© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
According to Wikipedia, Benelux "is a union of states comprising three neighboring countries in Midwestern Europe: Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The union's name is a portmanteau formed from joining the first syllable of each country's name – Belgium Netherlands Luxembourg – and was first used to name the customs agreement that initiated the union (signed in 1944). It is now used in a more general way to refer to the geographic, economic and cultural grouping of the three countries."
I've been to The Netherlands quite a few times, but only once to Luxembourg, and twice to Belgium. On one trip, with my wife and young son, we visited all three. On that trip, we flew with Icelandair to Luxembourg, via Reykjavik (where we stayed three days), then went by train to Paris where I attended a conference. From there, our Benelux Rail Pass took us to Brussels, Amsterdam, and, finally, back to Luxembourg. We flew back home via Iceland, but with no stop-over. Compared to most rail passes, this one allowed considerable flexibility. One could use it for any five days over a 15-day period.
Official Name: Kingdom of Belgium; Capital: Brussels; Language: Dutch, French, and German; Country Code: BE; Currency: Euro (€ or EUR), formerly the Belgian franc.
Belgium is made up of two distinct regions, each with its own language and culture. The people of Flanders speak Flemish, a language closely related to Dutch, while the Walloons Speak French. Belgium is rather a new country, having only gained independence in 1830.
My first visit was a family vacation, and we arrived by train from Paris. We had no hotel reservation, but soon found a place to stay. As I was reading some tourist information, I discovered the famous Waterloo battlefield was on the outskirts of Brussels, so we rode a local bus to have a look. While having a picnic lunch there we met a Canadian family, attached to their country's embassy, and they had a daughter the same age as our son. They offered us a ride back to the city and invited us to spend the rest of the day with them at their house for supper, after which they took us back to our hotel. (Such random acts of kindness are what make traveling great!)
We discovered that our hotel was on the edge of the Arab Quarter, which gave us some interesting shops to explore. One morning we woke up and when we looked out the window, the previously deserted square was filled with stalls. A huge market was in progress. We also visited the famous bird market where people bought and sold caged birds.
We took a day trip to Bruges, the lace capital, and another to Oostende on the English Channel coast.
Nearly 20 years later, I was back in Brussels for a 2-day business meeting. Although I didn't spend any extra time there, I did walk the streets each evening to look at the old part of the city.
Official Name: Grand Duchy of Luxembourg; Capital: Luxembourg City; Language: French, German, and Luxembourgish; Country Code: LU; Currency: Euro (€ or EUR), formerly the Luxembourg franc.
We rode a bus to the city of Luxembourg from the airport. From some tourist brochures I got some hotel phone numbers, and I proceeded to call around to try and find a place to stay. Eventually, we finished up at one where the staff spoke only French, which we did not speak. After we settled in, I went out to find a shop to buy juice, milk, and some snacks; however, by the time I got back, it was dark, and nothing looked familiar. Eventually, I found what looked like our hotel, and on the ground level was a bar and in its window sat a "Lady of the Evening" exhibiting her wares to passersby. Yes, Dear Reader, our hotel was in the heart of the Red Light District!
The hotel room did not have a bathroom; that was out in the hall. Imagine if you will a very large storage closet into which a prefabricated shower cubicle had been placed. The interesting problem was that you opened the closet door then opened the shower cubicle, but once you got inside that, you couldn't close the outer door. You needed a second person to help you get in/out of the shower/closet. It really was so ridiculous it was funny.
We spent half a day at the American War Graves Cemetery where we visited the grave of US Army General George Patton. Ordinarily, the policy is to bury all ranks together, but as Patton was so popular, it was presumed there would be heavy traffic to his grave, so it was set away from the other soldiers.
We rented a car for several days and drove out in to the countryside. We spent time in Wiltz where an American tank from WWII was sitting in the middle of a plaza. Luxembourg is a small country, and we saw most of it over a few days.
