Friday, April 24, 2015

The Windmills of Kinderdijk

Every country has at least one cultural icon that is immediately recognized as belonging to their heritage. For the Netherlands, there are several. Cheese, tulips and clogs immediately come to mind as do windmills. And although they are increasingly being replaced by modern soaring metal ones, the stout wooden buildings with thatched roofs are about as iconic as they come. You still see them dotting the canals and lowlands of the country but if you want to walk amongst them and through them, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kinderdijk Mills is the place to visit.

Located in the southeast Alblasserwaard region of Zuid-Holland, three separate rivers meet the village of Kinderdijk. The area is marshy, flat and windswept. The convergence of the rivers in an area that is already below sea level, thus making the region susceptible to flooding. To combat the drainage issues a series dykes, a steam powered pumping station and 19 mills were erected along the banks of the rivers. Two additional pumping stations were later built and the entire pumping system switched to an electrical operation in 1924.

Much like the lighthouses of the coastal regions, these windmills were vital to the safety of the entire area. Each mill was operated by a miller who was responsible for keeping his particular mill running smoothly. Needing to be available twenty four hours a day, millers lived in the mills with their families. The quarters were by no means spacious and some larger families, including one with twelve children who resided in the Nederwaard for many years, were quite cramped. But in addition to being working mills they were also full fledge homes complete with kitchen, bedrooms and living quarters, albeit with a giant gear in their center and large blades spinning outside of their windows. And as I learned during my visit, a single mill does little on its own. Instead, the mills--in this case all 19--- worked together in unison to pump the water at whatever speed and in which ever direction was required at a moment's notice. The large blades, which almost sweep the ground as they go around but their power is unmistakable.

The mills joined the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997. Today visitors can walk or bicycle along the canals and catch a glimpse of mill life. Alternatively, or in combination with, you can tour the canal via a ho-on -- hop-ff boat and view the windmills from the water. A ticket provides admission to the visitors center as well as the interiors of two windmills. At the visitors center located in the modern pumping station, a multi-screen video provides an overview of the history of the area and the building and operation of the windmills and water management. The inside of the Nederwaard mill is trapped in time and depicts the way a mill family lived in the mid 1700s. This mill was built in 1738 and here the more agile can climb up a series of steep and narrow stairs to the top of the mill, passing through a small kitchen and living area, several sleeping nooks and the gears that propel the windmill blades as you go. The second mill, Blokweer, is still occupied by a miller who explains the milling process to inquisitive visitors. In between these mills are other privately occupied mills that are meticulously maintained yet closed to the public.

It is quite amazing to walk along the canal and amongst the mills and marvel at both the power of water and the impressive Dutch approach to managing and controlling it. It is even more amazing to stand under the shadows of the turning mill blades and hear the wind whipping through their frames. Plus this entire area of the Netherlands is absolutely beautiful. So if you get a chance, go visit. You won't regret it.

If you go:

Kinderdijk Mills
Nederwaard 1
2961 AS Kinderdijk, Netherlands
Open daily from mid-February to 31 December; hours vary
Adults 7.5 Euro; ages 6-12 5.5 Euro, under 6 free
Boat tours 2.50-5 Euro

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mean Girls

Mean girls. In the extreme form they are female bullies who resort to rumor spreading, nasty comments and deceit to exclude and manipulate others. But not everyone is a full fledge mean girl; there are the queen bees, the wannabees and the girls who fall somewhere in between. Collectively they can make one's life pretty miserable.
It sounds a lot like tween drama or the makings of a bad made for television movie but in reality they exist in real life and even more tragically, they exist at all ages. Mean girls span the generations and can be young girls, grown women and even senior citizens. Little mean girls are often the offspring of mean mammas and mean mammas are often raising their own little mean girls in the making. You would hope that mean girls are just a passing trend but they aren't. I met my first mean girl when I was in junior high, encountered even more though high school and college and sadly have continued to encounter them throughout my adult life. Sadly enough, mean girls seem to be timeless.

As an adult woman I've seem my peers acting as mean girls and was actually "mean girled" recently by another mother. Her barbed comments followed by her actions then subsequent snubbing of me initially left me speechless. But rather than be hurt---the way I was in earlier mean girl encounters--I was more irritated. I no longer feel a need to fit in or to be accepted by the masses. I also realize that while on the outside these girls may appear to have inflated egos and senses of self esteem, the opposite is more likely the case. All of the bluster and meanness is really a facade covering up one's insecurities. When one tries too hard to fit in and be accepted, more often than not, the opposite takes place. So after watching this mother's actions from afar I can honestly say that I don't have any desire to be a part of her crowd. I don't like what I see and I don't have time for those antics. I've been there and done that years ago. Now, we are grown women who should be acting as positive role models for our children instead of acting like children ourselves. Or perpetuating the cycle of bullying and being mean girls.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Everything Is Blooming At Keukenhof Gardens

My last post provided a peek of the flowers at Keukenhof Gardens. But no matter how good the pictures, they simply can't do justice to the acres upon acres of intricately planted blooming gardens, meticulously manicured lawns and whimsical displays that are Keukenhof. And it is their beauty that draws millions of visitors for eight short weeks each spring.

