They say that there are five commodities for which the Netherlands is famous: windmills, wooden shoes, tulips, Delft porcelain and Gouda Cheese. I experienced all of these during my recent barge trip on the canals of Holland. Two historical aspects of the Netherlands with which I was also impressed were the country's importance as a refuge for the Protestants when they escaped from England in the late 1600s and the unforgettable Dutch resistance experiences during the German occupation in World War II. Perhaps the most beautiful and relaxing part of the experience, however, was cruising the canals with the beautiful villages and pastoral scenery on either side of our slowly moving ship.

We boarded our barge, The Anna Cornelia, jet-lagged and weary at her dock in Amsterdam. She was low slung and not in any way elegant with a Captain who lived on her and a crew of two gals who did all the cleaning, cooking and manual labor for our group of seventeen. Warning - if you sign up for a barge trip be sure to bring a shower cap and a wash cloth. Despite the no frills there was a comfortable lounge with a continually perking coffee pot and a pleasant dining room below deck. The informality encourage us to get to know our small group of retired teachers, well travelled professionals and even two young cousins accompanying their 88-year-old grandmother. The girls were very kind and energizing for us older folk.

While we spent time learning about the five commodities and highlights of Dutch history, the trip was entitled "Old Masters: Art and Treasures of Holland" and we had lectures on the artists and visited the museums where the works of the Dutch Masters of the 17th and 18th centuries were displayed. I am not an art historian so I learned a lot about Franz Hals at the Franz Hals Museum in Haarlem, Vermeer, Rubens and Steen in den Haag at the Mauritzhaus Museum and Rembrandt, Bruegel, Bosch and others at the Museum Baymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam. During the evenings In the comfort of our lounge we supplemented the lectures and museum visits with two good movies, one about Rembrandt and the other "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" an imaginative film about Vermeer and his relationship with the girl in his famous painting.

Our trip was well planned with its interspersion of the historical and commercial Holland with the studying of the great Dutch Masters so one didn't feel overloaded with one aspect of the country. I and my Road Scholar (aka as Elderhostel) group encountered the first two commodities - windmills and wooden shoes - before we even embarked on our barge. Upon our arrival in Amsterdam a bus took us, exhausted but game, directly from the airport to the nearby town of Zaanse Schaans. It was a charming village with windmills of all different sizes and designs and crossed by many small canals. We immediately knew that we were in Holland. To further emphasize this we visited a wooden shoe shop where we watched the owner cut, shape and design the traditional, and sometimes very decorative Dutch wear.

Early in the trip we visited the Flora-Holland Flower Auction in Alsmeer (between Haarlem and Leiden.) If you are allergic to pollen don't risk it but otherwise it is an experience in a huge world enterprise run with seemingly great efficiency. Unbelievable amounts of colorful flowers, including tulips but a great many other varieties, were inspected, auctioned off - we watched this in action - and shipped out all in a 24 hour period. After we reached Leiden we explored the place where the pilgrims stayed for several years before boarding the Mayflower in 1620. Their leader, William Robinson was buried in St. Peter's Kirche near where they lived.

In Delft we saw the Church where Vermeer was baptized and explored the town where he spent his life. He owned a painters gallery and became Chairman of the Painter's Guild. Then we visited the famous Delft Porcelain Factory where we learned how the pieces were created from the molding and baking to imprinting the design and painting, glazing, and baking again to complete a beautiful vase or plate. Of course we had to visit their shop and couldn't resist buying some mementos.

More Information

Fact box

In Rotterdam we learned more of the Pilgrims' experience when we visited the Church where Miles Standish, William Bradford and others had their final service before embarking on their journey to the New World. We reflected on this important event in history while sitting in the simple but beautiful Church listening to an organ concert of music by Handel.

Back to the commercial Netherlands when we docked in Gouda and after visiting Saint Jansskerk with its magnificent stained glass windows, we went to Market Square and the Gouda Cheese store to taste and buy. I served some of its delicious product to at Thanksgiving.

On our final day in Amsterdam we explored on our own and visited two impressive museums which broadened our knowledge of the impact this small European country has had on the world. One was the Maritime Museum which had ships decorations, bowsprits, globes, instruments and models of sailing ships from the 18th Century when the Dutch East India Company flourished and established colonies throughout the world. It was a high point of the Dutch nation as well as its art.

At the Dutch Resistance Museum we saw an interactive exhibit with notes and photos of resistance heroes and what they went through World War II. One photo of a Dutch woman carrying messages by bicycle to resistance leaders reminded me of a dear friend, Cora Hannah, who had actually done that in the Netherlands at the age of sixteen. There were tools of spy craft. Press a button to get sound effects and you could really feel the excitement when Holland was liberated.

Cruising slowly through the beautiful canals by their charming villages with carefully constructed dikes to keep out the ever threatening water and learning about the art, history and industries left me wishing for more time to spend in the Netherlands. I would have loved to get to know these sturdy people better, although I don't think I would have been comfortable in their decorative wooden shoes.