Chapter 10: Brittany, Normandy, Belgium and Holland

 

Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michel  – the jewel of the northern coastline.

Spring 1960

Dinan, Bretagne. Good Friday April 1960.

Dear family,

Well, here am I out on the road again without giving myself much warning, and it feels really exciting. I’ve decided to take advantage of the Easter break from lectures, and clear out of Paris for a few days. I have seen so little of France outside of Paris and I am curious to experience to see what the more Celtic parts of the country feel like.

Yesterday I took a train travelling west across the country into Brittany, which, as you will see, is a very large chunk of France jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, and stopped first at the capital, Rennes.

in th Old Town

Architecture typical of the Old Town

 

It is an attractive city, built where two rivers join.
The old quarter is very very old, but much of the town was destroyed by fire a couple of hundred years ago, so the rest of it is comparatively new.

The Palais de Commerce, or Town Hall, is set back in the Place de la Republique, a spacious square in the city centre facing onto the river, and where people come from near and far to the wonderful food markets held every Saturday.

There are still a number of colourful half-timbered houses standing, though a few of them seem to have a bit of a dangerous lean about them. They reminded me of the Tudor houses I saw at Stratford on Avon, and also at Tunbridge Wells.
In my mind I had connected them in the past to the Tudor era in England, but that can’t be right in the middle of Brittany.

The interior of

The soaring interior of the Cathedral St.Pierre de Rennes

There is a large percentage of students living in the city, and towards evening they began to gather in one particular street where there are welcoming little bars lining both sides of the street all along the way.  There was a  a bright friendly atmosphere and I felt very welcome here.

I had already booked myself into a small hotel nearby, so I spent a while there before I located the Cathedral St. Pierre de Rennes in time to attend an evening high mass celebrating

Holy Thursday. The atmosphere in the church was very tranquil and beautiful — it has a long impressive nave and a high arched

the beautiful Mary Chapel

the beautiful Mary Chapel

ceiling.      I also discovered a beautiful Mary side chapel.
After all that I was very happy to have a light supper with a light beer at one of the little bars and return to the hotel for a well deserved sleep!

The most attractive thing that I discovered the next morning was the Parc de Thabor – beautiful public gardens that are said to be one of the best known throughout France, especially botanically.

They are situated on a hill a little above the town and it was wonderful to be out in nature again, especially in such scenic surroundings. There was a great variety of plants and trees from all over the world, but it was the roses that it was most renowned for.

the park

a corner of the Thabor gardens

They were really stunning.  I could have stayed there for hours, but I wanted to fit in a visit to the Museum of fine arts, which we had been told is one of the best outside of Paris.

It proved to be worth it. I like galleries to be not too big and overwhelming, and this one was just fine even though it had a very extensive range, time wise, beginning with Egyptian antiquities and lots of splendid paintings from the centuries in between, and completing with an interesting selection of modern Art.  Much that I have learnt from our art studies at Alliance Francaise in Paris have helped in my appreciation when I visit the various galleries I come across.

I was intrigued to find a section devoted to the Breton legends of Le Roi Arthur – ‘our King Arthur’ – it seems that Southern Britain and Brittany share many of the Arthurian legends.

Next it was time to head north by train to Dinan; it is a small town in a really beautiful setting.

more houses

more well preserved half-timbered  houses along  the road winding  down to  the quay in Dinan.

I was aiming to be there in time for the Good Friday ceremonies, which I assumed would be held at 3 PM, which is the traditional time in many countries, but nothing doing.
I miscalculated because Good Friday is not a public holiday here as it is in Australia.

However there was still enough of the day left to start looking around town before I realized that I needed to set out to find the youth hostel before dark, and it turned out to be a couple of hours walk.

Dinan is one of the best-preserved and most picturesque small towns in Brittany and draws lots of tourists to see it. It is actually a port, very close to the English Channel, with old stone houses along the quay and a 15th century stone bridge crossing the river.

The river

The river Rance flowing on towards the Channel

The town has grown over many centuries within the Valle de la Rance, and its main centre sits high on the hillside overlooking the Rance river.

I decided to leave most of the sightseeing till the morning and set out for the hostel. It is actually a very old farmhouse with no mod. cons. However there is a lovely big fire blazing in the main room, and I am now writing this by the light of the candle!
For company I have a young Czech girl and another girl from Holland- and three cats, which, of course are curled up in a basket by the fire. I have just eaten a nice big meal made on a gas ring, and I cooked some toast on the coals of the wood fire and felt very content.
Making toast over the coals always takes me back to the big fireplace in the lounge room in our home in Henty when I was a little girl.

