Benelux July 2015

Home/Benelux July 2015
Benelux July 2015 2017-05-23T09:13:45+10:00

BENELUX

19 – 28 July 2015


Stopover in Hamburg (from Copenhagen), then by hire car to Amsterdam , The Hague, Antwerp, Brussels and Luxembourg. Then briefly via France and Germany to Switzerland.

Hamburg (Stopover)
Amsterdam
The Hague
Antwerp
Brussels
Luxembourg
Strasbourg (en route)

HAMBURG

Sunday 19th July 2015

Up early checking out train tickets to Hamburg. Downstairs in reception we book on DB Bahn for the third train today leaving at 1:13 and getting in at 18:16 this evening about 168 Euro. Not ideal, we would have liked to leave early but the trains are fully booked, bugger. My fault should have been aware enough to book well in advance. We spend most of the morning in the hotel, watching TV and catching up with diary. At about 11am we pack up and go to the station.

Uneventful and pleasant trip Copenhagen to Hamburg, broken part way by about an hour on the ferry (train is loaded on as well) between the two countries. Hamburg station is bursting at the seams with tourists. Fortunately we locate a city map and after one false trip down Kitchenalle Street to find the wrong Novum Hotel (it is a chain) we find our room at the Intercontinental. The hotel is an oldie, but a goodie and the best value for money of our whole trip to date. Breakfast unexpectedly is part of the price.

Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city with a population of over 1.8 million and is the country’s biggest port even though it sits astride the River Elbe, some 100 kilometres from the North Sea. About 7pm we go out to take a look at the city. It is cold and raining lightly off and on. Hamburg is crossed by hundreds of canals, and also contains large areas of parkland.

We walk along its central Jungfernstieg boulevarde which connects the old town (Altstadt) and the new town (Neustadt). We then walk past the Rathaus which is Hamburg’s impressive city hall and also the seat of the government of the state of Hamburg, one of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. There are few people around late this Sunday evening and as we walk back there are some pretty unsavory looking characters loitering around the railway station exits. We finally enjoy a good meal at a nearby restaurant and get to bed about 11pm.

Monday 20th July 2015

Early morning walk for an hour or so around the lake, it is a beautiful day, still a bit chilly. The presence of water, either river, sea, lake or canal seems to add vitality and beauty to a city and that is certainly the case with Hamburg. We have a substantial breakfast back at the hotel before picking up the Audi A1 at about 10am.  Traffic out of the city is bad but once on the autobahn, away we go. Limits on the six lane highway is generally 120 or 130 or, as we gradually discover, without limit. Discovery comes in the middle lane when we are doing about 140 and cars flash by. Audis, mercs, porches and all manner of others still go by when we up our speed to 160. The trucks in the slow lane crawl along probably at about 100.

What we see of the countryside is cropping, few animals. Mainly corn, wheat, barley some spuds.

AMSTERDAM

Later as we head into the Netherlands there are more animals, even sheep but particularly cows in the low lying areas of the north. We deliberately stay north and at Groningen take the cross country route to Leeuwarden. We slow from 130 to 80 but enjoy the countryside. Green, absolutely flat, no hills anywhere and intriguing little villages. Cows and sheep, intensive cropping and glasshouses. After Harlingen we expect to see the sea, but there is a huge dyke in between the road and the sea. This is the story of Holland.

The low-lying Netherlands has been fighting back water for 2,000 years, when farmers built the first dikes. In 1287 the dikes that held back the North Sea failed (long before the little boy and his finger in the hole came along), and water flooded the country. A new bay, called Zuiderzee was then created over former farmland and for centuries, the Dutch slowly pushed back the water of the Zuiderzee. They built dikes and created polders (the term used to described any piece of land reclaimed from water). When a dike is built, canals and pumps are used to drain the land and to keep it dry. From the 1200s, windmills had been used to pump excess water off the fertile soil; today most of the windmills have been replaced with electricity and diesel-driven pumps. More than half of the Netherlands is still vulnerable to flooding, and its peat-rich agricultural soil is subsiding even as climate change is raising sea levels.

