The Netherlands at Last!

The Viking cruise we booked can be taken from Amsterdam to Budapest, or as we did, from Budapest to Amsterdam. There are merits to both based on what I read in advance of our trip, but for us, it meant that on day 14 (Tuesday July 16th), we finally made it to the Netherlands, the fifth and final country we would visit on our cruise.

Having left Cologne late the night before, it meant that the last 185 kilometres of Rhine travel in Germany was done in the dark, and when we awoke at 6 AM, we were just approaching the Germany/Netherlands border at Spijk.

At this point the Rhine forms an extensive delta in conjunction with the rivers Meuse and Schedlt, and it ultimately splits into three main tributaries: the Nederrijn (Lower Rhine), the IJssel, and the Waal. Most of the Rhine water flows west through the Waal and that was the section of the river that we were now on.

Shortly after crosssing the border into the Netherlands, we passed the remains of Fort Pannerden, a disused military fort that was constructed between 1869 and 1871.

It’s original purpose was to serve as the front line of defense for the “New Dutch Waterline”, a series of water-based fortifications aimed at protecting the low-lying country from attack.

Fort Pannerden, and most of its counterparts were too vulnerable to modern artillery and bombs to withstand any protracted attacks, and none of the forts saw much active service during the war as the Netherlands remained neutral, although the fort was manned. In May of 1940, the German army surrounded it and under threat of heavy attack, the Fort Pannerden was surrendered. It was subsequently stripped of all useful materials and after 1945 was abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair. Since 2009, work has been underway to restore the fort as a historical museum.

Here is what it looks like from above as restorations continue.

Our main destination on this day, was a stop at the village of Kinderdijk (the name translates to “dike of the children” in English) home to a system of windmills built around 1740, most of which are still in use today. Mary has some Dutch ancestry in her background and unbeknownst to me, she had wanted to see a working windmill in the Netherlands, all her life. This was a stop that she had been particularly looking forward to.

Before getting there though, we had a lengthy section of the Dutch portion of the Rhine to navigate.

Just before we approached the city of Nijmegen, I was delighted and surprised to see a river barge passing our ship with the name of my home town on the side of it.

Nijmegen is the second oldest city in the Netherlands, dating back to Roman times, and in 2005, it celebrated its 2000th anniversary. This large city (population around 175,000) seems to be a hotbed of political activism and has the rather unflattering nickname of “Havana on the Waal” among the European press.

To celebrate our arrival at Nijmegen, the Viking Lif was treated to a welcome greeting by a fireboat. Check out the video below.

On the shore, we could see tents set up for an event of some type. We later came to find out that it was the site of Festival Op ‘t Eiland – a summer music festival that had taken place the day before we passed by (trivia note: Nijmegen is the birthplace of rockers Eddie and Alex Van Halen so its’ music connections certainly run deep).

Moments after passing the site of the festival, I noticed a throng of people walking along a road just beyond the shoreline. No-one onboard seemed to know what was going on, but thanks to Google, I was quickly able to determine that we were witnessing the International Four Day Marches – the largest multiple day marching event in the world, and something that has taken place in mid-July every year since 1909. Once again, check out the video below, and I apologize for the choppy, shaky nature of it. I’m blaming it on the wind and the river currents that were rocking the ship, and I’m sticking to my story.

The International Four Day Marches actually begin in Nijmegen and participants walk 30, 40, or 50 kilometres a day for four days as a means of promoting sport and exercise. Participants receive royally-approved medals upon completion depending on their age and gender, and in 2019, more than 40,000 people were registered to take part.

About an hour later, we passed the St. Bernard locks at Neder-Betuwe. This is the entrance to or exit from (depending on which direction you are traveling) the Amsterdam-Rhine canal, which is essential for barge traffic carrying goods into and out of that city.

All along the river, there are thousands upon thousands of birds, and in the next video, you will see a cotillion of Caspian Terns (yup that’s what a large gathering of Terns is called) and a few Great Cormorants lined up along the mid-river breakwater.

Keeping the channel clear and travel-worthy is a constant challenge due to weather and soil erosion, so we were not surprised to see a steady stream of dredging and river-maintenance ships hard at work.

We were also not surprised to pass by a number of towns and cities with a large industrial component to them, as much of the Netherlands is dependent on its river-based economy. The pictures grouped below, from Gorinchem and Merwed, are typical of the structures and activities we saw.

As we neared Kinderdijk, we passed the town of Sliedrecht, which has a fascinating history. In 1421, 300 square kilometres of land were submerged in one of the worst floods in Dutch history – forever known as the St. Elizabeth’s flood due to the day on which it happened. A heavy storm near the North Sea Coast caused the dikes to break in a number of places and much of the lower lying lands were flooded. A number of villages were swallowed and lost including the original town of Sliedrecht.

The new town of Sliedrecht lies at the northern most part of the massive Biesbosch National Park which occupies much of the land that was flooded back in 1421. The modern day town of Sliedrecht is also notably famous for being the site of the first-ever Ikea store that opened in 1978.

Yet another somewhat choppy and shaky video (it gets steadier as it unfolds) shows the town as it is laid out all along the banks of the Rhine, and it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this community being particularly vulnerable to the threat of flooding.

