Thursday, August 27, 2015

Wrapping Up Our Trip to Europe by Reconnecting with Friends

For our last ten days in Europe we shifted gears, so to speak.  We spent 3 days in Den Haag and a week in Leiden, both in apartments where we could cook -- and we did!  Dutch supermarkets have very similar products to those we buy in the States, and the prices (at least at the favorable exchange rate of 2015) are comparable, maybe even a little cheaper.   At last we could have an adequate number of vegetables on our plates!  Our Leiden apartment building is the grey one halfway down the left side of the Singel Canal, though our own unit, alas, did not overlook the water.

We also spent 4 of these 10 days enjoying the company of old friends.  Well, the first group of "old friends" were actually Dutch artists from the Golden Age in the Mauritshuis, one of Europe's finest small art museums.  Inside this classical house is an amazing collection, including one of Holland's most iconic pictures, Vermeer's Girl With Pearl Earring.

But there was so much more!  Here are just a few, starting with a painting, or rather many paintings, within a painting, by Willem Van Haecht (actually a close-up of only part of this large canvas), and a classic winter skating scene by Hendrick Avercamp.

Another Vermeer is an outstanding view of the city of Delft in 1660, followed by a scene by Jan van der Heyden of Amsterdam about 1670, and a view of the city of Haarlem in the distance by Holland's greatest landscape artist, Jacob van Ruisdael.  The folks bleaching linen cloth in the foreground are clear enough, but all one really sees of Haarlem is its enormous cathedral, St. Bavo's.

The Dutch had made a real break from the religious art that previously dominated European art, and few paintings make that more obvious than Paulus Potter's monumental The Bull.  

Although the vast majority of the Mauritshuis collection is of Dutch artists, there are a few by others, of which Hans Holbein's portrait of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's favorite wife, was particularly striking.

And of course there are Rembrandts, including one of his many self portraits; the Portrait of an Elderly Man, done when Rembrandt himself was 61 years old; and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, with which Rembrandt taught the world how to do a truly engaging group portrait.

Then, when you think you've seen quite a few great Dutch paintings, the museum visit ends in a grand gallery with yet another 2 or 3 dozen more!  It's quite an experience!

We are shortly about to fly to Maine to pursue another love of ours, canoeing, so when we heard that there was a canoe rental 2 blocks from our apartment in Den Haag, we jumped at the opportunity.   Parts were classic Dutch city canal scenes, but we ran into some issues when we followed a route through a park.  The occasional patch of algae was one thing, but the tree that had come down in a recent storm was a whole 'nuther matter.  Guess we're not going down this canal!

With our gear moved on to Leiden, we were able to take a nice bike ride without luggage.  We headed to the upscale town of Wassenaar, where one if the neighbors is the King, and were amused to see a million dollar house with a thatch roof!  Nearby we had a luncheon pancake -- these ones were cheese and bell peppers.  

With no luggage, we had no qualms about biking in one of the few places in the Netherlands where it's hilly, the dunes along the North Sea.

Now it was time to get together with various Dutch friends.  First up were Kees and Janna, whom we befriended when we all traveled across the Atlantic on the S.S. Eurodam 2 years ago.  They made the mistake of giving us their address and telling us to see them sometime.  They live in Katwijk, a town on the North Sea, and they took us by car (our first car ride in 2 months) first to a greenhouse that invites painters to hang out and do their thing.  Next up was a windmill.  The fellow who maintains and runs it gave us a personal tour all the way up its five or six levels, explaining as we went.  On one level he's set up a workshop for his second love, after windmills -- painting.  That's his rendition of a nearby scene as it looked a few decades ago.

Then it was off to Kees and Janna's house, where Janna served up some nice home cooking.  We ended our visit with a walk to the beach from their home, which sits right behind the dunes.

Next up were new friends we made earlier this summer.  Nico lost his vision as a child, but has stayed quite active with regular 40 to 60 km rides on his tandem, steered by his wife Marga.  We met them on the Moselle in July and exchanged email addresses, and they agreed to drive an hour from their home south of Rotterdam to join us for a day ride near Leiden.  They have an impressive bike and they're impressive riders.  

We did a 45 km loop over to the North Sea dunes, all on routes they hadn't done before, and we finished up with lunch of soup and salad in our apartment.  We're hoping to get to Europe again next summer, and hopefully will be able to join them on their "home turf" for another ride or two.

The very next day, our Dutch friend from the Belgian city of Antwerp drove two hours to come see us!   Riet is a great lover of museums, so we did two.  The first was devoted to a Dutch physician who spent many years in Japan in the mid 1800's, in the period when the Dutch were the only foreigners allowed into Japan.  Then we drove back to Den Haag to see the Mesdag Panorama.  
Panoramas were popular in the 19th century, but very few remain today.   The concept is to give a 360 degree view from one point.  There are famous panoramas still standing at Waterloo and at Gettysburg which put the visitor seemingly in the middle of those battles.  

Hendrik Willem Mesdag was a painter of seascapes, so when he decided to do a panorama as his magnum opus, it was set as if the visitor were standing on a dune overlooking the North Sea to one side and the town of Scheveningen Holland on the other.  The Museum Mesdag first gave us a sampling of earlier works by Mesdag and his wife Sina van Houten, also an accomplished painter, then we walked through a dark tunnel and came up, seemingly, into the sand dune.  All around us was real sand and a few artifacts, then the 135-year-old painting.  It is clearly the largest single painting either of us has ever seen, and it's quite a good one.

Riet had lined up one more treat for us.  Long before we ever thought of traveling to the Netherlands, we had heard about the rijsttafel.  It originated as a banquet in Indonesia when it was a Dutch colony, and features several kinds of rice and small servings of numerous dishes.  The idea was to impress the guest with the many cuisines of Indonesia, and with a plenitude of flavors, colors and textures.  Our own 3-person rijsttafel featured two kinds of rice and 21 other dishes. We were duly impressed!

