Tag Archives: Holland

Traveling in Europe: Den Bosch Part I–Canals & Countryside

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Den Bosch's ramparts and river served as a nearly impregnable fortress.

My last stop of four cities in Holland was Den Bosch. The full name is ‘s-Hertogenbosch and I think you have to be Dutch to pronounce it. Most people call it Den Bosch now and pronunciation seemed to differ between “den bos” and “den bosh”. Den Bosch is south of Utrecht and north of Eindhoven. It’s not large but considered a place to get away “to”. I probably would have missed it completely if it wasn’t that speculative writer and editor Jetse de Vries lives there and I emailed him to meet up.

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Boschenballen; worthy of making a stop in Den Bosch

Once I started reading about Den Bosch it sounded interesting enough that I stayed for two nights, couch surfing with Will. Jetse and I played a bit of tag at the train station, trying to find each other. Once we met I put my luggage in a locker and off we went to a cafe where Jetse introduced me to Den Bosch’s own claim to fame, the Boschenballen. If you’ve ever seen a profiterole (cream puff), imagine one bigger than your fist, covered in yummy dark chocolate and inflated with creamy goodness.  I wasn’t sure I could eat the whole thing (and shhh, but I’m allergic to dairy) but I took a bite and another and somehow managed to polish it off. I certainly didn’t need lunch till much later.

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A very larg cannon is housed in the structure atop the walls built in the 15th century.

By the 1500s it turns out Den Bosch was once the true mercantile center of Holland, with three rivers (Dommel, Aa and Maas) converging nearby. The Dutch are also masters of the water ways and trade came and went by land and water. It was second in population only to Utrecht. ‘S-Hertogenbosch means Duke’s Forest and the original Duke was Henry I, Duke of Brabant. Over the centuries, with fortifications increasing, Den Bosch was considered impregnable and nicknamed the Marsh Dragon. They had built a moat from the rivers and water ways; if invading forces came near, they flooded the lands around. Too deep to walk through and too shallow to put a ship on, the city’s defense’s held strong.

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To get over one of the many bodies of water, there is a hand crank raft to take people across.

That is, until 1629 when Frederik Hendrik of Orange, using Dutch ingenuity and a goodly portion of purloined coins from a Spanish armada, built a dyke around the city with windmills and then pumped out all of the water. He managed to break through the one weak spot in the wall’s defenses and then rebuilt that section making it stronger. The ramparts still stand and are integral to holding back the waters. Den Bosch is considered one of the better fortress cities in Holland. A nature reserve now borders one side of the town, giving great pastoral views and nature walks.

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The underground canal tours are lovely and a great way to see the city.

Jetse had booked a canal tour and Den Bosch’s canals are unique in Holland because they’re mostly covered, unlike the open canals elsewhere. While the tour was in Dutch, Jetse was able to tell me much about the rich history of this small town. It seems people were not allowed to build outside the wall and as the city became more crowded they actually built over the canals. At one point the city was going to pave over the canals but instead the government made it a protected townscape, preserving the historical ramparts and the canals.

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Boschian fun on the canal.

The weather was perfect in late September, around 25-27 degrees Celsius. The tour went under the city and then outside around the ramparts. It ended with ducking into a darkened alcove where they showed a short film on Hieronymus Bosch, the city’s most famous painted. The water level was relatively high so we really did have to duck. And along the canals were large sculptures of some of Bosch’s strange creations.

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Den Bosch's canals were very beautiful.

Even without understanding Dutch the tour was worth it for the sheer beauty and scenery. The following day I took a walk outside the city walls and got to see Den Bosch from afar. Of the cities I visited Den Bosch definitely felt the most pastoral, because of the flat fields and the winding river around it. In my next post I’ll talk more about the cathedral and other aspects but it was definitely worth the visit. I’ll also have the full album posted once Picassa stops being persnickety.

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Traveling in Europe: Den Haag

Europe 2011: Den Haag

Known as The Hague to us Westerners, I prefer the Dutch version of Den Haag. While staying in Delft, I decided to go to Den Haag, thinking I’d need to catch a train but from my B&B in Delft it was an easy 20-minute tram ride. Very convenient. The weather, for late September, was off and on rainy but overall very nice and warm. I arrived close enough to the Binnenhof, the seat of the Dutch parliament to walk around the central area.

