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Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Mysterious Mansion

Taken in 1971
When Kees and I got engaged, over 40 years ago, we spent a few days in South Limburg, our favorite part of The Netherlands. One day we were hiking along a narrow path lined with brambles. 
Through the greenery we spotted a huge, very unique house. 
We peeked through the blackberries and saw a red tile roof over a wide veranda with many arched openings. On the veranda, in wooden reclining chairs, were men reading. 



Later we learned that this house was called Emmaus and that it belonged to the Catholic church, specifically to the cloister of Wittem. The priests came here for a day off, to rest, to read and the contemplate. One of the priests, an Italian architect, had designed the building. And many priests worked on the construction in the early 1900’s. The building really only consisted of one large room surrounded by an enormous wrap-around porch and a second story that was open on all sides serving as another porch. 

Over the years, we often came back to this exact spot and we never failed to take a peek at “our” ghost house as we called it. It seemed bleak and deserted for many years and we often dreamed about what it might have been like if we had not emigrated to Canada and what if we had bought it and renovated it and ran a B & B here….? 


During our previous visit to the area, perhaps a year ago, we noticed there was construction going on. The house was being renovated! 

This time around, I googled for the house name: ‘Emmaus’ and discovered that the building was now privately owned, renovated and used as a small, exclusive meeting place for business leaders. I contacted the manager to see if, by chance, there was a restaurant so that we could finally see this building inside. There wasn’t. 
However, because she liked the idea that we had been drooling through the hedges for so many years, she kindly invited us for coffee. And that is why, after more than 40 years, we got to see the house that has become so special to us. It is gorgeously renovated to modern day standards but preserving the old features: a grey stone floor, the arched windows, the enormous wrap-around porches. The old wall paintings that once flanked the altar are preserved under a thin layer of new walls. The ceilings are still towering and candles everywhere present a still serene feel to the house. It was so nice to be able to walk around without feeling like a spy! And we still wonder what might have happened to us and to that old house that we fell in love with so many years ago…. 

'Hold fast to dreams,
    for if dreams die,
         Life is a broken-winged bird
                 That cannot fly.'   - Langston Hughes 

Emmaus
The house as it is now.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

In Flanders' Fields




Southern Limburg, the most southern tip of the most southern province of The Netherlands, is legally Dutch. But it’s landscape and atmosphere are more Belgium, with a hint of French and a dollop of German mixed in. It’s my favorite part of the country. 

The architecture is typical: white stucco houses with dark wooden beams showing on the inside and out, usually with window boxes with cascading red geraniums under each window. The land here is not flat but very hilly. Gorgeous rolling hills of pastures with cows, interspersed with forests and tiny villages. Each village has a medieval look: narrow crooked streets lined with houses that lean in a tight circle around a pointy church. Sometimes the streets are so narrow that I was sure we were driving on a bicycle path but it always really was the street - just wide enough for the horse and wagon that used to come around the bend not long ago. 

We found a lovely little house to rent - a small brick building with a kitchen, tiny living room with fireplace and a small bed- and bathroom. Perfect for a week of hiking and writing.
I had wifi and a kitchen table so I happily worked away on overdue manuscripts and tedious editing. In the mornings I dropped Kees off at the spot of his choice from where he would hike that day. He savored these hilly hikes through foggy farm land and picturesque forests. 

We’ve been so lucky: in nearly 3 months we had 3 days of rain.
We spent one lovely sunny Sunday hiking for the local ladies’ choir. They had organized a fundraiser walk. We enjoyed seeing many other hikers trudging among the cow patties. 


One morning I noticed I was driving right by the American Military Cemetery of Margraten so we paid a visit. The rows and rows of white crossed under bright red and yellow fall colors, were touching. To read the names of thousands of young American boys, who came from so far to help liberate a country they didn’t know…. It is a humbling and touching experience. Especially now that thousands of refugees are arriving in the country, many of them escaping war. When will we ever learn?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Castles and the real Spa

One thing I love about traveling on our own, without having everything planned ahead of time, is the discoveries we make along the way.
But heading south into Belgium and towards Luxembourg we realized it was better to have a reservation, and thus a destination, rather than simply hoping to find a hotel or B & B by passing one along the road. That way we made too many stops where everything was full, and finally had to settle for a more expensive hotel room than we had planned. 
Even though it is October and not so busy with tourists anymore, many villages seem to have festivals and celebrations, especially on weekends. 
Chateau Harzé

So I searched online (actually I mostly use orbitz.com to make bookings) and discovered a gorgeous looking castle in a tiny village in the area we wanted to visit in the Ardennes. The castle looked like a fancy hotel on the website but the cost was half of what we would have expected. It fitted our budget so I booked a room.
When we arrived, we were most impressed with the huge, gray stone castle, complete with turrets and surrounded by a wall with a gate. I had expected snooty waiters and a regular hotel lobby. Instead, there was a small reception desk with a very friendly gentleman. Our room was large with high ceilings. A kingsize bed with memory foam, a nice bathroom. We have a fridge and a coffee maker in our room - more than we had in many other hotels on this trip. And a view onto the castle garden and fountain. It is dead quiet.
Breakfast is included in the cute restaurant in what seems to be the old wine cellar. Rather than being part of a hotel chain, this castle is owned by the county.

