Thursday, June 30, 2016

On the Road to Rotterdam

After three wonderful days with Nico and Marga in Strijen, it was time to move on.  Our 4 suitcases went, like Russian dolls, one into the other into the other until we had just one large suitcase that they will ship to us in Salzburg later this summer.  We are now in long-distance touring mode, with the minimum amount of clothing we can get by with until September.

In planning what route to take from Strijen, we noticed a town with a distinctive shape about 50 km away, Woudrichem.  It was about 30 km further to the east than we needed to go, but the shape was too strong an attraction, for it indicates an ancient town with, most likely, ancient city walls.  As an added inducement was Slot Loevestein just 2 km beyond, a place our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended visiting.  And so we detoured, and were not disappointed.

Our first stop was Dordrecht, where we had hoped to do a little sightseeing and maybe even canoeing in Biesbosch National Park, just outside town.  However departure day opened with a steady rain, and it never quit.  We hung out with Nico through lunchtime hoping the rain would let up, but it didn't, and so we set out.  It wasn't an awful experience, since we were almost entirely on traffic-free bike paths or country roads where cars were a rarity, but we did make the unfortunate discovery that the waterproof covering for our handlebar bag was not in fact waterproof.  None of the electronics in the bag were damaged, but it is something we need to fix.

The next day started out dry so off we went, using the Waterbus for about 10 km of our route.  Our bike did not have much company on the rear deck.  Woudrichem was charming, but in a delicate way that did not readily submit to capture on film.  We passed a B&B and promised ourselves that we will come back for a stay and a slower exploration of this small walled city. 

A 3-minute ride on a second ferry took us to a path that led to Slot Loevestein, a castle that has roots back to the 12th century.  It evolved over the centuries as it gained the wealth to build, and as technology required it to change if it wanted to remain defensible.  The high castle keep which you see behind the cows and in the next photos
was a strong defense in the 1400s, but vulnerable to destruction by cannon fire in the 1700s, when the true defense was in moats and earthen ramparts set 50-100 meters from the castle keep.  A series of drawings at the castle illustrate the evolution, from 1361 to 1460 and 1750, which is largely what you see today (and in the 3-D model).

There was much to see, including the officers' barracks and a model of an 18th century muster.  The bed, by the way, is inside the blue-grey cupboard on the left in the middle photo.  People in those days did not sleep flat, which was considered unhealthy, but rather in a fetal position with the legs tucked up in a bed that was rarely even 4 feet (130 cm) long.  Close the doors to the bed chamber and it's also probably a few degrees warmer than in that unheated room.

The rooms in the castle proper were exceptionally capacious.  While they seem elegant in a way, they were in fact less than charming to some of the inhabitants, for the castle was used as a prison of sorts for some high-ranking figures.  The most prominent of them was Hugo Grotius, or Hugo de Groot as the Dutch know him, and The Father of International Law as legal scholars remember him.  The concept that no nation controls the high seas?  Grotius's.  He got here not because of those theories, but rather because he believed that some members of the Dutch Reformed Church should have freedom of belief when the establishment of the church considered them heretics.  His prison escape is perhaps the most famous in Dutch history, as he left for good hidden in a chest of books.  He was not a small guy, and hiding in a chest of laundry would have been a dead give-away.

After watching some young boys play soldier and one particular old guy play knight, it was time to move on to our next overnight in Leerdam, an hour's ride away.  Which was when the rain decided to arrive, and to stay for the whole ride.  Again not dangerous, just unpleasant, and distressing again since the second "waterproof" bag we put over the handlebar bag failed to keep it dry.  For a second time we had no damage to the electronics, but we don't think the third time will charm us.  We're hoping to come up with a better solution for that inevitable next time.

The original plan was to stay two nights in Leerdam and go canoeing nearby on the "rest day," but rain again altered the plans.  No, we didn't get rained on, but we did leave Leerdam after only one night and headed a day early to Rotterdam.  Good thing, as the following day was indeed wet.  But on our dry ride to Rotterdam we did get to ride past one of the Netherlands' most well-known places, Kinderdijk.  This is a collection of 19 windmills, all of them built about 1740.  Since they are more or less identical, we found them less interesting than another large collection we visited at Zaanse Schans in 2013 and described in the blog at that time.  Nonetheless, they are impressive, well preserved, and much visited.

