Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Adventures in Den Bosch and Arnhem

In our last blog entry we took you with us by bike from Maastricht in the bottom right-hand corner of Holland to 's Hertogenbosch, aka Den Bosch, the capital of North Brabant Province, and on to Arnhem, capital of Gelderland.  Today we will take a closer look at three interesting adventures we had in these last two cities.

Den Bosch's canals are unlike others in the Netherlands, due to quirks of history.  Many of them go underneath not just bridges, but also whole buildings and a few whole blocks.  As late as the 1960s they also acted, unfortunately, as open sewers.  When that problem was finally addressed, there was a move to simply fill them in.  Preservationists succeeded in saving part of the complex system, and we got into town early enough to make the last boat trip of the day through this strange world.

It starts simply enough in a quiet, electric motor-driven boat, going under various arches and bridges.  We passed former outlets for waste that were deliberately left to show what it used to be like, but without the aromas.  Pretty soon we were going through longer and longer tunnels, and occasionally we could look forwards or backwards to see what we were passing under.

We were far from done.  The tunnels got longer and narrower.  We're gonna fit through that!!  Then make that tight turn?

So, what's it like to have tourists float through your basement everyday?  We didn't see any residents to pose that question to.

If the name "Den Bosch" has a vaguely familiar sound to you, it's probably because of its most famous son, the painter Jheronimus Aken (Jerome from Aachen (actually his father's birthplace)), who as an adult called himself Hieronymus Bosch after his own birthplace.  His work was appreciated and collected during his lifetime, particularly by the Spaniards who ruled what is now Holland and Belgium, and the closest Bosch painting is now in Rotterdam, 100 km away from the city of Den Bosch.  That hasn't stopped the Jheronimus Bosch Center.  The folks here have made exact copies of each of his works, often a precise copy of the original frame as well, and set them imaginatively in a former church.  You start by going by elevator to the top of the steeple for a look at the Den Bosch of today.  As you can see, we weren't missing any outdoor fun on this wet and windy day.  We then worked our way down the belfry and around the church, admiring these realistic reproductions.

Like virtually all artists of the Late Middle Ages -- Bosch died in 1516, one year before Luther's famous 95 Theses -- he dealt almost entirely with religious topics.  Almost every artist of that age painted the Adoration of the Wise Men, often multiple times.  But who put such interesting peasants on the edges, peering in?

In one of a handful of non religious paintings, Bosch shows us a fellow intently trying to follow a shell game at a fair.  We've focused not on the shell game but instead on the left side of the painting, where another fellow is nonchalantly picking the pocket of the onlooker!

 What makes Bosch so fascinating is his wild imagination.  Sometimes it is fairly benign, an obvious role model for Dr. Seuss.  But in many of his religious works, he gets kinda sorta carried away depicting the fate of those who've been naughty.  In The Last Judgment, a triptych painted probably as an altarpiece, Bosch shows us heaven on the left, the Last Judgment in the center, and hell on the right.  The devil is in the details, you might say, such as this little vignette of one person being roasted on a spit, and another being pan-roasted into jelly.  Whew, we all better be good little boys and girls if that is the alternative!

Then there's the passage at death through a long tunnel toward a great light.  We had no idea that this obligatory part of all descriptions nowadays of near-death experiences was already a standard iconographic image 500 years ago.

Before leaving Den Bosch we dropped in on two more sights, each half a block from our hotel.  First was the cathedral, yet another church that has  dazzled and perhaps intimidated many of its visitors over the centuries.  On the outside, however, there was a light touch.  In the most recent renovation a few years ago, workmen installed an angel using a most 21st century way of communicating -- a cellphone. A sign tells you how you can communicate as well with the angel.  Our Dutch is pretty much nonexistent, but we can read enough to tell you that it will cost you 90 euro cents per minute, and that's if you call on a mobile from Holland.  We have no idea whether the angel will impart any heavenly wisdom in return.

