A SHORT JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY
North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany and Holland
ARNHEM TO ZURICH via ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Maastricht.
Den Bosch was our first overnight stop en-route to Zurich (our home base). Den Bosch is the colloquial term for ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In English translation it is the ‘duke’s forest’, referring to the duke who owned the forest within which Den Bosch was established.
The Den Bosch train station is very different to the Arnhem station. It is typical of 19th century stations where riveted columns and steel arches were the norm. As the reader knows, I am hooked on arches, be they made from stone, brick, wood or steel. If you pass through a railway station and never look up you are missing one of the greatest engineering visuals of life.
When researching a new city such as Den Bosch I always look at the list of notable people, past and present, who have had an association with the city. In the past, for example, famous names such as Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo, Joan of Arc and Napoleon Bonaparte come to mind. In the case of Den Bosch, one notable was Geradus Mercator of map fame who was educated in the city. There are few people of my age who do not know who Mercator was, it was drummed into us at school.
By the time Mercator began making maps, it was generally accepted the earth was a sphere. The earliest documentation of a spherical earth comes from the Greeks in the 5th century and since 600AD scholars have supported the view. Making a flat map from a sphere took some effort, however Mercator took on the task and achieved success.
Today, regardless of the science, there are people who believe the earth is flat and their beliefs are generally motivated by religious or crackpot conspiracy theories.
Mercator was born on the 5th March 1512, (an auspicious date because that date is also my birth date but 429 years later) and died in 1594 at the age of 82 years. In the eighty-two years of his life he advanced the understanding of geography, cosmology and cartography, the latter he is most widely known for. However transposing the spherical surface of the globe into a flat map (cylindrical projection) was no easy task, he ‘plotted’ on and published his first map in 1569. The map showed parallel longitude and latitude lines known as ‘parallels’, the intersection points of these parallels are called ‘coordinates’ and having coordinates means you can plot your position on the globe.
It was not all plain sailing for Mercator because, as he worked on his theory, he was arrested under the pretence of heresy. He had protestant leanings and the travelling he did during research expeditions made church officials wary. After a short spell in gaol he was released and he continued with map making until his death in 1594.
The city of Den Bosch: The city has seen its share of destruction and despair. It experienced the War of Reformation. Its inhabitants took the side of the Catholics and the war went on for eighty years. Then came the Thirty-year war when fortifications were expanded and during this time the rivers Dommel and Aa were diverted by constructing a forty-kilometre long dyke, creating a polder. The marshes (polder) formed by the dyke created a boggy wetland that made a siege of the fortress impossible. In modern times Den Bosch came in for its share of despair, as during World War Two the only official German concentration camp in western Europe was on the outskirts of the city.
Polders need an explanation: A polder is a tract of low-lying land reclaimed from the sea. Poldering is important to Holland, much of it would not exist without it. Twenty-seven percent of Holland is at, or below, sea level. Excessive water is pumped by windmills, mostly into the sea. The following image shows a perfect example of a polder.
Our accommodation arrangement in Den Bosch is definitely worth a mention. It was in a private home and the owner was obsessed with the dos and don’ts of staying. There was a sign in seven languages that covered every aspect of being a good guest. Examples were: men are requested to sit on the toilet when urinating to avoid wetting the toilet seat; no drinking of alcohol in the room; no cooking fires in the room; no eating food in the room; no eating of food on the bed; close door carefully when leaving the room; hang towels on racks provided; do not use bidet for washing clothes. And then there were the usual notifications relating to smoking, noise and checkout times. Staying in a place with so many signs raises one’s hackles.
There has been only one other hotel where Bev and I have stayed where rules of the house have been more explicit and that was in the city of Urumqi in west China.
The Chinese hotel list of don’ts: Prohibit to get drunk and create disturbances, fight, make confused noises, play video, dance together. Prohibit gambling, taking drugs, traffic in narcotics. Prohibit cooking stoves electric or oil stoves. Help hotel security guard work, forbid to harbour, destroy booty and shield the illegal criminals. Prohibit from prostitution, going whoring, adultery, distribution of obscene salacious articles tapes and videos. Do not spit and litter anywhere. Guns must be handed into hotel staff. Prohibit to bring inflammable, explosive, drastic poisonous corrosive and radioactive etc into hotel. Prohibit from illegal practice of medicine, fortune telling and other feudal superstitious activities. The list went on and on into two full pages. From our point of view, it was amusing, especially in the translation.
Den Bosch, like most European cities, has a lot to offer the visitor. There are buildings worth a mention and one is the Cathedral of St John. The cathedral is highly decorated, including the painting of the rib-vaulted ceiling. Another feature of the interior was the floor tombs and I thought if I were into frottage I would spend time getting impressions here.
In art, frottage is from the French frotter ‘to rub’. The technique of frottage was developed by artist Ernst in 1925 who was inspired by an old wooden floor where the grain of the boards had been accentuated by many years of scrubbing. He captured the images by laying sheets of paper on the floor and rubbing over them with a soft pencil.
