Brussels Half Marathon Weekend

This past weekend, we traveled to Brussels so that Willem could cross something off his bucket list: run in the Brussels half-marathon (20km de Bruxelles/20km door Brussel).  The Brussels 20k has been run annually since 1980, and has grown every year.  This year, almost 37,000 runners from 120 countries took part.  Willem had signed up to run the race with a group of our friends from LSE.

We stayed overnight with one of the guys running the half-marathon with Willem.  On the morning of the race we woke up bright and early.  I say bright, but what we saw out the window was rain.  Cold, gray and rainy—not the type of weather that makes one excited to get outside and run, that’s for sure.  Luckily the rain tapered off before the race started; however, the clouds stayed around for the whole day.  I could tell Willem was nervous (even though he tried not to show it) because he could barely finish his breakfast.  I tried to tell him it is only natural to feel sick right before your first big race, and to reassure him that the feeling would go away as soon as the adrenaline of the race kicked in.  We took the metro to Parc du Cinquantenaire, which was the starting and finishing point of the course.  The metro was already filled with other people who were also on their way to the race.  Either that or someone was about to film a spandex commercial we weren’t aware of.

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The guys before the race

The park was swarming with people by the time we got there, and it took us a while to find the others. Once all five guys were assembled and ready to go, they made their way over to the staging area at the starting line.  Since the Brussels 20k is run by so many people, they must start in waves of 6,000 runners.  This staggers the runners and prevents bottlenecks and injuries along the course.  The wave you are placed in depends on your predicted finish time.  The first wave is made up of professional runners, and the following waves are composed of increasingly amateur or novice runners.  Willem and his friends were placed in the fourth wave.

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Making their way to the starting line

The starting gun sounded for the first wave at 10am sharp.  That was my cue to go, so I wished the guys luck and they went off to their places.  I walked to the edge of the park so I could get a better view of the starting line.  The sight of all those runners poised to begin was incredible. The tension and excitement in the air was making me nervous, and I wasn’t even running!

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The starting line

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Close-up of the starting line

I watched the runners stream out of the park and on their way.  My friend Suzanne, who lives in Brussels, had arranged to meet me that day, so I made my way back to the metro station where she was waiting for me.  I knew I had at least an hour and a half before the guys would be nearing the finish line, so Suzanne and I walked to a nearby Le Pain Quotidien for croissants and coffee.  I felt so guilty and lazy sitting there chatting with Suzanne in the warm and cozy café while the boys were out there running their hearts out in the cold!  After about an hour we walked back to the race course and found a place to stand 500 meters from the finish line.

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The finish line!

I was shocked at how fast the first runners finished.  The winner crossed the finish line in under an hour! That means he was running at a pace of more than 20km/hr. I don’t even think I can bike that fast for a full 20km.

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Some of the early race finishers

All five of the LSE guys finished the course in less than two hours.  Willem’s final time was 1:52:21, a personal record for him. I’m so proud of him!  One of Belgium’s own royals, Prince Philippe, also ran the race—and Willem now gets to say that he beat Belgium’s prince in a race.  Not bad for one weekend, right?

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I caught Willem! (That is him in the blue t-shirt waving to me as he passes by)

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Doing a happy dance…he finished!

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All of the guys and their finisher medals

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Road Trip Part 3: Baguettes and Battles in Bastogne, Belgium

The following is Part 3 of a three part series detailing my road trip to Luxembourg via Germany and Belgium.  You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Sunday was the last day of our trip.  We left Vianden and drove west through Belgium before making our way north to the Netherlands.  While searching for a place to stop along the way, I noticed a town named Bastogne about an hour into the drive.  Bastogne, for those unfamiliar with the name, is a small town made famous for its role in World War II.

We got to the outskirts of Bastogne around lunchtime.  First, we followed the signs to the Mardasson Memorial, which was erected by Belgium in honor of the 76,890 American soldiers who were wounded or killed during the Battle of the Bulge.  Even for those who aren’t as obsessed with history as I am, the magnitude of this single event in the course of WWII cannot be understated.

