A Travellerspoint blog

Exploring The Netherlands: Around the "Zuiderzee"

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I put Zuiderzee in quotes in the title because it no longer exists, having been cut off from the North Sea (Waddenzee) and made into two lakes, the IJsselmeer in the north and the Markermeer in the south.


As I mentioned in my last post, we decided the only real way to see this whole area was by car so we picked up a rental in Utrecht and headed out. We first traveled up the southeast side through Flevoland. This entire area, the lower green area on the map, is polder land (land completely reclaimed from the sea with dykes, drainage canals, and pumping stations).

Some areas are still being developed with new, innovative architecture.

Most of it, however, is well developed with housing, industry, and mature trees. The edge is protected by the dyke and vast wetland areas behind which is the development.

From Flevoland, we crossed the first major dam, the Houtribdijk. This is the lower dam that separates the two lakes.large_IMG_1846.jpeglarge_IMG_1850.jpeg

The engineering involved in this endeavor to tame the sea is just amazing everywhere you look but one of the truly fascinating things we saw was the Naviduct Krabbersgat (get it naviduct?!). The road on the dyke goes under a lock so you literally drive under boats going over you. We stopped and watched the boats go through for awhile.

This area is filled with tall ships! We get excited just seeing one in the US and here there were dozens of them. It was quite a sight.

We ended the day by driving back down to Edam, where we were staying. As it happened, they were on the last day of their fall fair so we were greeted by a city in full-on party mode.

Luckily for us it was the last day and they cleaned up quickly so that we could enjoy the beautiful town. Its little white counter-weight bridges, canals, and beautiful old buildings are especially charming.


Next day we made our way up to the Afsluitdijk and crossed into Friesland. The amazing 20 mile long Afsluitdijk was competed in 1932 and with its locks and sluiceways manages the water in and out of the lakes.

Fun fact: the water is now fresh, replenished by freshwater rivers and water pumped out of the polders. When it rises they open the sluiceways to let water out of the lakes.

We stopped at Harlingen to view the shore at the Wadden Sea before heading back. large_149da800-4ef3-11ee-9966-5fb1755180ed.jpeglarge_IMG_1916.jpeglarge_13efb4c0-4ef3-11ee-b758-e535b64b2807.jpeg

It's really hard to capture in photos how big the dykes are but if you look you can see the cars on the inside are lower than the cars on the outside. You can get a sense that the land inside the dykes really would be underwater without them.

We crossed back and headed to Den Helder. The northernmost point of the peninsula, it commands the straight between the mainland and the Friesian Islands and the opening of the Wadden Sea into the North Sea. It was time for lunch and a cold beverage before heading on down the west coast.

The west coast is bordered and protected by huge dune structures. There are access points along the way to climb up and over and, of course, this being Holland many bike paths.

All along the coast there are small beach towns like you find anywhere with beaches this beautiful. large_IMG_1972.jpeglarge_0e8f4b10-4ef5-11ee-8be7-6d42ca7238c0.jpeglarge_IMG_1978.jpeg

The inland area is all farms, many of which along the coast looked to be tulip growers.

The farmhouses are beautiful and many still have their pyramidal shape and thatched roofs. Cows are everywhere but interestingly there are as many beef cattle as milk cows. You may not know this but The Netherlands are the second largest exporter of food behind the US, an amazing statistic given it's about the size of Maryland.

While the areas reclaimed from the Zuiderzee are arguably the most famous polders, the Dutch were reclaiming land from lakes and peat beds since the early 1600's. In fact, the Beemster polder is a UNESCO world heritage site for it's importance in three criterion:

Criterion (i): The Beemster Polder is a masterpiece of creative planning, in which the ideals of antiquity and the Renaissance were applied to the design of a reclaimed landscape.
Criterion (ii): The innovative and intellectually imaginative landscape of the Beemster Polder had a profound and lasting impact on reclamation projects in Europe and beyond.
Criterion (iv): The creation of the Beemster Polder marks a major step forward in the interrelationship between humankind and water at a crucial period of social and economic expansion.

Most of central North Holland was once under water. It's an inescapable reality as you travel the roads and see dykes, dams, pumping stations and large and small canals everywhere you look. It's fascinating how fields are divided by small canals that feed into bigger canals that are pumped out into even larger canals that feed the water back into the two main, managed lakes. While it's a wild and natural environment in many places you can't help but feel that every square foot is a managed space where someone knows exactly how much water is where.

