Darlene Daley wrote this week’s guest post based on her spring vacation in the Netherlands.
Utrecht, The Netherlands
by Darlene Daley
I walked the rainy, brick sidewalks of Utrecht, The Netherlands with two of my best friends—Christel, whose home this was, and Bryan from England, my long-time pen pal whom I’d never met in person before today.
I felt a bit off from the eight hour plane trip from Detroit, but the company was wonderfully comfortable—as if we were old friends who had adventures like this all the time—and I was thrilled since this was my first trip to Europe.
The streets reminded me of the pictures I’d seen of Europe, with a patchwork of buildings pressed together on either side of the road, but instead of cars, the narrow roads were full of bicycles.
We passed canals, with shops and restaurants down close to the water, and up on street level, a bicycle parking lot filled with hundreds of bikes, on our way to a real castle for coffee.
“A castle, really, in the middle of town?” I said, super excited.
Christel held out a hand to stop me. I’d almost walked into the path of bicycle traffic.
It was a castle, in downtown Utrecht…a tavern-sized one. Apparently Europe is littered with these tiny castles! I never would have known we were in one had Christel not told me—it had a high ceiling with chandeliers and a big fireplace and was lovely, but nothing about it betrayed its age.
I was excited to see the castles since I’d never seen a real one before. Bryan actually lives right across the street from the ruins of a castle, and Christel had three lovely ones within driving distance of her home. So, they humored me a bit taking me to see some real castles. And I think they enjoyed seeing me so utterly floored by them.
Driving to our first castle, I got some idea of the lay of the land. Tiny canals and waterways are woven through the neighborhoods to prevent flooding. Swans sit prettily in rain-soaked fields.
At one point, Christel said, “This is The Netherlands. It’s flat.”
And it is—no hills except to the south, which is probably why bicycle riding is so prevalent in The Netherlands. There are the famous windmills dotting the landscape, but I was not allowed to take a picture of a fake one meant for tourists!
Our first castle visit was to Kasteel de Haar (http://www.kasteeldehaar.nl/english-version/), a 14th century castle rebuilt in the early 16th century, left to ruin, then renovated extensively in the early 1900’s.
It’s a beautiful, red brick castle surrounded by a moat (which I nearly fell into taking pictures!). I have to confess, though, that my original idea of a castle was that they were…you know…medieval. A bygone time preserved and untouched. This is not such a place. A golf trophy from 1988 was placed in front of the medieval tapestry in the dining room. The docents explained to Christel in Dutch that the family that renovated the place in the 1900’s filled it with fancy things from all over the world—which was evident, the place was stuffed—but they didn’t know whose handsome portraits were on the wall, or where the sculptures and vases and tapestries actually came from.
Christel remarked it was a very masculine castle as well, and it was true that the rooms available to see on the tour seemed to belong to the men of the house, except for a small room off the ballroom for the ladies to freshen up.
If I was looking to see a lovingly preserved medieval castle, I found it the next day in the 14th century castle Muiderslot (http://www.muiderslot.nl/?lang=en). Though it was also left to ruin and restored in the 19th century, the owners didn’t try to modernize it in the same way so it remained rugged in large part.A few areas were simple brick rooms with small, open windows. One was a barely furnished room with a desk, and a wooden staircase leading downstairs, hugging the rounded walls of the turret. The kitchen, dining room, and bedroom were restored to the 17th century days, when the mayor resided there, and had more modern comforts including lovely paintings and window seats with glass windows stretching to the high ceilings. I really fell in love with this castle, as Christel knew I would.
The last castle we went to was Slot Zuylen, which followed the same pattern—built in the 13th century, destroyed, rebuilt, and renovated through the years—the last time being in the 18th century. It had the look of a dignified manor house to me, more than a castle.
Our docent stood in the hallway by the front door and pointed out the thickness of the wall across the hallway—that was the castle, and the manor house was built around it. It was beautiful, but mostly 18th century in my view, and also quite masculine, with large portraits of the male owners of the castle and hunting trophies throughout. However, there were also many beautiful pieces of art, including an expansive tapestry that covered all the walls of one room.
• Watch out for bicycles when you cross the street!
• Check out a guidebook before you go, as I never thought of castles when I thought of The Netherlands. There is also so much to see besides its most famous city, Amsterdam. The Netherlands has some nice but small national parks, beautiful museums, and impressive locks in the south of The Netherlands to protect them from the sea.
• If you are visiting around the end of April or early May, you might want to visit the flowers in the “Keukenhof.”
• The Netherlands neighbors are Belgium and Germany. There is a point where the three countries meet. So, one can actually be standing in three countries at the same time.
• The Netherlands has a moderate sea climate, and so it hardly ever gets very warm or cold. It is very rainy, so always bring a raincoat with you when you come to visit.
• Pay toilets cost 50-cent Euro in Amsterdam.
• “The Netherlands” and “Holland” are not interchangeable terms, and it can offend some people when you use them as such. Holland is in the north of The Netherlands.
• Speaking of offending people: fork in the left hand, knife in the right. It’s awkward, but changing the knife from one hand to the other is vulgar, apparently. No one noticed I was doing it wrong until I was stupid enough to ask about it. Then I was forced to make an attempt at not being vulgar, but I usually forgot about it and eventually just started ordering sandwiches.
Standing in these truly old places built and re-built by human hands made such an impression on me. I am so grateful to Christel for opening her home to us and for showing us her beautiful country, and to Bryan for being there and sharing in the fun (and also saving me from another bicycle that had the right of way!)…I’ll never forget my chance of a lifetime to see new horizons.
Thank you for taking us with you on your journey to The Netherlands, Darlene.
That’s it for this week’s travel journal.
Until next time…Travel Light,
© 2016 SuZan Klassen