Few nations have been as defined by the sea as the “Low Countries” of Holland Belgium. Dreamy canals lace their way under charming arched bridges, through green wetland grasses, and past villages of medieval stone. But the water has also shaped a robust economic history: Chalky, sandy soils here nurtured tulip mania in the 1600s, when one bulb carried up to ten times the worth of a tradesman’s salary. The region’s seafaring trade also created an embarrassment of riches. The Dutch East India Company forged trade routes with Southeast Asia. And Belgian textile barons exported their fabric by ship, generating enormous wealth for an entire nation. You can witness all that was reaped in Amsterdam’s canal-side merchant houses and Bruges’ stately guild houses.
To get a sense of those who created this prosperity, look no further than the textured and haunting portraits of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Rubens. But don’t spend too much time in museums – there’s a vast, flat land to explore on two wheels. Farmlands, and the iconic windmills that irrigated them, seem to stretch on forever. Tiny hamlets adorn emerald landscapes. And rural canals laze past cow-dotted pastures at the most leisurely of paces.
Best known for their cheese and chocolate, the Low Countries offer a larger menu for sampling. Dutch pankoeken, pancakes with all manner of ingredients cooked right in, aren’t just for breakfast. And traditional erwtensoep, or split-pea soup, dates to the Dutch Golden Age when maidens transformed simple farm ingredients into hearty meals for returning sailors. Belgium’s national dish (aside from sugar-sprinkled Belgian waffles) will taste familiar to the American palate: salad with steak and French fries – which, contrary to their name, originated here. But don’t let the simplicity of these dishes fool you. Brussels’ elegant restaurants have been said to rival those of Paris.
To learn more visit VBT’s Holland and Belgium Bike & Barge Tour