We've just climbed onto our rented 300cc Vespa in Zandaam!

Around the Netherlands and Belgium (2018)

Wednesday, June 13, Hoorn.

A very busy day planned for today, so we were up and away from our canalside B&B early enough to arrive in Hoorn by 10am to leave our bags before taking the 10:40am historic steam train across the countryside to Medemblik. It's the 50th anniversary of this tourist attraction which was very well executed; we seemed to be the only non-Dutch folks aboard.

Here's some video of the train approaching a station which has been restored to it 1884 state:

Of course, the kids on the trip were interested in the small locomotive (this was a smaller tram locomotive, rather than a train locomotive) and the parents wanted to record the occasion:

[Deb here: We then took the historic and scenic steam train (Museumstoomtram) on a trip from Hoorn to Medemblik, riding in the restored carriages. We walked around Medemblik, stopped for coffee and at a bakery and caught a bus back to Hoorn, where we visited the Westfries museum to see rooms decorated in the style of the Dutch Golden Age and to watch a virtual reality video created to walk one through the village in 1650.

After a couple of beers in the town square, we returned to our B&B and sat in the sun on the terrace overlooking the garden in the back of the house.]

I have to include this crustless almond tart (similar to a Lindsay Shere recipe which is a classic at Chez Panisse) because I want to try to reproduce it at home.

Thursday, June 14, Utrecht.

We found ourselves in a really bad B&B last night. There was no breakfast served ("Just go to the cafe down the street with this voucher and they'll serve you [a stale croissant and cup of coffee]") and halfway through my shower the water turned cold ("Oh, was there a problem with the hot water?" we were asked). Otherwise a nice enough room near the center of Hoorn.

We spent a while before leaving successfully dissolving my guilt at not having sent a single post. (Keep up the good work, fella!) Then on the road to Utrecht; we had earlier thought of stopping at three picturesque towns just north of Amsterdam but concluded that we would have no dearth of such a thing without going out of our way. By 12:30p we were at a cafe in SE Amsterdam having cappuccini, and by 1:30 we were in Hilversum, a half-hour north of Utrecht, when we saw a substantial cafe (eethuis) isolated by the side of the road with a full parking lot (we've become ultra-sensitive to these clues and almost always stop). The result was a most substantial Dutch lunch: smoked herring croquettes and chicken satay with peanut sauce (with some really great fries, great because they have a large cross-section and are just out of the fryer so stay very hot for a long time; this is actually par for the course in Holland).

When we finished we spent a long time trying to figure out where to spend the night. Most places in Utrecht seemed unreasonably expensive so we tried to reserve two different B&Bs through the Dutch B&B website; in each case, although the site said a room was available, when we called the host, it was not (the second one was on vacation somewhere!). We finally settled on a B&B in the heart of Utrecht at 115 euros and it turned out to be lovely and very well located. We wanted to stay longer but they were fully booked for tomorrow.

[Deb here: We left Hoorn early to drive to Utrecht and encountered a bit of rain. Just in time, we spotted a tavern-like place in the woods that had an almost full parking lot, a good sign! We stopped for lunch and beers and asked our waitress to recommend some authentic Dutch dishes (almost all of the menus we encounter are in Dutch). So we hung out for quite a while and decided to try to book a B&B for the night in the university town of Utrecht.

We've been using a B&B site for the Netherlands in addition to using Booking.com to identify places to stay. (I'd noticed that the Booking.com price for our B&B in Hoorn was quite a bit more expensive that the same place on bedandbreakfast.nl.). We chose a guest house above a bakery right in the center of Utrecht, adjacent to the University and across from a canal in the historic center.]

We had a mediocre meal at a well-regarded restaurant in an ancient tower. The only memorable dish was the "young sole” (three to a serving), something we've found to be excellent all over the Low Countries.

B and Deb

[Deb here: Our breakfast from the bakery at our guest house in Utrecht was absolutely terrific (B had some coddled eggs and I had the best croissant I've had outside of Paris. They also served the best cappuccino I've had since leaving Italy.) We visited the musical clock museum (with a spectacular tour and demonstration of musical clocks and street organs)

and the railroad museum with old cars and engines (including the dining car from the Orient Express).

