Part 2 – The Hague, Amsterdam, and Introduction to Viking Bragi
This was the day we were to board the ship, Bragi, to begin the cruise. First, we would travel by coach to Amsterdam with a few stops along the way.
Before leaving The Hague we stopped at The International Court of Justice, commonly referred to as The World Court for a quick photo opportunity that I took full advantage of.
The International Court of Justice has its seat in The Hague and is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations,
The cover photo for this post is of the International Peace Flame, located outside the International Court of Justice.
Once back on the coach we headed toward Amsterdam. As we got close we turned off the main road and drove along the river where we got glimpses of where the wealthy folks of Amsterdam live. Our guide’s goal was not to make us feel inferior. This was the best route to get us to one of the more unique windmills in the Netherlands.
This MIddenkruiers type of windmill is different from many others found in The Netherlands. The entire base of the windmill structure is able to be rotated in order to catch the wind. The big wheel seen at the base of the structure is turned by the operator in order to swing the blades and structure into the wind. The entire structure is made of wood, including the gears which are turned to position the structure. Imagine the effort required to position this giant machine for maximum efficiency.
We were at this stop long enough to watch some birds in a neighboring yard which did not go unnoticed by some of our tour mates as well as our bus driver. Soon, the driver was pointing out birds to us and those who would be on the ship with us took note of our interests because they continued to share their bird sightings along the river over the next two weeks.
The Amsterdam of today has a mix of architectural features from long ago and the ultra-modern.
Here are a couple of examples.
The Valley is a modern architectural marvel in Amsterdam. The building gets its name from the V shape of created by the adjoined towers with offsets in their design. This complex has it all, offices, shopping, cultural exposition spaces, parking, and residential apartments. I took this photo from a moving bus through the window.
Traditional Amsterdam architecture can be seen all over the city. There is great beauty in either style.
The bus let us off outside the Van Gogh Museum which was a convenient location for the bus. From this location, we took a walking tour that ended with a canal tour boat cruise where we learned a bit about how the canals in the city have long been a means of transport for goods and people throughout the city’s history. This part of Amsterdam has some parallels with Venice, Italy. Two major exceptions would be the numbers and sizes of the canals and the difference in their romantic nature. That said we did see a very Venetian-looking gondola with an appropriately attired gondolier.
Early in our canal tour, we passed this bridge which is one of seven seemingly identical arched stone bridges that cross this particular canal. If you enlarge this image and count the arches which are slightly offset you will see all seven.
This is the stern of a replica of the Amsterdam a cargo ship used by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC). Sadly the actual Amsterdam was shipwrecked in the English channel on January 26, 1749, just months after being built.
Completed in December of 1748, the ship displaced 1100 tons, with a length of 157.5 ft, a beam of 38 ft, a height of `83.7 ft, a draft of 18 ft., and carried 42 guns.
Amsterdam’s maiden voyage was planned from the Dutch Island Texel to the settlement of Batavia in the East Indies. She was laden with textiles, wine, stone ballast, cannon, paper, pens, pipes, domestic goods, and 27 chests of silver guilder coins. Three attempts were made between November 15, 1748, and January 8, 1749. The first two failed due to bad weather. On the third, the weather was bad and the ship had problems tacking into a strong westerly storm. Eventually, the rudder broke and the ship drifted and ran aground in the Bay of Bulverhythe on January 16, 1749. She sank 3.1 miles west of Hastings. Some of the cargo was salvaged and the surviving crewmembers were cared for by locals before being returned to Dutch soil.
The Replica pictured here was built between 1985 and 1990 by volunteers using modern tools as well as tools of the period.
Following the canal tour, we had a few hours of free time when we could do as we pleased. At the end of the period, we would meet at a designated location with our guide Anthony to board another bus for the ride to Viking Bragi.
