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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Rotterdam and the Hague

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Our Airbnb in Rotterdam was a typical place for us, a bland apartment block behind a strip mall a fair distance from the center. Our need for parking and our disinclination to pay premium prices for accommodation meant that we rarely got to sleep in a historic building in a town center. Since we usually arrived at our apartment late and departed early this didn't make too much of a difference. Thanks to paying close attention to reviews and ratings our accommodations were almost always clean, comfortable, and quiet. Experiencing the authentic buzz of day to day life in working class Europe wasn't such a bad thing either.

Another small advantage of our location south of the center was that we didn't have to deal with morning traffic while driving to our first destination of Kinderdijk, the place where most of those idyllic photos of Dutch windmills emanate from. My search for the best breakfast on route took us to a shopping center called Winkelcentrum in the small suburb of Ridderkerk. As we arrived we were surprised by a small farmers market in the parking lot. This was a rather standard affair with produce and pastries but very welcome especially as it was unplanned. Inside the shopping center there was an array of gourmet food stores including the rotisserie chicken place that had drawn us there as well as a cheese shop and a butcher. Between the pastries and fruit we bought at the market and the grilled chicken and cheese from the shopping center we had an excellent breakfast. If this could be a regular morning routine in an unheralded residential suburb of Rotterdam then we were quite impressed at the quality of life in the Netherlands.

To visit Kinderdijk we had to park in a lot in Alblasserdam and hop on a shuttle bus but the ride was only a few minutes long. Although there are still over a thousand windmills in the Netherlands, Kinderdijk's nineteen represent the largest concentration and two of them still contribute to the elimination of water from the surrounding area. The word "windmill" technically refers to structures that use wind power to mill grain, but the meaning of the word has been expanded in English to include the use of wind power for any purpose including pumping water or generating electricity. The windmills at Kinderdijk were constructed in the eighteenth century to pump water from the canals into a reservoir from which it could be dumped into the Lek River at low tide. Many of the windmills remain functional although the heavy lifting is now provided by diesel-powered pumping stations. The gift shop near the entrance had a roof deck which provided an excellent view over the area.

Small boats ferried passengers to different windmills along the canal although the walking distance wasn't particularly long. Many of the working windmills are occupied by families, one of whom has been operating the mill for ten generations. We visited one windmill that had been converted into a museum. It had once been occupied by a family with seventeen children and it was amazing to see how they had efficiently packed such an enormous number of people into a crowded space much of which was dedicated to the pumping mechanism.

Outside the mill we got a good look at the enormous blades which swept within inches of the ground. From a distance their movement appeared slow and leisurely but up close their momentum was clear. Despite the protective fence I kept a close eye on the kids because I knew the odds of surviving a direct blow from one of those blades were not favorable. The array of majestic conical brick mills against the background of lush grass and gentle canals was truly idyllic.

Our last stop was the Wisboom steam-powered pumping station that was brought in to supplement the mills in 1848 but was finally retired in 1995 in favor of an electric-powered station that does the work of twenty-four windmills. In the canal in front of Wisboom is a bronze sculpture that commemorates the folk tale that gave Kinderdijk its name. In the fifteenth century the dikes broke in the face of an enormous storm resulting in the Saint Elizabeth flood that was responsible for thousands of deaths. The story goes that after the flood a cradle was seen bobbing in the canal with a cat jumping from side to side to keep it evenly balanced in the water. Once the villagers were able to retrieve the cradle they found a healthy baby inside. Wisboom is now a museum which is rather dry aside from an ingenious display that allows visitors to adjust the windmills to optimize wind and water management.

We had to limit our exploration of Rotterdam in order to make it to The Hague before the Haagse market closed. There weren't many sights in Rotterdam per se but the most interesting area seemed to be around the harbor in Oude Haven. We parked at a shopping center and admired more avant garde residential architecture at Schouwburgplein. The postmodernist ethos of the city center seemed to be a shout of defiance against the German bombing campaign in World War II that wiped out Rotterdam's medieval heritage. The dense rainclouds overhead gave the industrial-flavored square a somewhat gloomy atmosphere.

A few blocks away we came across Rotterdam's Chinatown, which was small but still the first Chinese neighborhood we had encountered on this trip through Europe. This area had more traditional Dutch buildings with a generous selection of Chinese restaurants and markets on the ground floors. We tried one restaurant and it was not very good at all.

At this point we planned to walk back to Markthal before moving on to The Hague but we serendipitously came across a street festival that I at first thought was African. It turned out to be a celebration of Surinamese culture. The South American country of Suriname was originally a Dutch colony and there was a mass migration to the Netherlands after the Surinamese were offered Dutch citizenship in the years leading up to independence. It was quite an unexpected burst of color and energy on an otherwise dreary afternoon. As we ate barbecued chicken at the festival the skies finally opened up for real and we had to scramble for cover from the deluge. Between the rain and the advancing hour we decided to scrap our plan to return to Markthal and proceed directly to the market in the Hague.

