Saturday, July 27, 2013

From A to Z to Z: Antwerp via Zeeland to Zuid-Holland

Our final week was a 250 km ride from Antwerp through Zeeland to the Hook of Holland,  in Zuid-Holland.  Except for a day and a half exploring Delft, the focus was on the sea.

We left Antwerp atop an enormous sea dike along the banks of the Scheldt.  Antwerp is one of Europe's busiest ports, as access is easy up the wide Scheldt Estuary.  Indeed, international trade made Antwerp wealthy 650 years ago, when they started building the cathedral, still the largest and tallest landmark in downtown Antwerp, as you can see.

We crossed back into the Netherlands 25 kilometers from Antwerp and stayed at a place a few kilometers inland.  As we re-approached the Scheldt the next day, the contrast between this agrarian part of Holland and industrial Antwerp, in the distance on the left, was profound.  Much of the day was spent following the Scheldt toward the ocean, tidal estuary to our left, field crops and dairy farms to our right, sheep once again all around us on the dike.

We interrupted our focus on the sea briefly to explore Middelburg, the largest city in Zeeland and quite an old one.  As a member of the Hanseatic League, it too grew wealthy on trade, as one can imply from its sumptuous city hall or its large abbey, which features a cloistered garden, gothic hallways, and one of the oldest organs in the Netherlands.

Not far from there we came out to the first of many beaches we would pass along Zeeland's North Sea coast.  As we rode further north we saw, long before we got there, one of Holland's largest public works, the Delta Project.

In 1953 a massive storm flooded Zeeland, destroying miles and miles of dikes.  Five years later, construction began on this massive barrier that was to close off the ocean and make a large part of Zeeland another inland lake.  By the 1960s the ecological folly of the plan started to become clear, and the Delta Project was altered to what it is today, a surge barrier.  Large gates allow sea water to flow in and out of the Oostershelde Estuary behind the gates, so long as the sea is not predicted to rise more than 3 m above mean low tide.  Other entry points from the sea further north in Zeeland were closed off as part of the project, so there has been a reduction in tidal activity overall, with of course some environmental change.  In short, the Dutch are hoping they've struck a correct balance point between protecting the environment and avoiding another disaster like 1953.  Only time will tell.

As befitting a project that took 39 years to build, the thing is massive.  The main barrier into which the 62 steel gates are set is wide enough for a four-lane highway.  This being Holland, however, it is a two-lane highway and a really wide bikeway.  Whether the crowds are there to enjoy pride in their country's mastery of the sea or because of the easy access to the beaches and sea from either end, there were hordes of tourists.

Now anyplace close to the sea is going to have some sand nearby.  For the most part it stayed where it was supposed to, and only rarely did we have to ride with caution over drifts of sand on the trail.  Near the end of Day 3 and the start of Day 4, our route took us into an area of sand dunes where there was little sand actually visible, but the hills made by the dunes were all too real.  In the morning we descended the steepest hill we've yet seen in Holland, steep enough to get the couple coming the other way to push their bikes and tikes uphill.

After making that bend at the bottom of the hill, however, the paving ended.  Our bike plus us plus our gear adds up to almost 200 kg (400+ lbs.), so we're even more likely to go down if we come to a sandy, soft spot on a trail than a singe bike is.  As pretty as the trail was, we were far too nervous to enjoy it other than when we stopped twice to take these photos, so we turned off after 5 km and took paved roads nearby that eventually brought us to the nice paved dike trail in the third photo below.

Our lodging that night was, appropriately enough, at a beach resort, with lots more sand sitting there right in front of our room, but also a quaint town less than a kilometer away, Hellevoetsluis.

On our fifth day out of Antwerp we took a ferry across what we thought of as the Rhine, since it is the main outlet for that mighty river, though here it is called the Nieuwe Waterweg.  Our ferryboat again had to time its crossings to the pace of much much larger boats going up or downstream, such as these two we ducked behind right after they passed headed inland, or the container ship that slid past the ferry landing toward the sea three or four minutes after our ferry headed back, having dropped us and our fellow passengers on the north bank.