Mardasson Memorial from the air

In December 1944, after Bastogne had been liberated by the Allies, the Germans once more attempted to advance to Antwerp and cut off British and American supplies.  The Germans took advantage of extreme cold and fog on December 16 and attacked the Americans stationed around Bastogne.  A few days later, Brigadier General McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne Division along with elements of the 10th Armored Division and the 82nd airborne became encircled within the town.  According to popular legend, the Germans called for American surrender on December 22, but General McAuliffe refused to abandon the town and simply replied, “NUTS!” As if by divine intervention, the weather cleared up the next day allowing for much-needed reinforcements.

Troops from the 101st Airborne Division with supplies dropped by reinforcements during the Siege of Bastogne

By December 26, troops under the famous General Patton broke the stalemate, and the tide turned in favor of the Americans (although the fighting did not completely end until almost three weeks later).  All told, the Battle of the Bulge resulted in 76,890 American casualties, and thus was both the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in WWII.  This extraordinary battle became so famous it has inspired numerous depictions in pop culture over the years, the most famous being Stephen Spielberg’s award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers.

General Patton’s jeep near Bastogne

The monument sits on top of a ridge overlooking the Belgian countryside right outside Bastogne, and when driving up from the town it is an imposing sight.  As it was Sunday, the visitor’s center at the memorial was closed, but there were still probably around a dozen people wandering around the site itself.  The concrete structure is shaped like a massive pentagram, with a circular courtyard in the center.  Around the top of the memorial is inscribed the names of each of the 48 states, and down the sides of the structure are the insignia of the battalions that participated in the battle.  There is a crypt below the memorial with three altars—one each for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious services.

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There is also a spiral staircase that leads up to the top of the memorial, where visitors are allowed walk the upper perimeter of the structure and view the countryside. On a clear day, you can see miles and miles from the top of the memorial, but when we were there it was pouring rain.  The rain gave the whole landscape a gray, somber feel.  I would obviously rather have seen the memorial in better weather, but at the same time the rain felt fitting.  Peering at the hulking gray monument through the cold rain, it was easy to imagine how utterly miserable the soldiers must have been during the war, and how much they were sacrificing in their fight. It made me so sad to think about how many Americans died on that same spot we were standing, but it was nice to know that those that died at Bastogne are honored in such an appropriate way.

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View of the Belgian countryside from the top of the WWII Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne

After we spent some time at the Mardasson, we went back to the town center of Bastogne.  For a town that became so symbolic to the fight in WWII, it was much smaller than I expected.  One main thoroughfare and a few neighborhoods branching off around the center are really all that there is to Bastogne.  In many ways, the town looked like it hadn’t changed at all since the pictures I had seen of it during the war.  Take away the modern-day cars and you would be hard-pressed to find many differences.  It was clear that the entire identity of Bastogne revolves around its role in the war.  The main square, for instance, is named Place McAuliffe, after the American general that helped save the town from the Germans.

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Place McAuliffe, Bastogne

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US tank from WWII in Place McAuliffe, Bastogne

Many street names commemorate other famous American figures.  There is also a memorial to the intrepid General Patton although it sadly sits on the edge of a parking lot.  If you judged Bastogne solely by the number of American flags flying around the place, you would think the Americans were still stationed there.  To be honest, it was a little strange, walking around a place like Bastogne, so stuck in the past.  It is true that Bastogne’s economy benefits greatly from WWII tourism, but I couldn’t help wondering what this town would look like if it hadn’t been so affected by the war.

For lunch we stuffed ourselves with huge baguette sandwiches at a French cafe right next to an American tank that was taken out by a German artillery shell during the Battle of the Bulge. The cafe seemed to operate on “French time” (i.e. the service took FOREVER), but the food was good and we weren’t in any particular hurry to end our trip.  Unfortunately, when we finally did get on the highway back to the Netherlands, we managed to choose the one road in the entire country with a traffic jam. Just our luck.  Our three hour drive turned into five hours, but we made it home with no other problems.  All in all, it was a perfect first road trip together.  I checked another country off my list, and we got to get outside of the city for a few days.  I’m already counting down the days to the next one!