Both were very much worthwhile. Our kind B&B hosts had allowed B to park the Vespa overnight just in front of the entrance to the guest house, so we were able to pack up quickly after our museum visits and make our way further east to a "resort" hotel in the wooded and less populated part of the country.

After our long drive, B suggested that we sit on the inviting terrace and he'd order a couple of beers while I checked us in. It was odd to see blown-up images of Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, (and a couple of others whose identity I'd only been able to guess). I eventually learned that this Hotel de Bilderberg served as a conference center where, since 1954 or so, politicians, royalty, economists, and academics from Western Europe and the Americas have met annually to talk candidly about the state of global affairs and cooperation, post WWII. It was a bit ironic that we were reading the current news about the recent G-7 Summit.

We skipped dinner since we had shared a huge gyro in Utrecht, but had a great time relaxing on the terrace while everyone else went in to the dining room. We went to our room for some cheese and crackers that we'd been carrying around in our picnic kit and I ran downstairs to the bar to carry up a glass of wine and a large beer for B. No one cared that I hadn't requested room service. The young man at the bar was so overwhelmed (he seemed new to this) that he was very happy to have me carry the drinks away.]

Today was a gigantic comedy of errors (which could well have turned tragic, but didn't). In retrospect, we would consider it the highlight day so far. It started out fine with a nice breakfast at our convention-hotel-in-the-country, packing up and leaving our bags, and a short trip to the Kröller-Müller Museum in the middle of the largest forest reserve in the Netherlands. Founded by the daughter of a successful industrialist in 1934, it announces that it has the second largest collection of Van Gogh painting (after the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) and a very comprehensive collection of early modern works. In fact, it has 25 very small early Dutch-period portraits of peasants and perhaps six significant paintings from the important final eight years, including the masterpiece Cafe in Arles at Night. I was pleased to encounter a most unusual (and impressive) Renoir of a musical clown, and two large 16th century portaits of Venus with Cupid (essentially an excuse to paint a female nude).

The museum itself is spectacular: a modern Mies van Der Rohe style building with a very extensive sculpture park containing all the expected names. Happily they had a fine wheelchair which made it much easier for me.

One very unexpected result in the museum store was discovering a dress styled after a late Mondrian. Deb will give you the details.

Back to the hotel to pick up the bags and drive to 's-Hertogenbosch, the home town of Hieronymus Bosch, which celebrated his 500th anniversary last year. It was a tricky route because Google insisted that we go on the superhighway and we wanted side roads. At one point, we stopped for a break and to get gas; about twenty minutes later I realized that my backpack was not sitting between my legs (in order to dismount, I remove it to the ground). [This happened for the first time last summer after six flawless years of remembering. Are we getting old?] We spent twenty anxious minutes backtracking and when it was not at the gas station, we checked the doner kebap place where I had hoped to find a beer but had to settle for grape soda. Indeed, they had kept it aside for us! As I had plenty of time to consider how we'd recover from never again seeing this backpack, it occurred to me that the most difficult thing to replace (even harder than the CPAP machine) would be the collection of chargers for all of our electrical devices (toothbrush, razor, etc.).

Finally, after traversing the same twenty-minutes stretch of beautiful Dutch countryside (specializing in cherries) for the third time we came to a short stretch of superhighway. Carefully following the signs, we headed off in the wrong direction!

At last, we were in Den Bosch at our hotel (oddly, the least expensive option in this expensive town was a Best Western Eurohotel). The first thing I did was hop in the shower and discovered to my surprise, the best shower I'd ever encountered.

It was then 9:30pm but we were refreshed and hadn't eaten since breakfast, so we hastened down the street to a large, well-patronized Greek restaurant and had a terrific meal of paidakia, spanakopita, and fried feta which began with a complementary glass of ouzo.

Deb even tried out the remains of her Greek to very good effect.

Then glorious sleep.

