled by the challenges of the
But for those competing, some of the mandatory challenges pose a
difficult puzzle to achieve in terms of logistics and timing. The one that
proves problematic requires the team to travel one way to or from Petra along
the ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t
take that route and the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing
how the two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.
We arrive at our five-star hotel, the Amman W, have our meeting and get our booklet with the scavenges, and a bunch of us (no longer competing) pack into a taxi to visit an ancient Roman amphitheater built during the time of Antenios Pius in 138-161 AD. We cross the street to a local restaurant, where we enjoy a meal of rotisserie chicken served with rice, and get a sense of this ancient city.
Whereas Abu Dhabi seemed unreal in many respects – a modern
invention, manufactured even – Amman, the capital of Jordan, is very real and
reflects its age as an early city. Jordan is where one of the largest Neolithic
settlements (c. 6500 BC) ever discovered in the Middle East exists; Citadel
Hill contains early Bronze Age tombs (3300-1200 BC). By the beginning of the
Iron Age, Amman had become the capital of the Ammonites, referred to in the
Bible as Rabbath-Ammon (“rabbath” means capital, or “king’s quarters”). We can
look out from the high floors of the hotel to the hillsides crammed with houses
and imagine what it might have looked like.
All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have chosen
various means to get there. I find myself on the 6:35 a.m. Jett Express Bus
with three of the teams, including one that is in second place in the Global
Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Five others (including my
teammate) hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing),
and Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and teenage son Luka are
traveling separately. Each of us leaves at a different time by a different
conveyance. But what a surprise! We all wind up at the same mid-way trading
post at the same time. Hugs all around.
Struck for decades by the Frederic Church painting of Petra, and
then by hearing a New York Times Travel Show talk about “Petra at Night,” I
decide to arrange my own overnight stay so I don’t have to rush back. I learn
that the Petra at night is only offered twice weekly and am lucky enough to be
there for a Wednesday. I hastily consult hotels.com for a hotel – none
available under $200/night. I check booking.com and find a hotel – more of a
hostel, really – at a very affordable price, less than a mile from the entrance
to Petra. “Only one room left” the site warns. And considering how so many of
the hotels were booked, I take the leap and book it within seconds.
The concierge has reserved the seats on the Jett bus for the
morning, with the return the next day (only one departure each way/daily), at 5
City of Petra
We travel 240 km south from Amman (120 km north of the Red Sea
city of Aqaba – the trip through the countryside is interesting – the vast
emptiness, the sand, flocks of animals. Wind turbines!
The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company
has put on a second bus to accommodate all the passengers – arrives at the
Petra bus station next door to the entrance to the archeological site at around
I use our Jordan Pass (which Chalmers had obtained in advance,
providing pre-paid admission to most archaeological sites, including two
consecutive days at Petra, along with the visa) for the day’s admission and buy
the ticket for Petra at Night ($25).
While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact,
they don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point of coming at
all?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, immersing
myself in the scenes and the details, knowing I will return in the evening and
the next day.
I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view of the Church painting (and Indiana Jones movie) that comes into focus as you walk through the cavern (known as the Siq) with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then the teaser of The Treasury through the opening. It is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra is a complete surprise – I had not realized how vast – an entire city, in fact – how much has been carved out of the rock (the Royal Tombs are not to be believed), and how much was built during the Roman era (The Great Temple where Brown University is doing archaeology and the Colonnade).
All around are fellows who hawk riding their camel, their horse, their donkey, or take the horse-drawn carriage (at fantastic speed considering the narrow walkway), to or from the entrance – it is a full mile walk from the entrance to The Treasury (an electric cart is available for those who have difficulty walking in addition to horse-carts).
It is hot, but dry and the breeze is surprisingly comfortable.
Besides exploring the archaeological structures, Petra turns out to be a hiking
place – you can take trails that bring you up to fantastic views. One of the
toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down
again (and one of the challenges on the scavenger hunt – in fact, visiting
early and doing the hike is worth 500 points).
I decide to reserve that for the next day.
The city of Petra, aptly known as the Rose-Red City for the
luscious color of the rock from which many of the city’s structures were
carved, was the capital of the Nabataean Arabs, and is today one of the world’s
most famous archaeological sites.