At the time, my son was only two years old, so we mostly ate at kid-friendly places that we knew would serve us quickly. That included Pizza Hut! The first time we did that, I struggled with the French menu and my little English-French dictionary, and after I'd placed our order, I noticed a small English version of the menu on the back page. C'est la vie!
Official Name: the Kingdom of the Netherlands; Capital: Amsterdam; Language: Dutch, West Frisian (in the province [and former independent kingdom] of Friesland), Limburgish (in the province of Limburg), and Dutch Low Saxon (in the northeast); Country Code: NL; Currency: Euro (€ or EUR), formerly the Dutch Guilder.
From a 2008 visit to Amsterdam, Haren, and Delft:
[Diary from Amsterdam] At the Schiphol International Airport (AMS), the luggage was quite late in arriving. In the meantime, I asked a cash machine for 200 Euros, which it happily dispensed. The customs folks sat around talking, paying little attention to passengers, but as I approached the exit, one of them decided he needed to appear to be working, and, since I looked rather suspicious, he pulled me over and inspected my case. I was coming in from Oslo, Norway, and he was interested primarily in whether I was carrying any fish. Once he was satisfied I wasn't hiding anything, he thanked me for my cooperation and wished me a good day.
[Diary] From Amsterdam I rode a train to Groningen, the capital of the province of the same name. My stop was the last one before the end. One interesting challenge is that mid-trip, the train splits into two, with one part going off to Leeuwarden, the capital of the province of Friesland. Over the years, I have found it best to be in the right half of the train when this happens. Once again, I had a whole carriage to myself, so I checked to see if I'd remembered to put on deodorant that morning.
[Diary from Haren] Dessert consisted of fresh fruit with vla (pronounced "fla"), which is Dutch custard; it comes in many flavors. I love vla, and when asked why I'm going to the Netherlands, I always respond, "For the vla, of course!"
[Diary] After a breakfast of tea, bread and cheese, my friend Wietske and I set out on bikes for a ride into the countryside. After an hour, we pulled into a village restaurant for morning tea. I was definitely ready for a rest, as I probably hadn't ridden a bike in the year since I was last here. I had my usual, koffie verkeerd (literally "wrong coffee", as they put a little coffee into hot milk rather than the other way around). We also had a nice large slice of appelgebak mit slagroom (apple pie with whipped cream). After a 45-minute break, my upper legs were rather weak when I stood up. It was right about then I remembered Nietzsche's famous quote, "Was mich nicht umbrinkt macht mich sterker." ("That which does not kill me can only make me stronger.")
From a 2009 visit to Delft, Utrecht, and Haren:
[Diary from Delft] I met some colleagues, and we walked around the city in the sunshine. We took a 50-minute canal tour during which a young Dutch man gave us an overview of the city's architecture and history, and told us all about the East and West Indies Companies and merchants' houses on the canals. Delft was the home of the famous painter Vermeer, and a favorite place for William of Orange to stay. He did so because he thought it the safest place to be, yet he was assassinated there. After our boat tour, we stopped in at a small restaurant for coffee and apple pie. We sat in an indoor garden complete with several large macaws, although they didn't seem to speak any Dutch. As we came out of the restaurant, it drizzled lightly. One colleague and I went off to tour a museum and gallery where I got my cultural fix for the trip. By the time we came outside again, the sun was streaming down, so we strolled in the adjacent gardens.
[Diary from Utrecht] I arrived in the new town of Vleuten right on time, and there on the platform was my friend Elsa. We drove to her house nearby where her husband, Eduard, was working. We'd all met some 15 years earlier when they'd stayed with me during a 3-month driving trip around the US. I'd last seen them in 2001 when I stayed overnight on my way to the Schiphol airport. We sat outdoors sipping tea and catching up with each other's news. We ate supper outdoors. Then, after the kids went to bed, we drank coffee and port while we talked some more.