Lilly asks why and when Holland became Netherlands and I figure it happened about 50 years ago and why are the people called Dutch. I hum and ha. Later I determine that “The Netherlands is the main constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” It also includes three island territories in the Caribbean. Two of the 12 provinces of The Netherlands are North Holland and South Holland, which were prominent in the 17th century due primarily to their maritime and economic power and that is when the country began to be known as Holland. Dutch, well that’s still double dutch to me, even Wikipedia makes little sense of it.

Another thing about the Dutch is that on average its women stand almost 1.71 metres tall, and its men 1.84 metres, sans clogs. How they became the world’s tallest people has been somewhat of a mystery. After all, two centuries ago they were renowned for being among the shortest. What happened since then?  Is it nutrition? A calorie-stuffed diet rich in meat and dairy products? No the real explanation is their country is below sea level and they have had to grow fast and tall to keep their head above water, just in case!  Or perhaps because they are constantly straining to look over the dykes to keep an eye on the threat.

We find our apartment in Amsterdam on an island not far from the city centre. During its Golden Age in the 1600s, Amsterdam was the world’s richest city, an international sea-trading port, and the cradle of capitalism. Wealthy, democratic burghers built a planned city of tree-shaded canals, lined with town-houses topped with fancy gables.

As we move around we are in competition with a multitude of cyclists. You need eyes in the back of your head as they come at you from every direction. Bicycles have taken over the city, it is no wonder as parking is 5 Euro an hour, and pedestrians are relegated to third class citizens. The bike tracks in the already narrow streets are much better than the pavements which in some areas are non-existent. After booking in, we take our car to a parking garage which charges a measly 12 Euro a day. We stop by on the way back at both Chinese and common ole supermarkets and buy stuff so that Lilly can treat us to delicious dumplings.

Tuesday 21st July 2015

After a tasty breakfast put on by the kind hosts of our Arts & Crafts apartment we take off for a walk around the city, past the opera house and along the canals. Amsterdam is on average 1.5 metres below sea level so we keep an eye out in the direction of the sea. At the flower market, black tulips bulbs no longer command high prices. I think of my friend Lawrence the banker and wonder if, with a bit of leverage, fortunes could still be made overnight by firing up the market in bulbs. Lilly shops for trinkets in the flower shops while I keep a watch out for Tsunamis.

Then we catch a water taxi for a circular route around the city and out into the harbour. The three main canals, Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht were dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age. They form concentric belts around the city described as being like a gigantic windshield wiper. The canals are three metres deep and were dug progressively as Amsterdam expanded. It is an amazing and unique city.

We learn about the rich merchants building alongside the gentlemen’s canal and how the front of many homes lean over the street. Lilly being tall and upright had already observed this phenomenon and I explained that the foundations had probably given way a bit. No no. They are on a lean deliberately so that furniture etc., can go to and fro via the windows because the inner staircases are too narrow and winding. We see there are beams at the top of each home poking out over the street, most with hooks to allow pulleys/ropes to be attached. Ingenious.

We wander into the museum entrance but give it a miss mainly because we do not have time today but also because we object in principle to paying 12 Euro (that’s almost A$20 each) to enter a city museum. Every capital city should have a national museum, sponsored by the city, with free entrance. At Dam Square we stop for pics of the palace and the buildings surrounding the square, including the New Church. The latter also charges an entrance fee, I think the first church we have visited to do so. Perhaps the square is appropriately named because of its commercialization.

The queue at Ann Frank’s home stretches a long way down the street. We take photos of the house (ordinary place) where she sheltered from the Nazis and of the queue (extraordinarily long). She evidently aspired to be a journalist and sadly died at the young age of 15 in a concentration camp. I resolve to get the book and read it when we get back to Sydney.