I was feeling less enthusiastic about things when I tried to get to sleep — the mattress was indescribable I had heard that the hostels in France were barely up to standard and this one certainly doesn’t quite make it, but it really has quite a charm about it all the same.

The local people so far have proved ever so much more agreeable than the Parisians and have done quite a bit to restore my faith in the French. They actually seem to enjoy giving directions and information, even though they are inundated with tourists in the busy season.

colourful traditional

I had a wonderful conversation when I went to buy my eggs and milk at the farm nearby — in fact I thought I would never get away. I would like to have been able to travel through other parts of regional France as I’m beginning to suspect that the behaviour of the Parisians is more of a city thing, and can be found to exist in most big cities.

Next morning, I started exploring again after a good night’s sleep — in spite of the bedding!

The extent of the town’s history was there to see at a glance. There was a magnificent Roman viaduct, but they certainly were not the first to settle here, as Brittany was previously  a Celtic nation and their traditions linger on even though the French government has discouraged using their language.
The town is enclosed by strong walls built in mediaeval times to keep English and French armies at bay. The ramparts are nearly 3 km. long and it is possible to walk along them most of the way. You start from the 13th century castle end, which now houses a museum – well worth exploring. There was a wonderful view from the clock tower over the whole of the surrounding countryside, even as far north-east as the English Channel and the splendid Mont St. Michel.

magnificent stained glass window depicting Queen Ann

magnificent stained glass window depicting  Ann Duchesse de Bretagne

In the centre of town there are quite a lot of lovely little galleries and craft shops to explore.    In fact, Dinan is known as the town of Art and History.

Before leaving for St.Malo and Dinard, I wound up my exploration of Dinan by visiting a beautiful Gothic church called the basilica  St.Malo – Dinan in which there are two huge brilliantly coloured stained-glass windows

One tells the story in much detail of Ann, the much loved Duchess of Brittany and Queen of France, who reigned about the end of the 15th century.   She is sitting enthroned amongst her people, with the medieval town buildings which I had just explored depicted in the background – another example of the use of stained glass  to teach and tell stories to the people long before reading became widespread.

 

 

St Malo

St Malo

 

My next delightful port of call –  and it was even more of a port –  was St Malo, which could be reached by boat from Dinan and so took me north to the sea.  it is still in Bretagne, and is its main seaside town.

It is a very busy ferry port and is a very well known tourist town. It is such a pretty place, surrounded by great granite walls, and all the buildings are of granite and newly constructed,
– It was largely destroyed during the war and has been lovingly rebuilt in the same style as before, making it one of the prettiest ” new towns” I have seen as it has completely retained its mediaeval character.

St, Malo chateau and Fort National

St, Malo  – the château and Fort National

It was renowned in the past as a haven for corsairs and notorious pirates — now it is only tourists that invade. It was fun to wander around its cobbled streets and explore the foreshore. There are two tidal islets just across the water, and I discovered that it was also famous for its oysters — so guess what — I was able to find a little cafe tucked away where I was able to indulge myself without feeling guilty about the price!

There was a handsome mediaeval château with a tower that provided magnificent views. These day it houses  the main museum, and there were other interesting museums devoted to pirate lore and other things of the sea.

Best of all, there was the Great Aquarium St. Malo.  It’s not often you get to wander through a renowned aquarium as well! The underwater displays included  a coral reef, a mangrove swamp, a buried galleon and much more besides.
The Cathedral St Vincent was also a very attractive church, with a very fine rose window and a bell tower to climb.


 

Mont St.Michelle

Mont St.Michelle

I next headed east into Normandy with great anticipation  to see Mont Saint Michel. Even though I have seen pictures of it, they didn’t do it justice. I wasn’t prepared for just how stunning a sight it was as we approached it.

It has a magic quality about it as if you have some how just stepped into a fairy story.
It rises up out of the water less than a kilometre from the coast at the mouth of a river.

The lower monestary

The lower monastery perched on the rocks

Back in the eighth century it was a monastery built in layers like a pyramid, with its church

spire at the top pointing to the heavens, below that the Abbey, and below that were the great halls, then housing and storage underneath.

Surrounding it beyond the walls were the homes of the fishermen and farmers of the area. The countryside around is mainly salty meadows, occupied by lots of sheep who apparently like the saltiness, and who in turn are eaten by people who like salty meat.

the original

and the original church and monastery

The island is reached by a causeway and has a very interesting history.   Up to the sixth or seventh century it was an Amorican stronghold, mainly a mix of Celtic and Roman Amorican is a word used to describe the Bretan language.