[Diary] Friend Jochem arrived to take me to his house in Houten, a suburb to the southeast of Utrecht. There, his wife, Floor, met us with their three girls, Bente, Jade, and Liane. (I met Jochem and Floor in 2002 in Puerto Rico when they were on their honeymoon.) We talked over tea, and then walked around their development, stopping to feed carrots to some pet rabbits, and bread to some ducks. It was overcast out with occasional sun, and a lot of wind. Back home, we drank more tea and ate a variety of snacks. The oldest daughter, Bente, decided she liked me, and took up a position on my lap. She had recently started to learn to read Dutch, and she showed me several of her favorite books. Her younger sister, Jade was not at all too sure about the foreign-speaking giant, so she kept her distance.
[Diary] Jochem, Bente, and I drove through the countryside through sheep farms and apple and plums orchards. In downtown Utrecht, we parked in a garage, and walked to the big church in the old town. There, we bought tickets for the 12-o'clock tour of the church tower. We had some time to kill, so went into the church and neighboring gardens. At noon, a large group of us gathered for a 50-minute guided tour in Dutch and English. In total, we climbed more than 400 steep steps for a 360-degree view over the city. The largest bell in the tower weighed 8,000 kg, and it had a 250 kg clapper, which was the weight of the smallest bell. In the street, we stopped to listen to a man playing Spanish guitar, and then to two men playing Baroque music on button accordions.
[Diary from Haren] I arrived at Haren station and walked on several familiar paths until I came to the house of my good friends, Gerard and Wietske, and their teenage girls, Marly and Suze. I'd last seen them in April 2008. As soon as we met, we picked up from where we left off last time. After supper, we drank tea and talked of many things. Gerard's latest book, about a German SS officer, had been published, and he was hard at work on another one, about a US marine during the Pacific campaign in WWII. And he had a day job besides.
[Diary] I was up at 08:30, and I had a cup of tea with Gerard. After that, he did some warm-up exercises in preparation for a 12-km run. We left the house with Gerard stretching out, and me on a bike, which was just about an even match given the difference in our respective fitness levels. We wound around the edge of Haren and out through several other villages and long dark paths through the forest. The Netherlands probably has the best support for bike riding of any country.
[Diary] Early afternoon, Wietske suggested a ride to a village having a 2-day festival. Soon after, she, Suze, and I set out on the 7-km trip through forests. The main feature of the festival was a series of floats decorated with flowers, foliage, and vegetables. Each one had a theme, and most had people in costume for their theme. Given the perishable nature of the decorations, they had been completed only the day before. The floats were impressive. There was live music, and we listened for some time to a choir of over-60s singing old tunes in English. They were having a great time. There were numerous stalls selling clothing, food, and toys. Mid-afternoon, we peddled back home.
From a 2013 visit to Amsterdam, Haren, Utrecht, and Delft:
[Diary] Now I didn't actually want to be in Germany; it's just that my preferred airline group, Star Alliance, didn't fly directly from London to Amsterdam. The best they could do was to route me through Frankfurt, which was probably more than four times the direct distance. C'est la vie! Well, I followed the Connecting Flights signs, but I still had to go through passport control and security even though I was only in-country about an hour. The alarm went off when I walked through security, and I was subjected to a rigorous hand-check. The security officer gave me a series of instructions in German, to which I replied, "Auf English, bitte." (In English please.) And his reply, in English, was, "I speak only German!"
To say that I walked a half-marathon to my gate would be exaggerating a bit, but it sure was a long way. At least I didn't have to change terminals! No sooner had I arrived at Gate A34, that I found a woman from Mexico who spoke only Spanish, and she needed help finding her gate. So I took her to the flight display, looked at her boarding pass, and directed her to a gate nearby. I found that my basic Spanish was a bit rusty as I struggled to remember my numbers.
