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Exploring The Netherlands With Avalon Waterways

On to Antwerp

The next day we sailed up the Schelde River to Antwerp and a day in Belgium. During a reception at the ornate, 1565 City Hall, deputy minister for tourism Koen Kennis told us that this year, 630 river cruises will dock in Antwerp, the second-largest port in Europe behind only Rotterdam.

On our bus ride from the dock, we passed a large brick building that houses a new museum that tells the history of the Red Star Line, which brought millions of immigrants to the United States through Ellis Island.

“The Red Star is our Ellis Island,” said Kennis. “It brings the history of the Red Star Line and its passengers back to life.”

Kennis noted that Antwerp is a vibrant city that mixes Old World architecture with a “large concentration of bars and restaurants that generates a youthful joie de vive.”

We spent our limited time in the city exploring around the Grote Markt, the large central square that was a pleasant surprise. The square is surrounded by historic guild houses and side streets lined with shops and restaurants and the Cathedral of Our Lady, where services were just beginning on a Sunday morning. The cathedral, with its ornate 404-foot Gothic tower, was completed in 1521.


Belgian Classics

In the afternoon, we rode a motorcoach to Brussels, the de facto capital of Europe where the European Union’s headquarters is located, along with the seat of Belgian government.

We stopped for a photo opportunity at Atomium, a 335-foot-tall structure shaped like an iron atom from the 1950s world’s fair. The tour also took us to Belgium’s war memorial and tomb of the unknown soldier, as well as Parc de Bruxelles in front of the Palais Royal, which offered views of the Belgian government house.

A guide took us down narrow, crowded streets to see the famous statue from 1600 of a small boy peeing (“Manneken Pis”) and then to the main square, a spacious paved plaza surrounded by large, ornate buildings, most housing various guilds, and the 17th century City Hall with its 315-foot-high tower.

During our free time in the square and nearby streets, we partook of traditional Belgian items: eating waffles at a brasserie on the square and buying chocolates and a linen Christmas ornament in two of the numerous shops.


Shopping and Sailing

After meeting up with the ship at Olen, we sailed to Maastricht, named by Julius Caesar when he crossed the Maas River, also known as the Meuse, near where the Impression docked. Just upriver from the boat was the St. Servatius Bridge, whose seven arches date to the 1200s.

Maastricht, near the German border in southeastern Netherlands, is an interesting mix of old and new. It has a rich history, running from an early Roman settlement to the late 20th century signing of the treaty that created the European Union.

Maastricht also is a main shopping center for the country and that part of Europe; centuries-old buildings along its winding, narrow streets are filled with upscale clothing and jewelry stores.

“There are no chains, no malls,” said our guide.

Our walking tour took us through Helpoort, the 13th century town gate, and past fragments of the medieval city walls. We stopped in a paved courtyard about the size of a football field that was the site of the original Roman town; darker stones mark the outlines of structures and baths.

We also visited a church from the 900s, where a priest was celebrating Mass, and its beautiful 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary.

On the way back to Amsterdam, we sailed through the port of Rotterdam, which seemed to go on forever, befitting Europe’s largest port and the world’s second largest. Most of Rotterdam was destroyed during World War II, and the city became an incubator for innovative architecture, which was evident in the many fascinating structures we passed in the harbor.

Our final view of the Netherlands was a fitting farewell and a completion of the circle: 19 18th century windmills in the village of Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, silhouetted against the dusky horizon.

The Dutch have done a magnificent job in building Holland.


Avalon Waterways