A Travellerspoint blog

Christ is arisen...Alleluia!

semi-overcast 18 °C

Tuesday, 22 April 2014
Veere, The Netherlands

Lest you think I have gone a dramatic religious conversion whilst on vacation, let me explain the title. It is now the Tuesday after Easter (Christ is risen) and the shops are open (Alleluia!). That means we can do more than simply walk around and look at old stuff—with our free time we can cruise the shops and markets and actually buy things again! (You know I love to shop.) So the whole tenor of the vacation is once more upbeat!

We began our day cruising into Middelburg, in the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands. When we docked in Middelburg, a couple of ladies from (I guess) the cultural bureau treated us to a display of native Dutch costumes. The costumes are unique to each town, and apparently if you know what you are doing, so can tell lots of things about the woman, such as whether or not she is married, and whether or not she’s Catholic or Protestant. I can say that I am grateful I don’t have to do their ironing—I don’t think even I have enough heavy laundry starch to make that sucker do its thing. We’re talking Flying Nun here, people. The ladies had one interesting comment: the traditional men’s costumes are not nearly as elaborate, but they always included gold earrings for the men. Since many of the Dutch were sailors, and sailing is an inherently hazardous occupation, when his body washed ashore, they knew a decent funeral could be provided for by the sale of the earrings! And in addition to the costumes, the ladies brought bolus, a traditional pastry of Middelburg, for everyone. It had its origins with the Jewish and Portuguese communities in Zeeland. Think pecan swirl without the pecans and slightly less slimey. VERY tasty!

And what kind of day would it be without a walking tour of another adorable Benelux city that was bombed to the ground during World War II and rebuilt to look exactly the same as it did before? (Really, I’m starting to detect a theme here, people.) This time, however, they at least had the facades of the cathedral and the city hall and rebuilt them from within, not unlike Truman’s renovation of the White House. The city has a couple of marinas, and apparently does a good bit of business as a port. It is thoroughly adorable. We had a lovely local guide named Annie who was totally hysterical! She explained about how the city is renovating the downtown to make it even less car-friendly, and that more people own bikes than cars. (Which we knew—Ysofia (that’s not a typo—she’s Hungarian) told us that only 25% of the Dutch have a driver’s license.) One memorable thing was walking down the narrowest street in Middelburg. It is so narrow that you can literally reach across from one wall to the other. It is called (in Dutch) “Shaky Purse Street” because two criminals could lie in wait, one at each end, and rob you (shake your purse) since there is nowhere to escape!

After saying good-bye to Annie at the city hall, we had about an hour before we had to be back at the ship. And we really had to be back, because the ship was setting sail for Veere! We made quite effective use of our time—we found an ATM (Are you like me? Do you get a knot in the pit of your stomach the first time you put your ATM card in a foreign machine? I am always afraid that my one tenuous, fleeting connection will get irrevocably and irretrievably sucked into the ATM black hole, never to return. Were I Catholic, this would cause me to make the sign of the cross at a minimum, and more likely say a few Hail Marys. Fortunately, I’m Lutheran.) and got some cash to stash. Then, we headed down the rather brief shopping street in Middelburg and found one of my favorite foreign acquisition targets: post cards. I love ‘em! Good thing they are duty-free, otherwise I could be facing a duty on those alone! Otherwise, no great shakes. Julie handily navigated us back to the ship. She’s an awesome navigator with a great sense of direction, but she makes me a nervous wreck. Her approach is more, “I know it’s over this way,” whereas I do not make a turn that I cannot confirm on my map is the correct one (because I KNOW I don’t have a good sense of direction!). I am trying to be more relaxed about this, but you know I don’t really have a “relaxed” setting, just less tense.