This was Part 3 of our weekend road trip through Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium.  If you missed Part 1 and/or Part 2, you can read those posts here and here.

Road Trip Part 2: Grand Dukes and Green Valleys in Luxembourg

The following is Part 2 of a three part series detailing my road trip to Luxembourg via Germany and Belgium.  You can read Part 1  and Part 3 here.

We arrived in Vianden, which was to be our base in Luxembourg, in the evening.  The countryside on the drive from Germany into Luxembourg was breathtaking.  In some ways it reminded me of Ireland.  The infinite variety of greens that covered the mountains contrasted so sharply with the grays of winter in the Netherlands. I could only gape at the vistas stretching off into the distance from the winding mountain roads on the way to our destination.

Vianden itself is known as one of the prettiest towns in Luxembourg.  The city is situated in a beautiful valley and is dominated by its castle, which sits high above the town proper.  There is a chair lift that runs up the mountainside to a viewpoint over the castle.

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Unlike the castle in Kastellaun, Castle Vianden has been fully restored and is open to visitors.  Strangely enough, Victor Hugo lived in the castle for a few months in 1871. I never found out why he ended up in Vianden exactly, but Vianden takes great pride in this bit of historical claim-to-fame; there is even a statue of Hugo down on the main bridge crossing the Our River in the town center.  I also learned that I wasn’t the only American to ever set foot in Vianden (though it felt very far from the typical stops of an American in Europe!)  Vianden was the last place in Luxembourg to be liberated from the Germans in World War II.  And it was American troops that were ultimately successful in doing so.

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To be honest, there is not much to do in Vianden aside from visiting the castle and wandering the sleepy town (which is so small it takes less than half an hour). We had intended to do some serious hiking in the nearby “Little Switzerland” region of Luxembourg, but when we woke up on Saturday morning and saw pouring rain howling outside our window, we decided to go for Plan B.  It was only an hour’s drive to Luxembourg City, so we hopped in the car and went to see what the capital city of Luxembourg had to offer.

Despite its small size, Luxembourg City is a relatively important place.  Historically, the city was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the North” because it was so heavily fortified during previous centuries, and it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list for the same reason.   The city is currently home to numerous European institutions including the European Court of Justice, the European Investment Bank, the secretariat of the European Parliament, as well as various offices of the European Commission.

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Driving into Luxembourg City, grand buildings surrounded us on all sides.  It was pretty clear that the city was a historical seat of wealth and importance.  However, I was somewhat surprised by the different impression I received while walking through the city on foot.  I had heard that Luxembourg enjoyed one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world (more than $80,000 US Dollars in 2011), but you wouldn’t know it by the people in the city.  At almost every street corner there were beggars and homeless people, and we saw dozens more disheveled people walking around with alcoholic beverages at around 11am.  There was trash on the streets, and many of the “grand” houses that we had passed in the car turned out to be rundown and poorly taken care-of upon closer inspection.  Not the image I had expected from such a rich, European welfare state.

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In a way it was quite sad, because the city’s ornate buildings and stunning setting suggested a past wealth that today is merely a façade. I am by no means an expert in the history/culture/economic situation of Luxembourg, but my guess is that the GDP per capita figure in Luxembourg hides a very unequal society, with many more problems than the country would like to admit.

We spent a few hours walking around the city, taking in sights like the Grand Ducal Palace (the official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg), but neither Willem nor I really enjoyed the city.

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I am sure part of this has to do with the fact that it was raining hard for a good portion of our time there, making us more worried about finding shelter from the rain than seeing the sights.  In general though, it just wasn’t that impressive.  Instead of wasting our time in a place we weren’t having fun, we thought, “why not just find a new place to go?” After all, we had a car and no schedule…we could go anywhere.  We ducked into the nearest bookstore and found a travel guide for Luxembourg. A town called Echternach, in the Müllerthal region of Luxembourg, looked interesting.  And so we went.  Being spontaneous is fun!

Echternach is the oldest town in Luxembourg (we sure did end up seeing a lot of old towns on this road trip, didn’t we?) and is surrounded by completely restored medieval walls and towers.