* * * *

[Deb's account here: We packed up our things and left our bags in a self-serve luggage room and drove the 19km to the Kroller-Muller Museum, situated at the northern end of a large state-owned park full of sand and small scrub. The museum boasts the second-largest collection of paintings by Van Gogh after the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and was founded by a very wealthy heiress (her family supplied coal and steel to industrialists in the late 19th century) who recognized early that Van Gogh was an artist to watch and purchased many of his paintings. Her husband was the son of a wealthy shipping magnate, and the two of them left their rustic property (former hunting grounds) with instructions for their collection to remain intact and for a museum to be built on the property. The collection also includes many other modern artists' works, including a couple by Piet Mondrian.

The museum gift shop had a few of what I'd call "art dresses" and I couldn't resist the sleeveless knit shift based on a Mondrian painting. B suggested that I try it on and it fit so well that I had to indulge, with B's encouragement.

After a terrific visit, we returned to our hotel, packed up the scooter, and were off -- to what we'd expected would be a challenging trip, since the roads were mostly major highways and it was not clear how we could be sure to avoid them. Note that we've been unable to rely on Google maps because the "car" route is always the highway here and the "bicycle" route gets us into bike paths where we aren't permitted.

We weren't prepared for the comedy of errors that would follow.

We endured the highway again, including a nasty trip over a bridge with very high winds and were on our way on an ideal rural road. THEN, about 30 minutes later B suddenly stopped and I asked "what's wrong" when I learned that he didn't have his backpack! Amazed, both of us, since we'd left his backpack last year at a filling station in France and had to drive back 19km to retrieve it and repeat the 19km again. What do you do? You turn around and drive all the way back in silence as fast as you can hoping that you'll find the backpack. A long trip back on the rural road, another crossing over the high and windy bridge, down the highway for one exit, rolling into the town and into the gas station where B thought he'd left it. NO dice, as B would say. The cashier remembered me and was sorry that she hadn't found our backpack. The only other possibility was the doner kebab place, so we rode over there. I didn't see the bag outside on the chair where B had left it so I went inside and inquired. Sure enough, the four guys who worked there pulled it out from where they'd stored it and said "it could be a bomb" (jokingly, or ironically). We were so relieved and thanked them over and over. Now, we had to go back to the highway again for the same stretch, cross over (for a third time!) the nasty, windy bridge, and catch up to where we should have been hours ago. I think that this whole trip took six hours instead of three.]

B and Deb

[Deb here: We're two weeks in and it was about time to do our laundry, so we chose to spend a second night at our great hotel, knowing that a self-service laundromat was a 9-minute walk away. It was Sunday, a great day to relax and stay in place. The laundromat was excellent and I was finished within an hour.

We visited the Jheronimus Bosch Arts Center, which was terrific: large-scale reproductions of all of his works that could be studied up close, including this portrayal of an unfortunate soul in hell:


Several other details of Bosch paintings were worth remembering, including this circular set of scenes

and this "pipeline to Paradise"

[Deb again: We went to dinner at the Picasso restaurant, a short walk from the hotel, for another terrific dinner. We made a plan to find a bookstore in the morning to purchase a Michelin road map for the southern Netherlands, to determine the best way to make our way from town to town on the rural roads, no longer relying on Google Maps.]

We learned that nothing is open on Monday morning so we decided to relax at our hotel before making the trip to Antwerp. The local book store opened at noon, so we were able to buy a map and ride out of town at around 12:30. Our strategy is to pick our way, town by town, as we used to do before using the iPad or iPhone, staying on local roads. As a result, we were able to stop mid-way for lunch at a restaurant which did not appear to be open at first, and aside from us, had no patrons. Didn't matter, since we needed a break and the couple who ran the place seemed to be surprised that anyone showed up! They were kind and the husband tried to help us interpret the menu. In the end, we chose two items that didn't need translation: a hamburger with bacon and tomato soup (every establishment seems to have tomato soup as a staple here). Mid-way through lunch, B searched the Booking.com site and selected a guest house in the center of Antwerp for only 90 euros that looked lovely and is in a good location for the restaurant we wanted to re-visit (Het Gebaar) and the museum district.

After settling in to our lovely room with very high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, restored plank floors,

and a gorgeous bathroom,

we drove off to a local taqueria for cocktails and tacos, in one case salmon tartare!]

