Day Tripping Over the Holidays

This past weekend we ventured to two cities in The Netherlands for a quick day trip- Haarlem which is north of Amsterdam and Zwolle which is an hour northeast of us.

First up, in Haarlem, we walked around the old city center which was quite extensive with many cute storefronts and restaurants as well as a large church.

Our main purpose in visiting Haarlem was to tour the Corrie ten Boom Museum.  The museum is the house that the ten Boom family lived in when they assisted with the resistance during WWII.  If you have never read The Hiding Place, which was written by Corrie ten Boom, then I highly recommend it.  I read the book last year, so getting to tour the house and walk around the city where the events took place, was very enjoyable.  One interesting fact from the tour-124,000 Jews lived in The Netherlands during the war and 104,000 were killed.  Unbelievable!


Our second day trip was to Zwolle.  Here, again, was a very lovely historic city center.

We wandered around the town, but our main purpose on this trip was to see the ice sculptures at the Ijsbeelden festival.  The festival theme this year was “Traveling Through Time.”  The sculptures were amazing and the theme was presented very nicely-and yes, everything is made completely of ice.   It was pretty cold in the exhibit, though, so we had to get some hot chocolate and sweet treats after the ice hall.  All in all, a very nice way to spend a day.


Both of our day trips were a lot of fun, but we weren’t able to see everything that we wanted to see in Haarlem, so watch for another post on that in the future.




Zundert Flower Parade

Today, we traveled to a small town near the Belgian border for what is billed as the largest flower parade in the world (I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion as I’m still pretty sure the Rose Parade is bigger).  None the less, this parade was pretty well done with lots of floats made mostly from dahlias that are grown in the area of Zundert.  Much like the Rose Parade, these floats are huge and elaborate with moving parts, sound, and special effects.  Unlike the Rose Parade, some of these floats are dark and bizarre-think The Grim Reaper, demonic, creepy figures and one float that seemed to be depicting an indigenous spirit type religion.



There were a few floats that were a little gentler and cute.



And then there was this one, which I’m not sure if it would fall in the cute or scary category (actually it was a part of a series of floats depicting babies from in utero to walking)!


Finally, there was the quintessential Dutch moment when the band rode by on bicycles.  I’m not sure how they do it, but my guess is that you would only see that in The Netherlands!


And to top it all off, Zundert is the birthplace of Vincent Van Gogh, so we took a quick stroll by the house where he was born.


The weather was comfortable, the floats and bands were fun, and the town was nice for a walk.  All in all, it was a good day!

“Gouda You Do” in Gouda?

The kids and I took a quick trip over to Gouda (pronounced how-da) a couple of weeks ago for the cheese market.  Though this market was much smaller and simpler than the one in Alkmaar, it was fun to watch for a few minutes.  The “hand-slapping to make a deal” portion of this market was a little more theatrical and lasted a little longer which the kids enjoyed.  There was also a nice open-air market around the cheese area where you could get some snacks and see some craftsman at work.  We made a pewter figure in a mold that was more than 100 years old (we also promptly broke said figure, but it is now repaired!).


After checking out the market area, we walked in the old part of the city which was very quaint and lovely.


We checked out the old church, St. Janskerk, which was really large and had many stained glass windows-something that is not very characteristic of the churches in The Netherlands.


And, everyone knows that food is a highlight of many of our excursions so we were pretty excited to get to try the original recipe for the Stroopwafel which was first made in Gouda-delicious!  All in all, it was a perfect short outing to check out Gouda.

Giethoorn- The Venice of The Netherlands

This past week we traveled to the city of Giethoorn in The Netherlands.  Giethoorn is only accessible by foot, bike or boat.  Giethoorn was created by religious zealots who settled in the area and began peat farming.  The methods by which they cut the peat out of the land caused waterways and bodies of water to form.  In addition, the farmers needed to cut canals in order to transport the peat more easily.  Thus, Giethoorn was formed into a town of water passages.

There are two ways to see Giethoorn.  You can park near the highway and walk the tourist boardwalk to the middle of the town which is the church (most of the inhabitants of the town are Mennonites).  Once in the town, you can use the pathways to walk or bike.  There are many tourist shops and restaurants along the main path and there are bridges to the homes and businesses on the other side of the main canal (most of these are not accessible to the public).


The other way to see Giethoorn is by boat.  You can rent a boat and explore on your own or you can book a tour boat.  The tour boats are “whisper” boats meaning that they are electric and thus do not make the noise of a fuel run boat.  The tour boats stick to the main canal and the lake to the other side of the town.  The smaller boats that can be rented allow you to go down smaller side canals along the homes.  There are many choices for renting a boat such as a rowboat, small motorboat, canoe or raft.


There are only 2,600 inhabitants of Giethoorn and just like the tourists, their only way to get around town is by boat or foot.  In fact, there is farming that occurs in Giethoorn but the cows must be transported by boat to the fields for grazing.  All homeowners are required to inhabit in the town permanently.  Summer or rental housing is only found around the lake area where there are cottage style homes, camping areas and retreat facilities.