This is also the area we saw the most windmills still in the fields, literally dozens.

And these small one lane roads with allees of trees are predominant in areas where you travel through the fields.

This had to be one of the best single days of travel we've had. It's an amazing landscape.

On our last day, we headed out to Marken, an island that is now connected to the mainland by a causeway. Being cutoff from land for so long, there "Markers" maintain their own customs that hark back more to the Middle Ages than to modern Holland. There's a small museum that shows the "costumes' the people continue to wear today on festival days. Their lifestyle and history as a fishing village are really interested and the museum is very informative.

It's a beautiful little car-free town and we enjoyed wandering the streets and canals.

They have a little harbor with restaurants and having lunch there was a perfect ending to our time in the northern Netherlands.

We are so glad we made the decision to rent a car and see this area. If you ever come to The Netherlands be sure to do the same. It's the Holland you read about and imagine and its so much better in person. In truth, there are two Netherlands, the cities and the countryside. The cities are amazing! We love Amsterdam and we really enjoyed Delft and Utrecht but if that's all you see you're only getting half the picture. The countryside and the smaller towns are just as historic and just as interesting and really probably more beautiful. Of course it helped we had warm days with beautiful sunny skies for our travels! We were so fortunate and we are so grateful.

Posted by mrb430 08:24 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

Exploring the Netherlands: Delft & Utrecht

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After a day of train travel on the Intercity trains, we arrived from Bruges to Delft. The Intercity trains plusses are they run frequently and are cheap; the minuses are most have nowhere to store luggage, they're crowded, and they don't go very far so you have to change trains a lot. They got us where we were going but it wasn't the most pleasant experience having to juggle our bags with all the people. Unfortunately, these two cities just aren't well connected so there aren't any better options. Ah, the joys of travel!


View from our hotel sun deck.

Delft is a small city known for the Delft Blue pottery and for being the home of Johannes Vermeer. Alas, there aren't any museums with Vermeer's work as there are only 34 paintings left and they are all elsewhere. We should see some at the Rijksmuseum when we are in Amsterdam. But there are other things to enjoy!

There are a number of small restaurant-filled squares. Our favorite, Beestenmarkt, was fortunately right around the corner from our hotel. It was chilly in the evenings but they have heat lamps and blankets so we were fine!

The other main square is Markt Square, which is dominated at one end by the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and at the other by the Stadhuis (City Hall).

On Saturday, there is actually still a market there so we had fun browsing before we left for Utrecht.

There was also a fabulous flower and vegetable market around the corner from our hotel!

It's a cute town to walk around and small enough to see it all easily, though after being spoiled in Bruges not as nice because it's not as intact. Oh, and the canals were filled with duckweed so they were a very special shade of green haha!

Fun fact: The tower of the Old Church leans precipitously over its canal! When they added the smaller towers at the corners, they built them straight so there is a slight weird bend to the top of it!

The Royal Delft
Of course, we visited the last remaining Royal Delft factory, the Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles. In the 17th century there were around 32 factories producing Royal Delftware but this is the only one that survived. The visit was interesting. There is a museum with very old pieces that trace the history and development from the earliest Chinese influences through the modern pieces produced today. You also tour the factory and see the pieces in progress.

Some of my favorite things to see, however, were the building pieces produced for homes and gardens.

Molen de Roos
The absolute coolest place we visited was this historic windmill. It is the only remaining mill of the 18 mills that ran in Delft. It was in bad shape until it was "adopted" by a volunteer organization that raised funds to save it and still operate it today. In 2012, they raised the whole thing, all 1100 tons, one meter to build the train tunnel underneath and then lowered it again!

Today it operates as an organic flour mill selling the product to locals and local bakeries. In the past, it milled grains for beer and animal feed as well as flour. You can climb steep ladders all the way to the top of the mill to see its inner workings and at one level there is a platform to go outside and see the blades turning and a great city view!

We spent three nights in Delft, which in hindsight is probably one too many but we enjoyed the lazy pace.