In Holland, biking is great fun, as we've shared with you in this blog, and very, very popular -- here's the bike parking lot on a weekend at the Central Train Station in Den Haag.  But it was finally time to end our biking there, for the time being.  The owner of the apartment we were renting through had kindly accepted delivery of our empty bike cases, shipped by DHL from Bamberg 9 weeks ago, and stored them safely for us.  Out came the drop cloth and tools, and pretty soon Little Red went from "bike" to "bike parts."

We're flying back on Icelandair, which allows passengers to stopover in Iceland at no extra fee, so our next blog will take you briefly to Reykjavik and then on to Maine, where we have four cabins rented for a total of six weeks.  Talk to you next from the other side of the Atlantic!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Five Provinces in Five Days

Having reached the mouth of our fifth river, the IJssel, it was time now to cross Holland to our final destination of Leiden.  As it turned out, our route took us through five provinces, starting with Overijssel, where we have been exploring Hanseatic towns.  

Our next province, Flevoland, was a Big Deal, since for us it was the last of Holland's 12 provinces.  It's also a big deal because 60 years ago it didn't exist.  Our route took us across land that was at the bottom of the sea when we were born.
A few maps and diagrams will hopefully help explain.  We were headed toward what had once been a large saltwater bay known as the Zuiderzee.  In 1932 the Dutch completed the Afsluitsdijk across the mouth of the Zuiderzee, since which time it has been known as the IJsselmeer.  All the "new land" in the map below was ocean bed prior to the Afsluitdijk.

Next, the Dutch built some enormous polders, areas of land below sea level that have been reclaimed with the use of drainage canals, dikes, and a whole lot of water pumping.

It's a fair bit of land -- the polders on the east and southeast sides of the IJsselmeer amount to a surface area roughly twice that of New York City's 5 boroughs combined.  But if you move the water up and out, a meter or two here, a meter or two there, then put a few farmers, canal builders and road builders to work, you get this:

The area we biked across was reclaimed in the late 1950s and was very agricultural.  In fact there are two roads and two bike paths here, the second road being mainly for tractors and other farm equipment.  There are bands of trees running across the landscape, and even a few planted forests.  As we entered the capital city of the province, Lelystad, we biked through a dense green belt.  Quite a change from sea bottom!

In the 1960s the Dutch began building a second dike, the Houtribdijk, this time across the center of the IJsselmeer.  When it was completed a dozen years later, the lower half of the IJsselmeer was renamed the Markermeer.  It was supposed to lead to the creation of yet another polder, but by that time the environmental movement had raised enough questions about the wisdom of doing so that the polder project was shelved, with no current prospect of being revived.  The Markermeer is today a sort of giant surge tank, available for holding excess water when floods come roaring down the Rhine, or of supplying water when short-term drought sets in.
Both the Afsluitsdijk and the Houtribdijk have roads and, this being Holland, bike trails across them.  So day 2 of our 5-day trek across Holland saw us biking its 27 km / 17 mi.  

The concept is more exciting than the reality.  It's long, no getting around that.  You couldn't see the far shore at first.  But the IJsselmeer and Markermeer are fairly dull bodies of water, with little boat traffic.  About half of the way we were somewhat insulated from the motor vehicle traffic.  With a light tailwind we mostly did 25-30 kph, about 16-19 mph.

Frankly, the best scenery of the day was an hour's ride west of the dike, when we reached the harbor of Hoorn.

We spent that night and the next in cities we'd visited before, Hoorn and Volendam, both in the province of North Holland, but this time we took a different route between them in order to visit the charming town of Broek in Waterland.  We had some challenges along the way.  The trees probably came down a few weeks earlier when a powerful storm came across almost the entire nation of the Netherlands, including where we were then 100+ km away.  We had a good map that found us an easy detour in this instance.  We don't know what the authorities were thinking when they put in the tandem-trapping gate.  We backed the bike in and lifted up the front wheel to get over the swinging gate.  The bridge was easy, so long as you weren't stupid enough to try biking over it.  Other roads more than made up for these minor blips.

The village church had a stained glass window showing the history of the church, including being burned down by Spanish troops during the Eighty Year War for Dutch independence.  Many old churches in Holland have graves inside the church itself, but it's very hard to read the gravestones since they form the walking surface of the church.  With many fewer feet trampling on them here, we could actually read and appreciate quite a few of them.  This church also had a large collection of tiles that told Bible stories, such as the Flight From Egypt at the bottom right.  Back out in the town we found a cafe quite willing to provide us with the calories we needed to finish the day, in the form of a Dutch pancake with pears and ice cream.

As you can see from the map, our route took us down the shore of the Markermeer to the eastern edge of Amsterdam.   Thanks to Holland's bike trail network, we got through easily and soon found ourselves heading into Utrecht Province on the Rhine-Amsterdam Canal.  On the way to our overnight destination of Breukelen, after which Jeff's birthplace of Brooklyn NY is named, we followed a small canal for a while, then stopped for a picnic lunch at a spot where folks enjoy watching an endless parade of boats go though a lock, at €4-6 per boat (but the looking was free).


With great luck, we once again had a tailwind out of the east as we biked 65 km from Breukelen to Den Haag (The Hague), in the Province of South Holland.  Along the way we passed a few bike tourists starting young, a family of four and a young fellow who appeared to be riding with his grandma. 

We'll start our next blog with a visit in Den Haag to one of Europe's most famous art museums, the Mauritshuis.  Jeff didn't have a very fulfilling discussion with this fellow in Volendam, but we did have some gettogethers with Dutch friends we'll introduce to you, and we'll wrap up our trip to Europe with a week in Leiden.