We were lucky enough to arrive in Giethoorn in the early morning and walk the town on foot before many other tourists arrived.  The town was very peaceful and idyllic with lush gardens and manicured lawns.



After a couple of hours, we took a tour boat around the canals and out to the lake.  And lest you think that the town is just a storybook town all day, keep in mind that as more and more tourists arrive (and there are plenty), the canals get very packed with boats.


But even with the boat traffic, the town is very enjoyable.  We ate some lunch along the canal and enjoyed watching all of the boats go by.  After our lunch, we decided to visit the museum of Giethoorn.  It was a very nice museum with some interesting displays on what life in Giethoorn was like in the past.  We especially enjoyed the displays of traditional dress and old style farm housing.


Giethoorn was a lovely town and a fun way to spend the day.  If we return, we plan to rent our own boat and do some further exploring, but that will be an adventure for another day.



Royal Flora Holland Flower Market

Yesterday, we drove up to Alkmaar to tour the Royal Flora Holland Flower Market.  The market is actually a flower auction.  It is the largest flower auction in the world.  Every weekday, millions of flowers are auctioned from 7am to about 10am.  The facility itself is impressive.  It is 1.3 million square meters which is the equivalent to 220 football fields.  Flowers are supplied by 6,000 suppliers from all over the world and there are 2,500 customers to which flowers are transported.  The facility uses technology to help them sell the flowers quickly and get them to homes in a shorter turn around time.

They test flowers at the facility as well in order to ensure the quality and shelf life of the flowers.  Labs simulating real-life household conditions such as temperature control and day and night variants in light are used to determine how long the flowers should last in our homes.


On the visit, we were also able to see the auction floor where the biding on the flowers occurs.  It too is heavily automated and even allows for today’s buyers to bid remotely.  The entire process from arrival from sellers to the bidding, packaging and delivery to buyers is very streamlined and quite impressive.


In addition to the flower market, they also have a plant auction which we did not see.

I never knew what an involved and high-pressure business flowers could be.  The tour was enlightening and quite enjoyable and man were there some beautiful flowers there!



Over the weekend we did a little island hopping in the province of Zeeland.  Zeeland is a southern province of The Netherlands made up of several islands.  We enjoyed a couple of beaches, watched kite sailing, saw a ton of sailboats and strolled the beach town of Domburg.  We also got to drive the longest bridge in The Netherlands and over the Osterschelde which is a massive dam.  A perfect excursion for a warm, sunny day!

Say Cheese

We recently took an excursion to Alkmaar to observe the reenactment of the cheese market.  Alkmaar has had a cheese market and thriving cheese trade since the 1300s.  Cheese was brought to the market square in front of the weighing house for trading by the four different cheese groups, each identified by the color of the hat that they wear.  On trading day, the cheese is laid out in front of the weighing house.


At 10am the bell is rung to signal the start of the trading.  At that time, the cheese bearers begin stacking cheese on their wooden carrying planks and taking it to the weighing scale inside the weigh house.  After it is weighed, the bearers haul it back to the square to the loading carts where it is carted off to buyers.


All of this is overseen by the Cheese Fathers for each group.


During the process, cheese inspectors examine the cheese with a 4 category process to ensure its quality.  Finally, the seller and buyer agree on a price in an interesting hand slapping process.


All of these elements are traditional to how cheese was traded for centuries although it is now just a display for fun.  Cheese inspectors at today’s market share samples of the cheese with the crowd. They use a small plug device to extract a cylindrical piece of cheese from the huge cheese wheel.


In addition, cheese maids wander the crowd selling cheese products.


You can also purchase cheese and other treats at the market stalls around the square.

In addition to our visit to the market, we also stopped in the Cheese Museum.  It was a small but informative museum about the history of cheese making in The Netherlands, particularly Alkmaar.  There were many interesting artifacts.

So-did we eat any cheese?  But of course.  They just sell Gouda though you can get it in many different flavors.  We tried a young (couple month ripened) Gouda and an old (2 years ripened) cheese.  Both were very good!

A day in Alkmaar-now that’s how you say cheese!

Witches and Wildlife

This past weekend, we checked out two places that we have been interested in – Oudewater and Biesbosch.

Oudewater is a very charming town; the highlight of which is the witch weighing house.  The house is currently a museum but it was originally a weigh house for all kinds of products.  Then during the 1500-1600s, it became a place to weigh suspected witches.  If the suspect was found to be of normal weight for a human of their stature, they received a certificate of clearance that they could then keep and use as clearance any time they were accused of witchcraft or sorcery.  The museum itself is fairly small, but they do provide some interesting information on witch persecution and the best part-they still have the weigh scale and they will weigh you and provide you with your clearance certificate (kids at least, not sure about adults).  Our youngest has been cleared, though I still have my doubts!