Maybe now is a good time to talk about how it feels to be back on the road as a tourist on vacation from home. As the Thai would say, it's "same, same but different". It's definitely easier after all our years on the road to get back to the pace we like - slow and steady. We still spend some days curled up in our room reading, only venturing out for coffee and a meal. And we still never plan too much into any one day. We like to sit in cafes and watch the world go by as much or more than we like visiting museums. We've always been that way and we haven't changed just because we're on "vacation". We've given ourselves enough time in each place not to feel rushed and that makes a world of difference.

All of our experience with logistics helps us keep our cool as we move from place to place. Can I just say, we are expert at packing and unpacking in any room we find ourselves in! And navigating new places is a breeze. One huge difference is we are staying exclusively in hotels except for our house boat in Amsterdam. It's been liberating in a way not to have to worry about how we'll make coffee, whether there is a good pan and a sharp knife, or whether we can wash dishes and clothes. And it's been fun to be able to experience historic hotels in the center of the city. Of course, it's more expensive and we eat all our meals out, although breakfast is often included, generous, and delicious. But that means we get to focus on experiencing the local food culture more and that's been wonderful. Like these Dutch pancakes we had in Delft.

In hindsight, we've also planned a really good variety of experiences. A week in Copenhagen, a cruise, time with a car to get out into Denmark and Sweden, back to the cities (Bruges, Delft, and Utrecht) and public transport, and then another car to explore North Holland (coming in a future blog), ending with city time in Amsterdam. Just when we get a little tired of one thing, we change it up for something else. We didn't really have that luxury as much when we were full-timers - the cost was usually prohibitive.

And it's nice to know we have a home to go back to when we're done. We've been gone long enough we miss it, our friends, and our dog, and that seems just the right amount of time!


Having said all that, Utrecht is a city where we sort of wish we had been full-timers. We could easily have spent a month there. It's a vibrant, big city - fourth largest in The Netherlands - filled with restaurants, shopping, squares, and markets. It has an energy and a vibe we really enjoyed. There aren't a ton of touristy things to do there so you can just enjoy the city. And as usual in a place we are just "living" and not "touring", I didn't take a lot of photos but here are a few.

As a bigger city, the canals in the center are much longer and they have a lower level that used to be used for warehouses but now have been converted to restaurants and shops. It's different and fun to sit by the water and watch all the boats go by.

I wanted to have a house so that I could buy flowers at this market that popped up right outside our hotel. It's Dahlia season and they had the most gorgeous displays along with garden plants.

But I have no pictures of our favorite wine bar, the square in front of our hotel we spent most evenings before bed, or the many cafes that line the canals at which we had coffee and beer. We spent four nights there and easily could have spent many more just finding our favorite spots.

But as much as we liked South Holland, North Holland was calling. On the spur of the moment we decided to rent a car after exploring public transport to the places we wanted to go and so glad we did. Next up so stay tuned!

Posted by mrb430 10:15 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

A Week in Medieval Bruges

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We flew from Copenhagen to Brussels and took the train into Bruges. Moving back to public transport after having the car was a nice change and a pleasant reminder that we've gotten very good at navigation over the years. We took the train from Brussels Airport to Brussels and changed trains onto an InterCity train to Bruges. From the station, we caught a bus to our hotel. It's so easy now with almost all public transport having apps with trip planners and electronic tickets. We settled into our hotel, thankful to have six nights to unwind, do some laundry, and get to know the city.

Bruges is a big city overall but the small historic and UNESCO World Heritage designated center is only about a mile and a half square. It's easy to get to know and just wandering the cobblestone streets and canals is endlessly interesting and so beautiful.


Bruges' heydey was between the 12th and 15th centuries and most of the monumental buildings date from this period as well as a hospital and Beguinage, more on that later. Most of the townhouses display dates from the 1600-1700's and there are a few newer areas and buildings but for the most part it remains as it was in the 1500's, having been spared damage in both world wars and having missed the industrial revolution. In addition to the center of Bruges itself being on the UNESCO list, three other spaces are listed individually.

The Belfry of Bruges and Market Square
Made famous in modern times by the movie, the Belfry towers over Market Square with this row of colorful buildings.

Two other Neo-gothic buildings built in the early 1900's complete the Market Square. The Provincial Court...

...and a building meant to be the governor's official residence but never used as that and now a museum.

