When I think of Western Europe, historical paintings, fascinating architecture, and good beer initially come to mind. So when my partner and I were mapping out potential routes for our trip, we knew we wanted to incorporate museums, castles and monasteries, and local eateries and markets into our itinerary. Moreover, visiting our Dutch friends, Veerle and Ciro, was another important aspect of our plans, as we hadn’t seen them in a few years. As soon as we looped them in on the dates and places we were hoping to visit, it became clear that we ought to take this trip as a foursome considering they were interested in exploring similar points of interest, and were equipped to show us the local gems of their home.
To tone with the length of our trip, we settled on three countries: England, Belgium, and of course, the Netherlands. England, for its charming countryside, Roman and Gothic relics, and old pubs. Belgium, for its architectural wonders, Trappist beers, and all the waffles one can consume. The Netherlands, for its bustling museums, casual bicycle culture, and vast array of canals.
One of our first days in England was spent at the Borough Market, one of London’s largest and oldest food markets. The market itself has a long and winded history dating all the way back to the 11th century. It is supposedly said that Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet and historian, wrote about the London Bridge’s destruction in 1014, and described the Borough Market as a “great market town”. While this was the earliest written record of the market, some believe it could have been around centuries before this. Today, the sprawling street market contains over 137 stalls, from authentic Thai street food to handmade Italian pasta and gnocchi. According to multiple online sources, it attracts a grand 4.5 million visitors per year.
Next up was Tate Modern, an art gallery in the Bankside area of London that houses the United Kingdom’s collection of international modern and contemporary art, one of the largest in the world. It forms a quarter of the Tate group along with Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St Ives. It is said that the four sites contain nearly 70,000 artworks total, including British art from 1500 to the present day.
Another attraction within the Blavatnik Building that has visitors flocking up to the 10th floor is its stunning viewing terrace. Once you step out of the elevator lobby, a 360° open-air observation deck boasts impressive views of the River Thames, the legendary dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and much more. You can even enjoy drinks and snacks at their bar!
After having spent a couple of days in the heart of London, we started making our way southeast, with a first stop to the Rochester Cathedral, England’s second oldest, founded by Bishop Justus 604 AD. The building that stands today was begun in 1083 by Bishop Gundulf, a Benedictine monk from France. It possesses Romanesque architectural details, which was developed in Normandy and England between the 11th and 12th centuries. The rounded arches that make up this style can predominantly be seen in the western part of the nave as well as the two westernmost bays of the crypt.
Conveniently located across the road, and our second stop of the day, was the Rochester Castle, constructed by the aforementioned Bishop in the same decade. The castle was built to command an important river crossing and withstood three sieges, including the well-known assault by King John in 1215, when a piece of the keep was completely dismantled. Even though the castle eventually became irrelevant as a royal fortress in the late Middle Ages, it remains a symbol of medieval power today.
If you’re looking for some of England’s finest medieval architecture, you can find it in Canterbury, a quaint city steeped in history in the southeast county of Kent. It’s been inhabited since the Iron Age, and some believe even longer before that.
It was the invasion of Roman Emperor Claudius in 43 AD when the town of Durovernum Cantiacorum—also known as ‘the walled town of the Cantiaci by the alder marsh’—was established as a military base. Six medieval entrances were built to form the town’s wall approximately 200 AD, and later reconstructed in the Middle Ages. Today, only Westgate Tower remains, a popular attraction for outside visitors.
Canterbury is also one of southeast England’s primary shopping destinations with renowned chains as well as independent businesses. A must-do is to take a stroll along the King’s Mile, where cobblestone streets and medieval architecture are at the epicenter of quirky shops and old pubs.
WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER
Before boarding our ferry and saying our last hurrahs to England, we made sure to stop by the jaw-dropping White Cliffs of Dover, where 300 feet tall precipices tower over the Strait of Dover. This colossal white wall can be viewed by treading blissfully on the chalk grassland along the cliffs, and can be accessed from National Trust’s visitor centre, or as you drift away from (or to) the Port of Dover.
VENICE OF THE NORTH
Bruges, colloquially referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ amongst other nearby canal-based cities like Amsterdam and St Petersburg, is a story of rise and fall and rise again. While the location was a coastal settlement as far back as the Iron Age, the city’s development only began in the 12th century.
