Michigan Radio travelers tour the Netherlands and Belgium aboard a remodeled canal barge
I had the privilege of hosting 30 Michigan Radio travelers on a trip through the Netherlands and Belgium this month, aboard the passenger barge The Magnifique II.
We gathered for our first night in Amsterdam, getting to know each other over dinner at Five Flies restaurant, which may not sound very appetizing, but is named for the five 17th century canal houses that make up the restaurant.
Early the next morning we met our Amsterdam guide, Alette, in the lobby of our hotel for shuttle bus rides to guided tours of the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum, which houses many of Rembrandt's most famous works including The Night Watch. I'm always surprised at how much more there is to a painting than I originally see, and our guides did a wonderful job putting the paintings in historical context and drawing our attention to details we might have missed.
On of the more interesting things we saw while walking in Amsterdam was a man magnet-fishing in the canals. With a strong magnet tied to the end of a rope, the man had a large audience as he pulled up boat propellers, knives and even bicycles from the bottom of the canal.
We had dinner together on our second night at the Waag restaurant, inside Amsterdam's old weigh-house and St. Anthony's city gate in the Nieuwmarkt neighborhood. We walked a longer, less scenic route from the hotel to the restaurant to avoid walking through Amsterdam's red light district, but folks who wanted a glimpse could crane their necks as we passed.
More importantly when walking through Amsterdam, is to watch out for bicycles. There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam, and there is only a soft ring of a bell (sometimes) as they come up behind you. I can only imagine the bicyclists must get annoyed at tourists who are frequently confused between the sidewalk and the bike lanes.
Our third day was "flower day" and began with an early morning bus ride to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. This warehouse is the size of 220 soccer fields where millions of fresh cut flowers are purchased each day and whisked around in long trolley trains pulled by electric carts. While the sheer size of the building and constant motion is impressive, the smell is also amazing.
We walked the length of the warehouse on a raised platform, watching boxes of flowers move by hand, trolley and automation.
After seeing how the flowers are sold, we traveled to the Keukenhof Gardens to see how Holland's famed tulips are grown. The Keukenhof Gardens are only open 8 weeks a year and we were fortunate to be here during the original Holland's "Tulip Time." The bus trip from Almseer to the Keukenhof Gardens drove past lots of tulip farms, and we learned those farms actually cut the flowers down in order to promote growth of the bulbs, which is what is actually harvested.
The Keukenhof Gardens have numerous walking trails through gardens designed to show off many types of flowers, but mostly tulips. It was chilly the day we visited, but that didn't stop many "influencers" from dropping their coats for a moment so the perfect social media picture could be taken of them in their summer dress among the flowers.
Thursday night we boarded the Magnifique II for a welcome dinner. The vessel is a passenger barge small enough to travel the canals of the Netherlands, but large enough to hold 37 passengers and a 6 person crew. The food on board was amazing (especially the desserts), and the windy, chilly weather was more conducive to hanging around the bar, card games (cribbage and euchre for this Michigan crowd), and conversation than sitting in the hot tub on the top deck.
We were introduced to our guide Andre, and after dinner each evening he would explain the itinerary for the next day. The cabins were small but had everything we needed, including pretty amazing water pressure in the showers.
Friday morning we cruised the canals to Haarlem, where we had a tour of the Frans Hall Museum. Full disclosure, while I certainly knew the work of Van Gogh and Rembrandt, Frans Hall was new to me. I really enjoyed his 17th century portraits of the citizens of Haarlem, and the stories behind the portraits. We also had the chance to step inside the cathedral, where Mozart once performed on the organ.
Friday evening, after dinner onboard, we had a Q&A in the bar area about Michigan Radio. I fielded questions ranging from how we decide what news to cover, to how the station is funded, to concerns about some of NPR's international coverage.
The Cruquius museum was our destination Saturday morning. We learned how the Netherlands operate their system of dykes, canals, and locks to keep water out of their country that is mostly below sea level. The museum is also the site of the world's largest steam engine which was used to help drain Lake Haarlem from 1849-1852. We were shown a demonstration of how the massive pumping system works. It's just part of the Netherlands' centuries old struggle to keep the water out and create more dry land.
The afternoon was spent walking around Leiden. The city is full of waterways, old bridges, canal house mansions, and the Netherlands' oldest university, Leiden University, founded in 1575. It's also the birthplace of Rembrandt, and boasts one of the best preserved historic centers in the Netherlands. There was a large outdoor market along the center canal selling everything from tulips (of course) to cheeses and chocolates (yup), but also produce, clothing, electronics and crafts.
Saturday night after dinner, we had a mini Moth Radio hour in the bar area - with a handful of passengers signing up to share stories with the rest of us. The stories were really entertaining and ranged from the near death and miraculous revival of a pet cat, to the challenge of living with an unusual first name, to a young man employed as the poolside cook at the Playboy Club (complete with pictures!).
Sunday's tours included a stop at The Hague to see the Peace Palace and the World Court. While that was nice, everyone on the tour was much more interested in seeing that girl...you know that girl...the one with the pearl earring?
The well known Johannes Vermeer painting is on the wall at the Mauritshuis Museum which is also at The Hague. Rembrandt's well know painting Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp is also at the museum, but it's Girl with a Pearl Earring that has people lining-up down the stairs to see.
"If it's Monday it must be Belgium?" - Monday was a full day in Antwerp, which included a guided walking tour of the city and the many paintings by Peter Paul Rubens in the Cathedral of Our Lady. We had traditional "pail of mussels" together for lunch and the afternoon free to explore the city on our own.
We caught up with the barge that evening in Rotterdam, where some of the more adventurous of us took a water taxi tour that zipped quickly around the harbor and slowly through some canals. The driver treated us to a quick donut or two with the boat before returning us to the barge.
Tuesday morning was a bit cold and rainy, but what better than a windy day to visit the windmills of Kinderdijk? This UNESCO World Heritage Site has 19 iconic windmills from the 18th century used to control flooding in the surrounding low-lands.
After touring the windmills, half our group suited up for a 15 mile bike ride, led by Andre', through the countryside. There was a bit of a head wind, but everyone made it back to the boat in time for supper. The rest of us enjoyed a lazy boat ride (and maybe a nap?) to Gouda.
Folks who didn't take the bike ride spent the afternoon touring Gouda (pronounced HOW-duh by the locals) and witnessing all things cheese. The highlights were the Gouda Waag (weigh house) located on the market square. We took a self guided audio tour of the cheese museum and enjoyed wandering around the uncrowded city that is full of medieval streets and countless canals.
The next day was spent on the boat traveling back to Amsterdam. Many of us hung out on deck, watching the locks and draw bridges, and taking pictures of the sites. We had a great farewell dinner to wrap up our last night.
If you would like to join the Michigan Radio travelers, you can find information on other Michigan Radio tour opportunities at our Travel page