The lunch options were a little sketchy, so we ate lunch in the Lido Bar, excuse me, The Bistro, where pizza was the daily special. I think we should have taken our chances with the sketchy lunch—these pizzas came with either ham (prosciutto, I think) or TUNA! Who puts tuna on a pizza??? At least there was salad and fresh fruit (I don’t know where they are getting them, but the pineapple they’ve been serving this week is absolutely delicious—perfectly ripe and juicy.). The best part was the view off the stern of the ship as we sailed away down the canal—gorgeous green Dutch countryside dotted with cows and sheep and windmills…sadly, they were the modern ones, not the ones we typically associate with Holland. We also watched from the sun deck (it finally warmed up a little bit today) as the captain maneuvered the ship through a lock. It was fascinating to watch the back gate of the lock close, then the front gate open after the lock was drained (we were going down, but only a little bit). It was even more interesting the path the ship took out of the lock: he was pulled up to the extreme left side of the lock, but the gate was over to the right. Since he was about three feet from the front of the lock, he couldn’t go at it on an angle—he just went sideways! Apparently the ship has 360° thrusters (which I learned later this afternoon during my tour of the bridge)! Anyway, we transited the lock, then it was just a very brief ride to our docking station at Veere, an even smaller town than Middelburg. And by small, read tiny! Once again, we were hot-docked: we had to walk down the gangway and through the lobby of another river boat to get to our motorcoaches for our afternoon excursion.

Where were headed, you ask? To a true marvel of modern engineering, the Delta Works. What are the Delta Works, you ask? The Delta Works are a series of protective measures designed and built to protect Zeeland flooding when the North Sea backs up into the Schelde River. And how do they do that, you ask? Ass-kicking engineering, is how. They started by building two islands. Yes, they first had to build two islands. Then, they had to dredge the channels until their bottoms were almost perfectly flat. After that, they had to fabricate 65 concrete piers (64 for use, and one extra in case one got damaged during deployment) that range from 30 to 40 meters tall and way up to 18,000 tons. A special factory with a floodable yard had to be built to do just that part alone—the yard was floodable so the piers could be floated to the construction site. And the piers were made hollow so that when they were moved into place, they could be filled with sand to stabilize them against currents and pressure disparities between the North Sea and the Schelde River. Next, they had to line the bottom of the now-perfectly flat channel with giant rock-filled mats made of woven polypropylene (again, manufactured at a facility built specifically for the purpose), then set these piers into place, one by one. Oh yeah, and they had to design and build the ships that would be able to do all of these operations first, too. Then came the trivial engineering detail of building the actual flood gates, then placing (one at a time) stones from Finland (no native quarries in Holland) weighing up to ten tons on either side of the piers to help stabilize the piers and gates against currents and the pressure disparities that will arise from one side to the other if the gates are closed. So, how it all works is that if, based on tide and wind, flooding is expected, the gates (which are normally up) are closed down to their lower position against the piers, which closes off the river from the North Sea. This closing is actuated by enormous hydraulics, and takes about 1 hour to accomplish. When all was said and done, the storm surge barrier cost approximately 2 billion euro (cheaper than the Big Dig and considerably more important) and took ten years to accomplish. Agnes, our tour guide, said that the gates were last closed in December, 2013, and typically are closed about twice per year. You’ve gotta respect engineers that had to build the tools they needed before they could get to the actual project, especially when those tools are ship-based cranes and entire factories! I can’t help but think what a difference a system like this might make to New Orleans to avert another Katrina, or New York to prevent the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy. I am truly in awe of the Dutch ability to engineer water movement.

After the Delta Works, it was back to the ship for my tour of the bridge with the extremely hunky Captain Patrick. But first, a briefing about our day tomorrow. We will be cruising in the morning, followed by an excursion to Delft in the afternoon. That’s not the interesting part. Here’s the interesting part: while we’re in Delft (or Rotterdam…we had a choice) the ship is going to go into a sort of dry-dock pier so it can be lifted out of the water and one of the propellers can be replaced. Apparently, Captain Patrick noticed that the ship wasn’t quite right sometime last month(and my mechanic LAUGHS at me when I tell him my car isn’t quite right!), so the home office sent out a scuba diver who went under the ship and determined that, yep, something was wrong: one of five blades had completely sheared off one of the props. He showed us pictures; it’s clearly not an impact by water-born debris, but complete metal failure in the blade itself, not near the hub of the prop. I would LOVE to get that prop back to the lab for analysis to see what went wrong, but Captain Patrick apparently doesn’t care about this as much as I do: he’s got a spare prop on board to make the repair, so he’s just going to throw the broken one away. Bet that’s too big to get in my luggage, anyway… He also said the repair should only take two hours, which I hope is true because it means we will be picked up by the ship in Dordrecht, which is where one of the other Teflon® plants is located. I’ve never gotten to visit Dordrecht, so at least I’ll get to say I’ve been to the town. But if the repair takes longer than estimated, we will be picked up in Rotterdam. Root for the estimate to be right, people! (I picked up most of extra information during the bridge tour, but unlike one of the other guests, I didn’t have the guts to ask Captain Patrick to pose for a picture with me. More on Captain Patrick in a moment…)