Just after 2 PM, the Lif began its slow glide toward its mooring spot at Kinderdijk, and before we even came to a stop, we could see the first of the 19 remarkably-preserved windmills that make this little village a World Heritage Site.

These historic windmills were built in and around 1740 to keep the polders dry – polders are low-lying tracts of land enclosed by dikes and they are at risk of flooding at all times.

The first windmills in the Netherlands marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and at first they were primarily used to grind grain into flour. At the time, much of the western part of the Netherlands consisted of marshlands and were barely inhabitable. The Government came up with the idea of having windmills pump water out of the polders and following the flood of 1421 I referenced earlier, the construction of windmills took on epic proportions. By the early 1800’s, there were more than 10,000 windmills operating in Western Netherlands, but today there are fewer than 1200 remaining, and the concentration of them at Kinderdijk represents the largest remaining group still in operation.

Among the 19 windmills at Kinderdijk, eight of them are of stone construction and they are used to move the drainage water from the lower polders into a reservoir. The remaining windmills are wooden and are used to drain the water from the higher polders. Historically, the drained water was moved along into the river by means of locks during low river-water levels, but in modern times this is done via pumping stations. In the picture below see you can at least a dozen of the windmills, most of which were engaged in a slow and steady turn.

It is said that in that horrible flood of 1421, after the storm had subsided, someone went to the dike here and saw a wooden cradle floating in the water.  As they came closer to the cradle, they noticed it was rocking back and forth and that a cat was causing the rocking motion by jumping back and forth from side to side so that water would not get in the cradle.  And as the cradle was picked up, they saw a baby inside, sleeping quietly, all nice and dry.

Thus was born the fable of “The Cat and the Cradle”, a dutch fairy tale told in a collection by William Elliot Griffis.

In order to get a better understanding of the windmills and to learn about the history of Kinderdijk, our tour group was led to the Pumping Station by our rather obnoxious (in my opinion), and chauvinistic (in several people’s opinions) guide. He was a born and raised local who certainly knew the stories and history well, but I had hard time listening to him because I found him to be quite off-putting. In the pictures below he is explaining how the windmills operate as well as talking about the life of the miller.

The miller and his family ran the mill and often inhabited the windmill as well. Although they played an extremely important role in society, they did not earn very much. Most of the miller’s wives had to find extra work since the miller had to stay in close quarters to the mill at all times – no more than 50 steps away. He and his family could earn extra money by selling fish or the vegetables that they grew.

As we came to see from a tour of one of the windmills, the living quarters were cramped and the windmill was frankly located in the middle of nowhere.

In case your’re wondering, in the bottom left corner of the picture above, those are old skate blades that could be strapped to the bottom of shoes, and used to glide on the canals during those winter months when they were frozen.

We were surprised to learn that many of the windmills are still inhabited, and luckily, a number of volunteer millers still exist to operate the windmills. It is thanks to them that these historic structures remain in the shape they are today.

While our tour group walked in a slow-moving scrum from the Pumping Station out to one of the working Windmills, you can see that people were cycling and strolling along the path that lined the canal. Mary and I could have easily spent several hours here just soaking it all up.

When we could, we’d let the tour group get a little bit ahead of us, and we’d stop to briefly check out the birds on the water. Mary is an avid birder and for more than thirty years we’ve been keeping track of what we’ve seen in our travels. The birds we find don’t have to be rare or exotic although they sometimes are, we simply love looking at them. Along the banks here, we spotted, from left to right; a Great Crested Grebe, a female Eurasian Wigeon, and a Coot, whose name always make me chuckle.

As we made our way back toward the Pumping Station and toward where the Viking Lif was docked along the side of the river, we stopped to take a brief look at work that is underway on a new Visitor Centre that should now be open, since it was due to be completed by September of 2019, and this is being written in November. Check out the short video below and you might be as fascinated as I was to see how the work-crew were making their way along the side of the new building via a raft.

I make no bones about my lack of knowledge about most things mechanical but I must admit to being impressed at the size of the three enormous screws that pump the water from the reservoir into the river.

There are many, many things I love about my wife, but one of my favorites is her absolute joy in expressing her inner child. I have among the many, pictures of her sitting in a toy airplane in the Ottawa airport, dressed up in a dragon suit leading a girl guide meeting, posing as a Lego min-figure and crawling inside a hollowed out giant Redwood tree in Northern California. So, it came as no surprise to me that when she came upon a giant clog in front of the Kinderdijk pumping station, she climbed right in.

What is equally great about her willingness to do things like this, is that her actions seem to allow others to lose their inhibitions, and follow her lead. Even though there were a lot of people milling about as we approached the giant shoe, no-one seemed willing to go near it. Once Mary had “broken the ice”, I noticed others turning to their friends and spouses and handing over their cameras to take advantage of a fun “photo op”.

Our visit to Kinderdijk was a real highlight for Mary, and her dream of seeing windmills in the Netherlands, had become a reality.

I will leave you with this one last photo of her and I wouldn’t be surprised if it finds its way into a frame at some point and takes up a place of honour on our credenza along side other pictures of our favorite adventures.

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