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In the town square, we stumbled upon a music performance in mid-swing.  We also almost ran right into someone’s filming of a Harlem Shake video. I thought that fad had died out, but it seems Echternach is a little behind on the pop culture scene.  The highlight of our limited time in Echternach was finding a local bar that was showing the final moments of the last Bundesliga matches of the season.  We got to watch the moment when Bayern Munich clinched the league title in a perfect little pub full of Germans and Luxembourgers.  There is nothing like watching a little football to make my day!

Image from espnfc.com

We had dinner in Echternach and then began to drive back in the direction of our hotel base in Vianden.  One of the nicer things about living in this part of the world is that the summer daylight hours are very long.  So even though we had already had dinner and were on our way in the general direction of Vianden, we knew that we had many more hours of daylight and thus were not quite ready to turn in for the night.  Instead we decided to take a few random turns and see where it would take us.  We had no maps or destination in mind; we had the GPS if we got lost and needed to get back to a main road.  Every time we got to a signpost or a turn, we picked whichever way looked the most interesting.

Pretty soon we started climbing.  Some of the hairpin turns were so sharp and steep I had to stomp on the accelerator just to make it up the hill.  (Note to self: Maybe rent a more powerful car before trying out a road trip in the Alps. I don’t think our dear little Honda would make it).  We eventually found ourselves at the very top of a large hill/tiny mountain on the outskirts of a town called Beaufort.  We didn’t know it at the time, but this town is actually quite a popular little village in Luxembourg.  You wouldn’t know it from the time we spent there, though. The place was deserted.  We didn’t mind. The scenery was incredible. There were views in every direction. I almost wished I wasn’t driving so that I could take it all in without worrying about staying on the narrow roads.  We saw a sign that directed cars to a “chateau”, so we followed it.  After a few minutes of driving through some very think and creepy dark forest cover, we emerged into a little green valley.  And there it was.  A true castle, sitting there in the shadows.

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We were the only people there. We parked the car and wandered over to the hulking blue-gray mass of stone.  According to a sign that was posted at the entrance to the castle, tours are available of the place during the day, but we were too late to go inside for the day.  This did not diminish our visit, however.  It was truly amazing to watch the castle in the fading light of the day.  Even though it is clearly not an “undiscovered treasure”, it felt like that to us.  The only thing we could hear were the sounds of birds in the trees and the wind whipping through the trees.  The place seemed magical.  And when I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine how it must have been to live there at that castle back during the Middle Ages, when the entire region was covered in forest and the castle was the only sign of human habitation for miles.

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From Beaufort, we drove on to our hotel.  Funnily enough, no matter how we programmed the GPS, it kept trying to take us on routes through Germany to get back to Vianden!  Who would’ve guessed that the most efficient way to get from one city to another city in the same country would be through a different country altogether? I suppose it just reinforces exactly how tiny Luxembourg is (and maybe says something about the quality of the roads in Luxembourg).  The next day was Sunday, and the last day of our trip, but we still weren’t finished with our mini-road trip.  Instead of taking the same route back to the Netherlands through Germany, we chose to take a roundabout path through Belgium.  On the way, we visited Bastogne, the site of the famous World War II battle that inspired Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers.

Read about the last leg of my trip in Part 3! If you didn’t catch the first part of my road trip, you can read it here.

Road Trip Part 1: Fast Cars, Medieval Castles, and Big Hills in Germany

The following is Part 1 of a three part series detailing my road trip to Luxembourg via Germany and Belgium. You can read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

This past weekend was a holiday weekend in the Netherlands (Hemelvaartsdag, celebrating the Ascension of Jesus on the 40th day of Easter).   Willem and I decided to use the extra day off as an excuse to get out of the city.  Road trip time!

The Toilet Seat Art Museum

I grew up taking family road trips, and while I absolutely love flying, I still believe there is no better way to see a place than to take a road trip.  On a road trip, no one will stop you if you realize you just can’t miss the Toilet Seat Art Museum in Texas.  And when you decide your life won’t be complete without witnessing the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Missouri (surprisingly enough, there are multiple contenders for this tackiest of all tacky titles), you can fulfill your dreams without difficulty. They’re right off Exit 14 on highway 66 (not really).  Sometimes it is just nice not to be at the whim of public transport schedules.  It is difficult to really get “off the beaten path” when you have to limit your travels to places you can get by train, bus, or foot power.