The city has more than one hundred kilometres of canals, about 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. By 4pm we have walked alongside every canal and crossed every bridge (none burnt) and island. We decide time for a snooze and then later we will walk across the river to the remainder of the city and take in the red light area if we have buoyancy and energy left.

Later we walk past Nemo which is a science centre at the Oosterdok constructed in the shape of a huge ship. The centre or museum had its origins in 1923 and is now housed in a building designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, notable for having also designed the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art we visited in Oslo.

We take a somewhat circular route back past the Chinese Floating Pagoda, a huge 3 floor restaurant seating 700, with a queue waiting for seats. Back in the centre of the city it is about 8pm and the girls in their little cubicles are flaunting their wares, hoping to attract a guy. One or two of them beckons over a young bloke, none of them even see me or us. Not that I was getting my hopes up, far from it! They are mainly robust, well-built, curvaceous women, some of them look as if they should be on a pension. It’s all a bit tacky and commercial and we don’t linger long.

Wednesday 22nd July 2015

We are on our way by mid-morning and drive through the so-called wealthier area of the city around Vondelpark but don’t strike it rich. We are soon on the road to Utrecht where we park and stop for an hour or so to walk around the centre of the city, population 330,000. It is an attractive place with many canals and situated on the banks of the river Rhine, which somehow we miss as we drive in and out. Utrecht became one of the most important cities in the Netherlands after about 850AD. It was also regarded as a centre of Christianity following the election of the Utrecht-born Adriaan Florenszoon Boeyens as pope in 1522 (the last non-Italian pope before John Paul II).

The Dom Church was the cathedral during the Middle Ages but has been a Protestant church since 1580. The building is the one church in the Netherlands that closely resembles the style of classic Gothic architecture as developed in France. Unlike most of its French predecessors, the building has only one tower, the 112-metre-high Dom Tower, which is the hallmark of the city. In 1674 the central portion of the cathedral with the nave collapsed in a storm, and has never been rebuilt, leaving the tower now isolated from the east end. The tower is absolutely massive. As we entered the church I confirmed with the staff there have been no further storms of comparable strength since 1674.

THE HAGUE

Half an hour later we book into our hotel in The Hague, with parking 5 minutes away at 18Euro a day. We are up three strenuous floors and it is warm. After lunch we have a snooze and head into the city. Or so we thought. In fact we end up close to the Peace Palace before we realise we are going in the wrong direction. Anyway this was really top of my priority list and so we go slightly out of our way to visit the palace. We have missed the last tour for the day and had wanted to be on our way tomorrow by midday. However, the first tour is at 2pm tomorrow so we change our plans and make a booking. The Peace Palace houses both the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration and Lilly agrees we should go on the tour. The Visitors Centre has an impressive interactive exhibition on war and peace but more on all that tomorrow.

We trudge towards the centre of the city and take the famous entry gate into the historical Binnenhof or Inner Court of Netherland’s democracy. According to the Dutch constitution, Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, although the parliament and the Dutch government have been situated in The Hague since 1588, along with the Supreme Court and the Council of State. The royal family live at Wassenar on the outskirts of The Hague. The monarch has limited power and does not make pronouncements about political topics.

We walk around the inner city, it is busy but more spacious and orderly than its counterpart, Amsterdam.

After a warm day, tonight a few wee cans of cold Amstel Bier, a distinctive flavor which improves with each.

Thursday 23rd July 2015

We head for Madurodam, the miniature city. There are perhaps 100 model buildings which are exact replicas of special buildings and objects from all over the Netherlands on a scale of 1:25. It is an amazing display, interactive and very informative and educational for both kids and adults. In particular you see the way the Dutch have dealt with the sea and managed water so successfully. It’s a must see, even though the exhibits do not show the reference number from the guide they hand out and the accompanying text is therefore hard to find.

