Read an Excerpt
Frommer's Belgium, Holland & Luxembourg
By George McDonald
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-7667-4
Chapter OneThe Best of Belgium, Holland & Luxembourg
Although they're such small places, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg contain a diversity of culture, language, and tradition that defies easy definition. This is true even within each individual country.
Belgium, for example, is fractured along the age-old European great divide between the Germanic north and the Latin south, a division expressed in the constant regional bickering between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia that threatens to split the country entirely.
Holland (the Netherlands) also has its great divide, along the "three great rivers"-the Maas, the Waal, and the Rhine. The northerners are straitlaced and Calvinist and only know what to do with a glass of beer because they've been shown by the exuberant, Catholic southerners. Then there's the matter of nations within the nation. Friesland, Zeeland, and Limburg have their notions of separateness and their own languages to back them up.
As for Luxembourg, you'd think a country so small that even on a big map its name can't fit within its borders would be simpler. Not a bit of it. Luxembourgers are such a mixed bag that they're still trying to sort out the mess left behind when the Germanic tribes overran the Roman Empire's Rhine defenses in A.D. 406.
The Benelux Union came into existence in 1944 as much as anything because these smallcountries were tired of being trampled by bigger neighbors with sharp elbows and puffed-out chests. It was the seed from which the subsequent European Union emerged. Diversity is their greatest asset, and their willingness to adapt diversity to the needs of a new era is perhaps their best gift to the new Europe. The visitor from afar may well be more impressed by their shared characteristics, which include a determined grasp on the good life, than by the differences that separate them.
1 The Best Travel Experiences
Traveling Through Time in Bruges (Belgium): Without a doubt, Bruges is one of Europe's most handsome cities. Its almost perfectly preserved center sometimes seems more like a film set or museum exhibit than a living city, because it throws your sense of time so out of joint. Its historic buildings run the gamut of architectural styles from medieval times to the 19th century. The city's picturesque canals are the icing on Bruges's cake. See chapter 5.
Riding the Kusttram (Coast Tram) (Belgium): Riding the modern and comfortable Kusttram still seems like an old-fashioned adventure. The 2-hour journey takes you all along the 70km (44-mile) Belgian coast, from De Panne on the French border to ritzy Knokke-Heist near the Dutch border. Along the way, you can stop at a number of inviting resorts or even smaller places, such as a stretch of beach or a horse-riding trail-whatever takes your coastal fancy, the Coast Tram can get you there. See chapter 7.
Touring the Ardennes (Belgium and Luxembourg): The Ardennes, which covers the eastern third of Belgium, beyond the River Meuse and on into Luxembourg, is unlike any other landscape in the Benelux countries. Its steep river valleys and thickly forested slopes make it a place apart. This is a historic land of castles, stone-built villages, and farmhouses, but that's not all. The region also has famous resort towns like Spa and Bouillon, unequaled cuisine based on its fresh produce and game, excellent winter skiing, nature and fresh air in abundance, and towns like Bastogne and Ettelbruck which recall the sacrifice American soldiers made for victory in the Battle of the Bulge. See chapter 9 and chapter 18.
Skating on the Canals (Holland): When the thermometer drops low enough for long enough, the Dutch canals freeze over, creating picturesque highways of ice through the cities and countryside. At such times, the Dutch take to their skates. Joining them could be the highlight of your trip. See p. 284.
Following the Tulip Trail (Holland): The place to see the famous Dutch tulips in their full glory is the Keukenhof Gardens at Lisse, where vast numbers of tulips and other flowers create dazzling patches of color in the spring. Combine your visit with a trip through the bulb fields between Leiden and Haarlem. See chapter 12.
Checking Out the Windmills on the Zaanse Schans (Holland): In flat Holland, wind is ever-present, so it's not surprising that the Dutch have used windmills to assist with their hard labor, from draining polders to sawing wood. At one time the industrious people around the Zaan, northwest of Amsterdam, had almost 500 windmills working for them. Today, of the 12 that survive, four have been reconstructed in the Zaanse Schans, together with other historical buildings reminiscent of the Zaan region's bustling past. See chapter 12.
Celebrating Carnival in Maastricht (Holland): The country never seems so divided by the great rivers as it does during carnival season. Southerners declare that their celebrations are superior, and if you ever run into a southern carnival parade, you'll have to admit that they know how to party. In Maastricht the festivities are especially boisterous. On the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the mayor officially hands over the keys of the city to Prince Carnival, who will reign for the next 3 days. During this time, people parade through the streets of Maastricht in an endless procession of outrageous outfits and boundless energy. The atmosphere is always high spirited, but it never gets out of hand. See p. 430.
Driving the Wine Trail (Luxembourg): Follow the Route du Vin along the peaceful banks of the Moselle River from Echternach to Mondorf-les-Bains. Here, the low hills of Luxembourg are covered with vineyards. Several wineries open their doors to visitors, offer guided tours, explain how their wine is produced, and treat you to a little of what they have stored in their vats. See chapter 18.