When you sleep between the thick stone walls of this castle, you are certainly surrounded by history. The original building dates back to about 1200, with the main building as it is now arising around the 1600’s. I love the history sheet we were given in “English” - referring to a colonel who lived here in 1647 - and I quote: “Its armorial bearings were twinned with those of his wife.” I can just picture her armorial bearings…

During World War II the castle was the headquarters of the US 18th Airborne Corps during the Battle of the Bulge. A sign states that General Eisenhower was here.
We enjoyed staying here and I highly recommend Chateau Harzé if you visit this area: http://www.chateau-harze.be

From Harzé it is a 25 minutes drive, among lovely rolling hills and picturesque villages, to the city of Spa.
Spa.
The word is recognized worldwide as a synonym for health. My dictionary defines the noun ‘spa’ as ‘mineral water’ or ‘resort with water for bathing’. So, if you are this close to the REAL Spa, I decided we better visit. I also happen to love spa’s in the broadest sense. 
Spa, Belgium has apparently been known for its healing waters since Roman times. Since Medieval times its waters have been used to cure illnesses. 
In Spa, you can stay in the Radisson Hotel which has a vernicular (tram) to the resort. We, however, preferred ‘our’ castle in Harzé and drove to Spa this morning. You can buy a day pass or a 3 hour pass. We figured that 3 hours of soaking would be plenty. They have a smart system: when you pay your admission they give you a small plastic chip. It opens the turn style to go into the change rooms. It also opens a locker for your stuff, and fits into a wristband that you then wear into the pool. When you want to eat or drink something, you “charge” it to the chip in your wrist band. Once you are ready to leave, you pay the balance and ‘voila’ - the chip opens the exit for you.

The pool consists of an enormous glass dome over a huge pool of wonderful warm water. Just the perfect temperature. You can float and swim. There are edges with massaging water nozzles. There are flumes and spouts and bubble seats, even bubble beds on which you can relax. You can swim outside, through a strong jetted river. We’ve seldom been so clean. And so relaxed. 
The only problem? I’m now spoiled for life by visiting the grandest ‘spa’ of them all.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Margriet's BOOK Blog: One Year Off by David Elliot Cohen

Margriet's BOOK Blog: One Year Off by David Elliot Cohen: I don't know how this book ended up on my shelf. But, looking for a book to take along on my next trip, it seemed like a fitting titl...

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Walking down Memory Lane

Kees’ love for the outdoors might have started when he was a little boy and his parents bought a piece of land in the forest to build a cottage. He has fond memories of leaving the city every weekend, working as a family building the cottage his parents designed. Of helping at the neighboring farm and of roaming the forest playing cowboys and indians and looking for seedlings to plant around the cottage.

The cottage in the woods was a place where his family spent weekends and holidays, walking and exploring. They named it ‘Keverhut’, or ‘Beetle Cottage’. This name came about because of his father’s hobby of collecting every possible species of beetle that lived in the Netherlands. In fact, after his death, his extensive collection ended up in a museum and is still on display there today. Kees and his younger brother were paid a penny for every beetle they caught and brought home.  
"That's where we used to live!"

Today, Kees still loves roaming forests and exploring nature. He especially likes long distance hiking, and trail systems in the Netherlands are among his favorites. Recently he was googling for trails and walks in Holland when he noticed one called the ‘Keverhut walk’. Curiosity peaked, he contacted the local walking club coordinator to ask where they got the name from. This particular walk circled the exact spot of his family’s former weekend home, even though the name of the cottage had been changed by new owners 40 yeas ago. The coordinators had no idea where the name came from so Kees told them the story.

Kees with the trees he planted 60 years ago!
They were thrilled and invited us to join them on one of the ‘Keverhut' walks when we were in the Netherlands this time around. Last Saturday morning we gathered, in a sun dappled forest, with childhood friends and with members of the local walk - and running club, for the Keverhut Run / Walk. The local newspaper even ran an article about it. As we walked, we refreshed memories and marveled at the seedlings that Kees had planted some 60 years ago. They were now solid maples and birches that lined the area around the spot where his memories still roam.


Unfortunately, the original cottage the family built had burned down 2 years ago and a much larger and modern house was being constructed on the site. But the surrounding area and the trees, even though 60 years older and bigger, were still all there and still brought back many cherished memories.