The other scenic wonder was underneath the street in front of our hotel -- an enormous bicycle parking lot, complete with an air pump and other tools and an electric charging station off-camera to the right.   To get in or out, there's even a not-too-steep staircase with a grooved slot for your bike tires.  Pretty cool!

Our main reason for visiting Arnhem was to go to the Nederlands Openlucht Museum, or as it's called in English, the Open Air Museum of Holland.  It was terrific.

Like most museums if this sort, it was chock full of old farmhouses.  With the help of docents, you got a good feel for the old cottage industries of spinning, weaving and the like.  The details were fascinating, like this high chair that doubled as a potty chair.  Maybe the ancestors of the folks who started In & Out Burgers owned one.  One thing that didn't go in and out for us was the soup we were served at one house where the docent had been making it all morning.  She only had a few bowls, and the two of us and a Dutch family of four just happened to be in the Right Spot at the proverbial Right Time.

Another feature of many old houses were the bed boxes.  Until the late 19th century, many Dutch and other Europeans believed it was unhealthy to sleep horizontally.  Beds were more like built-in cabinets, about four feet long from bent neck to curled toe and narrow enough that with two occupants-- the usual minimum occupancy -- there was no chance anyone was going to roll over in bed.  Since there were rarely more than two bed boxes per dwelling and we know that families were way bigger than today, the kids' bed boxes must've looked a lot like a new litter of kittens, year in and year out.

It wasn't all buildings.  The Dutch love gardens, and there were several in the complex, including these two.

It also didn't just wallow in the antiquarian.  One example is this old farmhouse and barn.  When the high speed train line from Amsterdam to Brussels and Paris was being built, it had to go.  It's been preserved as it was in the 1960s and '70s, when the old cow stall area had been converted into a sleek, modern living space.  In the Green Cross Centre building they showed how this Roman Catholic health center provided the poor with a place for a weekly bath, as well as medical attention for babies.  The mannequins were so realistic in this building we had to pause for a moment and make sure they were not docents who were really into role-playing.

Of course there were windmills -- this is Holland, right?  When you see a small mill with a large vane at the back to keep it turned into the wind, its function was almost certainly the moving of water from a wet low spot into a higher drainage canal, the way in which the Netherlands has been able to keep so much land below sea level dry enough for farming.  The larger mill behind it was for milling grain into flour.  In the second photo there is a very large windmill on the left that kept dry a very large polder, or area of reclaimed land.  It could move an amount of water equal to a modern tanker truck every minute.  Then there's another small "meadow mill" and finally a sawmill, which explains why it is open at two ends underneath.  In the center is a dad showing his kids how a self-propelled "ferry" works, by just pulling on the continuous-loop rope.

The first or last exhibit is this group of what were actually slum dwellings from the now-trendy Jordaan District of Amsterdam.  They look attractive on the outside, but the museum conservators have kept one part of the inside as a slum apartment and another as a sleazy tobacco-stained bar.

Our stay in Arnhem has been extended to four nights as we have hunkered down through several more days of rain and high winds.  The only chance we've had to enjoy the view from the roof deck was on the day we arrived.  At least it's given us a chance to bring the blog up to date and do some trip planning for the next few days.  Tomorrow is supposed to be dry in the morning, then one more half-day of rain.  Wish us well making it to our next destination without having to pull out the rain gear!


At Last -- Biking in Holland

As we entered Holland and switched from French to Dutch, the river we were following, the Meuse, changed its name to the Maas.  Our route also changed from a trail right up along the river to a series of trails and quiet roads generally paralleling the river, but occasionally as much as a kilometer away.  We booked an apartment in Maastricht through airbnb for 3 nights, in part to do some sightseeing, in part to enjoy Louise's good cooking in place of restaurant meals for a few days, and in part to skip biking on a day that promised to be rainy.  All three goals were realized.