2 The Best Castles & Stately Homes
Beersel (near Brussels, Belgium): This 13th-century castle just 8km (5 miles) south of Brussels looks to be the ideal place for pulling up the drawbridge and settling in for a siege-and if the owners have had the foresight to amply stock the rustic Auberge Kasteel Beersel restaurant inside, the proceedings need not be too burdensome. This is a castle just like Disney makes them, with turrets, three towers, a drawbridge, a moat, and the spirits of all those who have, willingly or unwillingly, resided within its walls. See p. 103.
Gravensteen (Ghent, Belgium): Even more than 900 years after it was built, the castle of the Counts in Ghent can still summon up a chilly feeling of dread as you look at its gray stone walls. It's a grim reminder that castles were not all for chivalrous knights and beautiful princesses; this one was intended as much to cow the independent-minded citizens of Ghent as to protect the city from foreign marauders. Inside are the tools of the autocrat's profession: torture instruments that show that what the Middle Ages lacked in humanity they made up for in invention. See p. 130.
Bouillon (near Dinant in the Ardennes, Belgium): This was once the home of a genuine hero, although a hard-handed and ruthless one: Godfrey of Bouillon, who led the First Crusade in 1096, and in 1099 took Jerusalem by storm (massacring its Muslim inhabitants in the process). Meanwhile, back in Bouillon, his castle was being taken over by the prince bishop of Liege. It still stands today, 61km (38 miles) southeast of Dinant on the River Meuse, atop a steep bluff overlooking the town, the bridge over the River Semois, and the road to Paris. You can tour its walls, chambers, and dungeons. See p. 202.
Menkemaborg (Uithuizen, in Groningen province, Holland): A borg is the Groningen version of a stately home, developed from an earlier, defensive structure. Once home to Groningen landed gentry, the Menkemaborg is a beautiful example of the style. Rebuilt in the 1700s, it was owned by the same family until the beginning of the 20th century. Nowadays it is a museum, with period furnishings re-creating a vivid picture of the life and times of a wealthy provincial squire. See p. 374.
Het Loo Palace (near Apeldoorn, Holland): William III, who became king of England, had a royal hunting lodge built here, in the forests surrounding Apeldoorn. Subsequent members of the House of Orange made alterations to the palace, especially in the 19th century, but recent renovations have revealed much of the original decoration, and what couldn't be saved has been redesigned according to the original plans. Don't miss the gardens, which have once again been returned to their 17th-century splendor. See p. 391.
Ammersoyen Castle (near 's-Hertogenbosch, Holland): This is a magnificent example of a moated fortress with sturdy towers at its corners, an architectural type that was introduced into Holland in the second half of the 13th century. The Ammersoyen's history was turbulent-it burned down in 1590 and was left in ruins for half a century before being rebuilt. See p. 422.
3 The Best Museums
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts (Brussels, Belgium): Paintings by many of the finest Belgian artists are assembled in the exceptional setting of this twin museum's neoclassical Museum of Historic Art. You'll find an entire section devoted to Brueghel, as well as works by Rubens, van Dyck, Hieronymus Bosch, and many others. Go underground to the Modern Art Museum for works by Magritte, Delvaux, Ensor, Rops, Alechinsky, and others. See p. 87.
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (Royal Fine Arts Museum; Antwerp, Belgium): Brussels's art museum may be the more conveniently placed for most visitors, but if you want to see the Flemish Masters in all their glory, you should head north to Antwerp, where the Fine Arts Museum has the best collection of their works in the world, including the largest group of Rubens masterpieces in existence. See p. 138.
Musee de la Vie Wallonne (Museum of Walloon Life; Liege, Belgium): Set in a 17th-century convent, this museum rambles through the history and culture of the French-speaking (and Walloon dialect-speaking) region of Belgium called Wallonia. Its exhibits also ramble through the building that houses them, covering everything from popular arts and crafts to industry and agriculture; there's even an interesting section on theater marionettes. See p. 175.
Rijksmuseum (State Museum; Amsterdam, Holland): The Rijksmuseum houses some of the Netherlands's most important works of art: Rembrandt's world-famous The Night Watch, four of Vermeer's beautiful miniatures, and numerous works by Frans Hals. All in all, this is one of the most impressive collections of Old Masters in the world. Unfortunately, until mid-2008 you'll be able to view a lot fewer than previously, since most of the museum is closed for refurbishment. But in the sole wing that remains open, the Philips Wing, the Rijksmuseum has assembled The Masterpieces, highlights from its collection of 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, ah, masterpieces. See p. 269.
Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam, Holland): This museum has an extensive collection of its namesake's work: a total of 200 paintings and 500 drawings, ranging from the famous Sunflowers to earless self-portraits. The permanent collection also includes important works by van Gogh's 19th-century contemporaries, and there are often temporary or visiting exhibitions concentrating on the same period. A new partly underground elliptical wing, by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, opened on Museumplein in 1999 to house temporary exhibitions of work by van Gogh and other artists. See p. 272.