Bruges became prevalent due to the tidal inlet that ultimately made commerce practical there. Soon after receiving its city charter in 1128, a multitude of new walls and canals were built, and Bruges soon became bustling with traders from all over the world. By the 13th century, it was the leading trade centre for all of northwestern Europe. However, Bruges faced darker times in the 15th century. The natural channel that had given the city its wealth and prosperity started to silt up, the larger harbour of Antwerp exercised control over the cloth industry, and the sudden death of a beloved ruler and new regime paved the way for less favourable times. The Burgundian court eventually left with the international traders tailing behind, and Bruges’ value faded into oblivion. By the end of the 18th century, not only was Bruges one of the most impoverished cities in Belgium, but its population had diminished by the hundred thousands.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and Bruges’ medieval heritage—intriguingly narrated in the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach—became an attraction for wealthy British and French tourists. Soon, international travellers came pouring in, tourism flourished, and Bruges had a newfound wealth. All of this as well as the Port of Zeebrugge that was built in 1907 helped bring in new growth. If you’re interested in seeing incredible medieval architecture mixed in with some 19th century buildings, a walking tour of this city is an absolute must, and very convenient considering that most points of interests are within close proximity.
As of July 2015, there are a total of 13 abbeys that brew Trappist beer: Achel, Chimay, Koningshoeven, La Trappe, Mount Saint Bernard, Orval, Spencer, Stift Engelszell, Rochefort, Tre Fontane, Westmalle, Westvleteren, and Zundert. The brands that we were most curious of trying when we arrived in Belgium were Rochefort, est 1595, and Westvleteren, est 1838. The first for being the oldest known Trappist beer to exist, and the latter as it is reportedly considered to be one of the best beers in the world. Let me tell you something: both lived up to the hype.
What makes Trappist beer so unique is the explicit production criteria. The beer must be brewed by a monk within the walls of a Trappist monastery, the brewery must be of secondary importance to the monastery, and the income made from the products should only cover living expenses; the rest is donated to charity.
One of our goals in Bruges was to eat a Belgian waffle, and we found the one at the Market Square. The market is located right in the heart of the city, and was renovated in 1995 to become parking-free so visitors could navigate around the area more easily. The 1-hectare square has been used as a marketplace since 958, and held weekly markets starting from 985. Today, the space is covered with stalls every Wednesday, where you’ll find a wide array of vendors offering local produce, cold and hot snacks, and handmade items. If you love waffles, I won’t need to tell you twice.
BASILICA OF THE HOLY BLOOD
Running right behind the front facade in the corner of Burg Square is a 16th century staircase that connects two chapels: the Romanesque Saint-Basiliuschapel and the Neo-Gothic Holy Bloodchapel. In the Basilica of the Holy Blood, you will find on display the worshipped relic of the Holy Blood embedded in a rock-crystal vile, that is placed inside a smaller glass cylinder, capped within two gold crowns.
The legend states that Joseph of Arimathea wiped the blood from Christ’s body with a cloth after his crucifixion. The blood-stained cloth remained in the Holy Land until the Second Crusade, when the King of Jerusalem Baldwin III handed it to Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. He brought it to Bruges on April 7th, 1150, where he placed it in a chapel he built on Burg Square, or so the narrative goes.
THE WINDMILLS AT KINDERDIJK
After our stopover in Bruges, we migrated to the Netherlands, where we first paid a visit to the windmills at Kinderdijk, an iconic Dutch landscape roughly 15 kilometres from Rotterdam. Surrounded by a network of channels and reservoirs, this system of carefully preserved windmills have been standing tall since the 18th century. In 2019, an average of 600,000 tourists visited the region, yet only 60 people permanently reside there. That’s a ratio of 10,000 visitors to every resident!
We were incredibly lucky to get a personal tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site by Veerle’s father, Paul, who is one of three volunteer millers at one of the windmills on site. One of the first things that caught our attention when we were introduced were the shoes on his feet. Paul regularly sports his wooden clogs while on site, a common work shoe that originates from Holland in the 1300s. While they were traditionally worn by the lower working class, the clog eventually became a fashion trend in the twentieth century.
While touring inside one of the stone mills, Paul had us try raw herring for the first time, a traditional Dutch food from the Middle Ages that is typically served with chopped raw onions and gherkins. It’s tradition in the Netherlands to dangle the fish by the tail and eat it vertically, and that we did! If you enjoy new culinary experiences, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for food trucks advertising ‘Haring’ in the Netherlands!
Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands; home to my pal, Veerle, and impressively, Europe’s largest seaport. Its riverside views, lively cultural atmosphere, and maritime heritage attracts nearly 1.1 million visitors per year. The city is also known to have some of the most innovative architecture in all of Holland, including Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk, Van Nelle Factory, Hotel New York, Erasmus Bridge, and the Cube Houses.
If you haven’t heard of the Cube Houses, it’s one of Rotterdam’s most iconic attractions, designed by Dutch architect, Piet Blom, more than 30 years ago. The houses are located on Overblaak Street, and one of them can be explored more closely as one of the owners turned it into a “show cube”. The cube consists of four levels: the first floor entrance, the second floor with an open living room and kitchen, the third floor with two bedrooms and a bathroom, and a top floor that is frequently used as a garden. While I certainly found the space interesting to visit, I can only imagine the challenges one would face trying to furnish triangular and hexagonal shaped rooms.
