Except that in the Netherlands, the Rhine is no longer the Rhine, or even "de Rijn," but rather the "Waal." Starting roughly where the Rhine enters Holland from Germany, it becomes a confused set of channels and canals, of which the Waal is the largest, carrying about 2/3 of what had been the Rhine. The Waal and its side channels intertwine with the Meuse (or "Maas" as the Dutch call it) and Scheldt Rivers further down, and also with canals that head north to Amsterdam and points in between. A drop of water coming in from Germany might end up in the North Sea 150 km later by heading pretty much due west, or it could emerge perhaps 100 km further to the south, and maybe even hit saltwater 250 km to the Northeast, by taking canals to the Ijselmeer. It's a jumble.
It's also a water management issue. We used to think that Holland mainly had dikes along the North Sea. No, they have them everywhere, since everything is interconnected, and almost any river or canal can flood from storms raising the sea to fury, or from floodwaters coming down the rivers that enter the Netherlands from Germany and Belgium. Biking along a river in Holland almost always means biking along its dike. Sometimes, with wooly challenges.
The next day we rode to another ferry landing to cross the Maas. Running a ferry here means looking both ways before you cross the river!
We were on a 250-km course toward Antwerp to visit a new friend, Riet, courtesy of an introduction from our Wisconsin friends Cordelia and Jazz. Riet suggested we route ourselves through the small city of Heusden on the Maas, a place that is off the Lonely Planet radar and aso that of almost all non-Dutch tourists. It was charming. Coming into town we briefly explored the old town fortifications and moats, then the center of town where the old city gate still stands, then the harbor: quaint bridge; a windmill and a mill keeper who was winching it into the wind; a town square filled with bikes and surrounded by ancient buildings. Heusden is a thoroughly charming place, as throngs of Dutch tourists confirmed this Summer Sunday afternoon.
Helping us along to Belgium was the only trail we have encountered in Holland that appears to be a rail trail. An amazingly tall wildlife observation tower alongside it gave us a chance to show you the trail and the surrounding countryside along the Dutch-Belgian border.
Luckily, begijnhoven have been preserved in many Belgian cities. Turnhout's was still almost entirely enclosed, and peaceful. One older woman smiled at us and said something in Dutch as we walked by her home. We suspect there may still be rules about who can live there, but are pretty certain that religious service and celibacy are no longer part of the regimen.
We were told that Belgium in the past decade has been building bicycle paths alongside almost all its intercity roads other than superhighways, and we were able to make our way a little faster than in Holland, something we'll discuss further in an upcoming blog. Of course, Belgium also has its dike trails along canals, and we did some 25 km on those as well, a few on the very busy Albert Canal, the rest on much smaller and quieter ones.
Turnhout had been a thirty-minute mid-day visit; on the advice of the Lonely Planet guide to Belgium, which we recently downloaded to our iPad mini, we spent the night in Lier, a good choice. It too had a begijnhof, with part of the outer wall now facing the town basketball court. Some inner sections looked quite modernized and livable, though others were unoccupied and a glance through the windows showed why -- they need massive restoration. The town square was equally charming and, yes, the town hall tower was truly built in 1369!
We had dinner at an outdoor cafe on the market square and found that our table matched the location where an historic photo was taken in 1900. Many of those buildings were damaged by German shelling in World War I, then rebuilt in the 1920s. As in Holland, we found that old Belgian cities also invariably have a market square, almost always with the city hall on one side. Our friend Riet told us later that she could never find the center of an American city, because she could never find a market square. She thought it very odd that we would fail to have such a useful place.
Our lodging was the Hof van Aragon, and its breakfast room had been part of an orphanage in 1580. We got a better reception to our request for "more, please" during our breakfast than Oliver Twist did.
Our last leg was from Lier to Antwerp, a mere 25 km, so we swung out to see Mechelen first and doubled the distance. Mechelen has for centuries been the home of the Archbishop of Belgium, and thus of the Catholic Church there. St. Rombout Cathedral was suitably impressive. One window shows 7th century St. Rombout blessing 20th century King Leopold III and Queen Astrid, while the exuberantly carved base of the pulpit illustrates the conversion of St. Rombout, which occurred when he was thrown from his horse.
Of course such an important church also had a suitably impressive tower, this time with half-price for thse 65+ willing to climb its 500+ steps. There was much to see along the way: a view from above of the cathedral organ, the human treadmill used to winch building material up the tower, more than a few bells, the oversized music drum that plays pre-programmed tunes, and the carillon "keyboard" that one plays -- vigorously -- with hands and feet for extemporaneous bits of music. We were glad for the many excuses to stop and catch our breath.
Nearby is a small but excellent museum created for the collection of a wealthy early 20th century Antwerper, Mayer van den Bergh. These five portraits of the members of the Vekemans family were painted by Cornelis de Vos, a contemporary of Rubens. Perhaps the best paintings are "Mad Meg" by Pieter Breughel the Elder, and two others by his eponymous son.
We had one more destination to check off, Het Steen, an 800 year old castle that is the oldest building in Antwerp today. It also is home to one of its oddest statues, "Lange Wapper," a character from Belgian folklore. Along the way we admired the exuberant Belgian architecture and architectural ornament, especially the statues.
Since Riet did have that job to go to, we took off for a one-night visit to Ghent, taking the train from Antwerp's cathedral-like Central Station.
It was a low-key, low-expense visit, mainly walking about and taking in the Flemish architecture, similar to but a little more ornate than we've been seeing in the Netherlands.
We particularly admired the complex roof lines.
Ghent, too, has a 12th century castle close to the center of town. In the 19th century, Ghent became "the Manchester of the continent," and the castle became a cotton factory! It's now back in full "castle" mode, and we've seen plenty in the past few weeks, so we just took the photos from the outside and moved on.
We are now on our way through the Dutch province of Zeeland to the Hook of Holland, where we catch a ferry to England in a week.