B and Deb

Awakened after 10 hours of sleep to a nice breakfast in the cafe associated with the "guesthouse" (not a B&B because one pays for breakfast!). Sadly the major Antwerp art museum has been under renovation for the past 10(!) years and will reopen in 2020. So we went off to Rubenshuis, a "museum" in what is the completely rebuilt house where Rubens had his studio for the last 35 years of his life (only the garden is original!). Here's Rubens' take on St. Sebastian with an angel helping out.

Not much to see so we were out with plenty of time before our 12:30p reservation at a place we lucked into (via B&B hosts) when we were last in Antwerp in 2015. It's completely chef-driven, open only for lunch, and is housed in the cutest small building on the grounds of the botanical park in the center of town.

We were seated in the same small room as last time with leaded windows overlooking the park.

When Deb told our waitress that we'd been there before, she replied "I remember you; you sat over there" and pointed to the very table!!! We told her that we were touring on our Vespa which sparked a spirited conversation (what about luggage?). The menu was only in Dutch so we had a very long explanation of each dish, half of which were desserts. (While we remember being very satisfied with the food we also remember that the focus was on the chef's desserts, which took forever to be served and were the kind of frou-frou we disdain.)

Spoiler alert: as this was probably the best meal we'll have, we want to remember all of it, so if food pix are not your thing, you're done!

The amuse-bouche was prosciutto on some parmesan fricos (and of course several sauces!).

Our first starter was the day's special of "eggs three ways" which had nothing to do with eggs (the serving containers were not egg shells but fine ceramics) and a rather ostentatious display of caviar on cheese wafers (OK!). [Our second starter of tuna was insufficiently photogenic.]

Under the wafers were three preparations of considerable complexity; this one with small Norwegian shrimp.

Then on to a beef tartare (although I heard her say "deer" in the description and was looking forward to it; we've had horse tartare in Lucca) with lots of decorations, the most intriguing being the foie gras “olives" (circled). The large sticks in the center were mashed potatoes formed into fry-shaped sticks (luckily I'd brought my Heinz ketchup).

Here's a close-up of the foie gras olive. We were told that the black coating was ash but I think it's more likely squid ink. Nonetheless, a very clever trompe d'oeil.

Finally, the red bass with lobster, properly cooked and outfitted with a complete florist shop! A few more parmesan frico for good measure.

The cheese course had seven different local cheeses and dried figs on top. Excellent all the way.

Our single dessert, made "famous" by the founding chef, was crème brûlée. If we had forgotten what we ordered, there was a handy reminder on the plate! It was, indeed, one of the best crème brûlée ever.

We were then quite stuffed to the gills but the excellent coffee came with even more including white sugar in the shape of clubs, hearts and diamonds.

We knew this was an extravagant meal but when the bill came, the meaning of extravagant became real!

On the way home we had a spill off the Vespa while going over some sand-covered steel plates covering a constuction site. Lots of helpful workers to pull the Vespa off my left foot and wish us on our way. We spent the rest of the day on our bed with our feet up; seven hours worth!

Our plan is to take two days to get to Dunkirk, cross to Dover and spend some days in England (who knew?). With any luck we'll find a way to catch a train into London to see the National Gallery!

B and Deb

Certainly not much to report today. We got our fifth report off and left Antwerp before noon. (Our guesthouse hostess was keen on learning how we managed to carry all that stuff on the Vespa so she watched closely.)

We made it to Ghent by 2pm and took turns going in to see van Eyck's Adoration of the Lamb altarpiece (someone had to watch our bags). It really is an amazing piece of work (the lamb part is kinda lame but the Annunciation figures are far beyond any Florentine ones of the same period. One very impressive aspect of the altarpiece is its size: the central panel is more than seven feet wide! If I had to choose between Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance, I'd pick the latter in a flash (Hans Memling is my new Bernini!)

We then stopped at a cafe attached to a Carrefour in order to eat something and discovered that it served only drinks: so we just had to make do with a half liter of kriek apiece and some peanuts we always carry. At dinnertime today we'd had one croissant and two cups of coffee total since our blowout meal yesterday. [Deb has more!]