Many times when seeing interior tombs I ask myself whether the deceased notables are actually buried under the tomb or are the tombs only symbolic and the body is buried somewhere else. My research indicates that the bodies were actually buried in the church and regarding the question of foul smells coming from under the floor, there were none as the stone sealed well and the notables and saints, according to church leaders, emitted a perfume as they decomposed.
Should an angel need replacing these days it is obligatory to depict a modern-day scene and, of course, a very modern scene involves a mobile phone. Gone are the lutes, replaced by mobiles. It is said the angel above has a direct line to God. This statue is an addition to the cathedral to mark its twelve-year restoration.
Previously I wrote that the Dutch perfected and turned decorative brickwork into an art form and the Flemish gable in the above photograph is a fine example of the art. Flemish/Dutch gables are found on most commercial main street buildings in Holland. In England, such gables are called crow-stepped gables as it is said if crows stop perching on your gables (steps) bad luck will befall the owners.
The oldest brick building in Den Bosch and the Netherlands is the Moriaan and it dates from the 13th century. The building’s claim to fame is it was used as a meeting place for the Reformists during the iconoclastic period of 1566. The iconoclastic period saw violence against religious images. Mobs stormed into churches, smashing windows and sculptures. The intended effect was to indicate to both Catholics and Protestants that images were powerless. It was said to be earthly vanity and merely a distraction from the truth. Today the Moriaan is the tourist information office.
Not all buildings in Den Bosch exhibit old world traits. There are relatively new constructions, some highly decorated, and an example was a set of disused grain silos on the outskirts of the city. Bev has a knack for finding out-of-the-way things and in this case, the silos. I went along for the ride and I’m glad I did.
In Australia, there is a very active movement to promote silo art. This artwork isn’t just a beautiful addition to the local landscape, it’s a lifeline to local communities, attracting visitors to a town. Currently, throughout Australia, there are forty-four silos and sixty water towers decorated and if the trend continues there will be many more. The Australian Silo Art movement started in Western Australia in 2015 and since then silo/water tower artists have been kept busy depicting local themes.
Most silos in Australia stand alone, a distinct advantage, as the viewers are able to stand back and admire the creation from a distance. To view the extent of Australian Silo Art go to australiansiloarttrail.com It is possible to buy a map showing the locations of decorated silos, water towers and street art sites.
Leaving Den Bosch was easy. We took the train to Maastricht without any stress. Our accommodation was with a Couchsurfing host. The apartment was in a narrow street paved with setts and just off the main plaza.
The Nee-Nee sticker indicates that the resident does not want unaddressed printed advertisement material. If there is a Nee-Ja sticker the resident will not receive unaddressed advertising material but will accept unaddressed newspapers. Every angle was covered and maybe that is why the street was so litter free.
Our host was an older gentleman who showed us to our room. On the bedroom door was a handwritten sign, ‘Fred and Bev welcome’. Bev asked our host what there was to see and do in Maastricht and he said, ‘Go out, turn left and follow your nose’. That was the last we saw of him.
The room was intriguing with original sketches and paintings on the walls and on the tables and shelves collectables of times past.
Turning left at the end of the street where our accommodation was located was the main square where preparations were being made for an Andre Rieu concert later in the evening. Cafes were making good use of the outer perimeter of the concert venue with chairs and tables arranged facing huge digital TV screens for patrons to indulge in the live music of Andre Rieu.
Dutch born André Rieu is a violinist and conductor best known for creating the waltz-playing Johann Strauss Orchestra. He and his orchestra have turned classical and waltz music into a worldwide concert touring act, as successful as some of the biggest global pop and rock music acts. Rieu resides in his native Maastricht when not on tour.
In April 2019, just three months prior to us visiting Maastricht, the cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris burned. It was an international event and the Andre Rieu orchestra and choir paid tribute to the tragedy with a stirring rendition of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers duet.
From Maastricht it was back to Zurich to plan the next leg of our Observations from the Saddle of a Bike Odyssey. Getting back to Zurich involved changing trains five times, which might sound an arduous effort but we chose regional trains where we could walk our bikes on rather than have to unpack panniers and fold them.
It is fascinating to read about the development of the Swiss railway system. There is an excellent book, ‘Slow Train to Switzerland’ by Diccon Bewes, which tells the story. You can pick up a second hand copy on ABE books. The book relates to how expeditionist Thomas Cook, who perhaps became the father of mass tourism, established regular tours for the English to the Swiss Alps in the late 1800s. Soon after commencing his tours, the Swiss realised the potential of mass tourism and decided to capitalise on the event, hotels were built and railways expanded. There were Swiss francs to be made then and it has continued for over one hundred and fifty years.
That’s the end of this post, Bev and I trust you enjoyed the ride. The next post take you to the Morteratsch Glacier high in the Bernina Range of the Swiss Alps. Leave a comment if you wish.