A Journey Through the Low Countries

Howdy!

Sorry for the delay but it is finally time to share my stories from Amsterdam and Belgium. This entry features a lot more pictures than usual so something for the lazy among you to look forward to! Now this trip came directly after the London Marathon so for the first couple of days I wasn’t feeling my most spry! There is actually a fairly humorous story of me almost missing my flight out of London which I will save for a separate entry in my new section “Travelling with Matt” which offers my comedic take on incredibly frustrating events that are borne out of my inability to plan appropriately ahead of time.

My first stop was the Netherlands which is perhaps one the World’s most loved countries. Who can hate these folks? With their progressive social policies it is easy to convince yourself that it is the 21st century when you are among the Dutch. They were the first country to legalize same sex marriage. They are perhaps best known for legal prostitution and their infinitely progressive drug policy. The Dutch are also famous for cheese, bikes, wooden shoes, windmills, orange (the colour), and tulips. Yeah! Tulips! About 500 years ago or so there was a short period of time where there was utter confusion about the intrinsic value of a tulip bulb. Complete nuttiness. Any economic nerds out there should Google it.

My time in the Netherlands was spent entirely in Amsterdam. It is definitely a complete gem with its beautiful canals. A very European city. It also offers the full spectrum of experiences from a calm and measured dose of cultural and history to a complete and utter shit show involving a fistful of ???????? and door to door visits to establishments that offer naked recreational experiences. Perhaps I shouldn’t comment on which end of the spectrum I lie.

There were a couple highlights of my time in Amsterdam. The first was my visit to the house Anne Frank hunkered down in during WWII before eventually being captured. It was both very interesting and very sad to see the place. But the girl’s spirit is something that is truly remarkable. That someone could continue to be so positive in the very worst of situations is inspirational.

Another highlight was that my trip happened to align with Kings Day which is a National Holiday in the Netherlands which celebrates the birthday of  King Willem-Alexander (yes, other places are still doing this King / Queen thing). In any case, everyone gets the day off to walk around the streets wearing orange and drinking Heineken. It was an unique experience for sure!

My next stop was down to Belgium. Now the Belgians are quite famous for their food and drink offerings: waffles, chocolate, fries, and of course beer. The beer in Belgium is considered to be the best in the World. Now there is no debating its good but I have fallen in love with English ales. The Belgian offerings didn’t measure up in my view. Maybe I just didn’t drink enough….

I did some hopping around in Belgium as there were a couple of places I really wanted to see. My first stop was Brugge. A very picturesque historic town.

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The Belfry

I spent a couple days here mostly taking it easy. Walking around. Drinking coffee. Reading. My usual travel routine.

The remainder of my trip was a make shift 20th century war tour. Belgium’s geographical position has made it a constant battlefield in Europe’s biggest wars.

My first stop was down in Ypres where some of the larger battles in WWI were fought. Canada became a country in 1867 but it is often said that they became a nation during the battles fought in Belgium and France during the First World War. It was the fierceness and bravery of the 425,000 folks we sent to war (60,000 of which never returned home) that helped distinguish Canada from the British Empire. As a Canadian I am both fiercely proud and infinitely sad of the sacrifice of our soldiers in helping to restore peace to Europe.

My first stop was Hill 62 which is a trench system that has been preserved since the end of the war. The most haunting thing about this place wasn’t the pile of rusted shells, the eerie darkness of the tunnels, the broken down wagon that was likely used to move bodies away from the front, or the uncountable blast craters from German shelling. It was the singing of the birds. I can only imagine they continued to sing during the war or else John McCrae wouldn’t of wrote about it.

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I also visited the Tyne Cot Cemetery which is the Commonwealth burial ground for those who fought in the Ypres Salient. About 800 Canadians are buried here. Many of the graves are unmarked presumably because the remains could not be identified. The few graves that were marked showed that the solider was in his early 20s, usually not old enough to have obtained an undergraduate degree, when they died. That’s hard to imagine. I can only contrast with what I was doing with my early 20s. And I thought at the time I had a lot on. That I was struggling. Perspective is a very powerful thing. They call those who came of age during WWI the Lost Generation and there is nothing that underlines that more than a walk through this place..

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My next stop was all the way across Belgium to Bastogne. Bastogne is best known for the Battle of the Bulge which was  the last major German offensive during WWII. It was the Americans bloodiest battle of the war and the town has many shrines, museums, and monuments commemorating the Americans who fought and lost their lives there. The gruesomeness of this battle is depicted in the HBO Series Band of Brothers. The entire series is excellent and if you haven’t seen it you should.

I spent a couple of days taking in the history and getting some much needed relaxation. I stayed in a bed & breakfast just outside of Bastogne in a place called Tenneville. It has a population of 80 or so. I was the only guest and the man who ran the place was a gentle giant named Carl. I could of stayed for months.

As I said, my main motivation here was to take in some of the history. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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Mardasson Memorial

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The Ardennes

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Foxhole outside the town of Foy

Over the course of this trip I became aware of a level of fatigue that I have been accumulating over the course of 2016. I told myself when I got back that I would start to “simmer down” a bit. That was about 7 weeks ago and I can report that I have failed miserably! Summer is a lousy time for slowing down any way. Maybe some time in the Fall! Though probably not!

Take care.

Matt

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