Later the Normans came, and it was the Dukes of Normandy who financed the building of the great monastery in their style of architecture, surrounding the whole of the little town with the customary defensive wall.

They kept the English at bay in the 1400s, and were apparently an inspiration to St Joan of Arc during her mission.
Later still, it was the Reformation and then the French Revolution that stopped it being used as a Benedictine monastery. It finally became a church again in 1922.

Because it has become such a major tourist attraction, it has become rather commercialized — every second building in the few little streets within the walls surrounding the monastery is a souvenir shop or a hotel – still this does very little to take away from the overall magic of this unique site.

Once I’d finished exploring I caught a bus to the town of Avranche just inland a little way.     In the museum there, a great

The coastline

The salty meadows along the coastline in the area of Mont St. Michel. See if you can spot any grazing animals?

collection of beautifully illuminated mediaeval manuscripts relating to Mont St.Michel have been carefully stored over the centuries.

A little snippet of history that I didn’t expect to find there was the connection across the Channel to Canterbury Cathedral.
It was here that King Henry II of England came to do penance in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Champs for the murder of the Anglo Normans St. Thomas Beckett and to make peace with Rome!
This was one Gothic cathedral that I missed seeing as it was destroyed during the French Revolution!

The route that I have been travelling continues to work out very well even though I didn’t really plan it. By the time I get back to Paris, I will have gone more or less full circle, or rather full oval. Firstly, to the west across to Rennes, then north through Dinan to St.Malo on the coast, then heading east into Normandy, stopping at Avranche and Caen, then up into the northern peninsula to Bayeux, which is not far away, and by then I’m sure I will feel happy to turn south back home to Paris!

My next destination is the city of Caen, situated 15 km inland, and here I have run into William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy yet again. – Lots of interesting history and architecture to explore!
He and his queen, Matilda of Flanders, lived here before the invasion of England, and were both buried here.
His castle – the Chateau de Guilleume Conquerant with its moat and battlements and ramparts overlooked the city, and these days it houses the Caen Town Hall.

The Benedictine Abbey of St.Etienne -St. Stephen better known as the Abbeye des hommes.

The Benedictine Abbey of St. Etienne -St. Stephen, better known as the Abbeye des hommes – the abbey for men, built be King William in the 11th century.

Back in the 11th century, the Church had required William and Matilda to build two grand Romanesque abbeys  penance for the fact that they were fifth cousins — or that’s how the story goes. (I thought it was only marriage to 1st. or 2nd. cousins that was discouraged!)

One abbey was for the men – a magnificent multi-turreted building with the Church of St Etienne attached, – and the other was the Abbey aux dames – i.e. for women,
and Queen Matilda’s tomb.

Towards the end of the Second World War, Caen was at the very centre of the Battle of Normandy, – much heavy fighting, with up to 70% of the buildings destroyed and much loss of life. The English and the Canadians were responsible for the bombing, and there is now a memorial of peace there erected by the Canadians.

One of the things that have put a dampener over this part of the trip all along the coastline is the evidence I have seen and read of so much destruction from the air and the very high number of innocent civilians killed and maimed by bombing during the second world war.
For some reason, I find it more upsetting than some of the other cruel aspects of war. I suppose that it has something to do with realizing that, in this latest war, so many more  have been killed  than in previous wars.
In Caen, some people escaped the bombing by hiding in the castle, but others, sheltering in the cathedral, and even the University, were not so lucky, as these buildings were targeted.

On a lighter note, I was able to really enjoy a stroll through the Musee de Beaux Arts.
It had a range of beautiful paintings, running through from the 15th to the 20th century.

Amongst the modern paintings I discovered works by a prolific French painter, Dubuffet, who came to prominence after the war. He is quite famous here in France, but our French Art professor did not think a lot of him or his art and tells the story of how he gained attention by saying that he was so poor that he could not afford to buy canvasses, but, instead, had to paint on bed sheets.
The Prof. said that at that time the cost of just one good sheet was astronomical!

It is probably time to wind up this part of the travelogue, and look about for a post office.
I will complete the last of the details from home, and then begin my preparations to leave for Amsterdam. I am now somewhat travel weary, so will be needing a good rest during the week.
I hope you will be able to follow some of this on a good map.
Much love to you all!


 

Paris. April 1960

Dear family,

It was so good to get back home to Paris and, as well to find that the family had also returned the day before. I loved seeing them all again, especially the little ones, and we had lots of news to share.