Right over the Erasmus Bridge on the south side of Rotterdam, you will find the Fenix Food Factory, a marketplace full of fresh and local products sold by entrepreneurs distinguishing themselves in the food scene. You can find everything from cheesemongers and bread bakers to coffee roasters and beer brewers, and can enjoy all of the goods on the factory’s charming outdoor patio.
At about a 5-minute walk from there, there is the beautiful Hotel New York that sits right on the Port of Rotterdam. The ground floor is comprised of a grand café and restaurant where up to 400 hotel and non-hotel guests can dine à la carte. So even if you haven’t booked one of their rooms, I highly recommend spending part of an afternoon or evening there, and revel in their delectable oyster bar!
The name Delft was brought to fruition by a canal, the ‘Delf’, meaning to delve or dig. It’s located between Rotterdam and Den Haag, and is well known for its 17th century blue pottery, university campuses, Oude and Nieuwe Kerk, and of course, picturesque canals.
The origin of Oude Kerk (Old Church) dates back to the early dark days of the Middle Ages. It is said that a tuff stone church already stood amid the settlements around 1050. It was later around 1240 that a civil servant, Bartholomeus van der Made, began one of the church’s many future expansions, adding two aisles and a choir. It was only deemed founded in 1246, however, after Count William II gave Delft its city charter. The structure today possesses a 75-meter building with an enigmatic gothic tower.
Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), on the other hand, holds a rather unexpected story. In 1351, a beggar named Symon and townsman named Jan Col had a vision of the heavens opening. They saw a golden church dedicated to Mary of Magdala, where once occupied the gallows fields. Though Symon passed away shortly thereafter, Jan Col had the same vision for the following 30 years, and pestered the city council until a church was finally built where he had first witnessed the phenomenon. Today, you can climb 376 stairs to the very top where tiny balconies encircle the tower, and take in the incredible views of the city, as well as Oude Kerk that’s a short distance away.
Famous for the Red Light District, cannabis coffee shops, and historic canals, Amsterdam is a small city when comparing it to other national capitals, with a population of about 872,000. The inner city is made up of a network of canals, divided into just under 100 “islands”, that form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best way to get around is by, you guessed it, the mighty bicycle! Amsterdam is home to one of the best bicycle infrastructures in the world. We rented a couple from one of the dozens of bicycle rentals in the heart of Amsterdam, which enabled us to cruise from one end of the inner city to the other in a matter of 15 minutes. So off we went on adventures!
An endearing 360° café is located in the middle of the city centre called Blue Amsterdam; a real treat to the eyes if you have a liking for panoramic rooftop views. Situated atop a 30-metre glass tower, it can be accessed from the Kalvertoren shopping complex, within the confines of Amsterdam’s most saturated shopping street. You can see many of the city’s highlights, such as the Royal Palace and Central Station, as you sip on a cup of coffee or indulge in their diverse food menu.
As one of my favourite artists, a highly anticipated activity of mine was going to the Van Gogh Museum. After a morning of gallivanting through some of the city’s parks and shops, we made our way to the Museum Square in Amsterdam South, and got to witness some of his incredible works like Garden with Courting Couples, Almond Blossom, and Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat. Unquestionably, my favourite part was the 3D immersive exhibit, where technology and computer audio-visual techniques meet the Dutch painter’s pointillism and post-impressionism style. This captivating experience was initially introduced in Beijing in 2016, and has since toured to more countries in Asia, Europe, and North America.
While there are plenty more places worth experiencing in this vibrant city, I’d like to close this out by highlighting Brouwerij ‘t IJ, an old-bathhouse-turned-brewery that lives right next to the Netherlands’ biggest wooden windmill, De Gooyer. In 1985, consumers expressed their discontent with beer that was being brewed by larger companies, and former musician Kaspar Peterson was one of several people who opened up a brewery in response. It all began when Kaspar was touring the south border of the country and fell in love with Belgian style beers. Since none were being produced in Amsterdam at the time, he knew this was a recipe for success. While Kaspar no longer owns the business today, Brouwerij ‘t IJ has been thriving ever since it opened its doors. The brewery produces 8 standard beers and 3 seasonal beers, with its strongest at 9%.
So there you have it, a very condensed version of my travels to Western Europe. There’s undeniably many countries still left for me to discover in this extensive region, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany to name a few; I’ll surely make my way back so I can soak in new sights and cultures, and perhaps bump into Veerle and Ciro again.