After dinner (unremarkable chicken, but lovely lemon mousse for dessert), Julie and I decided to walk around the town…well, it’s really more of a village…of Veere. We started down the main market street, checking out the shops, most of which were closed for the night (it takes for bloomin’ ever to eat on this ship because of all the courses). But the girl at our front desk was right: it looks exactly like a fairy tale. And as we were toodling through the Enchanted Forest, who should we see eating dinner at a little outdoor café but Captain Patrick and the little blond girl who works the front desk?! Scandal! I told Julie I was afraid we’d end up like the Costa Concordia, but she did point out that we are technically docked!

One funny thing did happen as we were walking along the levy: we ran into another passenger from our ship, who told us we could only walk a short ways farther down the sidewalk, because it was blocked off because a group of men were trying to test-fire an 18th century cannon to see if it would still fire without exploding! We think this is in anticipation of the King’s Day party, since we passed a couple of men hanging orange bunting across the street. We asked if it was for King’s Day, and they said, “Ja, for King’s Day.” Sure enough, we got about a hundred yards further down the sidewalk when that sucker went off. No “Fore.” No “Fire in the Hole.” No nothing. It scared us about out of our sneakers. And apparently it must not have exploded, since they fired it about three more times before we got back to the ship! Fire bugs.

That’s about it from Veere—you’ve gotten some engineering education and some gossip, all in the same post, so my work here is done. Tomorrow, Delft and a tour of the porcelain factory—sure hope they ship! Love from Veere.

Posted by hidburch 13:40 Archived in Netherlands Tagged locks middelburg delta_works veere Comments (0)

A Nomination for the Museum Hall of Fame!

rain 10 °C

21 April 2014—Part II
Ieper/Ypres, Belgium

As I promised you this morning, today’s report has been divided into two parts: Antwerp and Flanders Field. Hopefully you’ve read Part I of this document—I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any spoilers. This afternoon, we again boarded the motorcoaches for the ~2 hour ride to the town of Ieper, Belgium. That’s the Dutch spelling, anyway. The French spelling is Ypres, which, if it’s okay with you, I will use since Ieper in a non-serifed font looks like LEPER, and that will never do. So it was off to Ypres. Ypres is the site of the vicious battles commemorated in the poem “In Flanders Field.” It is also the origin of the British custom of red poppies for war remembrance (you’ve likely seen pictures of William and Kate wearing them) because poppies were the first flowers to grow on Flanders Field after the tragedies there. (Unfortunately, the famous poppies don’t bloom until late summer.)

Our target was the In Flanders Field Museum, which endeavors to explain the battles (there were actually three) and the strategic importance of Ypres to both the Germans and the Allies (hence the three battles). It also delves into the horrors of the fighting in the Great War, including the first uses of chlorine and mustard gases as chemical weapons, as well as the absolutely primitive conditions under which the soldiers lived. We were to tour the museum, then have a private, after-hours dinner at the museum.

When we arrived in Ypres, we were a bit early for our after-hours visit, so we walked the few short blocks to the Menin Gate, which is the monument erected to memorialize all the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed. It is vast, and every vertical surface is covered with names of soldiers. At various spots, red poppies have been tucked into the walls by particular soldiers’ names, and wreaths of poppies are also laid along the walls and staircases (it’s that big). The sheer volume of life lost (according to one exhibit, Britain lost 10% of their army, over 1,000,000 soldiers) the Menin Gate represents is heart-wrenching. And those are just the Commonwealth soldiers. The Belgians, French, Germans, and Americans are remembered elsewhere. According to our guide, a bugler plays “The Last Post” every night at 8:00 pm. Fortunately for my tear ducts, I wasn’t around to hear that—we headed back to the Museum for our tour and dinner.