I was very pleased to find a great pile of mail waiting for me including letters from Dad, Mum and Jan. Thank you very much for your offer of some financial assistance Daddy.
After a lot of debating and reckoning, I have decided to stay a little longer — the time will pass quickly and it will be much better to arrive home in summer — another winter straight after the last seven months of it would be really hard to take.
From a financial point of view, I hope to manage ok, especially if I find work as soon as I arrive in London.
I don’t like the idea of spending more money than I have, so I will have to curb the tripping around – as it is, I will be starting from scratch on returning to Australia, and so I will aim to manage in spite of your kind offer.

I hope that I have made the right decision — lots of pros and cons which I could explain better if I was at home and didn’t have to write it all.
Your little” thought about marriage and settling down” Mummy is one that occurs to me quite a bit lately, though I don’t see another six months making much difference to my future destiny, — who knows?

Before returning home after Easter, I left Caen and took a bus north to the little town of Bayeux, famous because this is where the famous Bayeux Tapestry is to be found.

It is actually an elaborate embroidered cloth rather than a tapestry, which is displayed in its own museum and stretches for 70 long metres. ( easier to quote the metric system — when in Rome etc.!)

The tapestry has somehow survived over nine centuries — it was originally kept in the beautiful

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scènes 29-30-31 : le The Bayeux Tapissery couronnement de Harold

One of the scenes of the Tapisserie de Bayeux – 
The Bayeux Tapissery, depicting the crowning of King Harold.

cathedral of Notre Dame.
It depicts up to 50 different scenes in amazing detail, and portrays many of the historical events that led up to and included the Battle of Hastings. — So here he is again, William the Conqueror! in one scene shown with King Harold of England.

It is said to have been the work of Queen Mathilde and her ladies.
Whoever was responsible, it is an extraordinary masterpiece with consistently harmonious design and fresh colours — altogether exquisite workmanship!
It was a beautiful way of recording history that everyone could understand, in much the same way that the stained-glass windows in Chartres and other Gothic cathedrals did.

The Bayeux Cathedral manages to combine Norman, Romanesque and Gothic features quite beautifully. It was consecrated in 1077 in the presence of William, who was by then king of England as well as Duke of Normandy, and it was there that he made King Harold take an oath of allegiance, and later when he broke it, it gave William the excuse to go on conquering more of Britain — I find it to be all very complicated history, but I keep tripping over it while travelling around, going  back as far as visiting Hastings and its castle a year ago.

It made me aware of how much of French and British history was intertwined back and forth across the English? Channel.  Not surprising when you think that it is just a stretch of water that you can swim across!

The

The recently built  Basilica of St.Therese – a rather lavish mix of architectural styles.

I found that Liseux was quite nearby, so I know that aunty Betty will be pleased that I went there to see the Carmelite monastery where St Therese lived, and the Basilica of the Little Flower where there are still some of her remains. I said a prayer for you all there.

She and Francis of Assisi are certainly the two most popular saints, both for their love of the simple life, and their caring ways. Almost as many pilgrims visit here as Lourdes.

About two thirds of Liseux was destroyed in the war, but fortunately not the Basilica. Luckily there also remained a very fine Musee d’Art et d’Histoire to explore.

From Liseux, I headed for the great city of Rouen, the historical capital of Normandy on the Seine, which has not one ,but two ports, one where the sea water comes in to meet the river and another a little further up stream, and is one of the oldest towns in Normandy.

 

homes

These charming half-timbered buildings occur all through areas of Brittany and Normandy

Rouen is known as the city of 100 spires. These soar above the city, and its main cathedral is one of the seven major cathedrals of Notre Dame-Our Lady  in France, originating here as far back as the fourth century.

It is yet another  one of Europe’s compellingly powerful Gothic churches which fair took my breath away.   A 400-ft cast-iron spire towers above. It was added in the 19th century.

This is the cathedral that the Impressionist Claude Monet sat and painted over 30 times at all times of the day, and in all sorts of weather, teaching us brilliantly how to catch the changing effects of light on canvas. He left his home in the country in the early 1890s and rented a house near the cathedral for two years to do this.

The Cathedral

The Cathedral of Notre Dame. The taller one on the right is called the Tour du Beurre  – the butter tower.  It was donated by the faithful in exchange for permission to eat Butter in Lent. The French do love their butter, especially in pasteries!