In the waiting area I sat next to a very interesting young Dutch woman who was returning home to Utrecht from 12 days holiday on the island of Malta. She was a PhD student doing research on various aspects of cancer. We talked of many things and I discovered that in the Netherlands graduate students get paid a stipend. She would graduate in a year and planned to do post-grad work in London.
Boarding was called and being an elite flyer, I got to board Flight LH1002 early. At the entrance I asked the young flight attendant if the plane was going somewhere near Amsterdam. She replied with a smile, "No, we're going to Brussels, but you can get a taxi from there." We both laughed and agreed that, it's the journey, not the destination!
[Diary from Amsterdam] The Amsterdam International Airport (AMS) is called Schiphol and is up to 11 feet below sea level, so I hope that little Dutch boy keeps his finger in the dijk (dike). The name comes from "Ship Grave", a reference to the fact that numerous ships sank in the area before it was reclaimed.
[Diary] I had decided to do one significant activity that day, and that was to visit the Dutch Resistance Museum dealing with WWII. I spent more than 2½ hours looking at videos, reading information, and listening to an English-language headset. It was very well done and most informative. Of course, the theme suggests the problems the Dutch had with the occupation by the Germans, but one section of exhibits dealt with the impact of Japan's entering the war. Japan attacked and overran the Dutch East Indies. After the war, the Dutch expected to go back to the way things were there, but Sukarno and others pushed for independence, which eventually came in 1949. One theme I came away with was, during such an occupation, should the people "adapt, collaborate, or resist"? I guess we really won't know which we'd do until we're placed in that position.
I took the tram back into the downtown getting off at Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square). There, right in the middle of the square was a large statue of the great painter, surrounded by many bronze, armed men. There were many tourists and locals lazing in the sun, and as I watched, a half a dozen policemen and women walked among the groups of people inspecting their bags, presumably for drugs.
I decided to enjoy the sunshine and I walked along a canal to the square in front of the palace. Along the way, I stopped to take photos of bikes, bridges, tour boats, canals, and interesting signs. I jumped aboard a Number 14 tram and headed back to my neighborhood. There, I dropped by a supermarket to rescue two liters of volle melk (whole milk), a liter of sinaasapplesap (orange juice), and a carton of vanillavla (vanilla custard). (As a growing boy, I have to keep up my strength!)
[Diary] In the lift going down I met an American woman living in Berlin. Together, we walked to catch the tram. Having mastered the public transport system the previous day, I was ready for bigger moves, such as changing from one tram to another! After two very fast trips, I was standing at the end of a long line waiting to get into the van Gogh Museum. I wondered why it was so popular. Perhaps word had gotten around that Vinnie had cut off his other ear! The line moved quickly and I paid for €20-worth of culture, which included an audio/video guide. Two hours and four floors later I still didn't understand art, sigh. [This was my second visit to that museum. My first was 32 years earlier during my first visit to Amsterdam.] A number of his works looked familiar. These included two of his sunflower series, several self-portraits (but not my favorite one done with dots), and The Potato Eaters. When I saw Still life with cabbage and clogs, I almost wanted to cut off my own ear! He certainly lived the life of a tortured artist, and died by his own hand at age 37. To be sure, the highlight of my visit was the restaurant, where I had a bowl of tomato and parsley soep (soup) and a saucijzen broodje (sausage roll). It was more food than I needed, but it sure was good.
The large, open space behind the museum was full of tents and people with what appeared to be a festival to promote all the museums and galleries around the city. The public was out in force with entertainment, food, and drink all around. An impressive, huge building dominated the end of the park, and I walked over to take a look at it. It was the Rijksmuseum. I wondered around its gardens and main hall, but declined to go into the exhibits.
