10am, the sun is shining from an azure blue sky, the River Amstel is busy with ferries, river cruise boats and other commercial traffic, the city of a million bicycles, Amsterdam, the first port of call for Fred Olsen Cruise Lines ship Braemar on the ‘Tulips and Chocolates’ itinerary.
Heading through the rush hour traffic reminds me that all large cities around the world suffer the same traffic problems with the exception that in the Netherlands many of the inhabitants commute by bicycle, thousands of them, at times causing as much congestion as the cars. There is even a 3 level bicycle park for commuters alongside the main railway station!
Amsterdam has many canals and no visit is complete without boarding one of the many glass topped river cruisers. Glide along canals whilst your guide gives an interesting and at times witty commentary, pass numerous house boats that began life as temporary accommodation for the Amsterdamers but have since become a static feature and change hands for eye watering amounts. The canals are busy waterways, used not just by tourists and locals but also as a way of transporting goods from the sea and terminals to their final destination. Passing the Anne Frank Museum there are queues of people who have waited up to 3 hours to gain entrance, anyone wishing to visit should book in advance to avoid the queues. Float by houses, old but elegant, previously owned by wealthy shippers, ship owners and importers of the 18th and 19th centuries. From the canals you obtain the best views of the photogenic buildings, the Westerkerk, Rijksmuseum, Stopera and many more.
Back on dry land the city has much to offer. Visit a cheese shop and sample cheeses with flavours of ginger, fruit, coconut and even garlic. An education and a very tasty one. Liquor shops selling Vodka at 92%, a mind blowing experience. Admire the warehouses that have been converted into desirable residences for the rich, small restaurants with the aroma of seasoned cooking wafting through the air as you wander the cobbled streets. Admire the Royal Palace, Opera House, beautiful churches, there is even a Madame Tussauds and a Sex Museum.
The Netherlands are renowned for their Tulips and other variety of bulb, flowering each Spring to transform the windmill dotted landscape into a fusion of colour. Keukenhof Gardens, an area famous for such beauty dates back to the early 15th century but it was not until 1949 that 20 bulb producers decided to make the park a regular attraction and finally opened their gates to visitors the following year. Since then the numbers of visitors has steadily grown and now the park each year is the show case for 100 companies displaying live their product consisting of 7 million, yes million, spring bulbs.
The Netherlands has much to offer, far more than can be absorbed into two days. The village of Edam dating back to 1230 and given its city rights in 1357. Old buildings, The Carillon built in 1566, whose tower still rings out a melody every 15 minutes and the magnificent St Nicolas Church standing quietly by the main canal where herons can be seen watching from the trees.
The next port is Antwerp, over 60 miles inland along the River Scheldt, where we berth almost in the town centre. Canals joining this river connect to the Rhine, Seine and Meuse that in turn lead to Brussels, Lille and Dunkirk.
Time to go ashore and explore Antwerp, the 2nd largest city in Belgium a country famous for its chocolates and beers of which it is said there are over 1,000 varieties produced by 180 breweries. Leave the ship, cross the road and you are in the heart of Antwerp. Following the throng finds you in Grote Markt, the main city square, flanked by many old well preserved buildings, the City Hall built in the early 1650’s fronted by the colourful flags of 80 different nations fluttering in the warm morning breeze, the Guild Houses built in the 16th Century expressing the power and wealth of the different craftsmen’s guilds. The square is dominated by the large ‘Brabo Statue’ and fountain built in 1887 depicting the mythical hero Brabo. Folklore has us believe that the giant, Antigoon, demanded very high fees for boats to use the harbour and cut off the hand of anyone who refused to pay and threw it in the river. Brabo, a Roman soldier, fought him, defeated him, cut off the giants’ right hand and threw it into the river, an act depicted in the statue.
Leaving the square by a small side street you arrive at the towering ‘Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal’ or in English ‘Cathedral of Our Lady’. This magnificent structure was started in the 14th century and completed in 1518. Inside are four works by Rubens, The Descent from the Cross, The Elevation of the Cross, The Resurrection of Christ and The Assumption. The main alter, ornate carved choir stalls, side chapels and statues have you lost in wonder at their beauty. Don’t miss the pulpit that was originally created for St. Bernard’s Abbey or the 18th century confessionals with their carved figures representing Repentance and Absolution. Entry charge to the cathedral is 6 Euros, 4 Euros if over 60, but the book and souvenir shop are free.