Aside from the museum, Oudewater has some lovely architecture and historic buildings.  Being that the area was small, it made for a nice stroll on a pleasant day.

Our other stop for the weekend was Biesbosch.  This is a nature reserve that is well known for its beaver population.  While we didn’t see any beavers, we did see many birds and waterfowl (they have sea eagles which look like bald eagles) and we learned a little about the history of the area and the harvesting and use of the willow cane that grows there.  We also saw a ton of those “soap” producing trees.  There are many hiking and biking trails at Biesbosch and many people take boats or canoes out on the water.

Though our weather has been struggling to stay dry, warm and sunny, it was a nice weekend for these excursions and as pleasant as they were, we would definitely go back.

Bloemencorso Flower Parade

Last weekend we went to the spring flower parade here in The Netherlands-The Bloemencorso.  Think of the Rose Parade in which the floats are turned into designs comprised of flowers.  Now shrink the floats down in your mind in terms of scale, types of flowers (I think they only use local flowers, no imports) and detail, but lengthen the parade route so that it takes 6+ hours and winds through numerous cities.  Voila-The Bloemencorso!  While it wasn’t quite up to Rose Parade standards, it was fun to go and watch in person.  The floats smelled great, we got to hear some fun bands and it didn’t take too long (about an hour) for it to go by our viewing spot in Noordwijk, a cute sea town.

Actually, the thing that struck us the most about the parade was the lack of crowd control.  Don’t get me wrong, there were police and parade escorts but they just didn’t do much to keep the crowds off the parade route.  People continuously migrated further off the sidewalks and into the street, often walking or standing right in front of a float as it came down the route.  No one seemed concerned about it at all.  But unlike the Rose Parade, it was also very easy to park close, walk up to and leave the parade and we didn’t need to show up more than 30 minutes or so in advance to get a good viewing spot.

Apparently, there is another parade in the late summer which features summer rather than spring flowers so we might check it out.  Also, just like the Rose Parade, they park the floats in a lot the day before or the night after, so that you can get an up-close look.  That might be fun for a future parade as well.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy some of these pictures of the parade.


Excursion to Groningen

This past weekend we decided to make a day trip to Groningen in the northeast of The Netherlands.  It was about a two and a half hour drive.  On the way, we drove past a few tulip fields and a lot of wildflowers.

Upon arriving at the city, we left the car in a parking garage and headed toward the museum that prompted our visit.  As we began down the street, we suddenly realized we might be in the red light district as to our right was a store window display featuring variously sized penises and on our left was a very old prostitute in her undergarments awaiting business.  We quickly ushered the children along (they seemed oblivious to it all) and made our way to a less controversial area.

Our first stop was the Groniger Museum.  The museum currently had a special exhibit of Chihuly work so we thought we would check it out.

In addition to the Chihuly exhibit, the museum has a permanent collection of oriental china, paintings and sculpture work (you can be certain there were a few strange pieces thrown in the mix-yes that is Ronald McDonald, the Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese).


After the museum, we made our way to some of the historic areas of the city.  Most of the places we stopped were almshouses, housing areas provided as a charity for the poor.  They are walled in areas featuring courtyards and what we would think of as apartment-style housing around the courtyard.  People still live in these areas today.  The first one that we stopped at was St. Anthony’s Gasthuis.  This used to be a hospital for plague victims and later became a mental institution for 200 years before becoming housing.  Across from this was St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Next, we went to another almshouse, the Pepergasthuis.  You can see the bars on some of the windows which are left from the days when part of the building was a home for the mentally ill.  This one had a pretty courtyard with a historic water pump.

We moved on to Martini Church with its tower.  We chose not to climb the tower but instead walked around the church to the area where they have some of the government buildings.

We stopped for lunch and while I’m not sure of the history of the building that the restaurant was in, but it was a beautiful building.


After lunch, we walked through the outdoor market and bought some vegetables before heading to A-Kerk.  It was closed but the dome on top was impressive and has apparently had to be put back on several times in its history.


Finally, we stopped at the Pelstergasthuis, which is one of the largest almshouses in the Netherlands and the oldest in Groningen dating from the mid 1200s.  It used to be a hospital for the poor and an overnight stop for medieval travelers but has been housing the elderly since 1600.  It had nice courtyards.

After leaving Groningen, we drove to the nearby city of Leek and stopped at Nienoord Castle.  The castle is not a fairy tale European castle as you might see in Germany or France but more of an estate home or mansion.  This one, however, did come complete with two drawbridges and a moat.  The castle houses the National Carriage Museum so we had a peek at the various carriages from over the years including ones used by the royal family.  They even had a simulation in which kids could try to drive a carriage.

There was a small house featuring shell walls next to the castle.

The grounds at Nienoord were very nice as well.

While Groningen wasn’t our favorite place that we have been in the Netherlands, it was a pleasant trip and not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

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