Chocolates, Beer, Bikes & Barges – Belgium & Holland

We arrived to cosmopolitan Brussels with 3 lost bags and 1 missing person. One suitcase went to Moscow but all caught up eventually. Janice and I are led a perfect size group of 39, not too big to get lost in or too small for comfort.

Each July trip draws school teachers who have loyally followed me around the world and they do love Europe. We began with a light orientation tour in the historic heart of this capital, followed by a tour of the Chocolate Museum. I found this boring, but the tastings were great.

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium. After breakfast, we began our morning walking tour of the 17th century Grand Place. It was actually 8:30 Sunday morning and I marveled that in over a dozen visits here, I’ve never seen this place so empty. It echoed in silence as tourists slept and the locals were gone for holiday. Sunlight brilliantly flooded the gothic cathedrals, classical facades and art nuveau houses. We were alone and it was breathtaking.

Monday we toured this proud and regal city that is revealed in its royal palaces, cathedrals, museums and monuments. We see the headquarters of the EU and site of the 1958 World’s Fair with the massive silver Atonium. We photograph the Mannekin Pis. [I never understood the love of this small bronze statue but it represents Brussels. Perhaps it’s found in the irreverence of the artist.]

Paula was our guide for several days here. Her stellar knowledge brought the history of Belgium to life, particularly the time when King Leopold purchased the Congo as his personal playground. Paula deeply cared for her work and later invited us to visit yet another chocolate factory, but fully sated, we declined.

For free time we dispersed into tiny alleyways to intentionally get lost. Some searched out beer halls or hot sugar waffles, as others shopped for tapestries at give-away prices.

Things become a bit blurry from here. I’d taken some great notes on napkins throughout and managed to loose them all enroute. But memory serves well as we head to the capital of Flanders and enchanting Bruges.

This town is a complete UNESCO World Heritage Site with a tranquil character that can’t be described. The people have done so much to protect its medieval feel, it provides the magical affect of stepping back into time. It is called “Little Venice” and we enjoyed a boat cruise through the veritable maze of old canals that led to the Lake of Love.

We strolled through ancient squares lined with houses of gabled rooftops and various cathedrals of holy this and holy that.

The highlight of this trip for me was our 2 hour city tour on bicycles. We looked like a motley crew as we headed out into narrow cobbled streets and over countless bridges. As I peddled, I observed the group behind me. One woman is nearing 70, two are smoking cigarettes, Janice is talking to America on her cell and one unmentionable crashes into a car! She had to pay the driver for damages on the spot.

It took complete concentration to cross the busy tram tracks. That morning we rode through Vodelpark and the Red Light district.

It was interesting to see the prostitutes as they just woke up to get their coffee dressed in jeans and sneakers Holland is the land of the free. With prostitution legal, my group is most inquisitive on this matter. We laughed as Marilyn said, “Suzy, they all ask questions on sex. Are they frustrated?”

I arranged a professional guided walking tour of the Red Light district in the oldest part of Amsterdam for the world’s oldest profession. Since the 1400’s, seamen would dock here to unload. Guides Gabriel and Shuert boldly led us through alleys of half clad ladies. No photos allowed. We’re told that some fear it’ll go out on the web.

Our guides explained that some women are forced here nowadays and some are simply ashamed. Ladies differ in size, shape and color as we strolled through different quarters.

On one street they’re all obese. We learned to identify the transsexuals by two things surgery can’t change an Adam’s apple and a straight waist.

Tastes differ; the oldest woman here is 76 and only works in summer. Only half use protection and monthly health checks are required

There are around 1000 prostitutes working 500 windows. They pay $ 200 to rent a window for 6-8 hours, and can make up to $ 600 per day. They pay taxes and can write receipts for services rendered. If the curtain is closed they are not on break.

The area is flooded with tourists. Men pay $ 60 for 30 minutes, yet statistics reveal the average time spent is just 6 minutes.

We crossed “Pill Bridge” named for the drugs pushed there and then toured the Erotic Museum with photographs and “tools of the trade” dating back to the 17th century on display.

As I pondered and stared at a metal chastity belt, Gabriel said “that blacksmiths always had a spare key which came in handy when the husbands were away at sea.”

She also insisted the Dutch were far less promiscuous than Americans. I was concerned about my ultra-conservative teachers but nothing seemed to shock them. After awhile, our senses were over saturated and it became dull.

The saddest sight was seeing a “heroin hooker”. She was emaciated with glazed eyes and so many track marks that she had to shoot it now under her tongue. Police cameras were everywhere 24/7, there is little crime and we felt totally safe.

Pot and hash are legal here in over 400 “coffee shops” that sell joints and “ganja-space milkshakes.” Locals told me they felt Americans were oppressed by too many rules and can’t understand how our drug companies can sell meds on TV.

Enough on the wild side, this is also the art capital of Europe boasting more museums per square foot than any other city. Marilyn gave us a quick art lesson in a nutshell. She explained that this is the 400 year celebration of Rembrandt (1606-2006). He came from a family rich in windmills. As a child, he was an expert sketcher.

Later in medical school, he did anatomical drawings of corpses from criminals. He studied more and soon rose above the Dutch masters with the ability to capture light and shadows in paint. He always began with a black canvas.

Though blessed with enormous artistic talent, he couldn’t manage his finances. He died penniless and was entombed in a pauper’s grave.

Many think they’ve seen Europe, but miss the countries with the most charm. Here we were enveloped by history, culture and all that the Old Continent should be. Also this wasn’t a typical EU vacation with endless museums and cathedrals, but a creative itinerary which provided large fun.

Everyone’s favorite stop was Bruges, but for me Amsterdam was an urban masterpiece. I found the Dutch far friendlier than other Europeans.

This visit rekindled my love for the Netherlands, that tiny country with 2 names. This time I looked through new eyeballs with my teachers who were experiencing their first trip abroad.

It was a wonderful group of travelers and one couple connected whom we later labeled “The Honeymooners” and rummor has it they will be married 7/7/07 in Rome.

In flight home on Delta, I noticed among my sleepy group that some were munching on their chocolates that were meant for gifts back home. And once in line at US Customs, some were proudly wearing their new, brightly painted, uncomfortable wooden clogs. I just have to do this trip again.

Former Miss Wisconsin Suzy Davis has traveled the world for nearly 30 years,
initially as a flight attendant and now with her company