Spend time exploring the cobbled streets, bars selling various brands of those famous beers, shops displaying those delightfully mouth-watering chocolates, ordered by both weight and selection. Select dark, milk or white chocolate with plain or decorated tops and numerous fillings, you’re spoilt for choice but the result is the same, fabulous chocolates to eat and enjoy and worry about your weight later. Visit The Botanical Gardens with their many species of plants and shrubs, the Museum Aan de Stroom, 60 metres high and built of Indian red sandstone and glass panel construction standing out against the older buildings. The Rubenshuis where the famous painter, Rubens lived for 29 hears from 1611 together with St. James church where he is buried. There is even the obligatory Irish Pub. Have you ever been to a city in the world where there isn’t one? Answers on a postcard please.
Take the ships tour 36 miles south west of Antwerp to Belgium’s 4th largest city, Ghent, standing on the River Leie and home to world famous Chocolatier Luc van Hoorebeke. A visit to his shop at Sint-Baafsplein 15, 9000 Gent is not to be missed. Watching a Master Chocolatier making, filling and decorating chocolates of every flavour imaginable is something seldom seen and never forgotten. Tasting freshly made chocolates is a treat indeed and will excite the taste buds for more. How can such delicate little chocolates make you put on so much weight, oh, all right, just one more then.
The final port is Honfleur. This picturesque town situated at the mouth of the River Seine in the Calvados Region of Normandy is a delight, its harbour busy with small boats flying various forms of decorations, artists with their easels recording the scene in oils and water colours. Quayside cafes and restaurants sporting colourful table cloths and awnings that have few spare seats so no surprise the owners and waiters are wearing smiles as large as their aprons. The mouthwatering aroma comes from bowls of ‘Moules’ and freshly grilled fish that adorn the tables where diners are washing down these delectable dishes with copious amounts of white wine. Step away from the harbour into the side streets and find the church of St. Catherine built from wood in the early 1400’s on the model of a market hall, which, using naval construction techniques gives the impression of an upside-down ship’s hull. The church bells housed in a separate wooden structure across the square are equally impressive. Entering the main doors, you’re greeted by what appears to be two main altars and a smaller side chapel where flags, pendants and paintings from a bygone age hang from the walls and wooden pillars. A church that is simply furnished but beautiful, models and statues reminding the visitor that this is a church associated with the sea, candles burn slowly at various locations providing an air of peace and tranquility.
Make your way back towards the ‘Cafe Society’ around the harbour, see the ‘Merry Go Round’ being enjoyed by children and an ‘Organ Grinder’ performing complete with a toy monkey. Honfleur is a hidden gem, a place to sit in the sun, become part of the atmosphere, watch the world go by and dream as you sip from a large glass of chilled Rose wine.
Back on Braemar the passengers are joyous with what they have done and experienced but a little sad that it is now over. They have enjoyed being transported to the ports of three different countries in 6 days and only unpacking once, enjoyed the tours arranged by Fred Olsen enabling them to see the very best of the areas visited. A high percentage of them are regulars with Fred Olsen coming back trip after trip but what is it they like? Braemar by today’s standards is a small ship but this is one of her attractions, being able to reach those ports that the large ships can’t. A promenade deck that circumnavigates the ship, two swimming pools and large sunbathing area. A horseshoe shaped tiered stern allowing passengers to sit and admire the views whilst being in easy reach of refreshments. Three excellent restaurants providing food that is up there with the best. Comfortable lounge areas, the Morning Light Pub with large leather chairs and settees, Observatory Lounge giving 180 degree views over the ships bow, the well stocked Library, Shops, Gymnasium, a variety of entertainment and much more. The staff have a can do attitude and are always smiling and friendly, the cabins are comfortable with comfy beds and duvets and of course tea making facilities for that early morning ‘Cuppa’.
For me, Captain Robert Bamberg sums it up, “From the bridge, all is well” and it certainly is as I sit in the Observatory Lounge enjoying a wonderful afternoon tea, another scone anyone.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines