Belgium was wonderful but it was time to move on – so we packed up the car on Thursday morning and started to continue North-East towards the Netherlands. Have I yet mentioned how fabulous the roads in Europe are? Yes, the roads right amongst the medieval buildings are narrow and cobbled; but there, they use actual logic and make the roads one-way and therefore not stressful and terrifying (like in the UK, when you’re constantly worried that you’ll meet an oncoming car with no room on either side to spare). Outside the very old areas, any roads that have been built in the last 70 years have actually been built with space and shoulders and not as narrow as the medieval roads inside the cities! Imagine that! So even though we were driving a right-hand-drive English car on the continent, it wasn’t really an issue, because we felt so spoiled by the wonderful roads (or we had just been so ruined in the past 2.5 years by the horrible UK roads!).
On our way to our hotel in the Netherlands, we stopped at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO world heritage site that has preserved the traditional windmills built on the dykes along the canals and teaches about how the Netherlands started pumping water and maintained water levels for over 700 years.
The windmills were actually really awesome. We got to see inside a working one, how people would live inside it. We learned how they would all pump water and how much water to keep levels down and prevent flooding. Especially considering that this started 700 years ago, it’s no wonder that the world looks to the Netherlands for water-level control tips. As you drive across the country and see the ditches and canals dug through the fields and cities, you are acutely aware that it’s all currently below sea level and they are actively keeping water levels under control at all times. It’s pretty amazing. Now, of course, it’s all done by electric or steam pump houses, but it was all once originally done by these wind mills.
We drove to the city of Utrecht- where we were staying in the Netherlands. Utrecht is a small city about a 30-minute train ride outside of Amsterdam. Hotels (and airBnBs- all accommodation) were incredibly expensive in the Netherlands – whether it was because it was over Easter weekend or not, I’m not sure; But hotels were about $800 (CAD) a night in Amsterdam and less than half (but still expensive) in Utrecht. So it was obviously worth staying in Utrecht.
Utrecht isn’t a particularly notable city, but it is a nice Dutch city. The inner main town has the quintessential dutch-style buildings, there are bicyclists everywhere, and canals. We stayed at a lovely train station hotel, Inntel Hotels, with a great family room. It was also next door to a huge mall, so there was always something to eat (sometimes the problem with travel is just finding a place that’s open when we’re hungry, especially in Europe!). We actually weren’t planning to stay in Utrecht any full day while we were there, but it was a good place to sleep, eat, and park our car.
(We had dinner at the restaurant on the canalside to the left of this photo on our second night in Utrecht.)
On our first full day in the Netherlands, we had big plans. In fact, it was part of the whole reason we initially decided to plan this roadtrip all the way back in 2019.
My grandfather was a paratrooper in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion in WWII. He died in March 2019.
Back in November 2019, we visited some notable sites of the 1CPB in Normandy and commemorated him, and I wrote about it here and here. By the time he died, we knew we would be moving to England and during my last conversation with him I promised him that I would visit Groesbeek Cemetery in the Netherlands – the final resting place of his best friend from the war. I promised him that we would go see ‘Andy’ (as we always knew him) and pay our respects. I think my grandfather lived his (very long) whole life with survivor’s guilt that he came home and Andy didn’t. He was in touch with Andy’s family, they exchanged Christmas flowers every year; and every year on Remembrance day, we knew he was thinking of Andy.
In the above photo, it’s my grandfather on the left during WWII, and Andy McNally on the right.
I had an artificial poppy from my papa’s funeral arrangement – there were 7 of these poppies atop his casket and I got 2. One, I left at Juno beach on Remembrance Day and the other I wanted to take to Andy’s grave. I encased it in resin so that it could stay there for a very long time.
It was a 90-minute drive to Groesbeek Cemetery from Utrecht but so worth it. When we got there, I knew right where to go in the cemetery- Andy would be at the back right corner. Along with the poppy in resin, we brought fresh flowers to lay as well.
I definitely felt my Papa there with me that morning. I could hear him pointing us out to Andy – “That’s my granddaughter and my great-granddaughter! They came here for you! I told you we’d never forget you, buddy!”
We also had about 20 Canadian lapel poppies from the past Remembrance Day, so we brought them and placed them at the graves of all the 1CPB men around Andy. We will remember them.
After our visit to Groesbeek, we headed about 30 minutes down the road to Oosterbeek, where the Airborne Museum is. This museum was mostly dedicated to the British units of paratroopers who were a part of operation Market Garden in September 1944 and the ensuing failed Battle of Arnhem. We expected a small little museum with one or two displays, but this museum spanned over 5 floors of the huge mansion, and was jam-packed with history, stories, and mementos. We originally thought we might spend 30-40 minutes at this place and ended up staying for 2 hours. My grandfather wasn’t in the units that were a part of Market Garden, but he did wear that Airborne Pegasus on his arm. I found it all very interesting.
Above is a monument erected in 1994 by the British Airborne veterans who 50 years later, still felt wracked with guilt. They are apologising to the town, saying we came to help, we tried our hardest, but in the end we had to retreat and when we left, we caused more devastation than there was when we arrived. Because, when the allies retreated, the Germans insisted that all the locals leave as well. Until then, they (if not Jewish) had been living among the German occupiers somewhat normally, but after September 1944, they had to leave their homes and they faced homelessness, a freezing winter, utter famine, and thousands died.
The next day we hopped on a train and headed in to Amsterdam! There’s a million things you can do in Amsterdam, but I always have to pace myself or my legs simply won’t carry me that far, so we can’t do it all. All I really wanted to do was see the city. Eric had already been before about a decade ago for a weekend, so he’d seen what he wanted to see. I wanted to see the houses, the canals, the bikes. I love walking through a city and seeing the people of it go about their lives, and the architecture and how it differs from other cities. We did look into tickets to the Anne Frank house, but they had been all booked up even a month before we got there – every single ticket for every single day. So there was no chance we could get in there unless we had booked back in January, unfortunately.
We booked tickets on a canal cruise in order to see the city. Our cruise also came with an open bar and cheese boards!
We just had a lot of fun then walking around the city, seeing where people park right beside the canal (how??) – though we did learn on our cruise that they have to take about 1 car a week out of the canals and they dredge up an average of 20 000 bikes a year from the canals… so, there’s that!
I honestly don’t know what was more impressive, Venice or Amsterdam. Both are full of canals and held up on large posts underneath the city. Venice is crumbling and doesn’t seem to keep up the maintenance as well or its infrastructure while Amsterdam seems beautifully modern in comparison. The age of Venice is appealing in a romantic way that can’t be matched, though. Amsterdam seems more accessible via car, train, plane, etc – not just by boat. But it is certainly interesting that two cities seem so entirely different are actually so very similar.
On our last day, we checked out of our hotel in Utrecht, hopped in the car and headed northwards towards the sea— and Keukenhof! Keukenhof is the most quintessentially perfect Dutch spring garden.
It mainly showcases tulips; but there are bulb flowers of all sorts, including lots of daffodil and hyacinth varieties.
We learned a lot about tulips- their history (did you know they’re actually from Turkey?); how they made the Netherlands one of the richest countries in the world in the 1600s; and how horticulturists devise new tulip varieties (it takes over 25 years to get a new type of tulip bulb to the public!). But mostly, we just enjoyed looking at SO MANY BEAUTIFUL TULIPS. Keukenhof is only open 6 weeks a year! They just close it down the rest of the year!! We were also there on Easter Sunday, probably the busiest day of the year. But we just felt so lucky that the weather was gorgeous (about 20°C) and sunny and we could enjoy this stunning place.
When we left the actual Keukenhof park, we did what most of the tourists did – travel en masse along the small farm roads beside Keukenhof to see the tulip bulb fields. These are the fields of tulips that you see in photographs all the time and how we usually picture ‘Holland’. It’s actually where they are growing the bulbs of the new varieties of tulips – propagating them to get more and more viable bulbs. The amount of people out on these dyke roads was crazy and even people in the fields (they weren’t supposed to be) but we loved seeing the fields and got some great shots as we drove past.
It was really the neatest thing to see.
After seeing these fields, we headed straight for the coast. We ate dinner on the Holland seaside (which felt just like the British seaside – we were watching a ferris wheel and people bungee jump while we had dinner!) and then went along to our ferry. We had a booking on an overnight sailing from Holland to Harwich, England across the North Sea. The ferry was due to leave at 10pm but we could board as early at 7pm. We had a nice private cabin for the 3 of us and a fantastic crossing thanks to very calm seas.
Our holiday is over and we are so very happy with it. Other than Eric’s unfortunate day of illness, everything went off quite well. We saw such wonderful things and enjoyed ourselves so much. I’m immensely pleased that we finally got to take this roadtrip that we’d been planning since the end of 2019. I feel at peace that I got to honour my grandfather and his war buddy, and we got to visit Vimy Ridge, too. Seeing everything in between like Bruges and tulips in the Netherlands was all just delicious icing on the cake.
Thanks for joining us on this journey!