The town of Ypres itself is a marvel—it was completely razed during World War I but was rebuilt as an exact duplicate in only five years time. That includes an enormous cathedral and the Cloth Hall that now houses the museum. You would honestly never believe that those buildings had not been there since the 1500s, it’s that good. As with yesterday, most everything was closed, but there were a couple of shops open and I was able to snag some postcards for my stash. (And the museum had a gift shop. You know I love a good gift shop!)

Now to the museum…I am without words to adequately describe the emotional impact of the experience, but I will try to capture some of the technical aspects. You were given a wrist-band with an RFID chip inside when you went in, and you could swipe it at various stations and get remembrances/information about a soldier from your country and in your native language. (And the wrist-band is really cool—the RFID chip is hidden in a large red poppy—and they let us keep them!) Next, there was a giant topographic map of the area that was completely white. The various battles, campaigns, and troop movements were projected on it from overhead in color, and there was a museum staffer there explaining all the key dates and troop movements as a function of time. There was a really neat movie feature about the doctors and nurses who served at the front—I think it might have been taken from diaries of real people, but it featured actors doing reenactments. It was heart-breaking as they talked about the types of injuries they were treating, and even more so when you consider the state of trauma medicine at that time. That’s why there was usually a cemetery outside the field hospital. There was a great exhibit showing the evolution of uniforms throughout the war, and for the multiple armies, and a discussion of the introduction of chlorine and mustard gas as chemical weapons. It made the point that, while chemical weapons killed far fewer soldiers than conventional weapons, they were so effective because they instilled such fear among the troops. And I’d say that may still be the case today. Another case showed how the soldiers lived in the trenches—not well, in case you are wondering. Water, rodents, poor rations, and bad hygiene were common. I could go on and on, but I will say that, though the topic itself was incredibly heart-rending, the execution of the exhibits and the incorporation of technology into them was OUTSTANDING. That’s why I nominate them for the Museum Hall of Fame, which puts them in the same class as the Musee d’Orsay, my most favorite museum in Paris and possibly of all. This may not be something that’s in every guidebook, but if you find yourself in this part of the world, it’s a must-see!

Dinner was served in a reception space at the museum itself (sort of like when we went to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Mom). Lovely asparagus soup (I know—I was shocked, too), followed by vegetable curry for me (YUMMY!) and guinea hen with veggies for Julie, then chocolate mousse for dessert. All of it was delicious. But the best part was that the gift shop was right around the corner! Of course I couldn’t pass it by…more postcards, a lovely book about the “In Flanders Field” poem, and the museum guide, which I will gladly share with any interested parties, were procured. There were some lovely poppy statues made of enameled iron that I wanted, too, but they were just too big to fit in my suitcase!

After dinner, it was back on the motorcoaches for the ride back to the ship, which had sailed a little ways down the river while we were gone. As a result, we were double-docked with a Viking ship and had to trek through their lobby to get to ours! Is this the cruise equivalent of hot-bunking, or whatever it is the navy calls it when one sailor gets out of a bunk as the next comes off shift and crawls in??
Anyway, tomorrow we are headed for Middelburg, in the Zeeland province in the Netherlands where we will have (you guessed it) a walking tour in the morning, then a tour of the Delta Water Works (where they manage to hold back the ocean) in the afternoon. Should be an excellent engineering geek sort of stop! Stay tuned…

Posted by hidburch 15:01 Archived in Belgium Tagged ypres ieper menin_gate flanders_field Comments (0)

What do you call people from Antwerp? Twerps?

Inquiring minds want to know.

sunny 18 °C

21 April 2014
Antwerp, Belgium

Seriously, if anybody knows, please let me know. Even Wikipedia has nothing on this topic!

Today’s update is going to be in two parts, mostly because our day has been split in two parts. This morning we toured Antwerp, Belgium, then in an hour or so we’re headed out again for dinner and a tour of the museum at Flanders Field. Jeremy, the ever-efficient Tauck cruise director (although he seems like a Ben to me), has informed us that we will not be back from Monday-Part Deux until 10:30 or 11:00, at which point I will be disinclined to write a lengthy missive about the day’s adventures. So half a loaf is better than no loaf at all, yes?

