BENELUX NEXT TIME!
We left Luxembourg City behind today bound for France. As the scenery rolled past the train window we spent some time reviewing all our photos from the past month in the BeNeLux region and reflecting on what we’ve seen and done since leaving the UK behind. Obviously a few days in each country is hardly enough to form more than a basic opinion of what it means to be a visitor in Belgium, Luxembourg, or the Netherlands, but we’ve still managed to pull together our general impressions from each country. So here it is: an overview of our* experiences in the BeNeLux region.
*Emphasis on the fact that these musings are based on OUR experiences. Everyone has a different experience of a place when they visit and we’re certainly not expecting that our view of the world is shared by all.
One of the first things that strikes us about the BeNeLux region is that, whilst these 3 little countries share a lot in terms of history and geography, they’re also very different. We saw this in the architecture, which changed gradually as we travelled South from the typical tall, narrow townhouses that dominate cityscapes in the Netherlands and Flanders in Northern Belgium, to the more Germanic homes we saw in the Ardennes region of Belgium and all over Luxembourg.
The architecture of this region was one of the highlights for us, without a doubt. The Medieval towns of Ghent and Bruges in Flanders were even more magnificent than we expected. And despite the hordes of other tourists we encountered in these towns, we would still rate them as top destinations in Europe. If nothing else just because they’re so well preserved, and there’s no denying that they’re pretty, with all the canals that criss cross the towns.
If the canals in Bruges and Ghent are pretty, then those of Amsterdam are stunning. The canals in Amsterdam bring a sense of space and open-ness to the city that stops the densely populated city from feeling overly crowded and closed in. Brussels, by comparison, felt so much more oppressive; mind you, that may have had a lot to do with all the graffiti, dog shit, and dirt everywhere as well*!
*In case you missed it: we didn’t really like a lot of Belgium. Bits of it were nice, but the overall vibe wasn’t a nice one. The bigger towns and cities often had an air of unkempt disregard about them that just made it seem like no one cared. In both the Netherlands and Luxembourg, however, basic civic pride was evident everywhere. From the cleanliness of the streets, to the flowers in every window, and beautifully landscaped public gardens. There just wasn’t much of this in Belgium.
For museums Amsterdam wins hands down again, though when it comes to grand churches, there Belgium surprised us. The Protestant churches in the Netherlands were very stark and austere; whilst the Roman Catholic ones in Luxembourg and Belgium were far more ornate.
And castles – so many awesome castles in Belgium and Luxembourg!
In all 3 countries, however, the highlights for us were often to be found in the small country towns; in the quiet towns where the pace of life is still slow enough that people take the time to say hello and get to know their neighbours. And where you see the best of that the landscape has to offer. In the villages of the Ardennes, for example, we saw the better side of Belgium and got to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery of the region.
The countryside in the Netherlands is pretty awesome too. All the waterways bring life to the flat landscape there and adds immeasurably to its charm. The odd windmill helps with the charm too.
For beautiful scenery, however, Luxembourg has to be the pick of the bunch. The forests and hills of “Little Switzerland” are beautiful and, combined with the prevalence of schnitzel on the menu throughout the region, has made us keen to visit that part of the world again.
Schnitzel wasn’t the only thing on the menus of Luxembourg we took a liking to. We found Luxembourgian food to be just great – like the best of rustic French and German cooking combined. Belgian food was a little OTT (i.e. other the top) for us – everything was always enriched with cream, drowned in melted cheese, or slathered in mayonnaise. Sure, the waffles and the chocolate are good, but you can’t live on waffles and chocolate alone (Shane tried, but the “sugar lows” he was getting after all the “sugar highs” were getting ridiculous so we had to get him back on to real food).
A special mention also has to go out to Dutch cheese, in all its cheesy glory. So tasty….
One thing we will say is that Europe needs to WAKE UP when it comes to their definition of good coffee. Can we PLEASE ban push button coffee machines?! If all the skill required for someone to make my coffee is that they push a button, that’s NOT a real cappuccino, nor is it worth €3! We had the same issue with only being able to find push-button coffee throughout Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria a couple of years ago and we say IT HAS TO STOP (as for that percolated “American style” stuff, I cannot even bring myself to describe what THAT is; I tell you what it ISN’T: coffee!). We found a couple of cafés around the BeNeLux region that did real coffee, but it was a rarity and a little luxury we often missed…
Last, but certainly not least, the people. Everywhere we’ve been it’s usually the people that help shape our experiences of a country the most. From the small, casual interactions with shop keepers, wait staff, and hotel staff, to the more in depth discussion we might strike up with locals we meet; it’s the people that make the most lasting impression. And the Dutch are AWESOME; a little crazy at times, but awesome. We loved how open and friendly people were, and how prepared they were to chat to us and share their thoughts and feelings with us. We also learnt to truly appreciate the Dutch approach to rules and regulations – i.e. don’t have so many of them and everything and everyone just works it out. It’s just great because, basically, they treat you like an adult and then it’s up to you to behave like one. It’s an almost Darwinian approach to rules/safety; if you’re too bloody daft to work out how to stay alive, then it’s your problem. It’s just about the opposite of Aus at the moment where those in power seem to think that we need rules for EVERYTHING, catering for the lowest common denominator every time and making us all feel like children wrapped in cotton wool (a favourite Aussie comedian of ours, Steve Hughes, does a great routine about this exact thing – very amusing). The Dutch do it much better – the lack of rules means the dumb ones get weeded out early.
Luxemburgians weren’t quite as open, but once past their initial reserve, they seem pretty friendly. A little “German” in their love for systems and order, but that’s OK. As for the Belgians we met…., well, suffice to say we didn’t really gel with any Belgian people. They seemed to begrudge us being there and we were glad to leave, so no love lost really.
Overall it’s been a really interesting few weeks in the BeNeLux region. Before we started our travels in the region we only knew a little about Dutch, Belgian, and Luxembourgian history, art, and culture, but not much really. These aren’t “big ticket” countries, and living across at the other end of the planet we don’t tend to hear much about these smaller European nations – which is one of the main reasons we wanted to see them for ourselves! We’ve certainly learned a lot over the past month, and highlighted a few places we want to get back to one day. For now though, our thoughts are turning to France and what might await us there….