I too had found a room to stay in nearby to the cathedral square in the mediaeval heart of the city and not far from the river.  There was still time late afternoon to go wandering and admiring the fine Gothic architecture of the public buildings, and the numerous well maintained half timbered  homes and the cobbled lanes that wandered in and out,

After an early supper I was drawn to have a further little stroll around the Place de la Cathedrale, as it was a balmy evening and the whole façade of the church was beautifully lit  up every evening.

However, after a short while I became aware of a couple of short, swarthy blokes following me, so I beat a hasty retreat back to my lodgings and started hammering on the door and yelling out to my landlady to let me in.

Luckily she was quick to come to an upstairs window and bellowed at them in foul French and they scuttled away. It gave me quite a fright, and it was certainly a salutary lesson about evening sightseeing!  – She told me that they were migrant workers from Algeria. Many were arriving here as life became more difficult in their homeland after obtaining independence from France.

The next morning I decided to limit my exploration of the city — after all, who needs to visit the market square where Joan of Arc was burnt alive at the stake — and so I caught the next available train home to Paris!


During what remained of the week I began to start packing and preparing to leave France.
There were farewells to be made – these are always the downside of travelling.
I made one final visit to the theatre and it turned out to be a very special one.

The splendid Paris Opera House in la Place de l'Opera

The splendid Paris Opera House in la Place de l’Opera

It was to the magnificent Paris Opera house to see ” The Pearl fishers” composed by Georges Bizet, in three acts, and was first performed in 1863 in Paris when he was only 23.
It is set in ancient Ceylon by the sea, and is the story of two fishermen who are friends but love the same woman. Things are difficult for her too, as they inevitably are in operas, because she was torn between romantic love for one of the men and her sacred oath as a Brahmin priestess! The singing was beautiful, especially one haunting duet sung by the two men to the Goddess, called ” In the depths of the temple” which was repeated a number of times during the performance. I will be looking out for a recording of it.

I went with my Yugoslav friend Tiohmil, and afterwards we sat out on the steps of the theatre looking over Paris and said our last good byes. He astounded me by saying that meeting me had changed him in many ways, and that because we couldn’t be together in the future, had decided to get his life together and return home and marry his mistress!

I certainly hope that this will be something that will make them both happy!
This all came out of the blue and gave me quite a bit to ponder on during my way home.

This outing was followed by a few more hectic and totally unanticipated social outings.
I had actually met very few people while in Paris, but, as is often the way, at the last moment I met a young Mexican man who was studying in Paris who gave me a terrific rush.
He is a lawyer from Mexico City and his name is Guilliermo Talavera. He is a really nice fellow, with the usual Latin courtesy and charm.

The first night out we had dinner and saw a show, and then visited an Alsace cafe, where everyone was in national costume. It was all very colourful and a lot of fun, but I ended up missing the last train and the poor blighter had to walk me two miles home!
I had to put up with much questioning and teasing from Charlotte for arriving home at dawn!

I thought that the long walk would have completely dampened his ardour. But no!  The next night was a dance at Spanish house at the University City. This was great as well — lots of Latin music, guitars and hand-clapping, tangos and rumbas!

He speaks Spanish of course, and we had fun experimenting occasionally with me talking in Italian and him in Spanish. It is amazing how similar the two languages are, and we managed to get to know quite a lot about one another without having to struggle along in French.

He surprised me by telling me that he thought I probably wouldn’t accept an invitation to go out with him because he was of Aztec blood. I am still coming to terms with this sort of racism between people.  I was able to tell him that, on the contrary, he had made my last couple of days in Paris very pleasurable.

Having to say goodbye to my Parisian family wasn’t very easy either. They have been very good to me. I know I am going to miss the three little girls and Charlotte has become a very good friend  – in spite of my ‘au pair’ status,  and I would love to see them again one day.

I am off to Brussels on Tuesday, and then on to Amsterdam to stay with Ivonne on Wednesday night, so my next letter will be reporting on my Netherlands visit.  Until then, I send lots of love to everybody and hope all is well with you. I will be looking forward to news when I arrive in London.

 

 


Amsterdam. May 1960.

Dear family,
Today is the first time that I have had a chance to settle down to letter writing for several days. I had the usual trouble getting myself organised to leave Paris — with people only believing I was actually going when they saw me with my suitcases in my hands.                 My extended departures are becoming celebrated all over Europe.

The Maison de Roi - the King's Place, opposite the Town Hall in the Grand Place and Markets

The Maison de Roi – the King’s Place, opposite the Town Hall in the Grand Place and Markets

I arrived in Brussels on Tuesday night, and was able to spend all of the next day looking around.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect, knowing very little about its history and politics, and I will be making the most of my little guide book to make the most of my short stay.