We started our day docked at the quay in Antwerp, Belgium. Many of you may be somewhat familiar with Antwerp because the world’s largest diamond exchanges are here in Antwerp. (Sadly, these are closed today for Easter. Although, since many of the diamond merchants are Jewish, you’d think they might make an exception…) As Bea, our local Antwerp guide informed us, 80% of the world’s diamonds flow through the city of Antwerp, and 50% of the world’s cut diamonds return through here. Yes, per standard Tauck operating procedure, we started the day being “motorcoached” to the old city section of Antwerp for our walking tour. Now, I could craft a really interesting narrative that tries to join a bunch of disparate facts together, but it might be easier to just give you the bullet points that Julie and I remember from our tour with Bea (we have to rely on our collective memory because it is simply too hard to walk, take pictures, and write notes at the same time. Trust me. I’ve tried. Plus, you look EXTRA dorky doing that, rather than just the standard tourist dorky that comes from the camera glued to your face.)

Antwerp is located along the River Scheldt, which is a broad tidal river big enough to accommodate large (Carnival-sized) cruise ships and ocean-going freighters. The river has been straightened over time to make navigation by these behemoth ships easier. And being tidal means the level of the river rises with the ocean tides. As a result of climate change, the sea level has increased several meters, so the city is working on building a new flood wall system to protect the city from catastrophic flooding.

As a result of being on this large river, Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe (behind Rotterdam), and the 6th or 7th busiest in the world. It is also the second largest petrochemical port in the world, led only by the port of Houston.

There are several theories as to where Antwerp got its name, but the goriest one (and therefore the most exciting) is the one about the giant, Antigoon, who lived near the River Scheldt. He charged a toll for crossing the river, and for those who were unable or unwilling to pay, he cut off their right hand and threw it into the river. The name Antwerp is derived from the Dutch hand werpen, which means “hand to throw.” If you are interested in the other less-colorful stories, please consult Wikipedia. It’s free and instructive. And incidentally, the hand is now the symbol of Antwerp; in fact, we were presented with one of the city’s signature chocolates as a gift: a chocolate hand filled with marzipan and some “elixir” liquor made from herbs. (Quick Googling says maybe chartreuse? You know I am hopeless about booze. I do know that it is reputed to cure colic in horses and aid digestion in people, if that helps, and that it’s not gin…I would have remembered gin. As for aiding digestion, personally, I think I’ll stick with Pepto.)

The Cathedral of Our Lady in the old city of Antwerp is the largest cathedral in the Benelux countries and contains four paintings by Rubens: “The Descent from the Cross,” “The Elevation of the Cross,” “The Resurrection of Christ,” and “The Assumption.” Unlike most cathedrals of a similar age, the Cathedral has only one tower because the wealthy guilds donated lots of money to build the cathedral (which would have paid for a second tower), but each insisted on having their own altar (or perhaps it was chapel), so they had to use the money designated for the tower to enlarge the cathedral to build all those altars (or chapels). Incidentally, the gilded clock on the one tower is 7 meters in diameter (that’s about 23 feet for you non-metric-speaking people).

The City Hall…wait, I found it: Elixir D’Anvers…was built in the main square in the middle of all the guild halls, which blocked the lovely view that many of them had going on. They were probably pretty pissy about that! It is a lovely building, with the flags of all the countries that have consulates in Antwerp flying from the outside. There are several statues on the exterior, including one of Justice and one of Prudence. However, unlike in America, Justice here has her eyes wide open (due to the influence of trade), hence the need for prudence to temper justice. Only Ann, the lawyer, and I noticed that when asked!

Large portions of the Old City were destroyed by retreating German bombers during WWII, who were attempting to demolish the port. They missed.

We also got to see the Butcher’s Guild Hall, which is built from alternating layers of red brick and white stone called, appropriately enough, streaky bacon.

And lastly, you will see statues of the Virgin Mary on the corners of many of the houses in the Old City. Many of them contain light fixtures, because these were taxed at a lower rate than those that were just statues, the rationale being that since the Virgin was protecting the household, they were assured of getting into Heaven and the government had to get their money now!

