The last part of my trip was very special. I’m visiting Lisa, a transplanted friend who lives in the southern part of the Netherlands. She and her friend, Vic picked me up in Maastricht, Netherlands, the nearest airport to her home in Colmont, and she offered to show me the town while we were here.
We started with lunch and window shopping along the main pedestrian street. I’ve seen these everywhere in Europe. We have them too – they’re called malls, but it’s just not the same as these outdoor social spaces. Here the restaurants spill into the street with tables under umbrellas, and people enjoy the weather, their friends, and a beer or coffee.
She took me to see the St. Servatius Bridge that the Americans crossed as they marched into the Netherlands to liberate it from the Germans in 1944. There are lots of WWII reminders here, including an American Cemetery in Margraten nearly as large as the one in Normandy.
We walked to a church that Lisa wanted to explore along a shady square full of tables. Vic waited outside. When we returned, we found him sitting with complete strangers who had noticed him standing alone and had invited him to have a beer. Being a people person, he joined them. So we sat too, a chance to talk with some locals. I’d guess the couple was in their 40’s, a generation younger than me.
We talked about a wide range of topics including the generous amount of vacation time (4 – 5 weeks) that Europeans typically get. We were surprised to learn that many self-employed people, like the woman, are lucky to get a week off now and then. She can’t afford to be gone from her shop for too many days. Luckily, she still does get the public holidays. The Netherlands is a Catholic country, so of the nine public holidays, seven of them are Catholic celebrations.
On the way back to the car, Lisa picked up cod for the next night’s supper at the outdoor market. Such a cool place to shop: take it home or eat it there. Here I learned that the Dutch like to eat their herring raw. Um, maybe I’ll try that next time.
The next day we drove less than two hours to Antwerp, Belgium, diamond capital of the world. We started our walking tour at the train station – a gorgeous building from the turn of the 20th century. The marble, the windows, the detailed craftsmanship was magnificent. But we really wanted to see the detail near the roof, so we hopped on the Ferris wheel right outside the train station and got level with the top.
I also highly recommend seeing the Antwerp zoo building, right next to the train station: old world colored tiling, gold leaf, and exotic statues including a turbaned young man on a camel, only begin to describe it.
Then we visited the Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest Gothic building in the Dutch-speaking world, and home to four Rubens paintings. So many opportunities in Europe!
On the way home, we stopped at a grocery store for a huge package of mussels to make with the cod we bought yesterday. It was only €4! Food is inexpensive in the Netherlands.
On the third day, a weather front was moving in so we started with the outdoor things we wanted to see first. Near Vaals, we drove up the tallest mountain in the Netherlands (actually a hill; much of the Netherlands is claimed from the sea and is actually below sea level). Vaalserberg has a tower overlooking three countries: Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. As it turned out, we explored pieces of all of those countries over the five days I was there. If I’d had just a few more days, I could have added France which is also close to Lisa’s home.
By afternoon, it was raining lightly, and we drove to Valkenburg, Netherlands for lunch. It’s a walled city with 14th century castle ruins at the top. We wandered into a Saturday market where we bought mustard from a Belgian couple who made it. We ate a late lunch and from our outdoor perch, we watched a bridal shower party at the restaurant across the street. The bridesmaids wore gold sashes and the bride wore a funny hat and a lei. A bachelor party happened along and the groom (not her groom) offered the bride a drink from the whiskey keg that he was carrying. They toasted each other with much laughing and the groom’s party walked on. It’s such a delight to see how other cultures celebrate these special moments.
Sunday morning dawned with full-on rain, so we drove to Aachen Germany to the thermal spa, Carolus Thermen. There are spas all over Europe offering therapeutic hot mineral waters. Dutch doctors prescribe the waters for patients and they not only take time from work to go, but their insurance pays for it.
The mineral waters went throughout the facility. There were so many different ways to enjoy it: a big pool inside, two pools outside with massaging waterfalls, jets coming out from the sides, and a portion of the cycle that whirled the whole pool in a circle. The water was so fast that everyone was caught up in the current and laughing with delight; it was bit like body bumper cars. There was also a cold pool (62 F), a hot pool (100 F), two large Jacuzzi-like tubs, and a steam room. Everyone seemed to have the same idea of enjoying the waters on a rainy day, so it was packed. We saw every body type; no one seemed to be hung-up about their shape the way people can be at an American beach or pool. Even the largest of German men were wearing tiny speedos.
This attitude continued on the upstairs level with multiple saunas and three additional pools, and where nude participation was required. I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to nude public bathing in my blog, but my tag line is “inspiring others to live full out,” and I can’t inspire you if I don’t live full out myself.
I was naked and afraid at first, wanting to strategically place my towel. But everyone was so nonchalant, that I dropped it. My daughters asked how it was. I told them that when you’ve been without a man as long as I have, the first one was pretty interesting. Well, maybe the first four or five. But after a while, it’s like “Meh.” I did notice that couples tended to look at each other and everyone else looked you in the eye, to show that they weren’t “peeking.” I would definitely do it again.
So what’s the thread that ties all of these days together? I was amazed as how easy it was to experience multiple cultures, even on the same day. There were no border stops, no need to get passports out, no need for multiple currencies. The EU works. The next time I plan a European trip, I’ll look for more places close to borders so I can mix it up; oh, and with thermal spas.
All photos of Carolus Therman spa were taken from the internet. For other essays about my summer 2019 Europe trip see:
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