As the cold descended on The Netherlands this past week, the country became very excited about the possibility of being able to hold the famed Elfstedentocht. If you have never heard of it, the Elfstedentocht literally translates to the eleven cities tour, and it is the largest ice skating tour in the world at nearly 200 kilometers in length. Both speed skaters and leisure skaters may enter the competition to skate along the natural ice that connects the eleven cities in Friesland, a northern province of The Netherlands, but there is a limit of 16,000 skaters. The route traverses canals, rivers and lakes and must be completed by midnight on race day (the average time for completion for a speed skater is 7 hours). The race is a beloved tradition and in 1986 the king himself (then just a prince at 18 years old) entered under an alias. The first Elfstedentocht took place in 1909 and it has only been held 15 times since then. Why? Because the ice along the entire route must be 15 cm (6 in) thick in order for the race to take place. The last time the Dutch were able to hold the race was 1997, so you can imagine the initial excitement about the possibility of the race taking place. Sadly, before the cold even settled in, the race was declared a no-go due to Covid and the fact that it would draw too many crowds. In fact, some predict that there will never again be an Elfstedentocht due to global warming and the need for the perfect winter conditions to maintain 15cm of ice thickness as well as the fact that the towns of Friesland may no longer be able to handle the crowds now that the internet and media presence increase the spotlight on these types of events drawing much larger crowds. None the less, while they couldn’t have an Elfstedentoch this year, the Dutch definitely took to the ice everywhere and enjoyed some natural ice skating thanks to the weeklong subfreezing temperatures. And while the fun may be over now, there is always the hope that next year will bring another chance to hit the ice!
During the past several weeks, we have done a little town hopping around the Zuid Holland and Noord Brabant provinces of The Netherlands. We only spent about an hour or so in each of these locations, but they all had interesting and charming things to see and proved to be nice, quick and pandemic approved excursions.
We began our hopping in Willemstad, a small fortified city laid out in the shape of a 7 point star and surrounded by a 125-foot wide moat as designed by Willem the Silent (you’ll have to revisit some of my earlier posts to remember your history on him). Willemstad only has a few thousand residents, and it was very quaint. We enjoyed walking the almost empty streets (a perk of heading to the town early on a Sunday) and checking out the church and its graveyard boasting some really old stones as well as the Mauritshuis which was built as the hunting castle of Prince Maurits in 1587.
The weather was also perfect for strolling through the arsenal area, which showcased hut-like structures from the 1800s that were used in storing ammunition, and along part of the fortified city wall, eventually passing the harbor and then walking through the town center.
The town was very clean and quiet and had an upbeat charm which was evident in the quirky little dolls we saw in a canal as well as some little fairy doors affixed to a couple of trees featuring homes for owls and spiders.
Next up was Brielle. Brielle is also a fortified city. Brielle’s claim to fame is that, in 1572, it was the first town to be liberated from Spanish occupation thus leading the way for The Kingdom of The Netherlands to emerge (for those that didn’t know, The Netherlands was once under Spanish rule but Willem the Silent led a campaign to overthrow them and take back the land). They currently have cheeky signs around town asking residents to keep a 1.572 meter (pandemic request is 1.5 meter) distance from one another.
There were many charming buildings, homes and streets to see in Brielle and quite a few ornamental features including ancient-looking, square carvings on many of the buildings.
We enjoyed walking past this row of homes that I swear had to be converted from an old stable because of the half doors and shuttered windows, a gate to an ancient monastery and the church where Willem the Silent (that guy is everywhere!) married his third wife with its tower where Mary Stuart (a descendent of Mary Queen of Scots) would watch her husband (the great grandson of Willem the Silent) sail off to claim the British throne. That’s right-in the late 1600s, the king of The Netherlands was also the king of England.
And apparently, no trip to a small fortified city would be complete without strange little dolls.
Next up, we traveled to a much bigger city- ‘s Hertogenbosch. The highlight of this city has got to be the massive gothic cathedral in the town square. It is really unlike any other cathedral we have seen in The Netherlands as they mostly tend to be a lot simpler in style. There is quite a bit of sculptural work on the cathedral and of special note are the figures climbing the buttresses on either side.
After viewing the cathedral, we made our way to the market square where we found an old well house, a caged saint and a statue of painter Hieronymus Bosch. Here one can also find the old town hall and the oldest house in town, De Moriaan, which dates from the 13th century.
After seeing the historic sites, we wandered through the city on our way to the citadel and the Oranje, a preserved bastion alongside a huge cannon (couldn’t get a picture of the cannon as it was housed in a glass-walled building and was just too long to get from an angle on the outside).
Near the Oranje, we also found another church, St. Catherine’s, and a view of the vast, flat fields outside the city.
While the city was much larger than the others we had visited, it still had a lot of unique and interesting features.
We also especially enjoyed walking through the Uilenburg Quarter. It was really lovely with its canals and quiet streets.
And finally, no trip seems to be complete without some quirky dolls or decorative features so here are a few from ‘s Hertogenbosch.
Our final stop on our town hopping tour was Breda. Breda was probably the largest of all of the towns and it was fairly busy while we were there. Squares with outdoor restaurant seating abounded and were quite full. We made our way to the Grote Kerk (large church) which is where many members of the royal family are buried and features a Prince’s Pew which is always reserved for members of the royal family. We were unable to go inside due to a special exhibit that was underway, but we enjoyed seeing the ornate tower from the outside.
We also took a route past the Town Hall and Breda Castle. We walked through Valkenberg Park which was formerly part of the castle grounds where falcons were trained and where ornamental gardens were located.
Near the park is the Beguinage which is a walled-in area with an ancient church and medieval dwellings. The area was formerly inhabited by religious women and is now home to elderly women.
And finally, in homage to the weird dolls and figures we found in all of these places, here is the strange decoration from Breda.
All in all, we enjoyed our town hopping. We had been feeling like we were missing out on exploring The Netherlands thanks to the restrictions and precautions of the pandemic, but these little excursions allowed us to feel like we were still getting an opportunity to take advantage of our time here to learn more about the country. The main tourist locations are great, but there are some really beautiful and interesting things that can be found in these lesser-known locations and, hopefully, you enjoyed exploring a few of them with us!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!