Aside from the thrill of dodging ocean-going ships headed at us like slow-motion bullets, that ferry ride was relatively ordinary.  An hour later we had a truly extraordinary ferry ride, our first ever do-it-yourself ferry trip.  Luckily, it started with the ferryboat on the same side of the canal as we were.  After hopping on, one of you -- Louise elected Jeff to the honor -- pushes the hand crank in to engage the chain that stretches across the canal.  Jeff cranked and cranked and cranked, and not much happened, since all he was doing was taking some of the slack out of the chain, which was resting on the bottom of the river.  He let up on the "push in" part of the "push in and turn" instructions, and the chain released and went back to resting on the bottom of the canal.  We were now about two feet from shore.  From the starting shore.

OK, look up and down the canal for small boats actually using the canal -- there was one in the far distance, no danger just yet -- and keeping pushing in and turning.   Slowly, ever so slowly, our speed increased until it caught up with and then actually surpassed that of a turtle.  Once on the other side, Jeff was eager to accept Louise's suggestion that they stop and have their picnic lunch while others had fun with the ferry or with biking along the canal.

Delft was a wonderful surprise.  Today most foreigners who've not been there associate the name with "Delftware," blue and white tin-glazed pottery that Delft potters made in imitation of Chinese porcelain.  True "china" brought back in Dutch trading ships sold for fabulous prices, and factories in Delft developed some of the best fake china.  There's a lot of fake Delftware available in tourist shops today, ironically mostly made in China.

For us, Delft was yet another beautiful Dutch city, full of interesting architecture and lively city life.  On our second day, for example, there were tables everywhere for the weekly antique and knick-knack market, and restaurants had doubled and tripled their seating for the summer by setting up tables alongside and sometimes even on the many canals.  It's hard not to feel good about a place with so much activity on view, even if some of it is simply people enjoying dinner and the company of their dinner companions.

The museum had a wonderful map of the city painted in 1536, showing in light gray how much of the city burned down on May 3rd of that year, about 2,000 wooden, thatch-roofed houses.  That fire melted the clocks on the church towers.  Then on Oct 12, 1654 came "Der Delftse Donderslag," the "Delft Thunderclap," when a  warehouse storing 90,000 pounds of gunpowder blew up, demolishing 200 homes and breaking 2/3 of all the windows in town, including every stained glass window in the churches.  It's a wonder there's as much to see today as there is.  What wasn't burnt down or blown up was sometimes just removed in the name of progress, so today there is only one city gate left, a rather charming one at that.

Like all great Dutch cities, of course, Delft has a "Grote Markt" or main market square, with city hall on one side competing with the New Church on the other for architectural interest.  As "New Churches" go, this one is pretty old.  They had been building it for 99 years when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  In 1584 William of Orange was murdered in Delft and buried here, in this church.  Since William is as important a figure to the Dutch as George Washington is to the Americans (arguably more so, since every Dutch monarch since then has been a descendant), this is a big deal.  It's a very impressive tomb.  The Dutch monarchy likes it too: every Dutch king or queen is buried here as well, except for William's grandson William III and his wife Mary, who hiked off to Great Britain in 1689 to become known there as William and Mary, king and queen of England.  They're still there, at Westminster.

We also naturally had to visit the Old Church, which started construction in 1240.  One of its distinctions today is that it is the final resting place of painter Jan Vermeer, among others (such as the person resting under a particularly ghoulish gravestone on the other side of the church).  Starting in the 1950s the church finally started to replace those stained glass windows blown up 300 years earlier in the Delft Thunderclap.  We particularly liked the Queen Wilhelmina Window, honoring the woman who is great grandmother to the current king (Willem Alexander) and whose reign included both World Wars and the challenging years between.

