Sunday, May 20, 2012

Belgium and The Netherlands

I took a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands with my parents and aunt in March. I don't know why I haven't brought myself to write a post about it yet. It's not like it wasn't a great trip, or I haven't had any time. I guess I just couldn't find an angle to it that would make it so it wasn't completely boring to write, let alone read. And now it's been two months, and it almost seems like it's too late. So I'll slapdash something together, first the basic itinerary, then some thoughts on various topics.

Thursday (3/15): Fly out, arrive Friday morning
Friday: Get car; lunch in Ghent; Bruges
Saturday: Bruges: brewery tour; museums
Sunday: Antwerp: Rubens, church. Delft.
Monday: Delft: Vermeer center; church spire. Amsterdam.
Tuesday: Amsterdam: Rijks Museum; Van Gogh museum; Heineken; House museum; canal tour.
Wednesday: Amsterdam: Hermitage; Rembrandt House; Museum Van Loon; Beer in Rembrandt Square; Jewish exhibit at Nieuwe Kerk; Westerkerk; Lutheran Church; Microbrewery
Thursday: Keukengarden; HD Den Haag
Friday: Amsterdam to Brussels via Breda; Dinner with Bart
Saturday: Brussels: Old art museum; Magritte museum; Instrument museum
Sunday: Brussels: Autoworld; Objects Museum; Military museum; shops and Brewery museum
Monday: fly home

In general, I don't drink much any more, but Belgian beers are my favorite, so I averaged more beer consumption per day than I typically do per month. Within hours of arriving in Brussels, after almost no sleep on the flight over, we had lunch in Gent and drank micro-brewed beers (I think only available in that restaurant and the pub next door). With hundreds of beers made in Belgium, most of them have limited distribution, but few as limited as that. I visited several breweries on the trip, the first being a small brewery in Bruges, De Halve Maan (half moon). Quite a bit of their production is currently done off-site, so it's more of a museum than a working brewery. I also liked that two of their beers are called "Brugse Zot" (Bruges fool). The tour guide was pretty funny in her putting down of the major breweries, mainly those currently owned by InBev. Later, in Amsterdam, I did the "Heineken Experience," which was pretty much the embodiment of a beer commercial, with a bit of history sprinkled in. They haven't even brewed there for several years now, so the whole thing is a sort of exhibit. In both of those cases, the ticket for the tour did include beer, at least. I also visited a couple of brewpub-type places, and in Brussels there was a brewery museum. The museum was fairly lame, just one room with reproductions of very old, 18th century, brewing equipment, then a second room with more modern equipment. The guys working were pretty nice, though. The tour ticket (which was actually included in the Brussels Card we got) included one beer, but the guy gave me a second, and then half of another. I figured it would be impolite to refuse. I drank beer with most meals. My parents don't really drink beer. My aunt does, but she's not such a connoisseur, so she often just got whatever I was having.

That first lunch was one of the best. We had traditional Flemish dishes. I can't remember what they were at this point, but they were very good. In Bruges, we ate in a pub dating back to 1515. In Brussels we finally got one of the regional favorites: mussels. While I enjoyed eating them, it confirmed that I do have some level of shellfish allergy, as I woke up in the middle of night in hives. We ate a good bit of cheese. I missed the herring my aunt got one afternoon, but it was highly rated. While I did have some fries during the trip, I did not have them with mayonnaise, as is the custom. I don't generally care for mayo, plus it's basically fat. Not that that should have stopped me, as I ate lots of...

Everywhere we went has some chocolate shops, but nowhere had them as dense as Bruges. Some parts of town had three or four within a block of each other. We all ate quite a bit of chocolate. Even the cheap stuff from the grocery store was pretty good. I'm pretty sure the only reason I didn't gain five pounds while I was on this trip was because I was walking so much every day.

Dutch/Flemish Renaissance paintings are some of my favorites, and we saw some of the very best. The Rijks Museum probably had the best collection, but there were real gems in the others we visited. The Rubens House and the Rembrandt House were filled with great works. The Hermitage was extraordinary. The Van Gogh and Magritte museums were far too crowded for me, and I don't care for the work as much as the older stuff. However, for all the amazing world-renowned masterpieces, the one piece that sticks most prominently in my mind is one I saw in a gallery in Bruges. I actually had the opportunity to purchase a 1620 Flemish portrait. It was a very nice painting, but far too expensive for me, and far too nice for my house.

There were so many great old buildings, everywhere we went. While I'm not a big fan of churches as an institution, I am a fan of the edifices. There were some great ones, and quite a few with tall towers. I only climbed up the one in Delft, though. The buildings were, of course, in various states of repair, but in general pretty well kept. In Amsterdam, while most of the buildings were nice, half of them were leaning one direction or another. It seemed like the cities with canals were more intact than the ones without. Bruges, Delft, and Amsterdam had a higher proportion of old buildings than Antwerp or Brussels, at least in the parts we were. Also I found the canal cities easier to navigate, in no small part because the extremely narrow streets significantly limit car traffic.

We never really had any problems getting around on English. I still remember enough French from high school that I could read signs and help if English failed. In the Flemish areas, mainly Bruges, people spoke French, Dutch, and English, all pretty well. In the Netherlands, it was mainly Dutch or English. Brussels is on the border between the predominantly French-speaking part of Belgium and the predominantly Dutch-speaking region, but the city is predominantly French-speaking. It seemed, in general, that the French native Flemish were less likely to speak English well than anybody else. It seems the Dutch know that very few people in the world speak their native tongue, and have made an effort to speak English. The French on the other hand, much like English speakers (but not nearly as much), seemed more likely to assume that everyone else knows French. Americans usually fit the stereotype of not knowing any language other than English. It was kind of funny to see people from all over the world: Italy, Spain, Asia, etc. having to communicate using the only tongue in common with the locals: English.

Well, those are my thoughts for now. Maybe some day I'll write something great from this trip. I wouldn't count on it, though.

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