I’m not sure how interested I would have been in the Binnenhof’s interior but as it was there were no tours that day.

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The Binnenhof neogothic fountain

There was a lovely and ornately wrought iron and gilt fountain and the details on the buildings, some of the dating to the 15th century. Mauritshuis was close by and I took it in. Here is where you would see Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring among others. In fact the building was full of paintings in various rooms. Once the home of Prince John-Maurice, there are four major rooms on two floors and each has a fireplace and paintings on all walls, There are works by Holbein, Potter, Brueghal, Rembrandt, Steen , Hals and many others. Of course in all the best galleries you can’t take pictures so you absorb as much as you can and hope you can retain some of it. The benefit of seeing the actual painting as opposed to a picture in a book is that you can appreciate how the light actually works with the paint, as well as its thickness, the texture and the details. The Dutch were masters of shipping and masters of the painted canvas in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Besides wandering around the Binnenhof’s courtyard, staring at the buildings and going to Mauritshuis, I had time to go to the Prison Gate (just) called Gevangenpoort. This is the jail, which was in use for over 400 years before it became a museum in the 1400s. It was dark and thick-walled, and thick barred. I couldn’t use a flash and the tour was in Dutch so I only gleaned a bit. Though the guide was willing to answer some of my questions in English I didn’t want to ask during his descriptions in case I asked

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The Binnenhof and the Court Pond

for something he had just said. It seems that there were different types of torture and only some of it was actually considered torture. This was done in the lower cells, where as the room depicted in my pictures was for those who were either to be executed or have information extricated from them. There was a gallery of art too so it was a rather full day of paintings.

This took up my day in The Hague and I went back to Delft for dinner and to wander along the pretty canals. So in truth I saw a very small section of Den Haag, which only took up a few blocks. Still, that was rather enough for one day.

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Traveling in Europe: Delft in White and Blue

These posts on Europe will come sporadically as I have to digitally fix the photos for web viewing and it’s a busy season for me right now. To view my full album of Delft, click the first picture.

Europe 2011: Delft

After Amsterdam, I took a train to Delft. I was stunned at the thousands of bikes at the station. I doubt if you gathered all the bikes in Vancouver that it would even equal this number. People commute by bike and train a lot. Because there had been some confusion in email as to the dates I was staying at the B&B I ended up doing last-minute couch surfing for my first night. Robbert had just finished his university and was still in a student apartment. He was helpful in giving me directions to get to his place and the next day into Delft central. He tried to teach me some Dutch and pronunciations but some forms are so foreign in English I just had problems getting them to sound close.

Delft is small, when you’re looking at the medieval center. The next day I waited for the B&B owner to show. When she never did, I walked back to the tourist information center, always a good place to visit in any major city. Delft is small enough that they know of all the B&B’s. They tried calling both lines;when they couldn’t reach her they advised me to find someplace else. They ended up helping me find something in my price range (52 Euros) with someone who had just called in. (98 Plantages–not available through any sites) was run by Liesbeth and was beautiful, clean, updated and close by. Liesbeth was an excellent host, giving me some ideas of restaurants to try and directions into Den Haag.

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Delft's picturesque canals have lilies and waterfowl.

Delft was by far the prettiest town I visited in Holland, with Den Bosch a close second. The clean canals were picturesque with lily pads, swans and ducks. I even ran into a heron on the walkway beside one canal and got within two feet. The streets in the old town are cobblestone and shops line the streets. Delftware, that famous blue and white china, is not cheap but plentiful. I saw a guy on a scooter  where the front design was the Delft blue and white.

My first day after the screw-up with B&Bs left me with enough time to see the old and the new churches. (Throughout Holland and Belgium all shops close by 5. There is no evening shopping.) They were rather plain in the style of the no-fun Protestants who had pulled down statuary, removed paintings and white washed churches so that one would only concentrate on god’s glory, not on what humans had made. The one, ironic, concession to ostentation was the tomb of William of Orange, assassinated at the Prinsenhof (a convent he had taken over for a residence).

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William of Orange's tomb was so big that it was hard to photograph it all.