The Siq, the main road that leads to the city, starts from the
Dam and ends at the Treasury. It is a rock canal 160 meters in length, 3 to 12
meters in width and reaches up to 80 meters in height. The main part of the Siq
is created by natural rock formation and the rest is carved by the Nabataeans.
If you look carefully, you can see a channel carved from the
rock to capture and even filter water – the secret to how Petra was sustained.
At the start of the Siq the original Nabataean dams are visible, and these
prevented flooding in the Siq and collected water for use.
Then, through a narrow, curving break in the rock, you get your
first teasing glimpse of The Treasury, just as Frederick Edwin Church painted
it in 1874.
According to the website, www.visitpetra.jo, it is not known precisely when Petra was built, but the city began to prosper as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st century BC, which grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices (stalls sell the spices). Petra was later annexed to the Roman Empire and continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD. The earthquake, combined with changes in trade routes (and politics), eventually led to the city’s downfall.
“The city was pretty much abandoned by the middle of the 7th
century and lost to all except local Bedouins,” according to the website, www.visitpetra.jo. “But in 1812, Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt set out to
rediscover Petra. He dressed up as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to
take him to the lost city. After this, Petra became increasingly known in the
West as a fascinating and beautiful ancient city, and it began attracting
visitors and continues to do so today.
“The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs that were
cut out of the mountain sides and the city also had temples, a theater, and
following the Roman annexation and later the Byzantine influence, a colonnaded
street and churches” the ruins of which we can explore.”
I climb the path up to the Royal Tombs and go into cavernous
rooms – I can’t tell if it is the rock’s own configuration or whether the
surface has actually been painted or carved to expose swirls of different
colors and textures, but they are exquisite.
“In addition to the magnificent remains of the Nabataean city,
human settlement and land use for over 10,000 years can be traced in Petra,
where great natural, cultural, archaeological and geological features merge,”
according to the website.
Walking back out through the Siq, you have to keep moving to the
side to let pass the horse-drawn carriages which go through at quite a clip.
The park closes at about 6 p.m. and reopens at 8 pm for the
8:30-10:30 night program (it is operated separately and privately from Petra).
I still have to get my pack, which I have left with the fellow at the CV
Currency Exchange, just before you enter ($5 tip) and get to the hotel, which I
had thought was within walking distance (0.7 mile), but turns out to be totally
uphill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate since I don’t have very much local
My el cheapo-supremo hotel (more of a hostel than a hotel), The
Rose City Hotel, turns out to be exactly that – the nicest part is the name and
the front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I think the fellow made a
mistake and has brought me to a room under construction (or rather
deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet, rusting shower,
cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that is falling apart, only a small bed
and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that are too
disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall, clean and no
bugs. So this will do for a night, I think, laughing to myself about my room at
the five-star, ultra-hip, chic and luxurious W Hotel (which is like living in
art, it is so creatively designed) I had left behind in Amman.
I head out just after 8 p.m., walking down the hill into the
park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the mile-long
stony path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking
how dramatic and wonderful. It turns out to be the best part of the evening.
After 45 minutes of walking (it is dark in the cavern), I arrive
at The Treasury where there are perhaps 1,000 people sitting on carpets. I
stuff myself into a place. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had seen of the
event, but The Treasury at this point is barely lighted at all. There is some
traditional music, then a fellow sings, talks for a few minutes, and then
garish neon-colored lights are projected against The Treasury, completely
destroying the mood. And then it is over at 9:30 pm (not 10:30 p.m.). People
start leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so I leave, too. I hike back up the
hill to the hotel getting lost so a fellow very nicely leads me to where I need
to go. I fall asleep to the meowing of feral cats just outside the window.
Solitude at Petra
My overnight adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am
able to return to the archaeological park as early as 6 a.m. The hotel
proprietor has packed my breakfast in a baggie in the refrigerator. I take my
pack with me and find a nice man at one of the refreshment stalls at the bus
station who offers to hold it for me for the day.
When I arrive at Petra, who should I come upon at 6:14 a.m. but
the Lawyers Without Borders team! What are the odds! (Literally on the run, so
not to lose time, Zoe tells me of their amazing adventure in a tented camp
about two hours away where they could get their scavenger points being
photographed on a camel, so they were up at 4 a.m. and had to organize a taxi
to get here by 6 a.m.). Rainey and Zoe have to literally race through Petra and
do the strenuous hike up to the Monastery in order to earn their 500 Global
Scavenger Hunt points.