As you know, it is the capital of Belgium, and although it is not a very big city I have learnt that it has become the main centre for international politics since the Second World War.

The headquarters of NATO is here and other organisations which have an international focus. There is a French community ans a Flemish community & is therefore bilingual.

the Brussells Town Hall when the Grand Duchesse of Luxemburg visisted

Bruxelles’ Grand Place  on the day when the Grand Duchesse of Luxemburg visited.  – the Guild Halls are in the background.

There is also a religious mix of Protestants and Catholics though many no longer have a religious affiliation.

Much of what I was interested to see is in the area of the 12th century Grand Place — a very impressive central square with its Hotel de Ville i.e. Town hall -and the magnificent baroque Guildhalls facing on to the square.

I was there just at the right time. As I was looking around people started to gather in front of the Town Hall. There was quite a large crowd, and I found out that it was because Charlotte, the Grande Duchesse of Luxembourg had also come to visit.

the grand Parade

The grand Parade in front of the amazingly preserved Mediaeval Town Hall on the left.

King Boudoeun and other royals and city dignitaries were there to receive her and I had quite a good view of everything.

It was quite an exciting spectacle, with mounted cavalry, Belgian guards and marching bands and lots of colourful banners waving in the breeze.

The Duchess was a fine elderly woman, and I discovered later that she was a very popular and respected figure.

She and her government in exile had spent the war in London, where she had made regular BBC broadcasts supporting the resistance of the people against the occupying Germans.

Old friends setting off home from the city centre in Bruxelles.

Old friends setting off home from the city centre
in Bruxelles after the royal spectacle.

When it was all over I was able to continue exploring. The Guildhalls had a special role in the Middle Ages and each merchant guild has had its own impressive building.
The Grand Place is the centre of the Old Town and there are six side lanes with echoes of the medieval past which radiate out from it.
Opposite the Town Hall is the Maison de Roi — the King’s house — but the Royal family no longer uses it.

I later found their current royal palace not far away – a handsome neoclassical building, set back in a beautifully designed Park opposite the Belgian Parliament.

Belgium has had a constitutional peoples monarchy since 1830, and P
Baudeun 1st. has been on the throne since 1951.
He is about 50 and is apparently well liked. He is known to be a progressive Catholic, who has been very supportive of the reforming movement in the church initiated by Pope John XXIII.

Then there is the Royal Musee de Beaux Art de Belgium. This turned out to be yet another splendid European gallery and museum.

The Church of St.Michael and St.Gudula

The Church of St.Michael and St.Gudula

Here I was able to learn to appreciate much better the paintings of some of the great Flemish artists –Hieronymus Bosch, Memling, Rubens, and Brueghel, by being able to spend some time with the originals!

Then, of course there was a great Gothic cathedral to marvel at. This one was called the Cathedral of St Michael and St.Gudula – after the country’s two patron saints.

Luckily, there had not been much war damage to it, though the guidebook tells us that Louis XIV had come conquering in the 17th century and had given the place quite a battering then!

The famous Manneken Pis dressed up on this day as an artist

A post card of the famous Manneken Pis dressed up on this particular day  day as an artist

The main thing that every tourist wants to see here is the city’s mascot — the mannekin Pis perched above its fountain –it is a two foot bronze statue of a little fellow peeing. It wasn’t far from the Grand Place, and worth seeing as it is always dressed in a different costume and the changes are made every few days with a little ceremony and a band playing!

There are lots of different legends explaining its origin, perhaps about five hundred years ago.

I had really enjoyed the day. On first impressions, the city has a solid, pleasant feeling about it and the bonus was the grand parade.

Its centre reminded me a little of Perugia in Italy, both  with their  central city piazzas surrounded by fine medieval public buildings still in use today.


By evening I was happy to move on, so I caught a train that took me directly to Amsterdam, arriving  at 10.30, and my good friend Ivonne  Balje was there at the main station to meet me.

We had become good friends during the short time that she and Lucia and I had together when they both arrived in Perugia to study Italian last simmer, just before I left on my Nth. European trip.   Lucia and I had had a great time hitch-hiking together through the British Isles and now it was my turn to catch up with Ivonne.

It was so good to see her again, and her family is very nice and wonderfully hospitable, and her mother is keen to spoil me and ensure that I have a memorable visit.

