Friday, May 2, 2014

The Netherlands

Often, WHEN you visit a place is as important as WHERE you visit. Statues, fountains, buildings, and landmarks take on a different tone, and context during different seasons, or even times of day for that matter. Never was this so true as seeing Holland in the Spring. I had always thought that I had seen enough Springs to have a pretty good handle on what Spring was all about, but our recent trip to the Netherlands proved that I had ridiculously underestimated the potential of my favorite season.
This is not my first trip to the Netherlands but in the past we have stayed pretty much around Amsterdam, so this was an exciting opportunity to see some of the other areas that are as fascinating as they are beautiful.

The Sites

The first place that I need to mention is the town of Eersel, where we called home for our stay in the Netherlands. Eersel is a quaint little town in the Dutch countryside, with a cute downtown filled with really great restaurants. It is located in the southern part of the country, lying on the border with Belgium. Geographically it made an ideal spot because of it's central location we could find ourselves almost anywhere in Belgium or the Netherlands within a couple hour drive.
Abdij Postel
Another convenient spot just a short, 10 minute drive across the Belgian border is the town of Postel, where there is an amazing abbey that dates back to 1140 ad. The monks at Abdij Postel have learned a great deal about brewing beer over the last 900 years!

Taking a break in Breda
One of our first excursions in the Netherlands was to the city of Breda which was an excellent place to start. Unlike many of the other towns that we would visit that had very quaint, traditional marketplaces, Breda's Grote Market is a bustling shopping district filled with a wonderful array of boutiques and contemporary styles. Then, to take a break from shopping you can sit down in one of the fantastic cafés in their main square for a coffee, or a Belgian beer. At the edge of the square is Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady). Breda's lovely cathedral was built in 1547 and has recently undergone a 5 year renovation process and was reopened to the public in 2003. Because of these renovations, it does not exhibit the grit and grime that you would expect to see on a building that's nearing its 500th birthday, and instead looks clean and modern even (as modern as any cathedral can look) which really fits with the feel of the rest of Breda.

On the outskirts of Amsterdam, lost amidst the spectacular, multicolored tulip fields, lies a botanical garden like nothing else in the world. The Keukenhof Gardens are only open for two months out of the year and attract visitors from around the world.
All across the sprawling gardens are a menagerie of eye popping arrangements, generally featuring the world famous Dutch tulips. The colors are so vibrant that I half expected that the visual cortices in my brain would fry out and leave me living the remainder of my days in a world of black and white.
Aside from the stunning gardens there are four large facilities stuffed to overflowing astonishing flowers. A person can get lost for days browsing through the seemingly endless parade of color. And then there are the smells. The intoxicating bouquet of the Keukenhof is simply otherworldly.
Nothing that I have ever experienced gave me a fuller and more complete understanding of the arrival of Spring. If the Keukenhof is not on your life's "bucket list" put it there STAT.

Paleis het Loo
Another must see national garden is at the 16th Century palace, Paleis het Loo. Until the modern era Paleis het Loo served as the Royal Palace of House Van Oranje, the Dutch Royal Family. It is a spectacular reminder of the economic might of the Dutch merchant fleet going back hundreds of years.
Coffee and King Willem pasteries
The gardens of Paleis het Loo were resplendent with gloriously colored tulips and daisies. The garden's perfectly manicured hedges are the quintessential image of a European Palace.
It is also a good reminder of the recent change in the Royal Family. The beloved Queen Beatrix (Queen Bea) recently abdicated her throne to her son, King Willem and his wife, Queen Maxima. Long live the King!

Oude Kerk in Delft
One of the things that the Netherlands, for centuries, has been famous for is its fine porcelain called Delftware,  (with the distinctive blue markings) crafted by the artisans in the city Delft.
Sepulchral monument of Prince William of Orange
As you pass through Delft's central market, the narrow lanes of stores eventually open into the city's main square. The square's centerpiece is Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Built between 1383 and 1510, the Nieuwe Kerk serves as the family vault of the Dutch Royal Family, the Van Oranje Nassau family. Beyond the vault lies the Royal Family's Sepulchral monument of Prince William of Orange.
The more adventurous travelers may want to climb the very narrow and steep spiraling staircase to the top of the Nieuwe Kerk's massive bell tower which was built over the course of a century between 1396 and 1496 and offers extraordinary views of the city... And one hell of a workout.
From Nieuwe Kerk and the main square, it's a short winding walk through more antique shops and cafés to reach the Oude Kerk (Old Church). While the Nieuwe Kerk is more for special occasions, the Oude Kerk is more of the everyday cathedral (if indeed there is such a thing). The places of honor in Oude Kerk are reserved for famous Dutch Mariners such as Petrus Heinius, and Marten Harpertzen Tromp.
Put all together, Delft is a photogenic, walkable, shoppers paradise, and has an amazing amount to offer tourists.

The Food

Part of the fun of exploring a city in Europe is walking around a major site, or through a museum, then sitting down at a café and having a snack plus a strong coffee or beer or wine. I would be remiss if I passed up any chance to order some bitterballen and a Belgian beer. If I had to describe the flavor of a bitterballen to someone I would say that the deep fried crust dipped in mustard might remind you of a corn dog, while the soft meat paste filling has a taste comparable to cream of mushroom soup.The combination is out of this world. Particularly when paired with one of the many outstanding beers from arguably the world's greatest brewing region.
The Abbeys throughout Belgium are nearing their first millennium of brewing and the craftsmanship if their beer shows. Here is a short list of some of our favorites:
1) Grimbergen blonde
2) Affligem
3) Postel tripel
4) La Trappe Tripel
5) Duvel

As far as dinner items go, spring is the season for the white asparagus that is farmed in this area. Not as strongly flavored as the common green asparagus that I'm used to seeing, the white is also much thicker, roughly the width of a wine cork and when covered with hard cooked egg and hollandaise sauce is capable of being a meal unto itself.
The other entree that I couldn't get enough of was the pork with satay sauce. The thick peanut sauce is a decadent compliment to the meat and a recipe that I have sworn to master this summer.

The Wheels

As that we rent a car everywhere we travel, I thought that it might be fun to include a review of each car. Mercedes CDI
Mercedes-Benz CDI
As Americans when we think of a Mercedes we the thought we conjure is of the uber elegant luxury imports for sale in the States. But Mercedes makes mid ranged cars as well, and are rather common in Europe. Far from a luxury sedan, the CDI was a fuel efficient station wagon with a diesel motor. It had a high MPG which saved us a lot when it came to the expensive cost of fuel in Europe. The diesel was not underpowered either, and ran at a pretty good clip down the Autobahn in Germany, with not a lot of torque but held good speed. But the car itself left quite a bit to be desired. One feature that took some getting used to was the motor turning off whenever the vehicle came to a stop, even though this was to conserve fuel, it was still kind of annoying. The stereo and navigation system were over complicated and poorly laid out, even once we got the language set to English (which was no small feat). And it was loud, not as in road noise but in all the little bings and boops of the warning lights and bells, including warnings for driving to long suggesting that you take a break. Adding to this effect was the periodic traffic updates that would cut in even if you were listening to something other than the radio, like a cd or iPod, the traffic updates would blare out (I realize that has nothing to do with Mercedes but it added to the overall feeling of the vehicle). Overall if say that it was a dependable enough vehicle that got good fuel economy but was filled with lots of annoying quirks in the cab.


I was so happy to get a chance to see more of the countryside in the Netherlands, I have spent time in Amsterdam before but could never say that I knew the country well as a whole. So this was an amazing experience for me.

Prince William of Orange