England and the Low Countries
An hour or so walking tour of Winchester was a surprising bonus at the outset of this adventure. After a 15-hour flight from Sacramento, with a change of planes at Dallas-Fort Worth, we arrived at London's Heathrow Airport just before 7:00 AM. Unable to board our ship, Nautica, until noon, Oceania Cruises arranged for our bus to stop in this historical little city en route to the Southampton docks.
Winchester, England: Stu photographing flowers; Crown and Anchor Pub
Here we observed the beautiful guildhall, Winchester Cathedral with its Norman Romanesque-style and English "Perpendicular-style" elements, and the Great Hall, the only remaining portion of the former Norman castle. We saw the "original" Roundtable of Arthurian legend (actually created by Henry VIII to impress a visiting continental monarch). We also walked the bustling cobblestone main shopping street filled with a lively little street market.
As it turned out, after boarding our vessel we ate lunch on the pool deck and then dozed in lounge chairs as we waited the three hours for our cabin to be available. We enjoyed dinner with a couple of ladies from Swansea, Wales followed by a good night's sleep that prepared us for our tour of Bruges (Brugge in Flemish, the local language).
Bruges, Belgium: Horse Drawn Carriage; Historic Gatehouse and canal
This little city is a jewel of historical architecture—a living outdoor museum. Though now devoted to and entirely supported by tourism, a guided walking tour and canal cruise, followed by a rather too leisurely lunch, allowed us to savor its exquisite architecture. One of Europe's most prosperous and important cities from the 12th through the 15th century, Bruges was a founding member of the Hanseatic League and major trading center more important in its time than London or Paris. Due to the silting of the river that connected the city to the North Sea, according to the literature, or to a punishing edict from Austrian Emperor, Maximillian, according to our tour guide, Roger, the city lost its status and prosperity and slumbered for 350 years before 19th century tourism inspired a second life.
That evening we enjoyed dinner and engaging conversation with a New Zealand couple of Croatian Heritage, talking of travel, genealogy, and even politics! We sailed from the port of Zeebrugge, arriving in Rotterdam in the Netherlands next morning where we docked at the Holland-America Cruise terminal on the River Maas almost in the city center.
Our scheduled tour of nearby Gouda wasn't until the afternoon, so after breakfast we rode the free shuttle into the city center—specifically the market. This cosmopolitan city of a little under 700,000 supports a large and bustling outdoor market selling everything from flowers, to fish, to shoes, to appliances! Rotterdam also boasts some distinctive modern architecture (the historic city was pretty much destroyed by bombing during WWII). The nearby "cube houses" are now iconic, but we were captivated by the new Market hall, adjacent to the outdoor market. It houses more upscale food vendors and some small restaurants in a cavernous space the size and shape of a dirigible hanger! The hanger's curved walls are filled with apartments. It's very striking.
Rotterdam, Netherlands: Iconic Cube Houses; Cheese Vendor in cavernous Market Hall
As we arrived back at the cruise terminal, we noticed our tour bus parked in the parking lot and found it was due to leave in a few minutes, so we climbed aboard without lunch. We'll need to double-check our tour departure times in future.
Our walking tour of Gouda, a pleasant and lively little city, took us through the historical city center, past the Sint-Janskerk (St. John's Church) a huge brick structure erected following a disastrous fire that nearly destroyed the town in 1552. We passed Museum Gouda on our way to the historic old Town Hall, dating from 1438. Here we witnessed the carillon with mechanical puppets depicting Count Floris V granting Gouda its town charter in 1272.
Gouda, Netherlands: Medieval City Hall; modern transportation; The Weigh House, now Cheese Museum
We got to the point of our visit at the De Goudse Waag, the historical weigh house that now serves as a cheese and crafts museum. We viewed a film on cheese-making before sampling four local cheeses: a young goat cheese; a young-mature cows' milk cheese (aged 10 weeks); a mature (4 months) farm cheese (cows' milk); and, "Old Dutch," a cows' milk cheese aged 18 months. This latter was our favorite with darker color, stronger aroma, a drier texture and a wonderful nutty flavor. We took the opportunity to buy some of this cheese from a vendor in the market outside. It's hard to beat a town that makes great cheese.
We set sail that evening for a full day on the North Sea heading for Denmark on Monday morning. We'll keep you posted