When learned we could not get tickets for the Van Gogh museum, Connie got on her phone and made a reservation for Rijksmuseum. This is a huge museum that cannot be seen in its entirety in a full day, much less the hour-plus we had available. Getting around in the museum was made more difficult due to the way the building was constructed.
This is the Rijksmuseum. It is very large and houses amazing collections of art from The Netherlands.
Let me step back here and explain the country name, Netherlands. Frequently there is a The in front of Netherlands. That is because it is the largest of four constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The country is formerly known as Holland. I will continue to refer to the Netherlands as The Netherlands for simplicity reasons.
The entrances to the museum are inside the large arch in the center and are on either side.
The layout inside consisted of small, medium, and large-sized rooms that didn’t repeat from floor to floor making it very easy to get turned around. For instance, on one floor we were able to walk all the way around the building without ever entering a conventional hallway. On other floors, there were halls connecting the various rooms. I will just come right out and admit that I was essentially lost most of the time we were in the museum. Even Connie had to do a reset and ask how to get to a specific gallery. The photos below, which I was absolutely surprised to be allowed to take, represent an infinitesimally small fraction of the collections in this wonderful place.
Van Goh’s Self Portrait. I was both shocked and relieved that it is considered acceptable to photograph these great works of art. I purposely made my images off-angle so as never to be interpreted as an authorized copy.
The Night Watch, a painting by Rembrandt. This nearly 400-year-old painting is hung behind glass to help protect it from environmental factors. In January 2022 work was begun to correct the age-related damages to this masterpiece.
Again, I was very uncomfortable making photographs even though I was not using a flash. It just seemed a bit like theft to me. The sharpness of the angle of my vantage point was made sharper to minimize reflection off the glass.
As our free time was coming to an end, Connie and I separated so she could return our audio devices and retrieve the pack and jackets we were not able to bring into the museum while I made a comfort station stop. We were to meet up outside the museum near the door we had entered.
A few moments of panic occurred when we were both outside and both thinking we were standing near the door we had entered but the other was not there. The entrances to the museum are in that inverted horseshoe tunnel that can be seen in the photo above. It is dark in that tunnel. It is also a very busy tunnel with bicyclists blasting through as though there is no tomorrow. Worst of all is the fact that on either side of the tunnel’s interior are identical entrances to the museum both of which look into opposite ends of the same space which are also identical. Eventually, by describing the immediate scene around her, I was able to see which door Connie was near. For the record, I was at the wrong door.
As life would have it, sometimes my mistakes are overtaken by what happens next. Before Connie really had a chance to give me the grief I likely deserved, Anthony was leading the group on what would be a wild-goose chase looking for our bus. There was a prearranged pickup location with enough space for a tour coach to park for a few minutes while loading passengers. When we arrived there was no bus. Anthony called the company providing the service to learn that the driver claimed he was where he was supposed to be. Anthony was not amused but did a great job of hiding his frustration. Within moments of his call to the bus company, the driver called him. Anthony asked where he was and instead of complicating things for the driver, he had us walk to the bus. The bus was in the parking garage of the Van Gogh Museum less than 100 yards from where we had met up with Anthony, but about a quarter mile from where we were standing. Off we went!
Further explanation is appropriate here so no one thinks there is rampant disorganization with the various vendors under contract to Viking River Cruises. As is the case in the United States there is a shortage of workers in many sectors of the economy all over Europe. Specifically, in Amsterdam, there is a shortage of motor coach operators. So, the companies have hired Polish drivers to fill the gaps. The Polish drivers are familiar enough with the city as they generally bring groups to Amsterdam and other Netherlands destinations for tours. This driver was confident he knew where in Amsterdam we would be. He was probably correct for tours of another company. No harm, no foul, and we all got a few more steps as well as seeing other characters of the city.
From there we made our way to the ship, Viking Bragi, where our true adventure was about to begin. Bragi is the Norse god of poetry.