From the Old City, it was a very short bus ride to the Red Star Line Museum. This museum depicts and honors the departure by millions of European immigrants from Europe for better lives in America and Canada. It is actually in the former shipping terminal of the Red Star Line, and is a VERY well-done museum. They have lots of video testimonials from actual persons who immigrated via the line, who talk about their struggles and reasons for wanting to emigrate. There are extensive exhibits about what the immigration process was like, including all the medical examinations and disinfection processes the potential emigres had to go through to prove they were capable of working in their new world, and to prevent the spread of lice and diseases like cholera and typhoid. Apparently, the immigrants in Antwerp were known because of their strong smell of disinfectant. There is also a good bit about what life aboard the ships (at one point, two a week were departing for America) was like. The very wealthy could afford first class accommodations, but many crossed in steerage, which was significantly less pleasant. Several famous immigrants are also discussed, including Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, my boy Albert Einstein, and Golda Meir.

After the United States and Canada became more protectionist in the 1920s and clamped down on immigration, the Red Star Line fell into bankruptcy but was reborn as Holland American Cruise Lines! (And for everybody humming “My Heart Will Go On,” that was the WHITE Star Line, not the Red.)

So let me post this while the Internet is still (mostly) working. Expect a double dose tomorrow, with information about Flanders Field and wherever else we go (I honestly have no clue, as the itinerary for tomorrow has not yet been delivered….)

And somebody research what these Twerps are called!

Posted by hidburch 05:56 Archived in Belgium Tagged antwerp port immigration diamonds scheldt red_star_line_museum Comments (0)

He is arisen and the shops are a-closed!

sunny 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!

Posted by hidburch 12:43 Archived in Netherlands Tagged antwerp easter maastricht Comments (0)

Sail away, sail away!

Learning to outfox the old folks...

sunny 10 °C

Aboard the MS Treasures
Maastricht, The Netherlands
Saturday, 19 April 2014

I cannot believe I completely forgot to tell you about Le Manneken-Pis yesterday! That must be an indicator of how tired I was, since it’s one of THE sights to see in Brussels. (The other indicator would be the fact that the dining room at the hotel, on land, was swaying while we ate dinner…) So, about that pissing mannequin…

After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we were culled into small groups by the ever-efficient Tauck staff and sent out on a brief walking tour (and when I say brief, I mean brief: less than 45 minutes!) of Le Grand Place and Le Manneken-Pis with Hilda, our local Brussels expert. (Although she kept looking up key dates in her notes, so I’m not sure how expert she truly was, but that’s another story.) She walked us through Le Grand Place (or maybe La Grande Place, or Le Grande Place…who knows? I took six years of Spanish, not French.), pointing out all the guild halls that surround the square, including the Maisson de Brasseurs, or Brewers’ House. Brewers as in beer, where the Belgium Beer Museum is now located (that’s for you, Tim!). We didn’t have time to go in, but it couldn’t have mattered less, as nothing was yet open that early on a Saturday morning—I am even gladder that we bought lace yesterday, because there was definitely no time today.

From Le Grande Place, Hilda duck-marched us to Le Manneken-Pis. This statue, whose name translates to “little boy peeing” is exactly as promised: it is a bronze statue, approximately 60 cm (approximately 2 ft for those of you who haven’t made the conversion to the metric system) tall, of a little boy who is peeing. Apparently it is the unofficial mascot of the city of Brussels and a pilgrimage to visit him is required. There are several legends of his origin: he commemorates a little boy who extinguished a potentially fatal fire using the tools God provided; he was a gift from a grateful nobleman who found his little boy, who had been missing for five days, peeing in that manner at that spot; or (my favorite), an evil witch caught a little boy peeing against her door and in a fit of pique cast a spell to turn him to stone, but a man was wandering by and substituted the statue at the last minute, thereby saving the little boy. Whichever legend you subscribe to, as near as I can tell he’s the Belgian equivalent of a concrete goose, because he has an extensive wardrobe that varies seasonally, and apparently many of the outfits are gifts from visiting dignitaries. And apparently somebody publishes the schedule of outfits, in case you are really curious. And because I know you are, I tried to look it up, but all I could find was this gallery of pictures of the outfits—I know you’re disappointed, but life goes on.