The first full day there had good weather, so we left the heavy panniers in the apartment and headed into the hills.  Yes, the Netherlands has three hilly areas: the dunes along the North Sea, the Hoge Veluve inland dunes north of Arnhem, and the marlstone hills of Limburg Province, in the bottom right corner of the country.  Limburg is the only place in Holland where the elevation exceeds 100m (330') above sea level, with one hill getting up to 1,050'.  It's hard to see from the photo, but the trail is climbing at 4-5%, and soon after got to about 8%.  Yes, we finally found a hill in Holland we had to walk up!

Our destination was Valkenburg, a quaint but exceedingly popular destination for many.  It was also a Sunday, so there were many cyclists on the bike routes as well as pedestrians enjoying the sights and tastes to be enjoyed in town.  You can do both at the castle ruins right in the heart of town -- there's a restaurant just out of sight, tucked into the crumbled walls!

The area is underlaid with marlstone, a generic term for rocks that are 1/3 to 2/3 clay, 1/3 to 2/3 calcium carbonate, or to put it another way, a fairly soft limestone.  Nonetheless it has been used as a building material here since the Romans started mining it 2,000 years ago, and there are an astounding 250 kilometers of excavated tunnels just under Valkenburg, plus similar if smaller networks under other cities in the area.  One group, Survival Limburg, will put you and the troglodytes of your choice in a 25 km subset of the cave system with a candle and a map of the 406 passageways.  Jeff poked his head into one cave entrance far enough to capture the feeling, momentarily, which was quite enough thank you very much.  Of greater interest was the Kasteel Schaloen just east of town.  Its current fairytale look is probably due more to an 1894 "renovation" than to its ancient age (parts of it are 800 years old).

The rain did come the next day, but gently and intermittently enough to let us do a walk around town.  One task was to find bike maps for this part of the Netherlands.  The third bookstore we visited not only had the two maps we needed but also can lay a claim to be "the most beautiful bookstore in the world."  That's what some travel magazines have said, and we can't think of any we've seen that come even close.  Map mission accomplished, we went on to do what we do in Dutch cities:  climb the tower of the tallest church.  Here's the view, with the Maas running right to left where there's a thin line of trees, and the hills of Limburg Province in the distance.

We had two more "to do's" in Maastricht.  The more photogenic one was a visit to the ancient city gates.  The more practical one was a visit to a bike shop.  It wasn't a large shop but the web page made it seem like a good one.  It was.  161 mm spokes?  No problem, I'll just cut you a few.  With five spare spokes now for the rear wheel, where we broke three in the last few weeks, we felt quite a bit more secure as we continued north down the Maas.

Our Lonely Planet Guide to the Netherlands said that the small town of Thorn and the city of Roermond were of some scenic interest, so we worked them into the itinerary.  Thorn was indeed charming, though a bit hard on our teeth trying to ride on its rough cobbled streets.  That didn't slow the flow of Dutch bike tourists, who came by in small clusters of friends or family every few minutes on this July Tuesday morning.  In Roermond we sat in the Grote Markt, i.e. the main square, having a picnic lunch.  When the clock hit noon the bells rang out a lively tune and this mixed-bag collection of statues marched twice around the tower.

Jeff spends 20-30 minutes most days figuring out our next stays.  We keep an eye on the weather forecasts and book 1 to at most 3 days in advance, using almost exclusively because it works well for us.  He'll check that the location is near our route and/or places we want to see, particularly when we're staying an extra day or two for sightseeing.  He also considers the customer ratings and often reads a few customer reviews.  As a result, we've had no unsatisfactory experiences at all, and quite a few good ones.  One of the very best was the Sandton Chateau de Raay in Baarlo.  The Sandton folks took several buildings from a former convent, renovated them gloriously and connected them with glass atria.  Our wing actually had a moat partway around it, and the serenity of a cabbage farm outside the spacious room they upgraded us to.  Hey, we're Sandton fans now!