We also learn today at Madurodam that the Dutch are an enterprising lot, not just in water management. The Amsterdam stock exchange (also notable for the tulip mania and the speculative bubble of 1637) was the first of its kind in the world in 1602, trading in shares from the Dutch East India Company which was also the world’s first multinational corporation. While Dutchman Hans Lippershey failed to receive a patent for his invention of the telescope, a copy of the design was used by Galileo Galilei. Cornelius Drebbel was the inventor of the first navigable submarine while working for the royal navy. Jan van der Heyden, and his brother Nicolaes, invented the first fire hose. Willem Einthoven was awarded a Nobel Prize for his invention of the Electrocardiograph in 1903. Spyker introduced the first four-wheel drive car with an internal combustion engine. In 1943 the first artificial kidney was developed by Willem Johan Kolf. Dutch company Gatsometer, invented the first speed camera. After the compact cassette in 1962, Philips together with Sony came up with the compact disc.

Most importantly Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted New Zealand in 1642 and called it Staten Landt. He thought it was connected to a landmass of the same name at the southern tip of South America. Dutch cartographers later renamed the land Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland.  British explorer James Cook subsequently anglicised the name to New Zealand.

At the Peace Palace we learn it is an administrative building often called the seat of international law because it houses the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. On a guided tour conducted by a very young and very bright lady we are told that the Palace officially opened on 28 August 1913. Ironically war broke out within a year and over the next 30 years the world suffered two catastrophic wars. The palace was originally built to provide a symbolic home for the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), a court created to end war. The PCA was created by treaty at the 1899 Hague Peace Conference.

Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate provided 1.5 million dollars to build the Peace Palace. (In 1901 he sold his steel business to JP Morgan (US Steel) for $480 million – estimated to be about $90bn in today’s terms, according to our guide.)

We see some of the art works donated by various member countries. We enter and learn about the functioning of both courts.

The PCA encourages the resolution of disputes that involve states, state entities, intergovernmental organizations, and private parties by assisting in the establishment of arbitration tribunals and facilitating their work. One of the parties must be a state. Enforcement of awards or decisions is apparently governed by the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (also known as the New York Convention). This convention was adopted by a United Nations diplomatic conference on 10 June 1958 and entered into force on 7 June 1959. The Convention requires courts of contracting states to give effect to private agreements to arbitrate and to recognize and enforce arbitration awards made in other contracting states. There are only a handful of minor countries that are not parties to the convention.

On the other hand, the International Court of Justice is the primary judicial branch of the United Nations. Its main functions are to settle legal disputes submitted to it by states and to provide advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by international branches, agencies and the UN General Assembly. The UN Security Council enforces Court rulings. However, such enforcement is subject to the veto power of the five permanent members of the Council.

Late in the day we travel through the centres of Delft and Rotterdam, hardly stopping to catch breath. The former is a picturesque town known for its historic town centre with canals and the latter will have to await a further visit. Rotterdam looks more modern and has many skyscrapers unlike other Dutch cities.

I am anxious to surprise Lilly with a visit to Kinderdijk but we are nearly thwarted when we find the country road is blocked by road works and the GPS keeps taking us back to the roadworks, Eventually with help of a lady with a dog and a man with a dog and a man with a ferry we make it. A significant part of Holland is situated up to approximately 7 meters below sea level. The Dutch don’t notice any of this though, because an incredibly intricate system of water controls keeps the ever-rising seawater from flooding the land. Kinderdijk is a pretty area, very lush and a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its unique collection of 19 authentic windmills. These are considered a Dutch icon throughout the world. We take pictures from afar and press on to Antwerp.

ANTWERP

In the evening we leave our hotel on the outskirts to take a look at Antwerp. We drive around a bit in the central and older part of the city. It is 8:30pm and there are not so many cars or people about except in some squares where restaurants are open. We sit at one and order water only but everything is taking too long and we move on. Eventually just have a snack back at the hotel.

Friday 24th July 2015

After a good night’s sleep we are rejuvenated and ready for Antwerp again.  We park the car by the river Scheldt. Further downstream is the actual Port of Antwerp, one of the biggest in the world, ranking third in Europe and within the top 20 worldwide.