http://www.brussels.be/artdet.cfm?id=4960&function=PICTUREBOOK

After that, it was time to board the buses for a brief driving tour around Brussels. I must confess that I nodded off during part of it, somewhere after the second King Leopold, but I woke up in time for the Atomium. This giant thing (it’s not exactly a statue) was built in 1958 for the World’s Fair held in Brussels, and according to the tour guide, it has, and I’m quoting now: “Nine atoms to represent iron.” I do not have words to express the chemical wrong-ness of that statement, but thanks to the omniscient, omni-present Wikipedia, I can (correctly) inform you that it represents the unit crystal cell of iron, which is a (at least for the α-phase) body-centered cubic. (My mind kept going to protons, saying, “But the atomic number of iron is 26. Fluorine is number 9!”)

After that, it was back on the bus like a herd of sheep, heading to Maastricht and LUNCH. But first: the “comfort” stop. That’s a potty break for us commoners. I tell you about the “comfort” stop only because we were totally prepared for the situation and thoroughly amused by it. We had been warned by the tour directors that you had to deposit a €0.50 coin to get into the rest room (it was a very lovely Texaco station…so lovely they had bouquets of flowers for sale!). Upon said deposit, the turnstile opened and you could get into the restroom and you would be issued a coupon for €0.50 to use toward any purchase at the attached quickie-mart. Well, Julie and I are rapidly learning that with these oldsters, you a) sit by the rear door of the bus and b) you get the hell off as soon as the door opens or you’re going to be there until Mercury cools as they get canes down, hats adjusted, purses situated, etc. So, invoking our hard-won knowledge, we were the first ones off our bus and we power-walked our way past the pack leaders from the bus in front of us. Now, this being Tauck, you KNOW there was a tour director handing out €0.50 coins so everyone could potty gratis, but we had even passed him. But fear not, dear reader, for I had two €0.50 coins of my own, one for me and one for Julie, and we “comforted” and were out of there before some of the others even made it into the line. And Julie used our two coupons to get some very lovely Haribo gummy-bear disks. (That’s the best description I can give you: imagine squishing a gummy bear into a disk.) Plus, we got made sure to pick up our €0.50 coins on the way OUT rather than the way IN!

From the comfort stop it was about an hour to lunch, which was a private luncheon at the Chateau Neercanne, which was near Canne (hence the name…not very imaginative, really). Our group’s lunch was held in the Chateau’s wine cellar. Well, that’s what they called it, but I think more technically it is the wine cave, where the wine is aged before bottling. Now, it’s a banquet room, but it was still very cool, with candles for lighting and everything! Lunch was quite the leisurely affair and started out with HEAVY appetizers (so heavy that I didn’t eat my entrée, but more on this in a moment), including some delicious shrimp croquette thingies, a sweet potato soup (yummier than it sounds), mozzarella/tomato/olive salad (from which the mozzarella balls could be readily extracted), and some cold salmon with lemony mayonnaise. After that, it is my avowed position that only smoked salmon should be served cold. Yuck! (And I should mention that the booze was, as always at a Tauck function, free-flowing.) After that came the aforementioned entrée: veal. They might have called it veal, but y’all, it was just fancy pot roast, with mashed potatoes and gravy and everything. So the next time you make pot roast, freak out the fam and tell them they’re having veal. See what they say. At least they redeemed themselves with dessert: a shell of chocolate mousse filled with vanilla custard—I could have eaten another one of those easily.

The funniest part of lunch wasn’t the food, though—it was the thief. As I mentioned, the wine was free-flowing, and the appetizers were situated at stations around the room. So the hosts had provided those little clips that go on the side of the plates to stick the stem of a wine glass in. They’d already put some on the plates, but there were big containers of them setting next to each stack of plates. Well, I looked over just as a woman at the next table opened up her purse and filled it FULL of those clips! Now, this trip wasn’t cheap, so I know she can afford to buy them—they aren’t expensive or rare. People are strange…bet she steals towels, too.