[Deb here: We arrived this evening in Roeselare, mid-way between Antwerp and Dunkirk and checked in to our modest hotel near the train station. We'd chosen an inexpensive room at 81 euros on Booking.com and when I arrived and inquired about whether our room had a refrigerator because B wanted to buy grapefruit juice for breakfast, the woman at the desk said that she'd give us a larger room with a refrigerator and a balcony. The room had a small kitchenette and a fantastic shower and jacuzzi tub with a king-size bed. We settled in and started looking for good local restaurants when we learned that those serving local food were closed on Wednesdays. After unsuccessfully trying to reach a bistro by phone (their line was always busy) we just decided that we would walk out to the cafes across from the station and choose one. We headed to the one cafe/bar with an enormous crowd and spotted the only free table and sat down. After a few minutes, a young woman came strolling up to our table and said that this was her table that she had only gone to use the rest room, so B asked her to "join us" rather than get up and leave!

It turned out that Sara was from a suburb outside Paris and sitting alone having a beer while waiting for her Dutch colleague who had decided to take a shower first, so we had a terrific time talking with her for about an hour before her colleague showed up. As the beers flowed and we became more engaged, the conversation took a turn to swear words in French. Sara had picked up enough English from her former Swedish boyfriend to include some "bad words" so B started to ask her about the swear words he'd learned while living in Belfort as a teenager one summer. As we listened to her giving us examples of current nasty words in French, she repeated nasty words in English and we were giving her helpful advice about which ones to avoid as a young woman traveling to the U.S., Australia, or New Zealand (she plans to start traveling the world in September after quitting her current job). The conversation then digressed to where she said that she knew that "f*****g c**t was a bad thing to say and I assured her that she did not want to use those words. B had difficulty hearing what she was saying and asked her to repeat it, and with her French accent, he still had difficulty hearing it so she repeated it more loudly, and then B repeated it until he finally understood what she was actually saying, so we had this moment at the outdoor table where she and B were repeating the words for clarity and anyone within earshot who understood English would have been astonished or amused. I could not believe that I was hearing B utter these words, since he was repeating the words to be sure that he understood correctly. In the end I was laughing so hard in disbelief that I'm sure that I turned red in the face.]

Sara had a fascinating machine for making cigarettes and kindly demonstrated; she even permitted me to try and make one!

A very "efficient" day, in part because I woke up, looked at my bedside clock and read "8:10" knowing that our alarm was set for 8am. So I got up and showered while Deb didn't move. I couldn't understand why she was being so irresponsible; and then she said "Do you know what time it is?" Of course I did! Except my clocks battery had gone dead at some previous 8:10 and it was in fact 6:40a. But too late to do anything but continue to breakfast.

Our hotel room was really wonderful! Deb had asked whether our cheap room had a refrigerator and the kind woman desk clerk responded by giving us a better room (it must in fact have been the best room in the hotel).

So we had no trouble being on the road by 10am headed toward Dunkirk hoping to made it by 2pm to catch that ferry. We pulled into a small town on our route, got detoured, and found ourselves in the main town square boasting four places to eat. A very typical Belgian townscape which locals, of course, take for granted.

Since we didn't have any idea how to get back on track, we ate a quick lunch and studied our Michelin map and Google Maps. (We finally discovered a workaround to the problem that Google Maps insists on the superhighways in car mode and on actual bike paths in bicycle mode, making neither very reliable. Instead we discovered via the paper map the next town on our intended national road and ask Google Maps to take us there. It's a piecemeal process but it works!

We made it to the ferry port at 1:30pm, bought tickets and rested all the way to Dover and its white cliffs.

Once there we had no idea how to arrive at Canterbury but there was a superhighway marked "A2 Canterbury" so we took it. Amazingly, it was for major stretches a two lane (one each way) limited access highway. This mattered to us as we can comfortably go only 48mph so every other vehicle (including 18-wheelers) needs to pass us. With one lane, it doesn't work so well!

After the 20 mile distance to Canterbury we pulled into town without a single clue, saw down a sidestreet a large pub/hotel and pulled onto the sideway and parked. Deb went in and charmed the woman at reception (to the extent that she offered to have us park the Vespa overnight in a hallway of the pub!). The room met all reasonable requirements and the price was also in line, so here we are.