We again turned to the Waterbus for the last dozen km to Rotterdam, and were treated to a view of the lively river traffic on this lower stretch of the Rhine, and then to the modern architecture of Rotterdam as we came into the city.

After a wet day spent mostly indoors, which we'll get to in a moment, we took a boat tour of the Port of Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe and currently around 6th place worldwide.  Our tour was only 45 minutes and by no means covered the whole port.  When we left Rotterdam by bike, we were still not even with the furthest point in the port after two hours of riding!

Still, it was a great chance to see some of the considerable activity, including a maritime training ship going by, and hoists lifting containers off ships almost as easily as a kid picking marbles off the floor.

One of the highlights was a float past the S.S. Rotterdam, a 1950's ship that was once the flagship of the Holland America Line.  It was built for transatlantic service, but later functioned as a cruise ship before retirement and replacement with another ship bearing the proud name but better-designed for cruising.  The retiree is far from retired, however, and now functions as a hotel, restaurant and conference center.  Around the corner is the Hotel New York in a turn-of-the-20th century building that was once the world headquarters of the Holland America Line.  (Their new headquarters?  Why in our home town of Seattle!)  Behind the hotel is another batch of striking new architecture.  Just beyond them is the Erasmus Bridge, a striking cable-stayed bascule bridge.

Not all the modern architecture is on the water.  Near our hotel is one of the oddest collections of homes we have ever seen, the Cube Houses.  They were designed by architect Piet Blom to represent trees, and the collection of houses a forest.  They went up in 1974.  One other group was built a few years later in another Dutch town, but it just hasn't caught on.  Across a large plaza from them is the Markthal, or Market Hall, with numerous shops and restaurants inside, parking below, and apartments all over the outside.  It is a striking building, a cathedral of commerce.

We'll close with two museums we visited during damper parts of our stay in Rotterdam.  The Maritime Museum had a helpful cut-away model of a container ship and a nice exhibit on old ships turned into new homes, similar to Seattle's floating homes.  We then toured an old ship that has not been remodeled, showing how the master and mistress of the ship lived on board as it carried cargo up and down the Rhine from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s. This wasn't recreated history, this was the real thing.

We'll end with Rotterdam's excellent art museum, Boijmans van Beuningen.  The curation was particularly good, with insightful commentaries on the artworks.  For example, they pointed out that painters in Holland's Golden Age, the age of Rembrandt and van Ruisdael, never seemed to notice the windmills that we now consider one of the main icons of Dutch culture.  It was only in the late 1800s that painters like Paul Gabriel considered them not only worthy of notice, but even as the focus of an artwork.

The museum has at least two Van Gogh's but they are not your typical ones.  These are from his time in and around his hometown of Nuenen, before he awoke to the colorful palette of the Impressionists, although you can see that the bold brushstrokes are already there.

One of our absolute favorite genres of Dutch painting is the wintertime scene with skaters.  This painting by Aert van de Neer from about 1660 is almost devoid of snow, although the folks are clearly skating on a frozen canal.  It does however capture that eerie color of winter.

We'll close with what is probably their most important and well-known painting, Pieter Breughel's Tower of Babal,  painted in 1565.  One's first impression is that it's not a bad painting, until you get very close.  Then the detail blows you away, the multitude of people captured with the slightest twist of the paint brush, the grandeur of the structure made even greater when you appreciate how tiny people are next to it.

We avoided Rotterdam on our first two visits to the Netherlands, thinking it would be too big and uninteresting.  We now stand corrected.  It is much more modern than any other city in Holland, but just as charming in its own ways.  And just as devoted to cycling and good eating.

With our departure from Rotterdam we now will head north along the North Sea coast, exploring a mix of places we've seen before, and many we haven't.  Tell you more in our next entry.

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