Mauritshuis (The Hague, Holland): This wonderfully intimate museum is set in the 17th-century palace of a Dutch count. Its collection of Golden Age art treasures is small but unrivaled. See p. 322.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam, Holland): This museum features a range of art forms, from visual to applied arts, covering a period of over 7 centuries. Here you see paintings by everyone from Brueghel and van Eyck to surrealists like Magritte and Dali. See p. 322.
Museum Het Catharijneconvent (St. Catherine's Convent; Utrecht, Holland): This museum, appropriately housed in a former convent, will give you a clear picture of Holland's Christian heritage. The collection of medieval art and illuminated manuscripts is particularly impressive. See p. 384.
National Museum of Military History (Museum of the Battle of the Bulge; Diekirch, Luxembourg): Luxembourg has many museums devoted to the peaceful aspects of life, but there's something special about this tribute to the heroes of the Battle of the Bulge (1944-45)-something gritty, immediate, and real that sets it apart from other war museums. Its centerpiece is a series of dioramas that give you an eerie sense of being there in the battle, in the snow, with danger all around. The display is bound to inspire both sympathy and admiration for the men who fought and died for freedom all over the beautiful Ardennes region that is now so peaceful. See p. 461.
4 The Best Cathedrals & Churches
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady; Bruges, Belgium): The soaring 122m (396-ft.) spire of this church can be seen from a wide area around Bruges. As a magnificent bonus, the church also holds a beautiful marble Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (one of his few works outside Italy); a painting by Anthony van Dyck; and the 15th-century bronze tomb sculptures of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy. See p. 118.
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady; Antwerp, Belgium): You can't miss this towering example of the Flemish Gothic style if you visit Antwerp, or even pass close to the city. Its 123m (400-ft.) spire dominates the area. This is in fact the biggest church in the Benelux countries, with seven naves and 125 pillars. But oversize statistics are not Our Lady's only attraction-there are no fewer than three Rubens masterpieces inside, as well as paintings by other prominent artists. See p. 139.
Cathedrale Notre-Dame (Cathedral of Our Lady; Tournai, Belgium): This cathedral is a harmonious blending of the Romanesque and Gothic styles. It has five towers and a magnificent suite of stained-glass windows, as well as paintings by Rubens and Jordaens. Equally interesting are the opulent pieces in the Treasury, especially the gold-and-silver reliquary, The Shrine of Our Lady, dating from 1205. See p. 196.
Westerkerk (West Church; Amsterdam, Holland): The Westerkerk's 85m (277-ft.) tower, the Westertoren, is the tallest in Amsterdam, providing a spectacular view of the city. Anne Frank could hear every note of the carillon's dulcet tones while in hiding from the Nazis in her nearby house. See p. 278.
Sint-Bavokerk (St. Bavo's Church; Haarlem, Holland): Walking to the town center from Haarlem station, you catch only glimpses of the church, but the moment you reach the market square it is revealed in all its splendor. This church, which was completed after a relatively short building period, has a rare unity of structure and proportion. Regular concerts are given here on the famous organ built by Christian Muller in 1738. The young Mozart once played on this instrument. See p. 296.
Sint-Janskerk (St. John's Church; Gouda, Holland): At 122m (400 ft.), this is the longest church in Holland. It also has some of the most magnificent stained-glass windows in Europe. See p. 347.
Domkerk (Utrecht, Holland): This magnificent cathedral was begun in the 13th century. Its 111m (365-ft.) tower, which dominates old Utrecht's skyline, offers a great view of the city. See p. 384.
Sint-Servaasbasiliek (Basilica of St. Servatius; Maastricht, Holland): One of the oldest churches in Holland, this basilica was built over the grave of St. Servatius, the first bishop of Holland. Parts of it date back to the 10th century, and it was enlarge in the 14th and 15th centuries, when the south portal and the entrance to the cloister at Keizer Karelplein were added. These are adorned with beautiful statues and intricate stone carvings. The church interior is largely Romanesque, and recent restorations have given it a cool and restrained atmosphere, emphasizing the simple arches and vaults. Over the centuries people have honored St. Servatius with gifts, so the Treasury holds a collection of incredible richness and beauty. Most impressive are the reliquaries of Saint Thomas and of Saint Servatius, made by Maastricht goldsmiths in the 12th century. See p. 428.
Notre-Dame Cathedral (Luxembourg City): The cathedral of Luxembourg City was built late for the Gothic style-in the early 17th century-but is nevertheless a great Gothic monument, albeit clearly influenced by Renaissance ideals. The Octave of Our Lady of Luxembourg takes place here every year before the statue of the Virgin, which is said to have miraculous powers. See p. 451.
Excerpted from Frommer's Belgium, Holland & Luxembourg by George McDonald Excerpted by permission.
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