The Begiunage

"The Béguines were women who dedicated their lives to God without retiring from the world. In the 13th century they founded the béguinages , enclosed communities designed to meet their spiritual and material needs. The Flemish béguinages are architectural ensembles composed of houses, churches, ancillary buildings and green spaces, with a layout of either urban or rural origin and built in styles specific to the Flemish cultural region. They are a fascinating reminder of the tradition of the Béguines that developed in north-western Europe in the Middle Ages."

The one in Bruges is a serene place.

Not on the UNESCO list but of equal interest to us were the many Godshuizen or Almshouses built to house the poor and elderly. Originally built in the 1400's by guilds and other charitable organizations, they still provide affordable small houses for the elderly.


Seemingly every other building has a tower, turret, or spire of some kind and they are all fascinating. You can't help but be captivated by the views through buildings and down streets. That they're almost universally made of brick makes them that much more interesting. From the Romanesque to the Gothic, they are everywhere.

The two cathedrals, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk and Sint-Salvatorskathedraal, dominate the city skyline and can been seen from many vantage points throughout the city.


And, of course, the city has many small canals throughout. Some have walkways along them and some have houses built right up to the water like in Venice. All of them have beautiful little bridges overflowing with flowers. They are picturesque and after awhile I had to put a moratorium on any more canal photos!

We stayed on Spiegelrei, a canal that now dead ends into Jan van Eyck square, where we have a couple of cafes. Our room overlooked the canal and it was really special to be able to sit on the window seat and look out.


Almost all the way around the edge of the egg-shaped historic center there are larger canals that block it off from the rest of the city. Although the city walls are gone, there are still a number of the old city gates around the edge. It's a beautiful walk along nicely done paths to go and see these and along the way there is the bonus of some 18th and 19th century windmills that were relocated to the park, although one is in it's original place.


So yes, Bruges gets inundated with day trippers on most days, although some are worse than others. We were so glad we spent six nights here so that we could see it in the evenings and on a Sunday when it wasn't so crowded. But the truth is, as with most highly touristed cities, the crowds are clustered in two or three main areas and all you need to do to escape them is duck down a side street. And amazingly, the people in shops and restaurants are friendly and welcoming for the most part even with the crush of tourists. Maybe it's all the excellent beer they have to partake of! We definitely sampled our share and found some fun breweries and beer halls to explore and do tastings.

We also sampled some amazing food! Mussels and fries, of course, but also fondue!

And let me just finish by saying if Denmark and Sweden are pastry princesses, then Belgium is the queen. Not only do they have delicious pastry but they have perfect little desserts to rival the best French Patisseries.

We loved Bruges! Don't let the tourists scare you away but definitely try to stay at least a few days so you can really experience it. Pack a rain coat and layers and don't trust the weather reports just go out ready for anything and you won't be unhappy. The reports said it would rain much more than it actually did and we had quite a bit of sunny, warmer weather, although fall is definitely in the air here.

Tomorrow we leave for the Netherlands, our fifth and final country of the trip!

Posted by mrb430 19:07 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

Sweden's West Coast

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We arrived in Gothenburg and checked into our hotel on Kungsportsavenyen, a grand boulevard on the university side of the Göta Canal built in the city plan of the 19th century.

The first thing we noticed is the difference between Copenhagen's simple 17th century houses and the somewhat grandiose style of the homes of Gothenburg built in the 19th century. Here's a side by side for comparison.

The city was founded in the 17th century but because of the availability of wood in Sweden compared to a lack of it in Denmark, most of the original buildings were made of wood and have since been demolished. Over time they were replaced with huge buildings that are faced in amazing brickwork patterns with ornate windows and towers. They look like small castles dotted through the city.

Even the library and bath house are monumental.

The other predominant style of home is a solid first story with wood upper stories. Called "Landshövdingehus" it is a building type unique to Gothenburg. You can see it in neighborhoods around the city and the variation in the wood patterns is interesting but looks a bit like vinyl siding to a modern eye.

All of the examples we have here are from the neighborhood of Haga. Built as a working class neighborhood, it is now a pedestrian shopping district with shops and cafes. The most famous has to be Café Husaren - home of the "Hagabullen". A Swedish cinnamon bun bigger than your head!

Scott has one but in an unusual moment of self restraint chose the normal size!