Suffice to say we were excited to go on our first road trip together, and with our very own car! This would be the first real test of our little hybrid Honda Civic. And thanks to Willem’s job at Deloitte, the car is free for us to use as much as we want, with all gas paid for within Europe.  We deliberately did not make many plans aside from booking our hotels, so that our trip could be as relaxed and stress-free as possible.  I had never been to Luxembourg, so we ultimately chose to use Luxembourg as a rough destination, driving there via Germany on the way there and via Belgium on the return trip.

Even the German police have fast cars

I drove the first leg of the trip, which was nice because I haven’t driven since the last time I visited the U.S. last year. I had forgotten how nice it is to just turn on the radio and drive on a highway, the wind in my hair and on my way to an exciting unknown place!  Willem was a little jealous that I got to drive this leg, because we went through some of the fabled sections of Germany with no speed limit.  It was slightly nerve-wracking at first, having all those Germans in their BMWs and Mercedes zooming past at 180km/hr or faster.  *Don’t worry mom and dad, I didn’t drive that fast—just fast enough to keep up with traffic in the slow lane*  Even if I wanted to drive fast, our poor little car was already protesting mightily at anything above 130km/hr, which was the “recommended” speed for the autobahn.  A hybrid Honda cannot exactly compete with a Mercedes in that arena.  So after a few seconds of speed just to say I did, I slowed back down to a leisurely 125 and drove in the slow lane with all the other cars with Dutch and Belgian license plates.  A need for speed must be a German thing.

After about 4 hours of driving, we reached our stopover destination for the night: a little town called Kastellaun, in the  Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany.  Willem and I have a mutual friend from LSE that comes from a very small village in Germany,  and when we asked him if he knew anything about Kastellaun he replied, “How did you two find Kastellaun? If there is any place in Germany smaller than my town, it is Kastellaun!”

It was perfect:

A medieval drawing of Kastellaun, Germany

Despite being officially labeled as a town in the middle of nowhere by our German friend, Kastellaun was a wonderful place for a stop-over on our road trip.  We stayed in a small B&B/hotel called the Altes Stadtor.  The name literally means “Old Town Gate”, so named because the structure is literally built into the medieval town gate and walls.  The owners did an amazing restoration of the building. They left many of the old stone walls exposed within the structure, and furnished it with antiques.  The whole place had a very gemütlichkeit feeling to it.  If I owned a hotel, I would want it to look exactly like this place did.

We also had our best meal of the trip at the cozy restaurant attached to the hotel, where one of the hotel owners cooks all of the meals.  The place only had ten tables, and it was clearly popular with the locals.  We arrived at the hotel too late to do any exploring of the town, so we put that off until the next day and just enjoyed some relaxed drinks after dinner at the hotel (and did I mention how CHEAP food and drinks are in this part of Germany compared to the Netherlands? It was amazing), with Willem practicing his German while we chatted to the wait staff.

The cozy restaurant at the Altes Stadtor in Kastellaun, Germany

The cozy restaurant at the Altes Stadtor in Kastellaun, Germany

The next morning, Willem got up extra early to go running, since he is (supposed to be) training for a half-marathon in Brussels that is coming up in a few weeks.  The sight of him returning to the hotel for breakfast was hilarious.  Something he never considered was how easy running on the flat Dutch landscape is compared to running up the inclines of the German countryside.  He came in the room, breathing hard, and just managed to gasp “HILLS!” before collapsing on the bed.  I’m sure it did nothing for his ego to have me practically rolling on the floor laughing at him (I should be nicer to Willem; he is, in fact, a very good runner, and in much better shape than I make him sound!).