Our next stop in Delft was the Prinsenhof Museum, home to William of Orange in 1584 and the place where he was murdered by a Catholic partisan trying to collect a reward from King Philip II.  Philip did not take kindly to William's role in leading a Protestant Dutch revolt against Catholic Spanish rule.  The museum even has the holes in the stairway left by two of the fatal bullets.  It was, in fact, the world's first political assassination by handgun, a sad precursor to the modern age.  The assassin failed to collect any reward other than a particularly brutal execution, and the rebellion continued decades more (the Dutch call it the Eighty Year War) until the Netherlands won full sovereignty in 1648 through the Peace of Westphalia.

Though he's quite the permanent resident now, William was not from Delft.  The city's most famous native son is painter Jan Vermeer, who spent his entire life here.  His fame is based on only thirty-some-odd surviving paintings (32 undisputedly his, about half a dozen that might or might not be), including what some call "The Dutch Mona Lisa," "Girl with Pearl Earring."

The problem for Delft is that every one of those paintings is somewhere that is not Delft.  How do you celebrate (or make money from) a painter with no paintings to display?  The Vermeer Centrum Delft has come up with an answer.  They've gotten permission to display full-size high-resolution photos of all his works from their many owners, and they've displayed them chronologically with quality commentary (in Dutch and English, for a change).  They also have extensive exhibits explaining his tools and techniques, such as how each pigment was made, or how he literally put pins in his paintings to pull strings that kept his perspective precise.  In short, it was like a two-hour illustrated lecture we could do at our own pace.  We came away understanding much more about art as well as about the art of Jan Vermeer.

We had one more place to visit before departing the Netherlands, The Hague.  The Dutch call Amsterdam their capital, yet the Dutch parliament sits in this grand set of buildings, the Binnenhof, and another newer one nearby.  It's all very odd.

Odder still was the letdown we got from our otherwise wise and helpful Lonely Planet guide.  We had purchased a 2013 edition, which raved about the Mauritshuis Museum.  When we told the manager at our hotel we were headed there on foot, he gave us a queer look.  "Didn't you know, it's been closed over a year now for major renovations?"  In fact, it closed in April 2012, a year prior to the claimed publication date of April 1, 2013 for our guidebook.  A third of the art went on tour to museums in Japan and the U.S., the rest to another museum in The Hague.  We decided not to go searching for the remnant, but rather to use this as an excuse for a future trip to Holland after the Mauritshuis reopens with its full complement of paintings, about a year from now.

Our focus this week was very much on the sea coast, and we finished our journey to the Hook of Holland by traveling down one of the most popular parts of it, from Scheveningen south.  It was a Sunday and it was perfect summer weather, so it was mobbed wherever cars and bikes could drive or park, which they did in astounding numbers.  We took a peek at the beach at two access points, but enjoyed the trail between those points much more, gently rolling between sand dunes and stands of tall grasses.

Our adventure continues in England, as we stop the 90-day clock on our Schengen Zone visa for 19 days so that we don't run out our 90 days before we've left the Schengen Zone for good a month from now.  We'll tell you about the ferry crossing and the start of our visit to Merry Olde England in a future blog entry.  Our next blog post will focus on the biking aspect of our trip through the Netherlands.

Friday, July 19, 2013

On to Antwerp

Our original plan for this summer was to spend it biking along the Danube and Rhine Rivers. We got to do a bit of the former until floodwaters on both rivers forced the change of plan that brought us to Holland. Our entire experience with the Rhine, now, is to cross it twice by ferry boat, and to ride a dozen kilometers along its dikes.

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 Waal of course has sizeable dikes, which make a good viewing platform to watch the equally sizeable amount of traffic heading up and down the river. If you stood where you could look 1km up or downriver, you would wait a very long time before there was no boat in sight!

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.

