Friday, 9 January 2009

Netherlands River Cruise

We took a river cruise last spring on the Viking Europe from Amsterdam to Volendam. Small river cruise ships allow you the opportunity to see much of the countryside along the canals and rivers, and they can also dock in small villages, enabling you to visit places that are not accessible with larger ships. Our Dutch Journey cruise on the Viking Europe river cruise ship spent the first day and a half in Amsterdam and then sailed northward to Noord Holland late one afternoon, just in time to have a dinner cruise on the way to Volendam, which is about 20 kilometers north of Amsterdam. Although I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Amsterdam on previous vacations, none of those trips gave me time to venture out into the Netherlands countryside.

Soon after leaving Amsterdam on the Viking Europe, we came to our first lock of the cruise. The Netherlands is covered with many rivers and canals. The locks were built to help with flood control, and ships must plan their time in the locks in advance since they can only be opened during certain stages of the tide. Ships can only use the locks when the tides are almost at a standstill. This means the locks are available only four times a day for just a few hours on either side of high and low tide.

After leaving the lock, we entered Gouwzee Bay, which is part of the Ijsselmeer (Ijssel Lake). While enjoying our dinner, we watched the other ships on the lake and small cottages scattered on the many islands in the Ijsselmeer. The Netherlands is a very flat country, and it's easy to see why flooding is such a concern. We also got a close-up look at the new 'Dolly Parton' bridge. We had driven past the bridge earlier on our way to the Floriade but we hadn't seen it up close. Its two large spans make it seem aptly named.

We reached the village of Volendam after dark. I had heard both positive and negative things about Volendam. Some friends had raved about how charming and quaint Volendam was, while others had complained that it was simply a tourist trap. Since it is close to Amsterdam it makes it an easy day trip for throngs of tourists, and its numerous sailboats and rows of wooden houses make Volendam very picturesque. Volendam was once a busy fishing port, but when the enclosure dike was completed in 1932, the subsequent change of the Zuiderzee (South Sea) from salt water to the freshwater Ijsselmeer ruined the fishing.

Early the following morning, I went outside and was amazed to see how charming the city was. Volendam was very beautiful in the early dawn. Sailboats were rocking peacefully in the water, and the sun was trying to peek through the morning clouds. It was a terrific way to start the day! We left Volendam early that morning by bus to visit Hoorn and Edam before meeting the ship again in Enkhuizen. As we walked through Volendam to meet the bus, I noticed that most of the quaint buildings were souvenir shops. Maybe there was something to the "tourist trap" label after all! I'm glad that we left Volendam early, and my memory of it will always be as it looked in the early morning: peaceful, calm, and nearly deserted.

During our first night at sea on the Viking Europe, we saw demonstrations of several Dutch folklore dances by a dance troop in traditional Dutch costume. If you're looking for glitzy Las Vegas-type entertainment on a cruise, then a small ship river cruise is NOT for you. Our river cruise ship featured local talent such as these dancers and the ship's crew.

The small dance troop were all seniors, but they had a lot of energy. You could tell that were proud of their heritage and loved the traditional dances. The women each wore 4 petticoats under their dresses, and the men were wearing heavy woolen jackets and pants, along with knitted socks. I'm sure they were sweltering hot after all of that dancing. The women wore traditional lace caps that were held in place with silver pins. Where were the cute little Dutch girl pointed caps that we always associate with Holland? We thoroughly enjoyed learning about the dances and hearing about the history of the costumes. One of the gentlemen asked me to dance, and we did the "famous" skating dance. I didn't embarrass myself, but don't think I am ready to change careers!

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