The Dutch started later than some countries in instituting royalty and pretty much voted in the best merchant. At least that’s what I could tell . William’s grand tomb is the central design of the church. Before this date the royal family was buried in Breda but it was still under Spanish rule, so they began putting the royals in Delft, where they are entombed to this day (the dead ones that is). I was beginning to think after Amsterdam’s two and Delft’s churches that I was getting churched out, partly because they were rather bland in a gothic cathedral sort of way. The focus became the pillars, the gothic arches (which are impressive) and the black floors, carved with names, dates, arms and symbols of those who had passed on before.  I wrote a rough set of poems here that I call triptych, after the style of religious paintings (that have three panels) used in many churches of the period. These will be polished at a later date.

I took in the Prinsenhof on my third day. The bullet hole in the wall from William’s assassination is framed and stands out. There are works of art such as paintings, sculptures, silverware and Delftware for which the Dutch are famous, plus the story of William’s life. I believe the new church, starkly plain had many partitions that told the story of the royal family from its beginning to its present day. Like England, they have had a queen since WWII (and before). But reading about all the royals and who killed who or succeed whom was mind numbing after a while. I just enjoyed walking along the canals of Delft and would definitely go back here.

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Lessons Learned on Traveling in Europe

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Horley (near Gatwick) Station

I thought I would write a lot while traveling, even took a laptop (mini) to do so but there were quite a few factors that made me post only once. I managed to get some gut bug when I flew into Amsterdam. It might have been caused by suspect Chinese food in Horley (but then I’m sensitive to the change of flavor in meat–it might have been slightly old or…bad) or it could have been the water, which is far softer than Vancouver’s water and maybe my body just couldn’t adjust. Still, tummy troubles didn’t keep me down but made my day a bit slower to start.

In Holland, thousands of people use bikes. If I had rented one it would have been a nuisance because I don’t just take pictures of tourist attractions but of things on the street; leaves, textures, patterns. A bike would have meant that I would be hopping on and off constantly.

I found my suitcase was in fact too heavy and I would take even less next time, maybe buying more there. However I was packing for rain and cold and got a very warm, extended summer of 25-30 degrees Celsius. I didn’t wear some of the items I brought because it was too hot. Still, backpacking might have worked but I have a few back issues that might have made it worse, but lugging anything up narrow, multiple Dutch and Belgian stairs will indeed give you a workout, and thankfully, my knees are good.

Most B&Bs have towels, though if you’re couchsurfing, check beforehand. I did a bit of both with even a hotel or two in there. I hate water splashing in my face and have always preferred using a face cloth. While these are pretty standard in any hotel in North America, you won’t find one anywhere in Europe (Holland, Belgian and England were the countries I visited this time). I brought one but might have brought two next time so one could air and dry when using the other. I had to deal with a bit of mildew even in half a day of being packed wet.

Many European buildings are centuries old and, besides having many stairs, have very high ceilings. This means the light might be faint. If your eyes don’t do well in low light, bring another light. I also brought a container for water, which was a good thing when walking around all day. In Belgium a waiter told me it was against the law to serve tap water so you’ll pay as much for a small bottle as almost for a glass of wine. And on drinking, while cider is in the veins of the British, Irish and Scottish it’s harder to find in other areas. I usually found only one bottled type in various places in Holland but it was nonexistent in Belgium.

I took cash but also brought my bank card and credit card. While cash always works, a couple of times I had to use the

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An example of old, steep, narrow stairs in Amsterdam

credit card, for reserving a room, or for storing my luggage at a train station because the machines didn’t take coins. I never could find out if traveler’s checks would work or not, or if there was a fee.

Trains are plentiful and sometimes hook up to trams. Many of the information areas are helpful. However, I found the rudest service in London at the booths marked for information. While different people working about the station were helpful in telling me what line to catch, no one bothered to clarify that there are trains and then there are trains in England. There is the underground or the tube, which has trains, and then there are the overground trains. They come into the same stations and sometimes your ticket transfers between the two (and buses) and sometimes it doesn’t. The underground information people were not helpful with the trains and vice versa. No one bothered to tell me the difference. At Victoria Station there was in fact a Tourist Travel Information center, which no one told me about, but they helped me figure out the overground and underground trains to the airport (after three other ties). It was also cheaper to fly from London to Amsterdam than to take a train through the Chunnel. On the way back I took a ferry from Calais to Dover, so check all forms of transportation,  and several months in advance of your trip for the best deals.

This is an overview and I did so much walking and visiting of galleries and buildings that I was just too exhausted to write in the evenings. Over the next few weeks I will do reviews of accommodation, food and the places I traveled.

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