The Netherlands is a rather confusing country when it comes to nomenclature. For my entire life I'd never known whether the official name of the country was the Netherlands or Holland. It was only when doing my research for the trip that I discovered that Holland refers to just one of the original seven autonomous states of the Netherlands. After France conquered the states Napoleon converted them into a Kingdom of the Netherlands ruled by his brother Louis and they remained a kingdom after Napoleon was defeated. Because Holland was the most populous, wealthy, and strategically important of the states it was common to refer to the entire country by that name. Holland was eventually split into two provinces with North Holland containing Amsterdam and Haarlem and South Holland containing The Hague and Rotterdam. However the official name of the country is the Netherlands which was derived from the ancient description of the region as "low countries". In English the people and language of the country are neither Netherlandish or Hollandaise but Dutch, originally a common word to describe people from both Netherlands and Germany. The Dutch describe themselves and their language as Nederlander and Nederlands. The confusion extends to which city is the capital of the Netherlands. Amsterdam is the official capital but the national government is located in The Hague, along with numerous multinational organizations such as the International Court of Justice.

Haagse Markt is known as Europe's largest outdoor market with approximately five hundred stalls and twenty-five thousand visitors every day of the week that it is open. Since markets are a primary focus of our travels I had added an extra day in Brussels so that we would be able to visit the market on a Friday, one of the four days of the week that it is open. Fortunately the bad weather didn't follow us from Rotterdam so there were no impediments to our exploration of the market. My only concern was that having left ourselves only two hours before closing we wouldn't have enough time to experience everything. This turned out not to be a problem at all because we were done with the market in about an hour. It was large but well over half the market was devoted to items we had no interest in whatsoever, such as clothes and electronics. The produce was good and generally inexpensive but the vendors were mostly resellers who had purchased it at a wholesale market. Most of the customers were of Middle Eastern or North African origin so of course there were the typical stalls devoted to olives, dried fruit, and spices. We had recently been to several similar markets in Belgium and this one didn't measure up in atmosphere to Marché de la Batte in Liége or the Molenbeek market in Brussels. The only place we saw anything that was completely new to us was the seafood market where they had an odd-looking armored fish from Suriname called kwie kwie. It didn't help that the market was set in a walled off rectangular area so that it didn't feel integrated into the city whatsoever. Finally, although there were places to get a quick bite, it was all greasy fast food that didn't appeal to us at all. All of this might make the market sound terrible, and we were certainly disappointed, but in reality it was a perfectly pleasant place to bumble around for an hour and watch a diverse crowd of people going about their daily lives. It was just nothing special or memorable.

Because we didn't stay in the market as long as we thought we had more time than we expected to see the rest of the city. Most of the activity in the center was in the network of pedestrianized cobblestone streets around the Het Plein square and the Binnenhof complex of government buildings. A plethora of outdoor cafes were crowded with customers enjoying a nearly cloudless sky in the late afternoon. In the cafes that lined the square all the tables were filled with people dressed in white, many of them wearing ID cards, who seemed to be affiliated with each other. At one point a huge cheer rang out from all of them. They had clearly participated in some kind of event but they didn't look dressed for sport. Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I approached one table and asked them what was going on. Of course I don't speak any Dutch so I tried to be polite by asking if they spoke English but I felt like an ass anyway when they smiled and responded to me in perfect English. It reminded me my first day in Copenhagen when I tried to use a few words of Danish in the market and people looked at me in utter confusion before answering in English. The answer was that it was the aftermath of a protest by doctors against their low compensation. The cheer I had heard was actually intended ironically against the prime minister who had been observed walking across the square towards the Binnenhof.

Adjacent to the Binnenhof is the Hofvijver pond which is actually a natural lake fed by a creek that is hidden under the surrounding streets. The pond abuts the foundations of important government buildings like the Trêveszaal on the south side. On the west side of Hofvijver is a small square featuring a statue of Johan de Witt, a seventeenth century statesman who was lynched amid a political dispute centered on class warfare. This savage act concluded with the shredding of the bodies of De Witt and his brother and the distribution of their fragments. Various versions of the story even hold that parts of the brothers bodies were eaten. The Dutch people we met in The Hague betrayed no signs of cannibalistic frenzy so it would seem their society has progressed a great deal in the intervening three centuries.

On the way back to the parking garage Mei Ling spotted a Chinese gate that heralded the entrance to a Chinatown. We passed through and encountered a few Chinese restaurants and red lamps that were hanging from electrical wires but otherwise no evidence of Chinese habitation or Chinese culture. It seemed to be more of a Chinese commercial zone than a Chinatown, not much different from some we have encountered in American cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles.

It seemed we had likely encountered anything that would interest us in The Hague so we drove another forty minutes to the small Amsterdam suburb of Hoofddorp where our next Airbnb was located. Accommodations in Amsterdam proper were ridiculously expensive and Hoofddorp was just minutes from Haarlem which we planned to visit anyway. Our cottage was located within a cluster of buildings on a rural road just outside of the town. An archway of branches marked the beginning of a short path that led to the low hill where our cottage stood. At the bottom of the hill was a small trampoline that was shared with the other cottages in the complex. It was a pleasant change from the bland apartment blocks we had been staying in for the last week.

Since we still had two full days ahead of us to see Amsterdam we decided to have dinner nearby and just unpack and relax afterwards. Hoofdorpp was the quintessential planned suburb with all the restaurants and businesses located in in shopping centers sequestered from the residential areas, which consisted of rows of identical and featureless houses. It all seemed highly efficient, extremely safe, and utterly soulless. Almost every restaurant in town was clustered within a small commercial district. The bistro we chose was rather busy and boisterous and the food was edible and forgettable. At one point a rather inebriated patron came over and handed Spenser a telescopic pointer tipped with a red foam hand with an outstretched index finger. This might have been the high point of the trip for Spenser, who was careful to ensure that the pointer made it back to the car for every future leg of the journey.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:17 Archived in Netherlands Tagged road_trip family kinderdijk family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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