(Part 2 of my European travelogue includes crossing the English Channel and then driving the coastline through Belgium and the Netherlands with an overnight stop in Amsterdam.)
On September 14 we boarded the sleek Insight tour bus at 5:45 a.m. at the Thistle Marble Arch Hotel, the first of many early morning departures, for the second leg of our European journey. Traffic on the streets of London was barely moving at that hour and the night sky was fading to a rosy amber dawn. We left London, heading southeast toward Canterbury and Dover where we would catch the ferry across the English Channel to Calais, France. At that time of the morning there was not a lot of conversation among the 30 travelers. Most were napping or talking with the "one who brung them." I was happy to have a seat in the peanut gallery, the very back of the bus. From past trips, it always seems to attract the people that I enjoy being around. This theory held true for this trip as well. More about the people on the bus later on.
The ferry port was right at the base of the white cliffs of Dover. I had an overly romanticized idea of what it would be like to make the ferry crossing. Actually, even on Sunday, there was quite a crush of cars, trucks, and buses lined up to make the hour long trip across the channel. A fire in the tunnel that connects Dover and Calais earlier in the week may have accounted for the excess traffic on the ferry. We left our tour bus and walked onto the ferry and went searching for the coffee bar as there was not much to see out in the channel. I began getting acquainted with my seatmate, a young Canadian woman whom I'd met briefly the day before on the London tour. In about an hour we disembarked at Calais. I spotted this ferry boat capped by this wonderful flag. I wish I knew what country it belonged to, but couldn't identify the flag. Any ideas?
From Calais we drove along Belgium's coastline in light Sunday traffic. That was fortunate because we were on major commercial highways for most of the morning. However, in the afternoon the scenery became more interesting as we got into the Netherlands. Such a contrast of old and new, especially on the Dutch farmland. First we saw these slender wind turbines in rows in the fields used to generate clean electricity. Then all of us were aiming cameras out the bus windows trying to capture the old windmills on the neat farms. Before the wind turbines, the windmills were used by farmers to convert wind to energy to drain the low lying land, pump water and grind corn.
Look at this photo of Dutch fields. Because much of the land is below sea level the farmers don't use fences to separate fields or keep livestock contained. Instead, they rely on a gridwork of canals across their land. Apparently cattle don't like getting their feet wet or--more seriously--the canals must be too deep for the livestock to cross from one field to another to graze.
Another hint of what we would see in Amsterdam were the bike paths that ran parallel to highways. We would soon find out that the Dutch are very fit people and bikers own the roads and streets of the Netherlands! Late in the afternoon when we arrived in Amsterdam we were amazed at the numbers of bicycles on the streets. There were even bike garages! All ages got about Amsterdam on bikes and, unlike in the U.S., pedestrians beware of trying to cross the street or walk in a biking lane. Even the Dutch dogs hitched a ride and looked quite at home in their portable baskets.
Amsterdam was a beautiful city. We arrived late in the afternoon and immediately got out on the city's many canals, cruising past mansions and busy street scenes and under low bridges that connect the city. I was interested to get a closer look at the ingenious hook lifts on many of the tall, slender buildings. On last season's Amazing Race competition I had watched my favorite home team, the Louisville goths, Kynt and Vyxen, figure out how to tie ropes around large furniture pieces and hoist them up three and four levels and in an apartment through a window. Apparently there are few elevators and very narrow staircases in these old buildings.
Very proud of Kynt especially since he managed to pull a piano up several levels by this rope hoist without sweating enough to make his mascara run! Here's another canal view: After a forgettable dinner at the floating Sea Palace Restaurant several of our group decided that we must check out the infamous Red Light District. The Dutch are said to be unusually proud of their window dressings. The Red Light District takes window dressing to an entirely different level. We saw young women in various stages of undress standing in red backlit windows waiting for customers. Amazingly some were reading, chatting with other girls, or doing their nails while they waited. Although they are regulated, taxed, and unionized since 1984, it was puzzling to understand how they got involved in such a sad, wasteful lifestyle. Interestingly, I read that there was a group of young, more edgy, clothing designers who were renting the "shops" for boutiques to make and sell their clothing designs as a way to change the culture.
Before leaving Amsterdam the next day for the Rhineland, we toured Gasson Diamonds, a diamond polishing factory that had been in existence since 1879. Although I'm not much for diamonds, it was interesting to hear how the rough stones were graded according to their clarity and capacity for brilliance. All we women had a great time trying on various pieces of jewelry while the men on the tour stood with their wallets and credit cards pressed firmly to the wall! We saw the famous Gasson 121 made extra brilliant and reflective by the additional 60 facets cut on top and bottom.
Coincidentally, during this trip I was reading Dalia Sofer's debut novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, based on her father's imprisonment as a spy after the shah was ousted in the Iranian revolution. Mr. Sofer was a rare gem dealer and a Jew. His wealth and ethnicity contributed to his being targeted by the Iranian Guards. He described doing business with diamond merchants in Amsterdam. I wondered if Gasson's had been a contact for him and whether any diamonds he had secured from them had help finance his family's escape from Iran.
No trip to the Netherlands would be complete without a look at its famous old Royal Delft china. After the diamond factory tour we had a chance to pick up some pieces at a factory shop. In addition to the traditional deep blue they also sold pieces painted in soft browns, green, and gold. I regret not buying a few more pieces for myself as a memento of Amsterdam. I had not expected to enjoy this city as much as I did but I loved the architecture, vibrancy and tolerance that was so evident.
(If you're not suffering tour fatigue, on Monday I'll post Part 3, the Rhineland and Tyrolean region of Austria.)