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Published: June 15th 2019
This morning we pack for our overnight journey to Belgium. As time is limited before our early train, we choose a Starbucks in the beautiful train station in which to break our fast. It's muffins and mochas beneath high gothic ceilings, heavy wooden beamed architecture, and droopy, amber-colored chandeliers. A tile mosaic above the doorway reads Europa. It's the most stunning, ornate building for an otherwise familiar trip to a coffee shop.
Our train whisks us to Rotterdam where we hop on a tram to the Erasmus bridge to await our water bus. The chill of the wind bites through our zippers and drawstrings. And yet, there's no rain, so we are pleased. We board the water bus (thankfully with indoor seating!) for a 30 minute ride from urban, modern Rotterdam to rural polder countryside. We arrive in Kinderdijk for an afternoon of bike riding among the old, stately windmills. Kinderdijk is a UNESCO World Heritage site, protected for its 19 windmills and its window into Dutch history. The Netherlands (meaning "low country") reclaimed much of its land by siphoning inland rain and seawater over dykes, and releasing into canals that ushered the water back toward the ocean.
What a feat of engineering genius!
Only a few other people disembark the water bus with us, so we find we are standing nearly alone upon a dyke with nothing but gray water and gray skies, a little uncertain of where to go. We have traveled far to see these windmills, yet where are they? Invited by a whipping flag and a rack of cruiser bikes, we cross the single road and enter what looks like a convenience store. Sure enough--bikes to rent! We outfit ourselves with bikes and helmets and a Snickers bar each (our only food for the afternoon, unbeknownst to us then), and set off in what seems like the only obvious direction. It's 10:30 AM and we have about 4 hours to explore. If we thought it was windy in Rotterdam, it's downright blustery in Kinderdijk! We pedal our single-speed cruisers headlong into the gusts, gleeful for the smooth bike path. We quickly surpass the few other tourists, slow on their feet, and listen to the rustle of pampas grasses in the whipping wind.
Then suddenly, there they are--the windmills! Lined up like so many soldiers, they stretch for as far as
we can see along canals and into the distance. This is Holland! We stop at one of the first windmills to watch a worker repair the thatched roof. Our admission covers our entrance here, so in we go to learn about how families lived in the 18th century. There is a giant kitchen that comprises much of the ground floor, and a couple of austere bedrooms showcase floral-patterned textiles in curtains and comforters. Upstairs, we take in a miller's view through tiny windows: green dykes and tiny cows and toy windmills for miles.
The bike ride continues! It feels great to pump our legs after much sitting. Most of the windmills stand still. Some are adorned with geraniums, tended by an unseen hand. And suddenly, as if propelled by our will in that moment, one begins to turn! The power in the momentum of the sails and push of the wind is thrilling. We can hear the chug and whir from across the canal and are surprised at how close the blades come to the ground. We had read about the miller's wife, mother of 13, who was tragically killed by one of the blades. Watching them, it's easy
to imagine how it must have pitched her body into the air, only to land it lifelessly yards away like a discarded doll. She must have died upon the impact at the slam of the blade. I can't help but wonder if it was suicide. Surely a miller's wife and her children would always be aware of the whereabouts of each blade, as one who lives by the sea's edge or a busy street. How does one forget to be mindful of the blades at all times? What a sad story! And I wonder, did her children witness her death? Or did they happen upon her inert body? How they must have wailed into the wind. We shudder at the thought!
Thankfully for us, it's a serene scene. In one of the inhabited windmills, laundry dries on the line, a bunny wiggles its nose in a cage, chickens bonk their faces against the ground, goats gnaw at the grass, and the breeze stirs the reeds. Such peacefulness in this rural place. We ride all over the paths that connect the polder landscape, and en route back to the water bus, even get glimpses of sunshine, which brightens up the
windmills. I feel dropped into the past. Before departing, I buy an illustrated children's book that tells the tale of the Kinderdijk ("children's dyke") namesake. A flood in 1421 left many dead, but a baby was found in her bassinet, floating in the water, allegedly saved by a cat that kept the baby afloat: The Legend of Kinderdijk
Back on the water taxi, it's back to the 21st century into the heart of bustling Rotterdam. We are famished! We eat at a fish place for Holland's famous pickled herring with diced onions and pickles, together with fried whitefish, fries, and salad. And orange Fanta. Delicious!
From Rotterdam, we take the train via Antwerp to Belgium where Sean buys the first Belgian waffle, smothered in melty Nutella! Then on to Ghent (1 hour) where we arrive around 7:30 PM at our hotel. We drop our bags and head out on foot to explore the medieval city, which we've read is well-illuminated by night. And it really is! the old gabled buildings stell bear the hooks used to pulley up supplies from boats, and with the coating of light, reflect in the canal water below. It's easy to imagine candlelight
and torches are doing the work while peasants step around horse dung and prisoners get tortured with thumb screws in the Gravasteen Castle nearby. by the magical, lighted building facades of this stonewalled, cobblestoned city, we are transported to the 14th century. To hear the church bells chime out every quarter of an hour completes the ambiance. We stroll down quays of Graslei and Kornlei (
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