The pub part of the building was enormous: two floors with about 8,000 square feet. We had an unremarkable fish and chips and marveled at the crowd.

[Deb here: Before heading to Bruges, B suggested that since we are so close to the French border, we take a ferry across the channel from Dunkirk to Dover to visit Canterbury (as a point where we could catch a train to London so that he could visit the National Gallery again). We spent the night in a town mid-way between Bruges and Dunkirk, Roeselare, and headed out in the morning for the 55km drive to the ferry port, which is actually 19km on the other side of Dunkirk. We made the 2pm ferry easily and after the two-hour crossing, gained an hour in the UK. As soon as we drove into Canterbury, I spotted a hotel which looked quaint; however, upon entry it turned out to be a small hotel of 13 rooms on top of an enormous 2-floor pub. The rates were reasonable so we decided to spend two days. We had a chance to "tap" into the pub culture (enormous bars on two levels with a wide assortment of beer).]

B and Deb

We expected to spend the day exploring Canterbury and then go to London tomorrow but when we discovered that the hotel was fully booked for the weekend we had our plans made for us. So at 9:30am we went to the station only to discover that we were at Canterbury East when we wanted to be at Canterbury West. We finally got on the right train which took us to Charing Cross station, one block from the National Gallery. Probably my last time at the NG so we took it slowly and only after five and a half hours were we "museumed out". We saw a terrific Monet show focused entirely on his painting of buildings (75 of 'em) with a half dozen comparisons (such as the Rouen cathedral) of three or more different paintings of the same subject.

The permanent collection is simply amazing: fifteen fine Rembrandts, three excellent Caravaggios and many individual world-class paintings. We saw a Botticelli which beats anything in Florence, a terrific Velasquez nude Venus, and so on. Here's an example of Caravaggio's abilities at still life (his specialty when starting out).

At lunch we had a crab cake which was three-quarters potato and one-quarter (maybe) crab; makes Faidley's (in Baltimore) look really first-class. The burrata was something they couldn't really mess up and it was well plated:

Home about 8:45pm after learning that the train schedules are not meaningful; the station official at Charing Cross said: "Don't pay any attention to the schedule; everything is in chaos." Actually the physical trains are really nice although the fares at "peak" times are stunning: 38 pounds for two one-way.

We continued to explore British pub food. We were in a mammoth pub with two floors; part of a large chain which seemed well designed and managed. We were surprised to find on the menu a lamb shank (the most expensive item) and had to try it. You can see for yourself where the reputation of dreary dark British food came from.

All in all, we got a full helping of working-class Britain. I was surprised as the large number of people who'd tattooed themselves extensively, as though determined never to be perceived as upwardly mobile.

[Deb here: just had to take this picture of B next to a London phone booth!]

Off to a late start so that we could visit the very impressive Canterbury Cathedral. Interesting to learn that the important pilgrimage shrine to Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (murdered in the cathedral in 1170 by four knights at Henry II's suggestion) was destroyed in 1538 by order of Henry VIII. One surprise was the clear references to Canterbury at the Appleton Chapel in the apse of Memorial Church.

A rather hairy ride to Dover. We started out traveling on "side roads" in order to avoid the really awful superhighway (because it narrows to a single lane in places!) but they turned out to be barely paved country paths. On the A2 we were nearly run off the road by a gigantic long-distance coach (second time in eight years).

[Deb here: We then headed straight for the ferry dock and bought our ticket from the customs officer, who was amused to see two Americans on a scooter from the Netherlands, traveling from Dover to Dunkerque.

And, we were amused to see just in front of us, three Italians (two men and a woman) on three vintage Vespas with their luggage strapped on. We fit right in! We found out that they had been to Northern Ireland for a Vespa event and were riding 400km per day! Two of them were riding Vespas from their teenage years! They showed us their backup supply of gasoline in containers, which I appreciate as smart planning, since we've had difficulty on more than one occasion finding a gas station when we needed it.]

The crossing was uneventful and we were in Veurne by 6.

We celebrated our release from English pub food with a dinner of chateaubriand

and the moules which we saw on the table across the way ("I'll have what he's having!")

We wound up at a B&B in the deep countryside which was just charming. Nice quiet night!

B and Deb