Close by is Het Steen, a medieval fortress which dates back to about 1200. This is Antwerp’s oldest building. It was used as a prison between 1303 and 1827.

We walk to St Pauls in light rain but it only opens at 2pm. A helpful lady nearby recommends it as not to be missed, but we have to move on. Why 2pm? Does the pastor sleep in on Thursdays?

At the city centre we take photos of the Antwerp City Hall, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Erected between 1561 and 1565, this Renaissance building incorporates both Flemish and Italian influences. (Flemish of course being the Dutch language as spoken in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. The Flemish make up about 60% of Belgians, the majority of the rest being French speaking Walloons.) Mutinying Spanish sailors torched the building during the Spanish Fury of 1576, but it was rebuilt in 1579. City Hall is also closed late morning, perhaps the city elders sleep in on Thursdays. We buy Belgian chocolates to assuage the feeling that Antwerp is closed for tourists today

At the Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp we go no further than the door after we are told there is an entrance fee. This is a large Gothic church begun in 1352. The first stage of construction ceased in 1521 and the church has never been completed. The church’s one finished spire is 123 metres high, the highest church tower in the Benelux countries.

We travel on to Ghent one of the oldest cities in Belgium. Many of the central streets are closed and GPS is almost worthless in these circumstances. After chasing around for a while trying to find Tourism Info (and consulting with the police) we visit Gravensteen a castle built in 1180. It was used as a seat of the Counts of Flanders until they abandoned it in the 14th century. The castle was then used as a courthouse, a prison and eventually decayed. At one time it even served as a factory. Extensive renovations have been carried out and some argue whether the castle can still be considered authentic.

At St Jacob’s Church we understand in 1093 was built the first wooden church. The building was destroyed and replaced by a building of wood and stone. Later a new Romanesque church was built the core of which dates from the period after 1120. It is the oldest Romanesque church in western Belgium. We take photos but don’t stop long inside. Under the organ at one end of this church is a bar and the inside also houses a restaurant. All a bit incongruous but probably in keeping with the rather outlandish character of the place and its inhabitants.

The city makes much of an uprising by its citizens against the regime of the Holy Roman Emperor and King Charles V (who ironically was born in Ghent) in 1539. The revolt was a reaction to high taxes, which the Flemish felt were only used to fight wars abroad. The Ghent rebels surrendered without a fight when Charles marched his army into the city the following year. Charles humiliated the rebels by parading them in white undershirts with hangman nooses around their necks. Since then Ghent citizens informally call themselves “noose bearers”.

We walk through the busy streets and take a guided tour in a smallish canal boat. Not all that great, the guide is soft spoken and his English only passable, so we struggle to digest much. One thing I did digest was that the Monks began to brew beer back in the 13th century, as it was a safe and healthy alternative to the unclean drinking water. This led to a large market for beer, and at one time, the city had around 550 breweries.

Ghent is certainly a city with a history even back to Roman times. After being savaged by the Vikings in 851 and 879 it recovered to be biggest city in Europe north of the Alps after Paris; it was bigger than Cologne, or Moscow. Skipping several centuries of ups and downs – in the last century Ghent was occupied by the Germans in both World Wars but escaped severe destruction.

We could spend more time in Ghent, next time round.

BRUSSELS

An hour later, after prolonged supermarket shopping, we make Brussels and again problems in getting into our apartment. Why if they advertise a booking window are they not on site to welcome us with hugs and kisses?

Saturday 25th July 2015

We head for Grand Place but miss it by a couple of blocks. We have to settle instead for the old Brussels Stock Exchange, no longer housed here.

Next stop is the Chapel Church founded in 1134. The present structure of this Catholic Church dates from the 13th century. Part of it was damaged by the French during the bombardment of Brussels in 1695.