The herd boarded the buses in a food coma, then we headed to the Netherlands American War Cemetery at Margraten. It is the only American war cemetery on Dutch soil, and it was built to inter the remains of the American soldiers who died liberating the Netherlands during World War II. Eight thousand three hundred and one souls are buried there, which is technically considered American soil—they even fly the American flag over the cemetery. All the graves, which are marked with marble crosses and Stars of David, are oriented so that they face the United States; they are even canted to account for the curvature of the earth, so the rows, which are perfectly straight “horizontally” curve as they flow “vertically.” (That’s the best way to describe it, or perhaps by comparison to Arlington, the columns are not perfectly straight the way they are in Arlington.) The tour directors explained that in gratitude for the American liberation, Dutch families living in the area “adopt” graves and maintain them, bringing flowers for holidays and staying in contact with the deceased soldier’s family in America. And when the care-taker dies, his responsibilities are inherited by a member of his family. Some of the graves already had Easter flowers on them—I saw one that had a beautiful pot of orchids, and another with a giant arrangement of Gerbera daisies, and while we were there I saw several Dutch (and I’m assuming they were Dutch because they drove personal cars, not on a bus like us) families coming in bringing vases and flowers with which to decorate graves.

The tour directors explained that a previous Tauck tour director had started a custom of giving guests a flower to lay on the grave of their choosing, and they continued it by giving each of us a yellow rose to mark a grave. The grave stones are marked with each soldier’s name, rank, unit, and home state, and I think many people looked for soldiers from their home states. I saw a soldier from West Virginia in the front row, but I figured the graves in the front row get lots of flowers from people who can’t walk very far, so I kept wandering until I found my spot: the grave of an unknown soldier. The inscription was almost identical to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” Figuring that most people use the home state approach, I left my rose on the unknown soldier’s grave since he might not get very many.

They also had a wall of names, similar in concept to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, of soldiers whose remains were never recovered. I’m sure my camera has a panorama mode that I could have used to record the inscription on that wall, but it was too late to figure out how to do that, so I wrote it down for you: “Here are recorded the Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves.” Doesn’t that just give you chills?

From there it was a short ride to the ship, where we once again deployed our “rapid deployment system.” Consequently, we were the first ones shown to our state rooms, where we unpacked (you have to stash the suitcases under the beds, so you HAVE to unpack unless you want to deal with that every morning and evening) and sorted out the electronics and chargers—two 110V American plugs are provided, so I just plugged in my power strip and away I went! (A bit more related to this theme later…)

We went to the precruise briefing, which, unlike on an ocean-going cruise, does not cover evacuation procedures beyond saying, “if the boat starts taking on water, go upstairs to the sun deck…if she sinks completely, your feet might get wet.” Instead, it was more about what time to get on the bus and what time dinner was served. Also, it was about free booze for a lot of folks: open bar on this cruise, which is totally lost on me. While we were sitting there, Julie and I saw a vision of our future: we met two women, both retired, single, and in their late sixties, traveling together. Their names are Stephanie and Ann. Stephanie’s a physical therapist and Ann’s a lawyer, and they are well-traveled and delightful. We even sat with them at dinner (it was a triple whammy tonight: chicken with mushrooms, veggie ravioli with cilantro sauce and cabbage, and horseradish-coated cod…I had the always-available steak. It was not worth writing home about, and yet I find myself essentially doing just that…) Anyway, during dinner the topic of power outlets and chargers came up. Stephanie did not know if she could safely use the American outlets to charge her camera or iPad, or even how to log her iPhone onto the Wi-Fi. I explained about dual-voltage converters, but her eyes glazed over. So after dinner, the Geek Squad, namely me, made a house call to get her wired up. Well, maybe you had to be there for that to be funny, but I assure you we all thought it was hysterical!

That’s almost a minute-by-minute accounting of the day, so with that I will bid you bon nuit until tomorrow, when we go exploring in Maastricht. Don’t expect too much—it’s Easter Sunday and most everything in town save the churches will be closed!

Posted by hidburch 13:42 Archived in Netherlands Tagged cemetery netherlands manneken-pis margraten Comments (0)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 12) « Page 1 [2] 3 »