When arriving on board a Viking River Ship except for having to walk on a brow to board, one gets the feeling they are checking into a luxury hotel. In our case, it was the hotel manager who greeted us, asked our names, gave us our custom key cards, and turned us over to the head of housekeeping who escorted us to our stateroom where we found our luggage waiting for us.
Everything on Viking cruises is done to a schedule. That said, our delayed arrival left us only a few minutes before we were to be on the foredeck for a welcoming cheese- and wine-tasting icebreaker. We met a few more of our fellow voyagers while enjoying the wine.
That event merged seamlessly into what would be the first of the daily port briefings. Each and every evening the cruise director would have us join in the lounge where he would discuss the next day’s events and excursions. For this first brief, he introduced the ship’s Captain, Engineer, Hotel Manager, Housekeeping Manager, Restaurant and Lounge Manager, and Executive Chef.
I have to pause here to recognize that among this fine group of leaders there is but one who has overall responsibility for the health and safety of all on board. That of course is the captain, Oliver Barisic. That said, the cruise could very easily become oh-so ho-hum were it not for the professionalism and dedication of the entire leadership group on board. In the case of Viking Bragi the entire leadership group works tirelessly to ensure that if you think of it, it has already been seen to by one or more of the above-listed department heads.
I would be remiss if I didn’t expend a few words to call deeper attention to our Cruise Director, David Wander. This young man of 26 years of age stood out above all others not just because of his familiarity with the many stops we were to make, but with his total commitment to ensuring everyone had the most memorable journey possible. He, more than anyone else on board, interacted the most with all other departments on the ship and actually knew what he was talking about. By the way, he is the youngest person to have ever held the position of Cruise Director for Viking Cruises and he already has experience in the company’s ocean ships as well as the river ships. Later this year he will move to one of the company’s new river cruise ships. I am getting ahead of myself a little, but as I shook his hand just prior to boarding the bus for the Budapest Airport I told him that he is what makes Viking, Viking. I meant every word of that comment.
Okay, back to the cruise at hand. Following the daily brief, we were dismissed but also forewarned that there would be a safety drill where we all had to proceed to specified locations with life jackets in hand where donning training would occur. Yep, we are on a ship. It just has the look and feel of a luxury hotel
While we waited for the drill, Connie and I started unpacking, because we knew dinner would follow soon after the drill.
At this point, I have to make another admission of an omission. Every dinner menu was different as were the lunch menus. There were some staple items on each menu, but every evening the featured dishes were traditional to the region we were passing through. I failed to photograph the menus so I could remember and report on their content and the quality of the offerings. I do apologize because hard as I tried I could not find anything that wasn’t amazingly delicious. My pants now feel the strain!
At the beginning of each daily port brief, David introduced the Chef who would give his recommendations from that evening’s menu. Viking Bragi’s Chef is Zsolt Csincsi. Good luck trying to pronounce it after a few glasses of wine. Zsolt has a very deep and heavily accented Hungarian voice. He also has the most repeatable cadence of speech I have ever witnessed. With that as background, I think everyone on board looked forward to his oration of those menu items he recommended. Not so much for the food items themselves, but for the presentation he made. Of course, he always wore his chef’s jacket and his tall chef’s hat to punctuate his role.
Our first dinner would set the bar for all meals that would follow. I will cut to the chase. Each meal hovered at or above that very high bar.
We were scheduled to get underway at 11:30 PM. We missed that by some hours for unknown reasons. However, the effect was not noticed by anyone who had gone to bed before the designated sailing time. We arrived at our first port visit on time.
That first port visit was to Kinderdijk, The Netherlands. There were three excursions available in Kinderdijk. I will mention all three for this stop simply to acquaint readers with the different types of excursions offered. The included excursion was Kinderdijk Windmills. Optional tours included Kinderdijk Windmills by Bicycle, Kinderdijk Windmills, and Dutch Cheese Making, and Kinderdijk by Vintage Barge.
Each excursion group left the ship at a different time making it much easier to get on the correct excursion. All but one of this day’s excursions would return to the ship by 10:30 AM to support a departure just after that time.