We are skirting the Grand Place but not by design. Some of the tourist maps I really struggle with unless I am conscientious enough to stop and check almost every intersection. I have a note to see the Grand Sablon. The Sablon is a neighbourhood and hill. At its heart are the twin squares of the larger Grand and the smaller Petit Sablon which is a garden in the southeast. Between the two is the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon. The sablons are not particularly notable but they and the church do have a history and all three are popular tourist attractions.

On our wide circle around the city centre we take pics of The Egmont Palace described as a large mansion which today houses the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Built between 1548 and 1560 by Françoise of Luxembourg and her son, Lamoral. Next is Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, a neoclassical church located in the historic square of Place Royale. There are so many impressive buildings about. The CRC Rekenhof building is apparently used by auditors.

We do a tour of the Royal Palace which is the official home of the Belgian king, but the royals actually live elsewhere. Beautiful place, soaring ceilings, not as extravagantly ornate as some of the French palaces but more to my liking.

After lunch in the King’s garden we walk through a square with a giant clock built into a portion of a building. The clock is quite beautiful with the figures slowly coming to life.

We stop for a Belgian waffle, very creamy very sweet, very fattening.

The stand out today was the Grand Place. It is easy to see why, “with its ornate baroque and gothic guild houses, it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the most beautiful squares in Europe” Its town hall in the gothic style dates back to the 13th century. It feature the famous needle-like crooked spire which is 315 feet in height and is topped by the archangel St. Michael. On the opposite side of the square is a museum also housed in a magnificent building. Best town square we have seen to date. One end is being renovated and they have even hung huge facades along the street front of what the appearance was and will be.

Back to the apartment for live streaming of the All Blacks v Springboks, won at the end by the former. Later the Wallabies account for the Pumas setting up a decider in a couple of weeks at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.

Sunday 26th July 2015

The centre of the city is closed off a bit and we have a lot of winding in and out including the wrong way down one-way streets before we get close to the Manneken Pis. It is hard to see why this should be so famous. It is a very ordinary little statue of a boy peeing into a fountain. This Brussels icon has been amusing visitors on the corner of Rue de L’Etuve & Stroofstraat since 1619. Visiting heads of state have perpetuated the notoriety by donating miniature versions of their national costume for the little naked boy. Apparently there is even a Brussels museum which includes over 760 outfits.

Next stop to the north is the Atomium, originally constructed for Expo 58, the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. It stands 102m tall and with nine 18m in diameter stainless steel clad spheres. These are all connected so that the whole forms the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Today it is a museum. Located at the foot of the Atomium, Mini-Europe is the only park where you can have a whistlestop tour of Europe in a few short hours.  Sorry Atomium we are in a hurry and we have seen a miniature city just a few days ago, so we take photos and move on. Have a full day ahead.

Today I want to spend time in the country and avoid the motorways if possible. I have five stops planned; Leige, Spa, Durbuy, Barstogne and Vianden. We only make the first two. The others were only whistle stops but will have to wait.

At some juncture today I guess we pass from Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north to French-speaking Wallonia to the south. I am not attuned to language but do notice street names are beginning to appear more French as we move south.

Liege is our first stop. Liege is a historical city of 200,000 souls on the river Meuse. Historical mainly because of its strategic position which has made it a frequent target of armies and insurgencies over the centuries. First mention of it is in the 6th century and it is also the birthplace of the Emperor Charlemagne in 737 (although that is arguable). We try to find the street that will take us up the hill overlooking the city so that we can get a panoramic view of the city. This instead of doing the stairway of 374 stairs; I know our knees will struggle with it. The road is narrow, steep, winding and very rough, more like 4 wheel drive territory. After some heavy going and at Lilly’s prompting I take a side road and return back to safety and parking.  We wander through this old city and eventually find the Tourist Centre. The first thing we both need is a public toilet but the girl says there are none. What? We are both a bit horrified but she asks if we want to go now we can use theirs. Good news for us and for the city because we are right ready to pee in the street, or even a fountain would do.