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At the ruins of Castle Kastellaun

After breakfast we explored the town a little bit before moving on to our next off-the-beaten-path village destination.  The castle in Kastellaun is actually quite beautiful. It was built in the 13th century on the hill above the town (one of the same hills that got the better of Willem earlier that morning), but was occupied during the Thirty Years’ War and then later destroyed by French troops in 1689 during the War of Palatinate Succession.  Most of the castle is in ruins now, but it still maintains a dominant position overlooking the town.  The nicest thing about the castle is that the ruins are free and open to wander around.  None of those silly barriers (like the one that prevents you from getting within 100meters of Stonehenge in England) stand in your way from exploring as you please.  There was barely anyone nearby, so it felt like we had the whole ruins to ourselves. From the top of the castle keep is a beautiful, expansive view of the German countryside.

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The beautiful German countryside

We had lunch in Herrstein, a village about an hour south of Kastellaun that was recommended to us by our new friends, the owners of the Altes Stadtor.  Herrstein is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany.  We ate outside in the sun at a beautiful German café tucked away off a path in the village center.  I am pretty decent at reading menus in German or Dutch, but this menu had so many local word variants even Willem had to ask what some items were. Every dish included some form of wurst, potato, or sauerkraut, and there were no fruits or vegetables in sight.  It was exactly what I imagine to be perfect old-fashioned country food—hearty and filling.  Willem went for the full German meal, meaning a massive plate of sauerkraut and leverkloße—some sort of liver sausage. I wasn’t quite so adventurous.

Our final stop of the day before reaching Luxembourg was Trier, Germany.  Trier holds the distinction of being the oldest city in Germany. It was founded as early as 16 B.C. and was an important Roman city. Many of the famous sights in Trier date from Roman times, the most obvious of which is the Porta Nigra (Latin for “Black Gate”).

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The Porta Nigra

The Porta, which looms over the entrance to the Old Town, is a designated World Heritage Site and the largest existing Roman gate north of the Alps. Other famous sites we saw in Trier include the Constantine Basilica and the Trier Cathedral.  The cathedral in particular was fascinating because it holds the Holy Tunic, a relic that is said to be the robe Jesus wore when he died.  We could only see the secure chest where the garment is held, and not the robe itself, because the relic is only exhibited to the public every few decades.

To read about the rest of our road trip through Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium, read Part 2 here…and Part 3 here!

Lang Leve de Koning! Queen Beatrix’s Abdication and Queen’s Day 2013

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King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima pose with their daughters on the balcony of the royal palace in Amsterdam

Queen’s Day 2013 is over, and what a day it was! As you may know from my last post on the tradition of Queen’s Day, I was worried about the weather.  Well, the day couldn’t have been better! The weather cooperated, the people were orange, and we now officially have a king in the Netherlands for the first time in over 120 years.

Leading up to the event, we had been DSCN7130hearing all week about how crowded it was expected to be in Amsterdam. Some of Willem’s work colleagues were even planning to go away from the city for the day in order to avoid the crowds.  But I was determined to go all out for this Queen’s Day–right in the middle of all the action.  Who knows how many chances I will get to see something like this?  I was lucky enough to see the Queen of England in person last year as she floated down the Thames during her grand Jubilee celebrations, and so the “cultural anthropologist” side of me was also curious to see how the Dutch celebrate their own monarchy compared to the British.

On the morning of the big day, we woke up by 6:30am (I dragged poor Willem out of bed at the crack of dawn on the one day he has off from work) so we could catch a train to Amsterdam before the crowds got too terrible, and so we could be in the Jordaan in time to find some treasures from the vrijmarkt.  It was rough getting up that early, but at least now the days have lengthened enough that it was daylight outside.  On the way to the train station in Haarlem we saw the first people setting up their stalls for the vrijmarkt, but we didn’t stop. We were on a mission to Amsterdam!

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Marking their territory for the Queen’s Day vrijmarkt

The trains were running smoothly, and we made it to Amsterdam Centraal with no problems before 8am.  There was no public transport, so we walked to the Jordaan with coins burning holes in our pockets, ready for some haggling at the vrijmarkt.  It was fascinating to see how the whole business worked.  Enterprising Dutch citizens had marked their “spots” on the pavement outside their houses and shops with tape or signs in the days prior to Queen’s Day. There is a kind of unspoken honor code that you respect the tape marked out on the street and do not steal someone’s spot.  Willem said he had read stories in the Dutch news about people fighting over the best locations on the bridges, but everything we saw was perfectly civilized.