My friend Ivonne Balje at the gardens

My friend Ivonne Balje at the  gardens in Amsterdam

Ivonne is an only child. She is a high school  teacher of English, and is also currently studying advanced Italian with the intention of adding it to her repertoire. She plans to return to Perugia for the final course next term to complete her studies.

While she is occupied at work, I am happily occupied exploring the city. One of the first places I head for is the famous Rijksmuseum, the renowned National Art Gallery, because I already know that this is where two of my favourite painters of all time are generously represented.

One is Rembrandt, who dominated the arts scene during the Dutch Golden age in the 17th century, and the other is Vermeer, who was originally one of his many pupils, but whose wonderful work was not fully recognised until long after his death.
His delightful paintings are mostly of simple domestic scenes of middle-class life, full of colour and light. I had already had a chance to get to know both artists’ work back in London’s National Gallery.

Rembrandt’s massive painting of the Night Watch, a group of men, has a room all to itself, and is recognized as one of the greatest European paintings ever!
What shines through his work is a profound humanity.
In spite of early success and wealth, he suffered much personal tragedy and financial hardship during his career. He painted numerous self-portraits over his life-time with great honesty — warts and all, as they say. The whole scope of his work broke away from the elaborate baroque style, and has made a very strong impact on the art world ever since.

There were lots of other great artists also represented, and I had a very happy time taking it all in.  As you will have gathered by now, roaming through fine galleries has become one of my favourite past-times!
As well as a great variety of paintings and sculpture, there was also a beautiful display of Delft china and a collection of giant doll’s houses — you would love these, Leonie!
The gallery itself is a very fine building set back in a park with a long rectangular pond in front of it, which is able to be used as an ice rink in the winter.

I also fitted in a visit to a friend of uncle George. She is a Dutch lady who used to be in the Grail order in Australia, and who is now married and living in Amsterdam.
She made me very welcome. She was able to fill me in about life in Holland and make lots of interesting observations about some of the contrasts between life here and in Australia, and I was also able to bring her up to date with Australian news.

The next day Ivonne took time off from study, and we travelled to the famous Keukenhof

Keeukenhof gardens Amsterdam

An area of the famous Keeukenhof gardens near Amsterdam

Gardens, which are not far from Amsterdam — by far the loveliest public gardens I have seen!
There are millions of tulip bulbs planted there annually, and I was very lucky to be here during the period from March to May when they are all in flower in all their glorious colour.

Keukenhof claims to be the world’s largest flower garden, although the word Keukenhof actually means kitchen garden!   It originally began as the herb garden for the Castle Keukenhof. which now sits in the midst of acres of all manner of flowering plants.

It was all created by the same landscape designer as the enormous Vondel Park in the centre of Amsterdam (It too is designed on a large scale dotted with lovely ponds and paths
winding through beautiful flower gardens}.
There are also pavilions and hothouses to explore, a lovely English landscape garden, a traditional Japanese garden and also a Nature garden.

The history of tulips in Holland is a fascinating one. It began in the town of Leiden (Rembrandt was born there) back in the Golden age, where the rich and famous had begun importing exotic flowers including brilliant red tulips from Turkey. (The name tulip apparently evolved because its shape resembled the turbans worn by the Sikhs of the East).

Bright red flowers were such a novelty that it became a craze to own these tulips and unimaginable prices were paid for them, and they actually became a source of exchange. which ultimately led to a massive financial crash in 1637, which eventually became known as the Dutch Wall Street crash!

The Netherland tulip fields not far from Amsterdam.

The Netherland tulip fields not far from Amsterdam.

It all sounds too mad to be true, but it is very well documented.
It all finally settled down into what remains as a very rich export industry in beautiful flowers.

On the way there and back we were able to admire the many privately owned bulb fields along the way — great masses of vivid colour brightening the very flat countryside, with an occasional windmill still standing to complete the picture.

On Sunday we spent a quiet family day together, mostly indoors as it has suddenly become very cold. In the evening though, we ventured out to dinner and had a delicious Chinese meal; – there are now quite a number of Asian eating places here, thanks to the tastes acquired by the Dutch who had had to return to Holland when the Dutch East Indies demanded independence.

What makes the centre of Amsterdam unique and such a delight to wander through are the canals. They began building them in the 17th century. The original one was simply a horse- shoe shaped moat with its outlet on either end running into the harbour and connecting with the Amsteel River. Each canal was gradually dug to encircle the next one, spanning out to create a pattern of half concentric rings of waterways filling the heart of the city, and wide enough for large boats to travel through them.

