These five days cover the last couple days of our stay in Belgium and the first couple of our stay in the Netherlands. And I think they include some of the most amazing and memorable things I’ve seen in Europe.
On May 11 we headed into the mountainous(ish) south, to the quaint little town of Han-sur-Lesse. Picturesque as it was, the town wasn’t the real attraction: that would be the awesome cave system (about 3M years old, and last visited by me 38 years ago) plus a semi-wild nature preserve. I took many awesome photos in those caves, but none of them really stood out. What did, was a gorgeous panorama of the countryside. A little part of me is still torn: I could have used a more “sciency” kind of photo, seeing as it was a sciency kind of day, and panoramas like that are hardly unique. But what can I say? This was the sight that really moved me.
Footnote: the cave has changed a bit since we last visited. One chamber that used to house a snacky restaurant place complete with tables, is now used for a big sound and light show. And to end the tour we’d all float along in little boats out the cave mouth; that’s stopped now since they discovered evidence, at the bottom of the river, that humans used these caves long ago (4,000 years, I think?).
On the 12th we capped off our stay in Belgium with a tour of Antwerp. Amongst the sights was the amazing Plantin-Moretus museum, housed in what used to be the private home of 16th century printer Christophe Plantin and his stupendously rich descendants. It’s a great place if you want to look at how Golden Age rich folks lived, see how the whole printing business worked, and enjoy some samples of old-school printed art. One that stood out for me was a sonnet written by Plantin himself, entitled Le Bonheur de ce Monde. Plantin was a humanist, and though still religious, he seemed very much focused on this world instead of the next one. This was a time when people were starting to question a lot of things, and the rising merchant middle class was challenging the power of the church.
On the 13th we relocated to Amsterdam. Honestly, Amsterdam and the Netherlands are what I was most looking forward to: sure, Belgium had history, but did they have windmills, canals, and all sorts of cool stuff? Plus it was brand new to me! After checking in I snapped a picture of the street, and… there was Amsterdam in a nutshell: the busy crowd, the bikes, the cool old houses, everything. It was perfect.
The next day wasn’t so inspiring, photo-wise. We stayed in the city, visiting the Amsterdam History Museum (very awesome) and the Maritime Museum (pretty good). We would also have gone to the Anne Frank house, except it turns out you have to reserve tickets months in advance. Too bad! I took some good photos, but nothing that really grabbed me. It’s only when I went out on my own after dinner that I saw the houseboats. All right, I know it’s silly, but wouldn’t living on a houseboat in an Amsterdam canal be kind of awesome? The legal ones get water and electricity from the city, so just add internet and I’d be all set. Dare to dream!
On the 15th we went on a guided tour north of the city, visiting a heritage village with windmills, then Edam where they make cheese (also, clogs), then the fishing village of Volendam. And for the first time in a long while I had my daily pic all planned out: it would be a selfie, with windmills in the background. I went through maybe a dozen tries with different angles, different windmills, with and without my hat, until I got one complete with the Dutch flag! Gorgeous. Sure, I was squinting a bit, but my selfie standards aren’t high.
PS: can I just take a moment to gush about Amsterdam ferries? They’re completely free, no tickets or anything! They’re a service provided by the city, just like roads bike paths and whatnot. Now that’s good city government right there.