20.04.2014 - 20.04.2014 20 °C
Sunday, 20 April 2014
Aboard the MS Treasures en route from Maastricht, Netherlands to Antwerp, Belgium
Well, friends, today may be the blogging low point. But it is through no fault of my own, I assure you. There simple was not much going on today. Despite what we all may have heard about the death and dearth of religion in Europe, I can assure you that Easter is alive and well in the Benelux countries--everything but the bars is closed, which severely limits one’s sight-seeing options.
We arrived this morning in Maastricht, the Netherlands (we are hopscotching back and forth across the Dutch/Belgian border) via the man-made Albert Canal. So in case you’ve been tracking our movements, that’s the body of water upon which we are currently sailing. Anyway, back to Maastricht: after a lovely breakfast buffet (though I must remember to ask for well-done scrambled eggs next time), Julie grabbed our poker chips and we geared up to head out to the “motorcoaches” (never buses with Tauck). About the poker chips: that’s how they break up the group into smaller groups for walking tours—you choose a poker chip or chips from a dish, and the color determines which group you are in. We were in the blue group. The motorcoaches drove us the 10 minutes or so from the boat dock to downtown Maastricht, where we met up with our local tour guides. Ours was a lovely older lady named Yola (or maybe Jola—not sure of the spelling, just the pronunciation).
Maastricht is famous for the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht, which established the European Union in 1992, which according to Yola drove up real estate prices exorbitantly and drove long-time residents out of the old city. It was a center of trade in the Middle Ages because it is between Amsterdam and Brussels, as well as because it was a heavily fortified city, which served to protect the residents during sieges and invasions. She did tell us quite a bit of history about the city, but since it’s difficult to walk, take pictures, and write notes, you will have to be content with what I retained, which wasn’t much. There are three sets of city walls, each one concentrically bigger than the next, that were needed as the city expanded. The city was built on land that had been drained and filled, so the land has continued to sink throughout the history of the city, and now the bottom of the first wall is about 3 meters below ground level. This gives some of the more ancient building funny-looking entrances, because the door is half above-ground and half below-ground. Another thing I took away were some of the ingenious fixes to city problems that they’ve come up with. For example, in a passage way between the street and a courtyard, there are specially-colored lights that cause one’s veins to become invisible, which prevents drug addicts from shooting up there at night. Another one is this stone mound in a corner—it looks like a newel post, but more sloped—it is designed to discourage drunk men from relieving themselves in dark corners because urine runs back on their feet. Brilliant, simply brilliant!
Maastricht is also the origin of the term “order a round” because there is a historic bar that is so small that when patrons entered the bar, they would take ahold of a rope that was strung all the way around the perimeter of the bar. They would order their drink at the bar and drink it as they progressed around the loop, and if they wanted more, they went “another round” of the rope.
Maastricht, like Dublin, taxed glass windows, but rather than tax the entire area, they taxed the number of individual pieces. So the wealthier families would have elaborate 4x2 or 3x2 paned windows, while poorer families would have large single panes. The poorest families would paint the windows on the façade of the building so it would appear like they could afford windows, even though they couldn’t.
Another interesting factoid was that families had to pay a tax when a new baby was born, which consisted of a leather bucket given to the government. These were used in times of fire to help douse the blaze.
Notice that I am dazzling you with these useless facts? That’s because we really didn’t get to see much more than the outside of buildings and churches because EVERYTHING closes for a long Easter weekend except the bars and the churches! My credit card is probably grateful for this, because there were tons of shops that had very interesting looking merchandise in the windows, which of course we could not buy because they were closed! So when people tell you that Europe is a Godless continent, don’t believe them. Or maybe you should, and they just use it as an excuse for a long weekend. I’m not sure which, but I will comment that I did not see large streams of people filing into church. Just sayin’…
Since we opted out of going to Mass (there is like one Protestant church in this town, and when I asked the denomination, Yola replied, “St. John’s.” I am taking NO chances.), we boarded the buses, excuse me, motorcoaches, back to the boat, excuse me, ship for the remainder of a leisurely day aboard. We headed up to the lounge, where we were promised the Wi-Fi was fastest (maybe, but it’s the difference between glacial and tectonic, to be sure). Julie was industrious and worked on her schoolwork, while I lazed the morning away surfing the ‘Net and reading a trashy mystery novel. (Automatically, that’s vacation!). Julie working on schoolwork was a critical deflection move because it kept all but the most intrepid oldsters away. Frankly, I think we remind them of their daughters because every single one of them sat down and struck up a conversation!
After a very nice buffet lunch (Julie gives it two thumbs up. I can report the French fries were delicious—everything else was kind of sketchy), we repaired back to the lounge to await one of the tour guide’s lectures called Walking Up to the River, which was designed to explain why the Dutch are the way they are. There was a lot of philosophical esoterica thrown in, but because I know your time is valuable, dear readers, let me boil it down for you: “God made the world, but the Dutch surely made Holland.” Basically, because over 50% of the land in the Netherlands is reclaimed from the sea, the Dutch believe they can do anything, but they also have a rigid belief in systems, order, politicians, government, and thinking inside the box. The rest was just psychological mumbo-jumbo, and I nodded off. It does raise the question, though: are there more Dutch engineers per capita than in other countries??
Tonight was the Captain’s welcome dinner. Julie swears this captain is the same one we had on the Christmas cruise, and upon physical inspection, I tend to agree with her. He’s about 6 ½ feet of yummy Nordic-looking sailorness. But I digress…back to dinner. This is the one dinner on the cruise where everyone is seated at the same time, which tends to gum up the works. However, I think we’ve hit upon a strategy for future cruises: we sat in the back of the dining room by ourselves (we weren’t necessarily trying to be anti-social, it’s just that nobody joined us. And I’m not saying we necessarily minded…). This seemed to bring the waiter to us magically, which enhanced our speed of service…dinner only took two hours instead of three! Dinner was a 50/50 proposition at best: mushroom soup to start, then foie gras, then a choice of lamb (nope), barramundi (a possibility until the cilantro sauce), or pumpkin ravioli (Yahtzee!), with Grand Marnier soufflés for dessert (SCORE!). Needless to say, I skipped the soup and starter courses completely. Julie said the soup was good, and she at least tried a bite of the foie gras…me, not so much.
And that, my friends, has pretty much been our day—hiding out from old people and waiting for food. I will say, though, that this has been an interesting day sailing-wise: the Albert Canal drops approximately 300 m in elevation between Maastricht and Antwerp, our destination tomorrow. Since water seeks it own level, this means we will transit six sets of locks today. I think we’re currently going through about number four. It is very weird to look out the window of a boat and see a concrete wall, let me just tell you!
Tomorrow is Antwerp (again, a bunch of stuff is closed, so we’re going to a special event at the Red Star Museum) and Flanders Field in the evening. Until then, Happy Easter!