The highlight of our stay was our trip out into the southern archipelago in the Kattegat Sea. Sweden has hundred of little islands and rock outcrops all along the coast and getting out to them is a favorite summer activity for Swedes and tourists. We joined the fun with a trip to Vrångö, the southernmost island. The city transit system operates the ferries to these completely car-free islands so the tickets for the bus work on the boats as well! For about $3 we made the hour plus journey from the city to the islands. We took the local ferry, stopping at five ports before ours and the direct ferry back making a nice circle tour of the southern islands.

It reminded us so much of the rocky coast of Maine but with cute boat houses and so many ferries and sailboats! The houses clinging to the rock were wonderful! Apparently there is a rich viking history here.

Vrångö was a cute little island, most of which is a protected nature preserve. We walked through the central inhabited section looking at the cute houses. They're all painted white and most look like wooden doll houses.

We ended up at the marina where we had lunch - delicious smoked salmon - and admired the boats and boathouses.

A side note about Sweden before we move on. DO NOT expect to do laundry! We did laundry in Copenhagen before we left on the cruise but two weeks later we were in need of a laundry. We asked at the hotel desk and they looked at us like we had two heads before answering "there are no laundromats in Sweden". And they were right. To our knowledge there is not one on the whole west coast! We called a service they recommended who offered to do our laundry for the astonishing price of $360! We passed and decided we didn't smell that bad!


Next we made our way to the small university town of Lund. Lund University, established in 1666, is one of Scandinavia's oldest and largest institutions for education and research. The town itself dates to around 990 AD and was an important Viking city. It's very small, easy to explore in one day. The Grand Hotel, built in 1899, is magnificent.

Lund Cathedral dominates the town. It dates from 1103 and is still, as the diocese of Lund, a diocese in the Church of Sweden. Built in a Romanesque style it's very unusual from what we've seen of churches in Scandinavia.

Inside there is an astronomical clock from the 15th century. It was pretty cool to watch as at noon a built-in organ plays a song and there is a mechanism where a parade of statues goes across the face.

The many university buildings and gardens are also wonderful.

And just wandering the squares and side streets is fun.

There are pretty parks...

...more amazing pastry shops - it would be very hard to decide between Denmark and Sweden when it comes to pastry...

...and great food, the highlight of which is Skagen Toast, a shrimp salad sort of thing on toast.

We enjoyed Lund but I'm not sure we'd go out of our way for it. And in a way we feel that way about Western Sweden. After Denmark and Norway, it had big shoes to fill and we're not sure it quite measured up. It was a fun way to complete our journey and we have some fond memories, Gothenburg is a beautiful city, but if we ever come back I think we'll check out other parts. The people were just a little less friendly, the countryside a little less picturesque, but oh that pastry!!

Posted by mrb430 16:56 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Discovering Denmark: Roskilde & Viking Ship Museum

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A separate day trip we took from Copenhagen was to the historic viking city of Roskilde and the Viking Ship Museum there. Roskilde developed as the hub of the Viking land and sea trade routes over a thousand years ago and is one of Denmark's oldest cities. From the 11th century until 1443, it was the capital of Denmark. Located on the island of Zealand, it was was founded in the 980s by Harald Bluetooth, who built a wooden church there. Later, in 1020, King Canute elevated Roskilde to a bishopric. Absalon, the Danish bishop we "met" first on our tour of Christiansborg Palace, had a brick church built on the site of Harald's church in 1170. Today's cathedral was completed in 1275.

Roskilde is a quant Danish town of cobblestone streets, gardens, and historic buildings. There are great cafe as well.

The highlight though is the museum. It is both a museum and a living recreation. Around the year 1070, five Viking ships were deliberately sunk at Skuldelev in Roskilde Fjord in order to block the most important narrows and to protect Roskilde from an enemy attack from the sea. The ships were excavated in 1962 and reconstructed in the museum. They turned out to be five different types of ships ranging from cargo ships to ships of war.

Outside the museum, they have a living museum where there are workshops making rope and building replica Viking boats.

And the best part is you can get your Viking on and go out on a ship! You learn how to unship the oars, row in unison, raise the sails, and ship the oars. It's a blast! I got to steer the boat - okay maybe I exaggerated my sailing experience a wee bit - and Scott got to help a young boy raise and lower the sail.

This is the boat out on the water.

All in all it was a great day trip we highly recommend adding to your agenda.

Posted by mrb430 16:21 Archived in Denmark Comments (0)

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