There was a tram stop nearby, and after I stood there waiting for while I noticed that stalls were built over the tram tracks in that area. Perhaps the tram to this point wasn't running today, thought I, and I was right. So I had to walk a bit to get outside the temporary pedestrian zone. I rode a tram toward the city station and got off to walk down some back streets. Then once I got back on the tram, it was stopped soon after by a police incident up ahead, so I got off and walked to the main station. From there, I headed towards De Oude Kirk (The Old Church) that had been recommended in one of my guidebooks. I saw the spires and headed down a side alley towards them. Just then, there was a loud knocking of metal on glass off to my right, and when I turned to see what it was, I saw a scantily-clad, buxom, dark-skinned woman sitting in a window rapping on the glass with her rings. She was tempting me like a Siren, but it had nothing to do with any rocks! So I raced off to the safety of the church, passing several more such ladies-of-the-night as I went. However, once I got there, I found the interior of the church quite underwhelming, and the €5 admission wasted. I might have gotten more value from one of the ladies! It was getting cold and a stiff breeze was blowing. Besides, my feet were telling me to go home. So I did, but I had to go through the Red Light District to get there.
[Diary from Haren] My friend, Gerard, came home around 13:00 and we ate lunch together and talked of many things. Around 14:30, we set out for his daily exercise (which doesn't include his 2x6 km bike ride to work each day). He was training for extreme races (those longer than a marathon; that is, more than 43 km) and he has a coach who sets him a monthly training schedule. This day it involved 1:15 hours of running, in five lots of 15 minutes with one minute walking between. I followed along on a bicycle. For the most part we were on paved surfaces, brick paths, or hard crushed gravel, but in a few places it was soft sand, and I had to put in some serious effort. We did it all, trains, boats, planes, and automobiles. During our 15-km jaunt, we followed along the main inter-city train line, we crossed a major canal along which a German was taking his big motor yacht, we crossed the flight path of the local airport, and we followed the regional freeway and crossed under it. We wound through villages and forests and between fields on farms, seeing sheep, horses, sweat corn, and lots of thick green grass.
Back home, Gerard prepared supper and we sat down to eat. Consider a family of four adults all of whom ride bikes and walk all the time and you can imagine they have hearty appetites, especially Gerard who completes in triathlons (swimming, running, and biking, with ice skating instead of swimming in winter).
After we finished eating and I did the dishes, Wietske and I went for a long walk on the edge of town where I patted and fed grass to some horses. It was very pleasant out and we talked of many things. Back home, we all sat quietly in the lounge reading with the sound of the clock ticking. I started in on Bryon Farwell's biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, an amazing man from the Victorian Age.
[Diary from Utrecht] Around 11:00, we drove to a small river where we rented a rowboat and a 2-person kayak. We worked hard against the strong current for two hours with friend Floor and me rowing two girls in the boat and her husband, Jochem, with the third girl in the kayak. It was hard work and the seat was also very hard! However, the rain held off. We ate a nice lunch at a restaurant and then took only one hour to get back downstream. As we finished, a few drops of rain fell.
Next, we drove Bente to a riding lesson at a local stable. The class rode in a large in-door area and we watched them through windows in an attached waiting room. We played cards, looked around the stables, and I worked on this diary. Back home, Bente (age 10) cooked salmon in puff pastry, which we ate with salad.
[Diary] The next day, we all crammed in the car and headed out for our next adventure. The country road was just wide enough for a car and had marked bike lanes on each side. Despite the overcast day, many people were out riding. We also encountered a group of older motorcycle riders, including several with the ladies in sidecars. For some distance, we drove on a road atop an earthen dike. Finally, we reached a nature park where we walked a path along a river and among a herd of curious calves. Jade and I stopped to pick wildflowers. From there, they dropped me at a local station train; however, as soon as I reached the platform, the waiting train left without me. Don't you just hate that when that happens? So the whole family came onto the platform and waited with me for 15 minutes.