I should explain at this point how Viking keeps track of which passengers are on board and which are not. Our stateroom key cards also acted as our check-off/check-in cards whenever leaving or returning to the ship. As was the case for this first port stop, there can be groups that do not return to the ship at the port they left. That was the case for the people who were on the Windmills and Cheese Making excursion. They were therefore not expected to be on board for that 10:30-ish departure and therefore did not show up on the, not on board, list.
Connie and I had taken the optional Windmill and Vintage Barge excursion.
The Mill Network at Kinderdijk is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A world Heritage Site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administrated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Being protected, the windmills require maintenance and occasional operation. To accommodate that, each of the windmills that remain is used not only as windmills but as homes for those who are capable of operating them and willing to live in near isolation. The occupants of this particular mill use a boat to get to and from where their car is parked in order to go to work, shop, etc.
The “home” part of the windmill consists of three stories. The lowest level would be the living room and dining areas. The other two levels are traditionally bedrooms. In the day, many mills had families of up to 13 children. The parents and infants occupied the lower level and as the children grew so did the level of the mill they slept in.
This closer view reveals some interesting features of this style of windmill. 1. The fan blades have deployable sails similar in purpose to the sails on a sailboat only the windmill sails cover the frame of the blade when deployed. The white lightweight line holds the sail in the housed position. 2. Close examination of the hub where the fan blades cross each other shows how massive these machines are. 3. Below the hub, notice the date 1740. That is when this particular windmill was built. It still works and is kept operational by law. 4. On an earlier windmill I presented above, the entire windmill could be turned to catch the wind. On the style pictured here, only that portion above the yellow ring turns to position the fan blades to catch the wind.
The majority of the construction materials used in building these windmills were wood. Even the windmills with brick housing structures had wooden gearing as well as wooden fan blades. For that reason, it was not safe to have any flame-producing items within the structure. Therefore, midway between mills cook buildings were built where the residents of the two mills would prepare all their meals. Remember, some mills housed families in excess of ten people. This could not be considered an easy life for anyone. The people who live in the mills today still share the cook buildings, but they are now much more modern.
One final look at a beautiful invention on a wonderful and bright, calm day. This day would have presented a challenge had the windmills been needed to move water out of the canal to drain the surrounding fields.
In the early 1900s, soon after diesel engines and generators were available the windmill became seemingly obsolete. This gigantic flywheel that is driven by an electric motor turns the equally gigantic pump behind it to do the work of the windmills.
To illustrate just how big these components are, take a look at the man standing behind the motor. During WWII there were frequent fuel shortages that prevented the use of the diesel engines that powered these motors, but by then many of the windmills had fallen into disrepair making it difficult to keep the water out from where it wasn’t wanted. Knowing the risks to this country that has so much of its land below sea level, as soon as the war was over law was passed requiring the windmills be preserved and kept operational.
As I mentioned above, we departed Kinderdijk just after 10:30 AM. At 1:00 PM we made a brief stop at Gorinchem where we were reunited with those passengers who had learned how to make cheese, the Dutch way.
From there we made our way along the Noord, Beneden Merwede, Bove Merwede, Waal, and the Rhine to Cologne, Germany
Part 3 Picks up during our excursion in Cologne. I will also share more pictures and information about our ship. Just a note of apology. I took my computer with me on this trip with the intention of writing every day. I never opened it. However, I did try to devote a few minutes each day to handwriting notes in hopes of making this process a little easier. What I failed to realize was how many photos I was taking along the way plus the really good ones Connie was taking. All of the photos have to be processed and sorted pretty much in line with the writing. Since we are still not quite settled in our new home, I have not been able to dedicate as much continuous time to this project as I would have preferred. So, please bear with me as I muddle my way through this labor of love. I will get it done and I truly hope those who have stuck with it this long will continue to do so. I appreciate all comments, even the less-than-positive ones. Thank you.