"Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Edam, Voldam - the cities share the same suffix because of our water barriers," explains Jan Tensen captain of the AmaCerto longship. "Much of the Netherlands is 12 feet under sea level, so we employ a massive
dyke system and canals."
We spend half a day in entertaining
Amsterdam - a quick bus tour and then an informative
canal cruise. There are 40,000
bikes and 2500
house boats parked here! We pass the
Anne Frank Museum, (with a long lineup) and observe Dutch architecture as we pass narrow, canal-side homes equipped with a pulley mechanism at the top to hoist up furniture through the windows. Besides reputable galleries featuring Van Gogh and Rembrandt the city offers some oddball museums including one for Bags and Purses and another for Cats.
Captain Tensen takes his timetable seriously with three people left behind, not back to the ship before our scheduled departure. Like everyone else on tours, they are equipped with "safety cards" and a phone number, so they will be ferried or taxied safely to the next dock.
Tulips in vases are located strategically throughout the attractive ship which boasts all the amenities we need, a comfy cabin with an outside deck. One afternoon we encounter rough seas and rain, but the AmaCerto is steady as she goes.
We cruise the
Ijsselmeer river, formerly the famed Zuiderzee closed off from the North Sea, the lake now fresh water with an average depth of 8 feet.
Volendam we observe the fishing fleet and fish auction building, and afterwards we continue by motor coach to
Edam, a charming town with one of the largest churches in the Netherlands, Grote Kerk (Great Church). Eels are a popular culinary item here, but after multiple delicious samples, we purchase Edam, a mild, semi-soft cheese similar to Gouda, manufactured from part-skim pasteurized milk, in 2-4 pound (0.9 to 1.8 kg) balls coated with bright red wax.
Apeldoorn, Het Loo Palace
Next morning in
Arnhem, we view the
Battle of Arnhem Bridge made famous by the film, "A Bridge Too Far." Later in
Apeldoorn, we tour the stunning royal residence,
Het Loo Palace, with lavishly furnished rooms and meticulously sculpted gardens that once served as a hunting lodge. Two flamboyant peacocks meet us and strut their stuff. Ed Smits, our resourceful guide, armed with a complete bag of tricks including maps, books, coins, food, hats and songs, explains that the Netherlands tried to remain neutral in WWII as in WWI but the Germans wouldn't have it, desiring the land to better attack England, so the locals buried the silverware and placed valuable paintings in the rafters before the Nazis looted the palace.
Later, we arrive at
Nijmegen, the first town taken by the Nazis. With heavy rain, I make it only to the square and back taking a few pics. In the evening, we sail towards Belgium and in the morning, we enjoy a walking tour of
Antwerp in Flanders, the northern part of the country.
The cathedral houses two of Rubens' most important works, "The Elevation of the Cross" and "The Descent from the Cross," and Antwerp is one of the two most important diamond cutting centers in Europe (the other Amsterdam). "Antwerpse Handjes," cookies or chocolates made with or without marzipan are shaped like a hand.
Chocolate here is ubiquitous, with an almost fanatical adherence to Old World manufacturing techniques, most hand fashioned in small shops using original equipment. Godiva, Neuhaus - take your pick or like us, try both!
Waffles, chocolates and
diamonds! What's not to like about Antwerp?
Later, we explore nearby
Brussels, Belgium's capital, and site of
NATO headquarters. At outdoor cafés, I notice people snacking on mussels served with French fries, the latter originating here as "Vlaamse Frites." (Flemish Fries) To quench one's thirst, there are over 1,000 types of Belgian beer, the most distinctive glass made for "Pauwel Kwak" beer.
The next day is busy as we visit both
Bruges. I quite like the laid-back Ghent. Bruges, one of Europe's most perfectly preserved medieval cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is packed with tourists, many surprisingly from China. Here, I learn an important European lesson, to always carry spare change to access public washrooms! We shop on Steenstraat Street with its myriad chocolate stores, waffle cafes, and elegant shops with fashionable clothing, shoes and souvenirs such as intricate lace.
In the morning, we stop in the charming 400-year old town of Willemstad for a walking tour and a private organ recital by Gijs van Spankeren playing at the oldest Protestant church in the Netherlands, a simple, sparse Dutch Reform Church and a cultural treat.
In the afternoon, it's the UNESCO World Heritage Site,
Kinderdijk, a quaint village renowned for the country's greatest concentration of
windmills (19) dating from the 1500s. There are incredibly strong winds today, but we explore the mills devised to pump water, elevate and move it from the land, 40% of which is below sea level. Nowadays, power-driven pumping engines perform the job. In these low-lying wetlands,
clogs are another icon with four main footwear types, the main ingredient wood.
On our last day, we visit incredible Lisse to admire the spectacular display of millions of flowering tulips in the famous 70-acre
Keukenhof Gardens. One dazzling section is shaped like Van Gogh's visage celebrating his 125th anniversary. A building on site features gorgeous orchids. Keukenhof is open just 8 short weeks a year. Over 800,000 visitors arrive, an average of 14,000 per day!
Later, we visit Zaanse Schans, an old village with windmills, wooden shoe making, and other crafts, and then we dock in Amsterdam for the evening. We take a late stroll through the crowded Red Light district, inhaling the pungent scent of marijuana. Windows framed in red lights feature women trying to look provocative, but it quickly becomes depressing, and we head back to the ship.
It's been a wonderful learning experience, the meals and service superb. Yes, we would happily sail with AmaWaterways again!
Lisse, Keukenhof Gardens, 70 Acres of Tulips
Mike Keenan writes for Postmedia Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune, Niagara Falls Review and Seniors Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.