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Willem checking out some vrijmarkt wares

We spent the next few hours meandering along the streets of the Jordaan and along the canals, looking through the goods.  Our biggest problem was that Willem and I are both obsessed with books, but we quickly agreed that we would have a miserable day if we actually bought all of them and were forced to carry our body weight in paper for the rest of the day.  Willem couldn’t resist though when he found an amazing, complete set of Russian literature–all for only 5 euros! My reaction was something along the lines of, “Good luck carrying those all day, buddy”.  We later bought a backpack from a girl for 3 euros, so the load turned out to be manageable.

Around 10am we started getting hungry and began looking for a place to sit down and have a snack.  We realized we were quite close to Dam Square, where Queen Beatrix was supposed to officially abdicate at that exact time.  So we decided to walk in that direction and see how close we could get.  We arrived just in time!  We ended up right next to the Royal Palace, but we were around the side of the building slightly and thus could not see the balcony where the royal family was expected to appear.  We could see a giant screen though, so we got to witness Queen Beatrix signing the abdication papers!  And we were there in crowd when the royal family walked out onto the balcony.

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The crowd in Dam Square

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On the big screen in Dam Square: Queen Beatrix, (now) King Willem-Alexander, and (now) Queen Maxima sit down to sign the papers

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Trying to get the best view

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The media flocks to the best location for the perfect shot of the royal family

I did find the adoration slightly odd, in a way that I can’t really put into words.  For me, it was an electric atmosphere just being in a crowd that was witnessing history (likely the only time this event will happen in a generation), but I confess that I really don’t understand the Hollywood-style celebrity worship of the royal family.  It was strange to see them in person, because it is easy to forget that these people are real when the only time they are seen is generally on TV or from a distance.

We decided not to wait in the Dam Square for the investiture of Willem-Alexander, which would be happening in a few hours at the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church).  Instead, we made our way south to the Vondelpark.  The neighborhood directly surrounding the park is gorgeous, with massive (we’re talking many millions of euros) houses.  We wandered around the vrijmarkt in that neighborhood before entering the park.  It is interesting how universally little the amounts of STUFF everyone was selling.  Even the people selling their wares out of these huge Amsterdam McMansions only had a blanket or two laid out with things to sell.  Either these people own nothing, or they are very stingy with their yard sales!  If yard sales in the U.S. were limited to a few blankets laid out on the sidewalk, the blankets would have piles six feet high!

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The beautiful Vondelpark

The Vondelpark, it turned out, was where everyone brings their children for family-friendly Queen’s Day activities away from the drunken hordes on the canals.  It was a nice atmosphere, with children getting in on the vrijmarkt action, selling everything from their homemade lemonade to Legos and Barbies.  If the Vondelpark is anything to go by, the Dutch are bringing their children up to be quite the savvy entrepreneurs! Another plus to the Vondelpark was that it had some of the only accessible free toilets in the city.  In most places, restaurants and other portable toilet areas were charging 1 EURO to use the bathroom.  It was pure gouging, and ruined a little bit of the experience to know that the shop owners were using the lack of public toilets on such a crowded day to their advantage. I can see why they did it, but it is bad enough having to pay .30 or .50 cents to use public toilets on a normal day.  Paying a euro to use a disgusting port-a-potty or shop bathroom with no toilet paper? No thanks. I’d rather pee in the canal.  It’s no wonder Amsterdam has such a problem with public urination.

We rested in the park for a while, enjoying the green grass and blooming tulips before we headed back towards the city center. I’m pretty sure we walked at least 10km back and forth across Amsterdam over the course of the day. The entire city was festive, which lent the day a really amazing atmosphere (as long as you weren’t desperately looking for a bathroom that didn’t cost more than the drink you were holding).  There were smiles and dancing on every street corner, and the sunshine certainly didn’t hurt the mood.  I only wish we had had a boat to cruise the canals! Below are a few of my favorite pictures from the day. I wonder what this country will do next year to top this for the first King’s Day (Koningsdag) in history!