While the Treasures made its leisurely way up the Rhine to Amsterdam, coaches took the passengers by land, a much faster route than the river, so that we would have most of the day in the city. The Tauck tour director on our bus, a very bright young American who is married to a Bulgarian woman he met in Finland (!) and who now lives in Sofia, gave us a condensed but very interesting history of the Netherlands as we drove. The first thing we noticed was that the Dutch highway system should be the envy of the rest of the world: smoothly paved, well designed, and comfortable for driving on, even on a rainy gray morning.
I’d heard Holland described as “the Low Countries,” but somehow I’d never put that phrase together with the actual name of the country: the “Nether Lands.” As we learned, a fifth of the country lies below sea level, mainly as a result of uncontrolled peat harvesting well into the 19thcentury, and much of the rest of the country is only three or four feet above sea level. Over time, after enduring massive and destructive floods, the enterprising Dutch developed several methods of controlling the water. One of the more interesting, which we could see examples of from our bus windows, is the construction of polders: low-lying tracts of land are protected by dikes around their perimeter, and the water level in these man-made lakes is carefully controlled by pumping water out through sluice gates when it is too high and letting it back in when the water level drops. But flooding will always be a serious problem in the Netherlands, especially as climate change continues to raise the level of the North Sea.
For a small country, the Netherlands has contributed much more than its share to the world’s trade, art, exploration, and political development. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch explored and colonized all over the globe. In our travels, we’ve seen evidence of their activity in the Caribbean, the East Indies, India, and Africa. The Cape Colony (now the country of South Africa) was settled by the Boers, Dutch farmers who traveled in huge ox-drawn wagons from the coast to the inland territories where they made their homes. Willemstad in Curacao still looks like an 18th-century Dutch town. Indonesia carries many reminders of Dutch colonization. But one of the biggest mistakes the Dutch made during this period of expansion was to agree to settle a dispute with England over competing claims to plantation land in Guyana. Eventually, the Dutch chose to keep the colony of Suriname, recently captured from the British; in return, they gave up a small trading post in North America called New Amsterdam – now known as New York City.
In the world of art, though, especially 17th-century painting, no one compared with the Dutch. Anyone who has ever been to a good museum or taken a class in art history can identify a half-dozen Dutch painters: Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, and – in the 19th and 20th centuries— Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondriaan, and Willem de Kooning. Erasmus was Dutch, and philosophers like Spinoza and Descartes did their work in the Netherlands.
No pocket history of the Dutch, though, can omit what happened in this country in World War II. The Netherlands had decided to remain neutral, not a bad decision given its precarious geographical position between the North Sea, Belgium, and Germany. But the Nazis had other plans and invaded in May 1940, overrunning the entire country in a week. The Netherlands’ 100,000 Jews were rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. A few Jews were hidden by sympathetic Dutch Gentiles, but eventually even they were betrayed (the Amsterdam family of Anne Frank being perhaps the most well known example). At war’s end, only 876 Dutch Jews had survived. But the rest of the Dutch population faced its own privations: the Germans took all their livestock, their crops, any food they had managed to keep in store, and shipped it to Germany to feed the German army. When liberation came in 1945, the Dutch were literally starving, and American military transport planes flew tons of food into the country to keep the people alive, in a preview of what they would accomplish during the Berlin Airlift four years later.
Because of the strategic significance of the bridges over the Main and Rhine during the war, some of the most famous military campaigns were waged to capture or defend bridges. I mentioned the bridge at Remagen in my last post, but even better known today – because of Cornelius Ryan’s book A Bridge Too Far and the 1977 film of the same name – is the bridge at Arnhem in the Netherlands. In September 1944 an ambitious campaign was launched by the Allies to capture most of the remaining bridges across the Rhine so that they could skirt the Siegfried line and sweep into Germany through Holland, ending the war by Christmas. Called “Operation Market Garden,” it was essentially a British plan, endorsed by General Eisenhower. Thirty-five thousand paratroopers were to be dropped behind enemy lines by parachute or glider, take and secure the more southern bridges, and get to the last bridge at Arnhem in two to three days. British intelligence believed that only a minimal German army presence was in the area, so that the plan had a good chance of succeeding. However, Dutch underground reports warned that there was a Panzer unit at Arnhem; General Montgomery discounted these reports. Unfortunately, the Dutch were right. American troops succeeded in capturing the bridge at Nijmegen, but the British met fierce resistance at Arnhem, the northernmost target of the operation, engaging in house-to-house fighting for several days. To make matters worse, their radios did not work so they couldn’t communicate with their widely-dispersed troops. After suffering terrible losses, the British were forced to surrender, and the failure of “Operation Market Garden” still stands as one of the worst missteps of the war.
Our time in Amsterdam was limited, but we did manage a visit to the temporary quarters of the world-famous Rijksmuseum, which houses a small but select collection of art from the enormous museum while it undergoes some repair and renovation. With the help of a very knowledgeable local guide, we learned a great deal about Rembrandt, his life, and his work. The artist was not only a superb craftsman, but he had a very modern eye for composition.
His most famous painting, “The Night Watch,” which was done as a commission for a civic group, is not at all what one would expect a 17th-century group portrait to look like. The figures appear to be in action, not standing stiffly, best foot forward, to have their likeness recorded for posterity. Some are slightly blurred, as if they were moving. We’re quite sure the subjects of the painting weren’t thrilled with the result, but what a brilliant, timeless, emotionally involving work of art it is.
