Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic: Floriade with Uniworld River Cruises

Atomium - built for 1958's World Fair in Brussels, Belgium

Scribbles and Smiles by J Christina
Arches of Etretat in Normandy
Scribbles and Smiles by J Christina

Eisenhower made R & R camps at Etretat Resort, for some 8,000 U.S. soldiers. The objective was to give the GI's a three day holiday of fun and frolic.  The U.S. is credited for introducing the 3 C’s to Normandy: cigarettes (Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, etc.) chewing gum, and chocolate to the area.

To read more about the Floriade that takes places every ten years and traveling  with Uniworld River Cruise: see tab travel journals

May 2012 
Our international flight took us from our hometown to Brussels, Belgium to begin our journey.  We have linked  two Uniworld river cruises together, traveling to: Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic.
Atomium - built for 1958's World Fair in Brussels, Belgium

Our transport agent was outside passport control to meet us and drive us to the Van Praetbrug Bridge at the Van Praet Canal.  We are traveling with Uniworld, on the River Ambassador -where luxury river cruises are a truly unique experience, unlike any other journey in the world. The River Ambassador was a welcome sight after a long, sleepless night on the airline.  Our cabin was not immediately available so we took a 1.5 hour nap on the sun deck in a very comfortable chaise lounge. We are docked on Van Praet canal for Sunday and Monday night.  Our journey will take us through Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic.  This European river cruise is offered once-every-ten years for the Floriade in Venlo, featuring art, music and the botanical expo.  This is the only time boutique  river cruise ships travel this special route.  We chose this trip for the Floriade Expo and to visit The Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.

Belgium is known for history, architecture, chocolate, beer and diamonds…. 70% of the world’s diamonds come through Antwerp.  The diamond trade industry has resulted in 6.5 Billion Euro’s annually for Antwerp.  Most diamond dealers are wholesalers, buying and trading diamonds; there are no sales to tourist or individuals. Most diamond dealers have very discrete office fronts and are Jewish business owners.  However, a place called Diamond Land hosts tourist for a demonstration and hopeful sales.  This sounds a little cheesy.  Our guide tells us that larger diamonds are still cut in Antwerp, but the smaller diamonds are now cut in India.
Belgium has a long history of political turmoil, power struggles, and religious wars; therefore, Belgium does not share a common language. To the North, Dutch or Flemish is spoken; to the South, French is spoken, and Brussels remains bilingual with French, Dutch and German.  However, if you conduct business at the Finance Tower -  only English is spoken.  I guess money talks.  Children learn French at age 14, English at age 16, and German at age 18.
 Just like other European countries I’ve written about previously; and we all know from the news, unemployment is a real issue. The unemployment in Brussels is 7.2% which is extremely low compared to other countries, however, there is 30% unemployment for the young people (under 25) in Belgium over all.  Another generation of young adults without steady employment.
 With Belgium’s population being 10.5 million people, there are 179 diverse nationalities represented.   60% of the population is Turkish and Moroccan in Brussels alone.  There are 40,000 EU employees and 4,000 NATO employees.  Did you know a NATO employee pays zero taxes but a regular citizen pays as much as 52% taxes?  In return they receive a pension, medical and education benefits. For example, a Belgian University student pays only 500 Euro for tuition.  I wonder what kind of medical treatment one receives and how often?  Most residents, 70-75%, buy their own home or apartment in Belgium. I find this interesting since Belgium is very expensive to live and maintain a home.

 As you may remember, some years ago, maybe 2007, Belgium was without a government for 541 days resulting in tensions between the French and the Dutch leaders and communities.  Even without a government in place, the country still stood strong.
 Interesting enough, we know that chocolate, beer, lace and tapestries are exported from Belgium- but did you know that sand is exported?  Sand is shipped to Saudi Arabia and Dubai for building purposes. The sand in the Middle East is too fine for building and construction.  There are over 2500 brewers of beer and 1500 chocolate makers in Belgium.  Now, we’ll come back to the subject of chocolate shortly.
 After a good night of rest, we awake to thick fog, and begin our driving tour of Brussels. Our first stop is at the Atomium; built for the 1958 World’s Fair, this structure stands 338 feet tall, made of stainless steel at the cost of 27M Euros.  It is designed to resemble an atom of the element Iron – it has 9 large globes that are inter-connected with long tubes.  Then we continued on to city center for a walking tour, to The Guild House of the Grand Place and The Royal Palace, and past many other historical spots.  As we followed the cobble stone streets, we stumbled upon The Mannekan Pis statue.  Now, why would someone build a statue to commemorate a young boy urinating in a fountain? There is a great story of thankfulness and gratitude behind the PisJ taking a wee.  This is more a tourist attraction and symbol of the city.  Along our tour we see Comic Book museums and productions of comic characters…more like adventure characters. These are very popular with children and adults alike.
Now back to chocolate!!  We went to “Planite Chocolate” for a demonstration of chocolate making and tasting. Wow!  The best cocoa beans are harvested from cocoa plantations in Africa-the Ivory Coast and Ghana- due to the best weather conditions for growing.  Those two countries produce over 50% of the world’s cocoa beans.  African beans can be harvested twice a year for exporting and production.  During the chocolate demonstration we filedl chocolate molds and learned how to make pralines with the perfect ingredients.  We can thank Columbus for bring the wonderful cocoa beans to Europe from America.  We learned why Belgian chocolate is superior to many of the more common chocolates – they do not use any oils in making their chocolates – they only use cocoa butter.
Here are the basic ingredients of Belgian Chocolate:
  • Milk Chocolate  cocoa powder  cocoa butter  milk powder  sugar
  • Dark Chocolate  cocoa powder  cocoa butter
  • White Chocolate  cocoa butter  milk powder  sugar
Later, we visit another famous chocolate maker, Neuhaus Chocolates (Noy House). John has taken great liberties with the last name, since his last name is spelled Niehaus.  Neuhaus chocolates were founded in 1857 and Jean Neuhaus developed the praline and the luxury packaging the “Ballotin”.
During our free time we visited the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula of Brussels. The Cathedral is built from limestone taken from the quarries of Brussels.  The two towers measure 69 meters high and contains a carillon of 49 bells.   The cathedral was built as a place of rest and contemplation for travelers.  The oratory was dedicated to St. Michael, the patron saint of travelers. In 1962 the cathedral became the Archdioceses of Mechelen-Brussels.  In one of the towers, there is a falcon nest.  They have nested there for a number of years and the visitors and residents love the falcons; since their main food source is pigeons.  No pigeon droppings to be found. There is a web cam near the nest, recordings the parents and the baby chicks on monitors in a cubicle at street level. 
John and I take some free time and stumble into a luxury promenade. Here I see the special handbag designer from Brussels i.e. Delvaux.  Delvaus is the oldest fine leather and luxury goods designer in the world!  These handbags are heirlooms and are handed down from generation-to-generation and can be repaired for your lifetime.  The costs for a famous handbag is 1800-5800+Euros.  Delvaux is the equal to Louis Vuitton for a comparison...with Louis being budget friendlier in this case.
Like in most European cities, the traffic in Belgium is hectic – way too many cars. The roads are gridlocked most days.  Our guide tells us about Tata cars and trucks, which are made in India.  Tatas are NOT allowed on European road because of their poor safety record.
Arriving in Antwerp
We begin our sailing today aboard our boutique cruise ship to Antwerp.  We traveled on the Albert Shipping Canal, on the nearby Scheldt River for 46 km and go through three lock and dam operations during the night.  Along the way we pass a solar panel field, containing 4400 panels, which produce electricity.  We awoke to sunny, very windy Antwerp, and began our city tour.
Antwerp is the second largest city of Belgium and the second largest harbor in Europe after Rotterdam, Holland.  It is the center of publishing, performing arts, and several industries.  We start with a motorcoach tour of the city and then we begin our day with a beer tasting at ‘T Pakhuis Brewhaus at 10:00a.m.!!  It’s never too early for beer in Belgium. We sampled three types of beer and learned about the ingredients and brewing technique.
We see many old buildings whose exterior is layered in red brick and gray stone.  These are nick-named “streaky bacon” by the locals.  We also see many tree lined streets where the trees have been severely pruned...severely.  We are told the tree variety is Linden and that they grow rapidly.  To keep their growth in check, they are pruned every winter and by summer.
We visit the Cathedral of Antwerp where four Peter Paul Rubens original paintings are on permanent display.  Rubens used a diagonal element in each painting and drew focus with certain colors.  In the Cathedral is a rare statue of Mary holding the young Jesus, and both are wearing Crowns and holding Scepters.  The Cathedral is the largest Gothic church in the Low Countries and tells a story of glory and prosperity.  Mary has been the patroness of this Cathedral and the city of Antwerp for thousands of years.  Each year 320,000 visitors continue to visit and pray here.
As our driving tour continues we approach the diamond district of Antwerp- we notice many Hasidic Jews walking in the area.  We learn that the Jewish population of Antwerp is currently 15,000.  During WWII approximately 65% of the Jews of Antwerp perished during the Holocaust.
After lunch we tour Peter Paul Rubens, Renaissance-Baroque Mansion, and gardens in city center where many original paintings remain. He lived in Antwerp from 1610-1640 until his death. He was well known for his Counter-Reformation altar pieces, portraits, and historical paintings.  During the 16th century art was used for propaganda and to promote religion. 
Schools vs Colleges: Our guide tells us that schools in Belgium have different names than in the USA.  In Belgium, a “College” is the name used for Catholic High Schools--and a US “High School” is called a College!  Belgians name their Public High Schools, “Athenaeums”.
Tonight we sail from Antwerp to our destination of Maastricht, The Netherlands. We will travel on the Albert Canal for another 120KM and go through six more lock and dam operations during the night.   Along the way, we see several groups of bicyclists riding on the roads next to the canal.  A large gaggle of bicyclists were travelling swiftly in-line.  Could they be in training for the Summer Olympics in London?
Arriving in Maastricht, The Netherlands  - May 23, 2012
We have arrived in the beautiful village of Maastricht!  Overnight we cruised 120km, and went through six lock operations and arrived at 9:00a.m.  The canals we have traveled on have not been scenic but, we pass lots of small freight carriers with grain, sand, containers, cars and petroleum. This cargo has been off-loaded from the ocean going vessels to smaller cargo ships that can travel the canals.  The Albert Shipping Canal is only about five meters deep.  We see many logistic sites filled with container cargos, stacked several high.
We docked within walking distance of the village and began a walking tour of the ancient city.  Maastricht was the first Dutch city to be liberated in 1944 and the Treaty of Maastricht was signed here in 1992, and along came the European Union and the Euro. 
Today noted millionaires live in this area.  They seem to equate this to the French Riviera, rich and famous life style. It has a very Mediterranean feel, outdoor café, coffee bars, and places to buy light drugs….. Hum.   Shop windows are filled with high-end designers here i.e. Kike Niestein Frend, and other designers from Barcelona and Paris.  You could do some serious damage here.
Again, the unemployment rate is about 10% in Maastricht.   During our walking tour we learn that Maastricht is a University town of 15,000 students.  To give you an idea of how big or small the town is...there are only 5 stop lights from Maastricht to get Amsterdam or the South of France.
Some of the 12th century fortified, walled-city still exists as we walk around Maastricht.  An underground network of tunnels remains, and blends in with the modern day trappings of this resort style area. Through the Middle Ages the city was important for trade, manufacturing and especially wool, leather and ceramics.

In the afternoon we board a motorcoach and travel to Margraten, to The Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial. This is one of 24 American Cemeteries located in Europe, from both World War I and World War II.  The coach ride is about 30 minutes to the southeast across beautiful farm lands.  We see small farms and beautiful produce being grown in the region, dairy cows, and an abundance of green houses.
About The Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial

Workers prepared the grounds at The Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, The Netherlands -May 23, 2012
The Cemetery was established in November, 1944 - initially with over 10,000 graves.  Later, after some families arranged for their loved ones remains to be returned to the U.S.- all the remaining graves were opened and the remains were put into coffins and the remains wrapped in white silk, along with any other shreds of clothing.  They were then buried in the current graves.  No distinction is made for rank, and except for the person’s religion, the Lasa marble headstones are identical.
When we arrive at the Cemetery the grounds are pristine and in full bloom with rhododendron around the circumference of the grounds.  Many American Oak trees have been planted on the grounds.  There are 8,301 grave plots of our servicemen - 40 sets of brothers, and 4 women lay to rest on these 65.5 acres of pristine, once farm land.  One General is buried here, as are six Medal of Honor recipients.  These six are the only headstones which have special wording, citing the Medal.  All headstones are white Lasa Italian marble (never to discolor), with 8,122 Latin crosses and 179 Stars of David.  
The Netherlands American Cemetery is surrounded in blooming rhododendrons-2012

This site will take your breath away.......
Our guide tells us that each of the graves has been adopted by a local Dutch family, to be honored with flowers on special holidays, the soldier’s birthday, etc.  This adoption passes down from one generation to the next, so that the soldier will never be forgotten.
It was an emotional, moving, reverent day; one lady in our group told the story of her father fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and freeing a concentration camp during his enlistment. Her father is still living at the age of 97 (in 2012)!  This day had special meaning for many. 

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