Monday, April 28, 2014

Easter break in Holland and Belgium

In Finland we are given both Friday and Monday off from work for the Easter holiday weekend. We took advantage of this long weekend and spent our holiday in Holland and Belgium en route from Germany.  We hadn't left Finland for quite some time and wanted to see the famous tulip fields, visit the Anne Frank house and see a number of other interesting cities and sites.  We flew into the Dusseldorf (Germany) airport and rented a car in order to drive directly to Amsterdam.

The nice thing about this part of Europe is that many countries are relatively small and getting from point A to point B doesn't take that long.  I had visited the Anne Frank house 20 years ago and have read the famous diary when I was younger and now my daughter had done the same, so the family was interested to see this famous landmark and piece of history.  We waited in line for one hour and finally entered the home, which includes the clandestine upstairs annex where Anne lived secretly for two years with other members of her family while the Nazis were patrolling around the streets of Amsterdam.  I could only imagine the fear that they felt as they were forced to live like prisoners while hiding just because they were Jewish.  This was a very emotional experience for me and the family. The museum has become much more popular in the last 20 years and now gets roughly 1.3 million visitors per year.  Later we strolled around the famous streets which are surrounded by canals.  Amsterdam is a world famous city known for their architecture as well as their liberal attitudes towards sex and marijuana.  Strolling through some of the seedier sections of the city I could picture in my head how very different things are here than parts of the Bible belt in America.  I am socially liberal, but would say Amsterdam's progressive social values are probably even a bit much for myself.  :)

The next morning was spent in the world famous Keukenhof gardens in Lisse.  This was the highlight of the trip to Holland.  This park is known as the Disneyland of flowers.  It was an amazing sight to see; fields and fields of tulips and other flowers everywhere you looked.  The endless and colorful rows of perfectly planted flowers were a sight to behold and something that I have never seen anywhere else before.  Anyone with a camera could be a professional photographer in this park because all you had to do was point and shoot and the colorful flowers dominated the lens. I hope you enjoy some of the photos we took.

After seeing a bit more of Amsterdam, we headed off toward Bruges, Belgium making a few quick stops along the way.  We first stopped in Rotterdam, Holland where we visited one museum and then strolled along a canal and visited an old windmill which is still being used today as a grain mill.  My daughter and I climbed the steep stairs to the top of the windmill while my wife purchased some pancake mix inside.  Rotterdam is a university town and the second largest city in Holland after Amsterdam.   Rotterdam is also the largest port city in Europe and one of the largest port cities in the entire world.  After that, we headed back on our journey making a final pit stop in Antwerp, Belgium.  Besides being Dutch speaking and a large diamond city, I really didn't know much about this city in Flanders.  Antwerp is actually a very pleasant city with a bustling outdoor European cafe culture.  Here we grabbed some of our Belgian favorite treats, including waffles and frites (Belgian french fries).  Belgium is known for some food specialties which include their famous chocolate, waffles and Belgian style french fries.  

Late in the afternoon we arrived at our destination of  Bruges, Belgium.  Bruges is a wonderfully preserved medieval city and also in the Dutch speaking Flanders part of the country.  The country is actually bi-lingual, with Dutch and French as official languages, though most people also seem to have a good command of English.  I really enjoyed this city when I first visited it as a backpacker 20 years prior.  It is still a very nice city, but I noticed things had changed a bit since my last visit.  Many of the streets were now lined with high class designer retail shops.  Also, the center had a cheesy traveling carnival and there were hordes of people in every direction.  My daughter and I wanted to climb the famous Bell tower in the center and had to wait approximately 45 minutes in line just to get to the entrance.  There was a movie with Colin Farrell called "In Bruges" which came out about 6 years ago and it seems that movie might have pushed Bruges over the top as a prime tourist destination.  I still really like this city, but it seems a shame that it might have lost some of it's personal charm with the massive amounts of people.  Our hotel, which was just a 5 minute walk outside of the old town, was absolutely wonderful.  We had a large quiet room and the hotel also featured a pool which was great for the children.

For our final day on the trip, we would make a few more pit stops on the way to our departure city of Dusseldorf, Germany.  We made a stop in the capital of Belgium, Brussels, for lunch.  Brussels is a large city and also the capital city of the European Community.  The main reason we wanted to visit Brussels was to see the Grand Square which is considered one of the finest in Europe.  It is an impressive square with very picturesque buildings on all sides.  Brussels is also famous for a little statue of a boy peeing, called the Manneken Pis. We found the little statue which had a large crowd gathering around it. I couldn't believe it, all this fuss about this statue and it is so small.  I guess they built up some legend about this little statue and feature it in their tourist information, but really it is just a tiny statue of a boy peeing into a fountain.  Brussels isn't known for having so many touristic areas and we were satisfied just seeing the center.  Our final stop on the way back to the airport was Cologne, Germany where we wanted to see the great Cologne Cathedral.  My daughter and I climbed up the 500+ steps to the top of the tower where we enjoyed some of the views from the top.  The Cologne cathedral is a neat, Gothic style church in which construction started in 1248 and didn't complete till 1880.  It is a massive church and one of the largest in Europe.  

In just 5 days we covered a large area of this region and definitely saw some of  best the highlights of Holland and Dutch speaking Belgium (Flanders).  This is a pretty and cultural area of Europe and definitely worth a visit in the Spring.  I think the highlight of the trip were the amazing tulip fields of Lisse in Holland.  I have never seen anything quite like it before.  Tulip fields, canals, Belgian waffles, fries and some of the finest beer will make your taste buds and other senses work overtime.