Our river-following scheme had us taking the Maas to the area near Nijmegen, where the river bends from mostly north to mostly west-flowing.  From Nijmegen we would then take the IJssel River further north.  Looking ahead in our guidebook to see to what there was to look for, we noticed the info about the Vierdaagse, held each year in "late July."  Uh-oh, it's late July!  Thanks to the Internet, we quickly had the bad news -- we were headed right toward a lodging nightmare.

The 4daagse, as it is sometimes written, is a 4-day walking event.  46,000 signed up for this year's edition, committed to walking 30-40 km per day for four consecutive days (42,684 actually began, and 40,092 completed 120-160 km (75-100 mi.), a remarkable 96%)  Now a large percentage of these hardy folks would be driving or taking the train from home each day (this is Holland and the train service is amazing), and many more would perhaps be camping.  But if even 10% of those 46,000 folks needed a place to stay, they obviously booked it months ago, for many miles around Nijmegen.  At our current pace, we were looking at an arrival on day 2.
And so we altered course 100 km before Nijmegen, and headed northwesterly toward the city of two names.  Officially it's 's Hertogenbosch, meaning "the Duke's Woods" (though the duke and the woods are long gone), but most Netherlanders call it Den Bosch.  We took a ferry westward across the Maas, with the usual Summer load in Holland of more bikes than motor vehicles.  For the first time we followed LF (Landelijke Fietsroutes) long-distance bike routes that crisis-cross the Netherlands.  In the flat countryside it didn't matter that we were no longer following a river, though we did ride along the Wilhemina Canal for 25 km.  At a bridge along the canal we took a photo to show how much of the bridge width was dedicated to cyclists vs. motorists.  Then we noticed a sign nearby that is part of the National Liberation Route.  It should really be called the Attempted Liberation Route, for it documents the tragedy of Operation Market Garden, Gen. Montgomery's ill-conceived plan to seize "the bridge too far" across the Rhine at Nijmegen, about 80 km from here.  The Brits tried to seize this bridge over the Wilhemina Canal, but the Germans blew it up first.  The photo shows the temporary bridge the British put in anyway.  If you look carefully, you can see the same gable-end building on the far left in both the old photo and in ours.

Our route had no spectacular scenery, but its quiet beauty was a fine spectacle in its own way, whether it was simple thatched homes, a windmill suddenly appearing around a bend, or the trail itself.

We were astonished to see how close we got to den Bosch before we left the greenery.  This photo was taken 2 km from the cathedral in the very heart of the city!  We had two grand adventures in Den Bosch but will put them off to the next blog entry where we will add a third adventure in Arnhem.

We'll close with a few shots from our 71 km ride from the one to the other, such as this attractive condo on the northern edge of den Bosch, or this color-confused goat.  We also worked on our Dutch, making certain we knew that Wacht means "watch out!"

This is an area the Dutch call "Riverland" thanks to the complex of large rivers.  The map will hopefully help you make sense of it.  

In the center is the Waal, carrying the largest proportion of what was the Rhine.  Above it is the Nederrijn, the next-largest portion of the Rhine.  Then below the Waal is the Maas.  All three are interconnected with multiple canals, and all of them change names as they flow to the sea.  You almost need a course on it to sort it all out, though this one map is a darned good start.

So we did get to see the Maas one more time, riding eastward along it for 10 km and then crossing it by ferry.  We then rode through the Land Van Maas en Waal for a while before doing a few km on the Waal River, this time crossing on a bikes-only ferry.  The ferry captain had to time things perfectly, for within 2 minutes of our arrival on the opposite shore, 2 large freighters had gone by eastbound and a third one westbound.  It was a Sunday again, so we also had to keep watch for large bike clubs in their matching jerseys, whizzing along several kph faster than us.  Nonetheless, there was always company nearby for us in the slow lane.

It was an easy 71 km, just short of 45 mi., since we had a tailwind all day.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that it was just a one-day break between a rainstorm we survived in Den Bosch and one we were about to work around with a non-biking day in Arnhem.  We'll describe our special adventures in these two cities in our next chapter.