Netherlands and Belgium 2016, Part 2

Tuesday 20160712

We went back into Antwerp on our bikes for some more sight-seeing. We started with the train station, which is quite elegant and massive. Europe really has a train culture that the U.S. completely lacks, which is too bad. Trains make a lot of sense. And another cultural difference I noticed was in a “pedestrian” walkway to go under a road; the steps going down are flanked on either side by tracks into which you can put the wheels of your bicycle. After that, we went to visit the house of the Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens. Flanders is the northern part of Belgium, where it borders The Netherlands, and it is very Dutch-influenced. Belgium and The Netherlands were once one province in the Hapsburg empire, known as The Spanish Netherlands, but split later. Belgium itself is a combination of the Dutch-influenced Flemish in the north and the French-inflenced Walloons in the south. Rubens house was very large and ornate, and had beautiful gardens. He was clearly very successful financially.

We continued biking through a bit of rain, and Fred brought us to an interesting roadside art project, mostly sculpture. Apparently the backers of this art project had some kind of quarrel with the authorities, which I didn’t understand, but the art was interesting. We continued on, and got absolutely drenched in a downpour. From there we met up with the boat which was docked on a river bank.


Wednesday 20160713

We saw more rain in the forecast, and after getting drenched yesterday a few of us decided not to ride. We knew the boat was going to Ghent, and said we would meet there at the end of the day. Instead, we went into town, where Cheryl and I found some rain coats in a shop, and picked up the train to Ghent. I bought a pair of plastic sandals because if I get rained on there is no sense in having wet feet the rest of the day. We walked the streets of Ghent for a bit soaking up the scenery, then we went to the Gravensteen, a castle built in 1180 that served for several centuries as the residence of the Count of Flanders. After two centuries the Counts moved out, and it became a Court and a Prison. We saw some displays of how prisoners were tortured, and got to sit in a replice of the Count’s chair. From the top we got nice views of the surrounding area.

Then we found a design museum that had an exhibition of fantastic looking bikes, as well as furniture and glasswares. It was nothing you would call world-famous, but we enjoy these quirky local attractions. Finally it ws time to meet the boat and have dinner.


Thursday 20160714

Back on the bikes today after breakfast, but this time we had our rain coats and I was wearing my sandals. We set out for our last stop of the trip, Bruges, but along the way one of our group had a bike problem. Her seat had come undone, and we couldn’t fix it, so Fred swapped bikes with her and rode sitting on the back fender. I suspect he has ridden every day of his life and is totally comfortable in any circumstance. Along the way, I got some pictures of the poppies made famous by the poem In Flanders’ Fields. We eventually got to Bruges, put the bikes in the boat, had dinner, and walked into town. There we saw swans in the canals, and went to a tavern for drinks. Coming back we passed a shop selling the chocolates that Belgium is famous for, and saw the town square lit up at night, which was lovely. And that was it for the day.


Friday 20160715

This was our last full day of the trip. The tour had arranged that people would bike to the North Sea and do beach stuff, but as both us were born in Massachusetts we had seen plenty of ocean, so we opted to spend our last day in Bruges to see more of this fascinating city. Even one entire day is not enough here. We got out right after breakfast and walked in to the town. The same swans were in the canals which run throughout Bruges. Burges is only one of a number of towns or cities that like to bill themselves as “The Venice of the North”, but in the Low Countries it would be more surprising if we didn’t see canals. As I said, it is water everywhere in these parts. Walking into the town center, we started our trip with Historium Brugge (Brugge is the Dutch/Flemish version of the name Bruges). This is an historical museum right on the main square. We had a nce VR experience with headsets that showed us the history of the place. Bruges was once a seaport on the coast, but over time the channels to the North Sea silted up. But in its heyday, Bruges was an important cloth center, importing wool from England and turning it into cloth that sold throughout Europe. The tour of the Museum takes you up a few flights and then out on a balcony from which you get a great view of the square below.

After leaving the Museum, we looked around the square. There were restaurants there, but it looked like tourist stuff, and we wanted something more interesting. So we left the square, and a few blocks away discovered the Belgian Pigeon House, a relatively new establishment. Here is their explanation:


The pigeon? Why… Trained and in good condition, carrier pigeons or homing pigeons, can put down exceptional performances. The Belgian pigeon is world famous because of the short and long haul flights. For over a 100 years our country has been at the top!

We sat down and explained our dietary needs to the owner, who was serving us. Then the Chef came out to make sure he got it right (basically, we just wanted chicken breasts and roasted vegetables with no carbs added). Then the Chef showed us around the kitchen, in particular showing off the ovens for roasting the vegetables. Then the owner took us on a brief tour downstairs, where there was a large window that could open up onto the canal, and which was used long ago for bringing in barrels of wine and beer. And the meal was very good. Moral of the story: In most European cities you can find better food and more atmosphere if you go even a few blocks away from the tourist centers.

Then we went to the Church of Our Lady, where we saw the Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo, which is believed to be the only sculpture of his to leave Italy during his lifetime. Of course, there were many other works of art in the Church what we enjoyed. Then we walked along the Djiver, an historic street in Bruges, and saw some gardens and sculptures. Finally, we opted for a canal ride to see Bruges from a different perspective.

When we got back the the Gandalf, we had a treat: the dinner was entirely one of Dutch traditional dishes. Our Captain of the vessel then gave us a little of his own history, and then we went on shore to take photos of the group.


Saturday 20230716

Well, all good things must come to an end, and our time on the Gandalf was over. After the final breakfast as a group, we all started to pack up our suitcases, and most of us headed to the train station to catch the train back to Amsterdam. Cheryl and I had booked a hotel room for the night, we we went to the hotel and dropped our bags, and then went in search of dinner. We found a perfect place, a Greek restaurant with an outside table, and some of the best feta cheese we have ever had. I took a picture of Cheryl at the table that is still one of my favorite pictures of my lively bride. While we were eating, we watched the traffic going by, partly cars, the rest bicycles. Apparently no one in Amsterdam believes in wearing helmets, though we all did on this trip. What I found most bizarre, though, were adults whizzing through traffic with children standing on top of the rear fender, simply holding on to the parents shoulder, none of them in helmets. In the US that would get the parents arrested for child endangerment. Oh well, in the final analysis it is not my problem.

After dinner, we decided to take a walk along the canal, where we observed many houseboats. Houseboats are permanent features along the canals of Amsterdam and getting a mooring spot is very desirable and hard to get. Many of the houseboats also had a small strip of land adjoining the canal where they could grow flowers, others had pots of flowers on the boats. This little digestive walk was just the perfect way to end our last day.


Sunday 20230717

We got up early, checked out of the hotel, and called a cab to take us back to Schiphol Airport, whre we boarded our flight. Our Aer Lingus flight took us to dublin, where we changed to get a flight to Boston, and then changed one last time to geet back to Detroit.

Our final thoughts on this trip are that we enjoyed it a lot, and would not do it again. The reasons why we enjoyed it included the small group on the boat, making friends, and getting out in the countryside where we saw parts of the Netherlands and Belgium that most tourists never see. Most tour groups would stick to the big cities and the places all of the tourists go. We certainly saw some of those, but we saw a lot of things only locals get to see, and that is very valuable as an experience. The reason why we won’t do anything like it again is the physical strain. We trained, but not nearly enough, and it was a strain to do 35 miles a day on bicycles that were not all that good to begin with. There were a few e-bikes on the boat, but you had to pay extra for them, and there weren’t enough for everyone. And while the e-bikes made it easier, you had to be careful not to overuse the battery or you would suddenly find the battery drained, and then you are peddling the heaviest bike around.

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