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GardenSMART :: GardenSMART's Riverboat Trip Adventure Part I the Netherlands

GardenSMART's Riverboat Trip Adventure Part I the Netherlands

By Phillip Ballard
Photographs courtesy of Phillip Ballard

My article in last month's newsletter (June 2018) focused on the fabulous gardens that we visited in our riverboat tour of Belgium and the Netherlands in May of this year, but we learned a great deal more about these two beautiful countries than gardening and landscaping techniques. Our trip also exposed us to Dutch and Belgian history, art, architecture, and cuisine—making the total experience more educational and entertaining. Language was not a barrier because the tour guides, the ship's crew, and the natives with whom we came into contact spoke English well enough that we had no problems communicating, although visitors who have some knowledge of Dutch, Flemish, French, and/or German were welcome to practice their skills.

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Because the tour began and ended in Amsterdam, we spent more time in this lovely city than in any other. I enjoyed the walking tour arranged by the tour company that took us on a stimulating walk from the hotel to the Rijkmuseum. Along the way, we dodged bicyclists, admired the picturesque townhouses with their elaborate facades, and watched the boat traffic on the canals. At the museum we saw "The Night Watch," Rembrandt's famous painting and other extraordinary works of art.

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I also enjoyed taking advantage of some free time in the city to see the ornate Royal Palace, one of three residences the royal family uses during the year; the Rembrandt House, an amazing townhouse where the famous artist lived and worked for about 16 years during the mid-seventeenth century; and the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands, sited in a neighborhood where Jews were gathered for deportation in the 1940s and where 600 Jewish children were saved from the death camps by heroic Dutch school teachers.

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The first leg of our riverboat voyage in the Netherlands took us to Arnhem, a town of 156,000 people southwest of Amsterdam located on the Nederrijn River, a distributary of the Rhine. The town is best known as the focus of Operation Market Garden, a World War II campaign that became the subject of Cornelius Ryan's 1974 novel A Bridge Too Far and the 1977 epic film of the same name. First, we visited the beautiful and sobering Oosterbeek War Cemetery, where over 1,700 Allied military personnel were buried along with the Dutch civilians killed in the battle. On the overcast morning of our visit, the rows and rows of white tombstones served as stark reminders of the cost of war. I was struck by the young ages of those soldiers buried here.

Next, we visited the Airborne Museum Hartenstein of Arnhem, which is housed in an old mansion where the British had their headquarters during the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. Today it contains exhibits that depict the battle that took place a short distance away, beginning on September 17 and ending on September 25, when Allied infantry and paratroopers tried unsuccessfully to secure nine bridges over the river. An important part of the Market Garden story is the bravery of numerous Dutch civilians who risked their lives to protect Allied soldiers and airmen trying to get back to their units after the battle.

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Just northwest of Arnhem is another museum worth visiting for very different reasons—the Kröller Müller Museum and Sculpture Garden, home to the second largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh's paintings and drawings as well as a large collection of other modern works of art. The museum began as a private collection in 1907 when Helene Kröller-Müller and her husband Anton Müller began buying artwork. Over the next two decades they bought nearly 11,500 paintings and drawings. In 1938, Helene's dream of sharing this amazing collection with the public was realized when the museum opened its doors. In the following years, the building was expanded and a large sculpture garden was added, creating a park-like atmosphere on the acreage surrounding the museum itself. Our visit to Kröller Müller was on a Thursday afternoon, but the galleries and the green lawns were busy with hundreds of art lovers taking advantage of this treasure trove of modern art.

Overnight our riverboat found its way to the Kinderdjik region of South Holland about nine miles from Rotterdam to visit the most iconic site associated with this beautiful country—the windmills. They don't call it the "Netherlands" or lowlands for nothing. Some of it lies below sea level, and only about half of the country rises more than one meter above sea level. Consequently, to keep the sea off of the land, the Dutch had to perform some amazing feats of engineering and a lot of hard work in a time well before modern technology.

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The Kinderkjik or Children's Dike cluster of windmills, which dates back to 1740, shows visitors how the industrious Dutch were able to reclaim land from the sea by building dikes around tracts of land and pumping the water out of these "polders" with windmills. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has an interactive museum where visitors can learn the mechanics of reclaiming low-lying land. They can also tour an actual windmill and watch a windmill keeper adjusting the sails to take advantage of a shift in the wind, a vigorous workout that must have tested the stamina of windmill keepers, especially in harsh winter weather.

From Kinderdjik, our boat followed the Lek River through a series of canals and locks to the Schelde River and into Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands with a population of over 600,000. Even though it was founded in 1340 as a fishing village, not much is left of its historic past because it was heavily bombed during World War II. Today its modernistic buildings, artistically designed bridges, and busy streets announce that Rotterdam is not a prisoner to its past but a vibrant, youthful city.

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However, the people have not forgotten their past. A row of new townhouses built along the riverfront echoes the architecture of the pre-war city, and a host of museums and monuments pay tribute to previous generations whose blood, sweat, and tears provide a strong foundation for this proud city. My most vivid memories include the maritime museum with its amazing collection of historic boats and ships displayed on a nearby canal as well as the colossal Markethall, a building that combines apartments and a large open air market where shoppers may buy fresh foods of all kinds and trendy home wares. Above the shopping area is a huge, colorful painting on the arched ceiling.

That evening our riverboat entered the second phase of our trip by winding its way into Belgium via the Schelde River. In next month's newsletter, we will continue this narrative by exploring the historical and cultural aspects of our GardenSMART riverboat tour with a focus on the Belgian cities of Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges.


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