I bought a ticket to Utrecht Central, where I bought another one to Delft, supposedly via Den Haag (The Hague). The screen showed Spoor (Track) 8, and by the time I got there it was one minute to departure. I jumped on and just as the train started to pull out, I asked a woman if this was the train to Den Haag. She shook her head and said that we were going to Rotterdam. Apparently, I was on Platform 8a, and should have been a bit further along it at 8b. Oh well, Rotterdam is on the way to Delft, so I could change there. There was only one stop, in the famous cheese-market town of Gouda.
[Diary from Delft] At the Delft station, nothing looked like I remembered it. No, I wasn't having a senior moment and I hadn't gotten off at the wrong station; the station was in a complete state of turmoil with major construction going on. Light rain fell and just as I spied a fietstaxi (a small bike-like taxi driven by pedals) with a young woman driver, someone engaged her, and I was left to walk to my hotel in the rain. Once there I dumped my luggage, freshened up a bit, and then headed back to the center of town for a dinner meeting with some colleagues. Back in my room, I prepared for several meetings the next day.
My very nice room turned out to have a toaster oven for a bed cover, but due to some ingenious thinking, I managed to sleep most of the night without cooking. However, when my 07:00 alarm sounded, I was not ready to get up. A very hot shower rectified that and, by 07:30 I was in the dining room perusing the breakfast buffet, which was included in the room rate. I had a bowl of fruit with cornflakes, some dense, black bread with cheese and ham, and some juice. And to my pleasant surprise one of the three options on the coffee machine was café verkeerd, so I ordered up one of those and filled the tall glass mug with hot milk. It was all quite civilized. There was quite a crowd, eating quietly and talking in various languages.
[Diary] I shared a taxi to my meeting place with a committee secretary, a very pleasant Japanese woman I've come to know over the years. As we arrived early, I worked on my own for an hour until the plenary started at 10:00. Delegates attended from seven countries; however, the US delegation had gotten on an inter-city train by mistake, which took them to Rotterdam. Their train went through, but didn't stop at, the station they wanted! Don't you just hate that when that happens?
We broke for lunch at noon, and enjoyed some chicken satays with hot peanut sauce and rice with salad. At 1 o'clock, I joined an ad-hoc meeting that lasted for 90 minutes. Afterwards, I joined another committee, which met for two more hours. Meetings, bloody meetings!
[Diary] As I got to the train platform my train was standing there, but the doors were shut. I pushed the "open door" button and the train's electronics ignored me and the train pulled out of the station. A bit rude I thought! Anyway, there was another one in 15 minutes. As I waited, I noticed what looked like police activity listed on a few Inter-City train schedules. There were also some announcements on the PA system. When I asked a local to translate, he told me a dead body had been found at a station a few stops away, and that police were re-directing trains or not letting them stop at that station. Fortunately, that had no effect on my trip.
I caught a train that was direct to Schiphol Airport (AMS) via The Hague and the university city of Leiden. At Priority Check-In, I was processed in no time and the friendly Lufthansa agent got me a better seat on my second leg. After security, I located a business lounge that was happy to have me sit and rest a bit and to use its Wi-Fi system. I noted with interest how many people were drinking beer and spirits/liquor at 8:30 in the morning. AMS is at the crossroads of an international travel network, and it was interesting to see where everyone was going. My gate was one of many just on one concourse, and flights from there were scheduled to the following: Alicante, Basel, Berlin, Bilbao, Billund, Bologna, Bordeaux, Brussels, Canary Islands, La Coruna, Dusseldorf, Geneva, Hanover, Linkoping, Lisbon, Luxembourg, Lyon, Malta, Munich, Oslo, Nice, Prague, Stavanger, Stuttgart, Toulouse, Trondheim, and Vienna, all relatively short-haul destinations within Europe.
Bucket List: I've been to 11 of the Netherland's 12 provinces, with only Zeeland left to go. [Zeeland is the namesake of New Zealand.] I've gone wadlopen (walking out in the sea on the mudflats), so no need to do that again. In the back of my mind, I do have an idea about staying at a B&B in winter on one of the East Frisian Islands with a friendly dog to walk on the beach.