My first post-pandemic trip with my cousin was a two-week trip to the BeNeLux region (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg). We chose late April so we could see the tulip blooms and we were not disappointed! For those of you that want to explore this region of Europe, here are a few of my highlights.
Tulips, Canals, and Bikes, Oh My!
We spent a week based in Amsterdam and stayed at the Dikker & Thijs Hotel located in the Leidesplein neighborhood, directly across from a tram stop, making it ideal for all our traipsing around the city.
Our first stop was the Keukenhof Garden, home to an astounding display of 7 million spring-flowering bulbs. Open for only six weeks, they host over 40,000 people a day, so go early in the day, book a bus transport ahead of time (the traffic was crazy), and wander to the far reaches of the grounds. It was truly spectacular. We also took a day trip to Haarlem to view the flower parade floats up close and at our leisure.
And another day trip out to Giethoorn, an idyllic town whose only forms of transport along their canals are electric “whisper” boats or good old-fashioned walkways and bridges.
Speaking of canals, Amsterdam is a city where directions are given by canals and bridges, not streets. Cars tend to fall into the canals regularly because there are no barriers to stop them. The architecture is iconic – tall, narrow houses standing shoulder to shoulder like brick-solid soldiers ready to march. Hoisting beams, steep staircases, and gable stones embedded in cobblestones were constant reminders of the history of this city.
One of the major attractions in Amsterdam is the Ann Frank House. Due to its small size, tickets are limited. They go on sale exactly six weeks ahead, so I’d gotten up at 1 a.m. (10 a.m. in the Netherlands) and logged on to their site. I was #808 in the queue! I’m glad I interrupted my sleep to secure the time slot I wanted (including the 30-minute lecture before entry) because we heard a lot of woeful stories from folks who couldn’t get tickets!
While Ann Frank House was well done, the museum that had the biggest impact on me was the Dutch Resistance Museum (also known as the Verzets Museum). Detailing each year of the country’s occupation during WW II, we were immersed in the growing threats, fears, and ultimate resistance against the Nazi occupation. Both museums asked us to consider the question “What would you do if your family was threatened?” It’s a question I ponder to this day.
We visited other museums including the Rijksmuseum where I experienced extreme people overload. While I appreciate the Dutch Master technique, I came to realize I have a limit as to how many white men in black hats with ruff collars and occasional swords I can see in a day! I preferred the Moco Museum featuring Banksy and Warhol and the Rembrandt House, where we were treated to an etching demonstration using the copper plates, pigments, and paper of the early 1600s.
Finally, there were fewer windmills than expected and a lot more bikes! If you have visions of renting a bike and leisurely toodling around the city, think again. Amsterdammers take their bikes as seriously as New York cabbies take their taxis. I consider my visit to Amsterdam a huge success mainly because I didn’t get run over by a bike.
Charmed by Bruges
We then ventured via train to Bruges, a city that smells like waffles, believes beer is God’s way of saying he loves us, chocolate is an art form, and all meals must include frites (French fries), whether you want them or not.
Our hotel room at the Hotel Bourgeon Hof had been described as a canal budget room. Given that canals were everywhere, we’d focused on the budget part, anticipating this might be a small room. What a happy accident to discover it was just the right size and had the best view in the entire hotel! If you go, ask for room 331.
To orient ourselves, we took a free walking tour which included chocolate tasting, and the discovery of a free harp concert that was music for the soul. We had dinner at the Potato Bar and yes, we sat at the bar so we could watch the cooks work their magic. Buckets of fresh-cut potatoes were piled into the first vat of canola oil and cooked for…a while. They were then set to cool on a shelf for…another period of time. Then they were fried in a second vat until deemed perfectly done, ready to be added to every dish they served. The process seemed to be done by instinct and long tradition.
Side note: Contrary to popular belief, the French did not invent French fries. When American soldiers liberated Belgium at the end of WW II, they heard a lot of French being spoken and assumed these delightful fried potatoes were French. It rankles the Belgians to this day, so call them frites and enjoy!
We continued our historical exploration of this region by booking a private tour of Flanders Field and WW I memorial sites. Our guide, Nathan, was amazing. His deep historical knowledge, passion for his country, and wry humor made for a delightful, if somewhat emotional, day. The visit to the Passchendaele Museum featuring an immersive walk among WWI trenches was truly unforgettable.
Overwhelmed in Brussels
Our last destination was Brussels, where we emerged from the train station to be swept into a large protest to improve the rights of teachers. (Fitting since my cousin is a retired teacher!) As the capital of the European Union, as well as Belgium, this is a sprawling city with an international vibe.
The main attraction was the opulent Grand Place and the surrounding markets. Here, again, I experienced people overload so was glad we’d booked a day trip out to Luxembourg and Dinant. Both destinations looked beautifully medieval in the sun-drenched photo on the website but were rather dull and dreary on the day of our tour. Lots of interesting history and I now know Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was born in Dinant. Hopefully, I can win a pub trivia contest with that knowledge someday.
We’d heard from Nathan that we needed to have mussels in Brussels; specifically, at Chez Leon. Our meal there was fabulous. Be sure to make reservations!
And while this isn’t the region to discover the perfect gelato, I did discover the perfect waffle – at Maison Dandoy! They also explained the difference between a Liege waffle (round and doughy) and a Brussels waffle (rectangular and airy). Perhaps another trivia point I can pull out of my hat in the future.
Home and Happy
Now home, I’ve been reflecting on the trip. I’m pleased my feet held up well after long days of cobblestone walking. I’m glad I packed a knit cap and mittens, enabling me to carry on and explore to my heart’s content despite the chilly and occasionally wet weather. I’m grateful for the little moments of joy – sitting in a plaza, watching the sun play peekaboo while bell towers chime. And most of all, I’m grateful for my adventurous cousin and can’t wait to see where our wanderlust takes us next.