I could be more leisurely because I am not trying to earn
points. Walking through the caverns (some of the most exquisite scenes) is
unbelievably peaceful at this hour – I am even the only one at some points.
There are no horse-drawn carriages rattling through, none of the hoards of
people stopping and posing for selfies. And once inside, there is perfect peace
also at The Treasury – the camels perfectly positioned to re-create the 19th
century paintings of the scene.
As soon as you arrive, though, you are swooped upon by a legion
of guides. One guide offers to lead me on a trail that would take me to the
overview of The Treasury (ranked moderate), but I am not feeling 100 percent
and hope I will be able to hike the Monastery Trail if I take it slow.
A word about the guides – they try to convince you that they
will take you places you can’t go yourself, which is highly dubious– but though
I don’t hire any, what I observe is that they are very knowledgeable, very
considerate of their guests (in fact, it is difficult to become a guide – you
have to take a test, be accepted, and then trained). The people who provide the
camels, the horses, the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and
the carriages work very hard (the animals work even harder). Later, though, I
see guides leading people up the Monastery Trail that spend their time on their
cell phone coordinating their next gig.
And all through are the souvenir stands (they actually look
pretty good) – and you realize that Petra was a trading center, a stop along
the vital caravan routes, and this is very likely what the scene would have
looked like even then. And I am sure the experience was the same for the early European
tourists 150 years ago, guides, merchants, donkeys, camels and all.
I walk through the park again, this time to hike the Monastery
Trail at the other end of the park. I get some scouting information from people
coming down and begin the steep ascent up stone steps. It is a very interesting
hike not just because of the gorgeous stone contours and colors and the views
back down, but because of the market stalls and refreshment stands set up along
the way. (You can also take a donkey up, which means that hikers have to keep
moving aside for the donkeys). I wish I had my hiking sticks with me (the hike
reminds me of the Bright Angel trail up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon) –
a fellow from Spain hiking with his mother, offers a hand when I trip (then we
take a wrong turn and find ourselves scrambling over boulders, instead of
climbing the stairs).
The Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually bigger
than The Treasury – one of the largest structures carved out of a rock face (if
I have that right). The hike is absolutely worth it and feels so satisfying
when you make it to the top. There is a lovely rest stop at the top (as well as
stalls improbably situated along the way and a refreshment stand picturesquely
set about two-thirds up the trail with a stunning view).
But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before the Jett
Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive at the W Hotel after the 8 p.m. deadline
for the Global Scavenger Hunt teams but have informed Bill that the bus likely
won’t be back until after 9 p.m., and I won’t miss a flight to our next
destination, will I?)
I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at the
entrance to the Monastery Trail, a veritable oasis, where I sit outside under
trees and have refreshment. I regain some strength and wander some more. At
this point, I realize what a phenomenal experience I have had in the early
morning when I had Petra to myself when I see coming at me some 2,000
passengers off the MSC ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC ship, and hundreds
more off a Celebrity cruise that look like an invading army. Each group is led
by a guide holding high a numbered sign (I spot the number 50) for their group.
My next plan is to stop into the Petra Guest House, which is
located right at the entrance to the park. (This is the hotel I would recommend
for those who want to come overnight in order to experience Petra in the early
morning – it is very comfortable, pleasant and moderate price).
I have left an hour to visit the newly opened Petra Museum,
sandwiched between the Visitor Center and the Bus Station (perfect!). It offers
an outstanding exhibit (curiously Japan was a major contributor) – with some
250 artifacts and displays that explain extremely well how Petra developed, the
Nabateans, how they grew to power first by controlling water through ingenious
engineering and the main trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three
kingdoms. Artifacts including art as well as everyday materials going back to
the Stone Age are on display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays
that are engaging and informative.
Petra was designated a World Heritage Site on Dec. 6, 1985 and Smithsonian Magazine named Petra one of the 28 places you should visit them before you die.
(More visitor information from Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, www.visitpetra.jo)
I board the Jett Bus
(it is the first-class bus geared to foreign tourists) for the three-hour trip