We take a recommended walking route out to the river (La Meuse), where a huge market dominates and then back into the city.   In succession Lilly takes photos of the Fine Arts Museum, the Montefiore Fountain, Museum D’Ansembourg, Grand Curtuis (a group of museums), Church of Saint Bartholomew, Saint Antoine Yard, Church of Notre Dame, Montagne De Bueren (374 steps), the Town Hall, the Palace of Prince-Bishops and various other structures. After a while they all run in together and by the time I write this there is overlap and confusion in the mind. Need the photos to bring it all back into focus.

At the small town of Spa we stop to have a hot spa, but learn that the springs are mineral not hot. At the Tourist Office one of the springs has a flow of 21,000 litres on average daily and they are full of mineral salts and rich in iron. Spa has been frequented as a watering-place since as early as the 14th century. Though other sources of healing mineral springs have become famous throughout the world, it is the town of Spa which has become synonymous with any place having a natural water source that is believed to possess special health-giving properties. It is an attractive little town and we walk around taking photos of the casino and churches.

LUXEMBOURG

It is getting late and we still have a couple of hours to go to Luxembourg. We decide to skip the detours to Durbuy, Barstogne and Vianden. In Lux we struggle to find parking and the parking garage charges are horrendous. We get lucky about two blocks away. We find a spot which will be Ok, no charges until 8am tomorrow morning. Mostly the car is a big advantage, occasionally we wish we were without it.

Monday 27th July 2015

After breakfast we hurry to our car which is mercifully as we left it. We get a bit closer to the city centre and park and walk. It is cold and rains lightly on and off throughout the day. We ask the girl at Tourism Lux what winter is like here, if this is mid-summer. She admits it is cold but warms us up with enthusiasm for city walks. We decide to take the map and do our own walking tour. So we follow it quite rigorously around the southern end of the city taking in the William Square, Town Hall, Palace of the Grand Dukes, Cercle Cite (an administrative building), Place d’Armes, Constitution Square, a Jesuit College and the Cathedral to the Blessed Virgin. Some beautiful and historic buildings.

Luxembourg is a tiny country with a population of 525,000 people, about a fifth of them live in the capital Luxembourg City. As a representative democracy with a constitutional monarch, the country is headed by a grand duke. It is the world’s only remaining grand duchy. Luxembourg has an advanced economy and the world’s highest GDP per capita, according to the United Nations in 2014. It is a tax haven to many.

Its central location has historically made Luxembourg of great strategic importance to numerous powers, dating back to its founding as a Roman fortress. The Italians, Spanish, Belgians, French, Austrians, Dutch and Germans have all been here as controlling powers at one time or another.

Luxembourgish is the language here, a separate, yet closely related language to German.

After a break at the apartment for lunch, a snooze and to post mail we resume mid-afternoon by a visit to the Luxembourg Casemates.

The Bock is a promontory in the north-eastern corner of Luxembourg City’s old historical district. It is a natural fortification with towering rocky cliffs above the River Alzette which surrounds it on three sides. Count Siegfried built his Castle here in 963 which eventually led to the development of the town which became Luxembourg. Over the centuries, the Bock and the surrounding defences were reinforced, attacked and rebuilt time and time again as the armies of the Burgundians, Habsburgs, Spaniards, Prussians and French vied for victory over one of Europe’s most strategic strongholds, the Fortress of Luxembourg. Ruins of the old castle and the vast underground system of passages and galleries known as the casemates continue to be a major tourist attraction. We almost get lost in the rabbit warren of staircases and passages hollowed out of the rock. Take many pics of the valley.

Luxembourg is obviously a modern city in a prosperous country, everywhere there is construction, infrastructure upgrading, home and office renovations, always a sign of a healthy economy. The city is intriguing particularly because of a deep valley that surrounds three sides of a rocky promontory and which seems to cut the city in two. It is a beautiful city and well worth more time. We have had only a day here because tomorrow we have a lot to cover and must leave early. We will be back.