There are bright little shady streets running along beside the canals, great as walkways or for cycling, or alternatively it is fun to go on one of the glass- topped tourist boats.
There is the Patricians Canal with the beautiful gardens of the homes of the wealthy and famous, running down to the water’s edge.   It is encircled by the Emperor’s Canal, and then the Princes’ Canal, and towards the port is the famous red light district, where you can sail past pretty little houses, with geraniums in their window boxes, and check on the girls who sit at the windows waiting for customers!

Amsterdam Harbour

Ivonne was able to remind me that during Holland’s golden age Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest cities in the world with a vast trading network, and it was the Dutch who ruled the seas rather than the British.

It had established the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company, resulting in quite a multicultural mix of people’s moving through, all wanting to migrate there, including Spanish, Portuguese, Huguenots fleeing from France, and also Jewish people, who felt very comfortable settling there.

Holland did a big trade in diamonds as well as many other commodities. It had been ruled at one time by Spain, but it was William of Orange, himself a Spaniard, who freed the people from Spanish rule in 1576, and they say this is why orange is the favourite national colour!

The Windmills

The Windmills

The sea has been both its friend and its enemy. Much of Holland has had a continual battle holding back the waters. 27% of the country is below sea level and the people became masters of building dykes, which are artificial embankments to hold back the sea, while still allowing many canals to provide waterways throughout the countryside that serve for transportation and irrigation, and land cultivation, helped along by all the windmills.

It is easy to understand why the wooden clogs became a necessity and have been used for the last 700 years by fishermen and farmers, schoolchildren and street cleaners!
Food wise, Amsterdam is a great place for sampling their favourite foods. Herrings are on the top of the list of a great variety of fish, Gouda is the cheese of choice and the Dutch have also made pancakes very popular.

I have talked about the Rijksmuseum, but there are a number of other fine museums to be found at Museumplein. There is the Stedelijk Museum of modern Art with a great collection of the best works from the 19th to the 20th century.

The painter Mondrian comes from here. He has a very stripped back style, creating simple rectangles of alternating colours, which he saw as expressing order and spiritual harmony.
It was very revolutionary work. It took time me time to take it in. Back then it caused a bit of a shock throughout the art world and has had quite an influence and created much debate ever since.

Holland had a very tough time during World War II. Hitler invaded in 1940 and the occupation was pretty brutal, and I was able to hear at first hand something of the hatred that the Dutch still feel for the Germans, even though they are the most prolific tourist visitors.

Ivonne says that the communists are able to take advantage of the bad feeling for agitation and propaganda purposes. They say that the anti-Nazi outbursts which have blown up in most of the surrounding countries several months ago were fanned by communist organizations, established here.

The people in Amsterdam suffered the most at the end of the war when the Germans were forced to withdraw and left the place in a state of complete breakdown, which resulted in severe famine. People fled the city and were forced to forage for food in the countryside, eating everything that was barely edible including animals, both wild and domestic, and even their precious tulip bulbs.
Yvonne has had to wear glasses since she was a child, as have a lot of other Dutch kids.
She believes that the damage to their sight was the result of severe malnutrition during their growing years.

I learned a little of how the country is organised politically. The Hague, which is the third-largest city, (Amsterdam and Rotterdam are the big ones) is the seat of government and centre of all political activity, and they have a constitutional monarchy, which seems quite popular.

Queen Juliana came to the throne in 1948 and has four daughters. She enjoys mixing with people informally on a day-to-day basis and can be seen getting around on a bicycle and doing plenty of other mundane things like local shopping, although the royal family still maintain plenty of the ceremonies and royal spectacles which, as far as I can see, people all over Europe seemed to enjoy.  She and her daughters were forced to flee to Canada for the duration of the war, and by way of thanks, she sends a great quantity of the prized tulips to the Canadian people every year.

I have loved staying with my Dutch family — they have been wonderfully kind, and I love Amsterdam itself. It is such a bright colourful city and is another place I would love to come back to.  I am now about to set off for England yet again. I will go by train to the port city of Rotterdam to catch the ferry across to Harwich tomorrow, and will write again when I get settled back into London, ready for another summer.

Lots of love to you all.

 

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One thought on “Chapter 10: Brittany, Normandy, Belgium and Holland

  1. Carolyn

    A fascinating, leisurely stroll through Europe – with some little human asides which make it real. This book of ‘encounters’ is not heavy or wearying; rather one looks for the next and the next. What a grand and gentle education the writer has had in the arts and history and how significant to a young Australian girl. The photos inserted throughout the story bring the whole journey to life. Congratulations Elizabeth

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