Keukenhof traces its roots back to the 15th century when Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria gathered fruits and vegetables from the gardens surrounding the area. Keukenhof Castle was built in 1641 and encompassed a total of 200 hectares but it wasn't until 1949 that the gardens became a permanent exhibition of spring flowering blooms. The gardens may only be open for a few short weeks each spring but maintaining the gardens is a year around operation. Starting each September, 30 gardeners spend three months hand planting over 7 million flower bulbs. But these aren't just any bulbs that are planted. Close to 100 suppliers provide their best bulbs to the garden each year and the garden designers work to create unique gardens and displays that best highlight the beauty of the flower. Additionally, new grass is planted each year as well to ensure the manicured perfection that guests see. And much to my surprise, once the garden closes for the season, each of the 7 million bulbs are dug up and destroyed before the planting cycle starts all over again.

So what do visitors to Keukenhof get to see during their visit? Flowers of course but there is so much more. Flowering bulbs bloom in three waves: early, middle and late. (I learned this during my visit to the gardens). The varied blooming seasons ensure that visitors will see flowers regardless of when they come to the gardens. We were there during the middle season when hyacinths seemed to be the predominant flower. I love hyacinths---particularly the purple ones--and their aroma filled the air with an unmistakable sweet fragrance. But hyacinths of all colors were everywhere. There were lots of tulips as well. Rainbow like waves, edged by perfectly green lawns, filled just about every open expanse of the garden. It was breathtaking and beautiful and as someone who can only get weeds to flourish, it left me spellbound. There are water features as well; canals, fountains and ponds complete with swimming swans lend a tranquil atmosphere even when the gardens are crowded. Portions of the gardens are shaded by towering trees and a stroll through the Japanese inspired garden provides not only shade but an array of yellow daffodils. Kids of all ages can wander through a boxwood maze to make their way up to a viewing platform where you can take in the fields of tulips surrounding the gardens. And best of all there are plenty of places to sit and take it all in. And even on a crowded day, it was easy to find a quiet spot to sit and contemplate the flowers. (And for the more energetic younger set there are two age appropriate playgrounds and a petting zoo).

Waves of flowers (and crowds)

Shades of purple
In addition to the seemingly endless color filled gardens, there are indoor pavilions hosting revolving flower shows ranging from orchids, lilies and gerbera daisies to anthuriums, roses and daffodils. Each week features different flowers so you can visit more than once, seeing new flowers each time. My favorite area, however, was the inspirational gardens paying homage to the canals of Amsterdam. This year's gardens recreated the tiny patio, rooftop or canal side gardens that fill Amsterdam's residential neighborhoods. At Keukenhof, we could pull up chairs and sit along the canal amongst potted plants, climb up to the rooftops to enjoy the flowers and the views or pop into makeshift patios and guest cottages that were beautifully adorned with flowering plants. To me, these miniature gardens with their window boxes, potted plants and beautifully painted accessories truly were inspirations making me want to go home and recreate my own little piece of heaven in my garden.
The many faces of Van Gogh

Each year the gardens have their own theme and for the 2015 season that theme is honoring Vincent Van Gogh on the 125th anniversary of his death. Van Gogh may have begun his artistic career in Belgium, but he was born in the Netherlands in 1853 and spent much of his life living and working in various parts of the country. It was just beginning to bloom during our visit but the centerpiece of the Van Gogh tribute is an expansive 250 square meter bulb mosaic comprised of tulips and grape hyacinths. Making Van Gogh modern is a selfie garden that is inspired by Van Gogh's numerous self portraits. Here you can pose in reflective mirrors for your own selfie as well as have your picture taken alongside the artist. And if you're thirsty you can even get yourself a bottle of Van Gogh beer!

There's still time to see Van Gogh in bloom

But there really is so much to see at Keukenhof so a visit is a must. If you are fast you too can catch the last weeks of the 2015 blooms. If you miss it, mark your calendars for the 2016 season. I was there in 2015 and plan to return in 2016. In the meantime inspiration has struck me and I'm trying my hand at establishing my own little flower garden. Let's hope a green thumb prevails over black.