Tuesday 28th July 2015

Tucked down in the very bottom of Lux on the banks of the Moselle River and bordering on France and Germany is a little town called Schengen. It is famous for being the site (on a boat tied up to a quay on the river bank) where various heads of state signed a treaty on 14 June 1985 to create a borderless Europe. It is a pretty run across the beautiful Lux countryside to Schengen and we then stop at the quay and the river bank and take photos.

The treaty was not implemented (partially) until 1995. Its’ ideal is expressed as: “The free movement of persons is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU to its citizens. It entitles every EU citizen to travel, work and live in any EU country without special formalities. Schengen cooperation enhances this freedom by enabling citizens to cross internal borders without being subjected to border checks. The border-free Schengen Area guarantees free movement to more than 400 million EU citizens, as well as many non-EU nationals, businessmen, tourists or other persons legally present on the EU territory.”

I am sure I have touched on this above somewhere. The problem in obtaining a Schengen Visa is the ridiculous hoops you have to go through when you apply. We tried twice for Lilly. Unsuccessfully simply because we tried to wanted to travel in Europe (initially planned by campervan) and see the sights. We did not want to make advance bookings until we had the Visa and we did not want to plan our trip too far in advance, we wanted flexibility to stay and see what we wanted when we wanted. Surely nothing unreasonable about that! Can’t do any of that was the unbending response from the French Embassy in Sydney. We have to have a detailed itinerary and advance bookings. Eventually we realised (independent of the visa situation) that we did not want to travel by campervan so we made bookings in advance for hotels in France for most of our initial visit. Still not good enough. Eventually we sought out a travel agent who knew what would satisfy them and ended up making a host of totally superfluous bookings that we immediately abandoned after we got the visa. We concluded they just do not want tourists in Europe apart from the possible exception of those that don’t need a Schengen Visa.

After leaving Schengen we make for Metz. We run into  the back of a convoy of slow tractors that are completely blocking the road and for half an hour crawl along. We escape like a handful of others by taking an early exit and another route.

At Metz we stop and photograph the wrong church before finding the spectacular Saint-Étienne de Metz. The construction of this Gothic cathedral began in 1220 within the walls of an Ottonian basilica dating from the 10th century. The work was not completed until around 1520 and the new cathedral was consecrated on 11 April 1552. The nave is supported by flying buttresses and culminates at 41.41 metres high, making it one of the highest naves in the world. The cathedral also displays one of the largest expanse of stained glass in the world with 6,496 m2. Another immense and awesome cathedral, no wonder it took more than 300 years to build.

After leaving Metz we are again held up by French farmers and their tractors. This time for two and a half hours. Tens of thousands of vehicles are in the queues. When we eventually get through, the queue on the other side stretches for at least 10ks and there are thousands of huge trucks in it as well. It is economic vandalism and we wonder why the French authorities lack the backbone to deal with it. Protests are one thing but this is ridiculous, it antagonizes the community and borders on anarchy. There are no police around, if they’re not up to dealing with it, the country should call on the military to do so. As we drive past the tractors on the road a group of what we assume to be farmers are standing around. They look like a bunch of gypsies, many of them look as if they are either on something or are not the full quid.

STRASBOURG

At Strasbourg we find parking at the Opera B??, find Tourist Info and take the walking tour by ourselves. Strasbourg’s core is justifiably described as one of the world’s urban glories. Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre.  This central square is dominated by the 15th century cathedral, with its 468ft spire mainly in rose-coloured sandstone.

This really is another outstanding French city with the river cleverly split in a small lake area into four canals that flow through the city. We take photos as we move along of the ancient streets, churches, cobbled streets and squares. The waterside wooden houses and private mansions are a sight to behold. We loved the area of the Wall Bridge and its Towers Built (between 1200 and 1250 to reinforce the medieval fortifications) and the Vauban Dam. Another city that we could spend more time in.

We stay in the charming village of Elsenheim in the private home of an elderly French lady. She reminds me a bit of my own Mum. Flowers and colour everywhere. Comfortable and very good value for money, if not off the beaten track a bit.