About a third of our 250 km from the Veluwe in Holland to Antwerp was in Belgium. About 5 km before truly getting into Belgium, however, we rode through a bizarre outlying section of Belgium that is completely surrounded by Holland. It's the world's most complicated border, thanks to a decision in 1843 to divide 5200+ parcels of land in this district between Holland and Belgium, depending on whether the owner at that time was Catholic or Protestant. There are now 27 islands of Belgium completely surrounded by Holland, and within the two largest chunks of outlying Belgium there are a half-dozen pieces of Holland, islands within islands as it were! Numerous attempts to make it all "normal" have failed, and the residents of Belgian Baarle-Hertog and Dutch Baarle-Nassau live with their geopolitical anomaly just fine.


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.

Our first city truly and firmly inside Belgium was Tournhout, where we were introduced to a fascinating aspect of Belgian history: the begijnhof. Spinsters and widows had limited options in the Middle Ages. One of those was entering a convent, but women of some means were loathe to surrender all their worldly possessions, as religious orders demanded. With a spurt of early widowhood thanks to the Crusades and other medieval mayhem, the begijnhof ( in French, "beguinage") was created as an alternative. A widow or spinster purchased her home there, in an enclosed community surrounding a church. Gates were closed and guarded at night. A certain amount of religious activity was expected, but less than in a convent, and the "beguine" could use her inheritance to make her home as comfortable as she chose. She was aso free to be courted and to marry -- only that she then had to leave the begijnhof for her new husband's home. Though it spread somewhat to south Holland, northern France and parts of Germany, it is Belgium where it most flourished. It lasted long after the Middle Ages, and a few begijnhoven still had beguines as recently as a decade ago.

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.

Nearby, the cathedral is receiving a much-needed cleaning and restoration, as the photo dramatically demonstrates. Inside, a stained glass window colorfully depicted something big that took place in September of 1475.

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.

From the top we had a fine view, including one down to the city hall and market square, filled with carnival rides that week for a "Kermis," or festival. We also got to preview a dike trail we found ourselves on thirty minutes later.

At last we found Riet's home in Antwerp and began a four-day visit that created a new friendship. One of those nights we biked a few kilometers down the cobbled streets to an outdoor cafe, where a waiter dutifully recorded the scene.

While Riet went off to work, we headed to the center of Antwerp with a list from Riet of "must-sees." The small botanical garden had some unusual things coming up out of the ground, and a totally new take on the idea of a "rock garden."

The main event was the home of Antwerp's most famous resident, Pieter Paul Rubens. He actually collected a lot of paintings by others, which the museum has, whereas his own work is now in leading museums worldwide, so only a few of the many paintings there are actually his. Two that are are an early work, "Adam and Eve," and a depiction of the Annunciation, when Mary is told she is to be Christ's mother. It was done after his visit to Italy, where he learned much about light, color and the depiction of movement. The home itself was also an attraction; Rubens worked hard to portray himself through his home as a successful and cultured artist.

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.

Our visit with Riet was a great break in routine, a chance to connect with someone who could give us insight into life in Belgium. Riet is also a book-lover par excellence, and we had much to discuss, particularly Louise, who has been going through more than a book a week on this trip. It took very little to wind the two of them up for an hour-long discussion of great novels, new non-fiction, movies about books, book collecting, you name it! We must admit, Riet has quite the advantage, as she is equally at home reading in Dutch, French or English, and she doesn't do all that badly in German, either.

After we left, Riet sent us some photos she had taken, including a few candids we didn't know she was shooting. One night we stopped at a supermarket, picked up some food, and cooked dinner for the three of us. Riet was amazed -- she had never come home to her own apartment to a meal prepared by someone else. We got many thanks.
The day we left, a Sunday, Riet got a rare "feet off the ground" photo of us setting out, and we arranged to meet two hours later at an ancient fort on the outskirts of Antwerp that hosts an open air book fair once a month in the summer. One more chance to talk books over lunch, this time at an outdoor cafe. We weren't tempted, as there were rather few books there in English and nearly all our books these days are e-books, but we wondered if Riet would be rearranging her bookshelves that evening to make room for something new.

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.