If you go:

Keukenhof Gardens
Stationsweg 166a
AM Lisse-Holland
+31 252 465 555

Daily 08.00-19.30
Open for the 2015 season: 20 March - 17 May
Open for the 2016 season:  24 March - 16 May
16 Euro adults, 8 Euro ages 4-11, under 4 Free
Parking 6 Euro

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Blooms Of Keukenhof Gardens

Nothing says spring more than brightly colored flowers and few places burst with colors the way Keukenhof Gardens does for a few weeks each spring. Here's a snippet of the beauty I experienced during my recent visit:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Ruins Of The Abbaye d' Aulne

Blame it on my love of the Nancy Drew mystery series when I was a younger reader but for me, but many times, the ruins of a building are more beautiful than a well preserved building in its pristine state. As a Nancy Drew fan I used to fantasize about exploring the old granite ruins of castles and mansions the way Nancy and her friends did in their quest to solve the latest mystery. (Never mind that these fancy ruins were more apt to be in Europe than in the middle American suburban community Nancy called home; I loved them just the same). So it is no wonder than some of my favorite places to visit here in Europe are ruins. And of all the ruins I've seen, those of the Abbaye d' Aulne in Thuin, Belgium are by far one of my favorite.

The abbey dates back to the 7th Century when it was founded by Landelin, the son of a wealthy noble family, on the banks of the Sambre River. Various tales have him being a failed monk prone to debauchery as well as an ordained priest who was charged by the Holy See to built abbeys and to evangelize in a part of the world that was not overly religious. By the 9th Century the abbey had expanded its footprint, rule of the abbey had changed hands under the leadership of St. Bernard to the Cistercians, a conservative sect who turned inward, focusing on a quiet life free of outside corrupt influences which had plagued the abbey in recent years.

The following centuries were a turbulent time in this part of the world. The abbey was invaded by the French army in 1538 and again in 1578 by Dutch Calvinists who were at war against Phillip II of Spain; on both occasions the monks were forced to flee to safety. Under the reign of King Louis XIV French army invaded the region once again in 1693, pillaging and looting from the abbey and surrounding villages and leaving destruction in their wake. A century later , in 1794 during the French Revolution, the abbey was burned because it was a symbol of religion. By the time of the fire, locals had repeatedly plundered it of many of its valuables. Within a year, however, the monks returned and began rebuilding, restoring the associated mill and brewery. But those parts of the abbey that weren't reconstructed underwent a "voluntary" deconstruction with bricks, stones and pavers from the former cloister and former palace being repurposed for other construction projects including the 1845 reconstruction of the Charleroi-Erquelines rail line. In 1855 construction of a new church begins on the site and by 1873 it is blessed.

By the end of the century the remaining abbey facades had continued to deteriorate and posed such a  danger that the government stepped forward, partnering with the University of Ghent to restore the remaining buildings. The restoration work has continued through the years, pausing during the Second World War, with the abbey being recognized as a heritage site in 1991.

A visit today reveals the ongoing conservation work and excavation of the site. Parts of the ruins are cordoned off from visitors and as a heavily dented metal walkway indicates, the unrestored facade of the abbey is continuing to crumble. But there is still so much to see and for the most part, visitors can explore the many nooks and crannies of the old abbey. There is of course the "new' church and adjacent offices and event space that reminds me just how commercialized so many churches and abbeys have become. But the numbered placards (written only in French) explain the various parts of the original abbey grounds. The abbey grounds are sparse yet well cared for with the only adornment being carefully pruned bushes. Where a (presumably grand) fountain once stood there is now an empty basin. I've walked down the grand center aisle of many cathedrals but standing on the grass and pebble covered path at the foot of the former alter is a one of a kind experience. With the blue sky replacing the soaring vaulted ceilings and vines taking the place of ornate windows, you can get a real sense of how grand the cathedral once was. Windows are now pane-less, providing a clear view both inside and outside of buildings. Stubby stone columns are the only remnants of what had been the grand pillars supporting the apses' infrastructure yet it is easy to picture what they had looked like in their heyday.

For me, each view of the abbey was more magnificent than the last. Standing on the inside and looking up and out was breathtaking but walking the perimeter of the ruins and looking in was too. It was and still is, an architectural masterpiece which, for better or worse, has withstood invasions, wars, fire and "organized" looting and pillaging. Despite all of this, she still stands--rickety but she still stands. And yes, for a brief moment I closed my eyes and pretended that I was Nancy Drew on a mission to solve another mystery in an old abbey.

If you go:
Abbaye d'Aulne
Rue Emile Vandervelde 275
6534 Thuin, Belgium
+32 71 5954 54

Open from 1 April-30 September Wednesday-Sunday from 13.00-18.00
Open every day during school holidays
Adults 4 Euro, children over age 12 3 Euro, under 12 Free