Amsterdam is famous, of course, for its network of canals, meticulously planned in the 17thcentury and still in daily use. We took a lunch cruise on a canal boat and got a – well, not bird’s eye, but whatever the equivalent would be from below street level – view of the heart of the old city.
Tall townhouses built in Dutch Renaissance style line the cobblestone streets that edge the canals, and houseboats anchored along the banks provide picturesque (and expensive) housing for some of the city’s more bohemian residents. One of the houseboats is actually a cat adoption shelter, so apparently Dutch cats don’t mind living on the water. A pair of swans herded their five cygnets out of the way of boat traffic, while a flock of ducks paddled alongside our tour boat hoping for lunch leftovers.
The 1671 Portuguese-Israelite Synagogue in the center of Amsterdam is reputed to be the oldest public synagogue in western Europe. We don’t know how many members it has now, or even if it is an active shul, but its size indicates that once it must have had a very large congregation, especially for when it was built. It was just another reminder of how different the population of most European cities was before the war.
The main hazard to life and limb in Amsterdam today is not falling into a canal, but being run down by one of the thousands of bicycles that whiz around the city. Cars are discouraged in town, for very good reason (narrow streets, no place to park, lots of foot traffic), and the terrain is flat, so travel by bicycle makes sense. But woe betide the unwary pedestrian who sets foot in one of the bike lanes – cyclists have the right of way in their lanes, and they’ll take it even if they aren’t in a bike lane. Given the speed they travel, I think it would be suicidal to argue with them.
Another of Amsterdam’s distinctions is its red light district (which we didn’t visit, having seen the bigger one in Hamburg years ago). And its famous “coffee houses,” where every variety of marijuana is on offer. Although drugs are not legal in the Netherlands, the authorities seem to have decided to look the other way as long as everyone behaves well. Prostitution, on the other hand, is legal and government regulated. The women pay taxes on their income, are required to have regular health inspections, and as a result, have no pimps.
The floating flower market along one of the main canals is a paradise for home gardeners, with every type of bulb neatly packaged and described. Tulips, tulips, tulips, of course, but also amaryllis, hyacinths, daffodils, paperwhites, and more than I could name. Florida is not hospitable to flowering bulbs, except indoors, so we make do with one or two amaryllis in big pots every year. But it would be a wonderful experience to see the Dutch tulip fields in bloom in the early spring.
With this visit to Amsterdam, our 24-day European river cruise came to an end. We found it one of the most interesting and enjoyable travel experiences we’ve had, not least because of the professionalism of the Tauck employees at every level. The Treasures is a beautiful new riverboat, with comfortable accommodations and well-designed public spaces. The entire ship sparkles with cleanliness and polish. The crew is attentive and eager to comply with every request. Although we found the food onboard in general to be good but not exceptional, this didn’t detract from our cruise experience. The Tauck cruise director and the five Tauck tour directors we encountered during the cruise couldn’t have been more knowledgeable and helpful. All the local guides were excellent, and all had had a good deal of previous experience with Tauck. We loved the itinerary – it was the main reason we chose this particular cruise, and we weren’t disappointed. We hope you have enjoyed following in our footsteps as we went from the Black Sea to the North Sea on three of the world’s great rivers.
And now for a few of the more memorable highlights: In Budapest, as we relaxed on the sun deck of the ship before lunch one day, we were puzzled at the sight of a very large military helicopter, accompanied by a much smaller civilian one, flying overhead down the Danube. In a few minutes, the duo passed overhead again, this time flying upriver. I asked myself whether we might be at war and no one had told us. But after a couple more of these maneuvers, we were told when we went down to the dining room that a movie company was in town filming a new action movie, and that Bruce Willis was in the army chopper while the camera crew was filming him from the little one.
Two of our fellow passengers were a retired judge and his lawyer wife from California. When we were sitting with them at dinner one evening, the discussion turned to our respective families. The judge told this story: When he was married to his first wife, he came home from work one day to find her reclining on a chaise longue in the back yard, a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other. Without looking at him, she said, “Peter, I want to thank you for giving me three children. I always wanted three children – just not these three children.”
On the drive into Amsterdam, Dominic, the Tauck tour director on board our bus, gave us some history about Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. Dom took particular pleasure in recounting the names of some of the historical personages that figured in his story. For example, Charlemagne’s father was known as Pepin the Short (possibly to distinguish him from someone called Pepin the Tall, or maybe Pepin the Fat). Somewhere far down the line we come to Joanna the Mad (an older sister of Queen Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII) and her husband, Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy. Dom wondered what Philip’s poor younger brother might have been called –“Gerry the Adequate?” As he said this, he gave Gerry a mischievous glance. Gerry later remarked, ” I didn’t think he knew me so well.”
This was our first river cruise, which might surprise those of you who know us well and know how we love to travel. We’d sort of saved it for a time when we didn’t feel up to doing the more strenuous trips, like Antarctica, in the (mistaken) belief that a river cruise would be a leisurely, relaxing trip, floating along and looking at the scenery. Well, there was some of that, but almost every day we were in a port — or two — and doing a lot of walking and climbing and standing. So if you’re considering taking a cruise on a riverboat, we suggest that you don’t put it off too long. You will love it, but you should be in reasonably good shape. We highly recommend this way of seeing the world from its rivers — even familiar places look wholly different, and more beautiful than we ever imagined. As is this ever-changing earth we call home.