Amsterdam to Brussels

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Amsterdam to Brussels

Gooiland  This is the name of the area stretching SE of Amsterdam, down to Utrecht. It is relatively high in altitude for Holland (180 feet). It was therefore settled first far back in prehistory, when the inhabitants used the higher land for protection from the waters. The sandy soil and hilly terrain indicate that glaciers first formed this region: the Gooiland was their farthest advance south.

Artists and holiday makers: The picturesque scenery of the area has attracted artists; many of them have settled in the town of Laren. Mostly, though, it's vacationers who come to the Gooiland. Wealthy businessmen from Amsterdam build vacation houses, and this is transforming the area into a posh suburb of the capital, since it's easily accessible to it by highway.

Utrecht  This city lies off the Autobahn to the E. It is the fourth largest city in Holland (pop. 300,000 including suburbs). Located smack in the middle of Holland, Utrecht forms a natural "pivot" for transportation, with highways branching out in all directions.

Origins: The name comes from the Latin Ultrajectum ad Rhenum (Crossing of the Rhine), which is what the Roman legionaries called it. After the fall of Rome, the town became a frontier of the Frankish tribes who were struggling against the more warlike Frisians to the north. It was in Utrecht that St. Willibrord established his bishopric, and from here that Christianity spread to the rest of Holland. During the Middle Ages, Utrecht became the spiritual and cultural center of the western part of the German Empire. When the Rhine River began to be used for transportation, Utrecht flourished as a commercial center as well. But in the 16th century, Utrecht was overshadowed by the counts of Holland, based in Amsterdam. During the period of Spanish rule in Holland, Utrecht became the center of resistance. The Union of Utrecht was an agreement of the Dutch to unify the Northern Provinces, which is what Holland was then called.

Utrecht today: Commercial activity continues in the city, with annual trade fairs. The University of Utrecht is a major center of learning. The Catholic Archbishop of the Netherlands is based in Utrecht, making it the center of Dutch Catholic life. Utrecht stands at the center of the Dutch canal system. When the Germans advanced on Holland in 1940, the Dutch opened up the floodgates from Utrecht, which controls the inland waterways. Tourists come to Utrecht in large numbers, largely for its historic buildings, canals, and individual character.

Gorinchem is an important market and industrial center. Because of its strategic location (on the Waal, and near the sea), it was besieged several times in the Middle Ages, and built stout walls, some of which still stand. It is situated at the meeting place of three Dutch provinces: North Brabant, Gelderland, and South Holland (it is part of the latter now).

Geertruidenberg is a town farther along the Autobahn. It's an old stronghold commanding the Maas River crossing. Peace talks took place here in 1709 between envoys of Louis XIV of France and those of the Dutch coalition resisting his moves in Holland.

Oosterhout, situated on the Wilhelmina-Kanaal, is a very ancient town mentioned as far back as 1199. It's here that the original highlands of Holland meet the new, artificial polders reclaimed from the sea. Look to your left (east), and you'll see sandy heights — the original land. Then to your right (west), you'll make out flat, green stretches — the polders.

Breda  This is one of the major cities of the North Brabant province, a province quite different from the rest of Holland. For one thing, North Brabant is Catholic, whereas the rest of Holland is mainly Protestant. The landscape is largely woods and meadows, instead of the flat polders to the north. Traditions are kept alive in North Brabant: processions of medieval guilds in colorful costumes, carnivals, archery contests. This village gaiety was captured by the painter Hieronymus Bosch and by Pieter Breughel, both of whom were from the area. Agriculture is the main activity of North Brabant: you might spot thatched-roof farmhouses, still typical today.

Breda has had a turbulent history, being passed back and forth between the Spanish and the Dutch resisters. It remained in Dutch hands for the most part, yet it suffered one famous defeat. One of the greatest paintings of the Spanish artist Velazquez, The Surrender of Breda, depicts the surrender of the city to the Spanish general Spinola in 1625. During the Napoleonic era, the city was fought over again, and in 1940 some savage fighting took place between the advancing Germans and the French. Among its industrial products today are chocolate and lemonade.

(COURIER: Use the stretch of the road between Breda and Antwerp to give your Introduction to Belgium.)

Antwerp  (Pop. 700,000) Straddles the Scheldt River, making it a natural port. (In French, it's called Anvers.) Belgium's world-renowned diamond-cutting industry is based in Antwerp, as well as major commercial and shipping activities. The city owes everything to its location on the river, which links it to the sea. It is Belgium's chief port and second largest city. Much of its medieval history was taken up with its rivalry with Bruges, another thriving port: the two vied with each other to dominate sea-borne trade in this part of Europe.

Origins: The name "Antwerp" comes from an het werp ("on the wharf"), which is exactly where the city's great fortunes were made. The city's founding goes back to the turmoil which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Missionary saints from other parts of northern Europe helped to settle the city. Commerce flowed down the River Scheldt and into Antwerp, giving it wealth and prestige. German and Italian bankers set up branches in the city. It joined the Hanseatic League, giving it access to markets all over northern Europe. Antwerp's commercial exchange became a model for the stock exchanges of Europe, including the Royal Exchange in London.

The city suffered during the period of Spanish rule, when the people resisted the Spanish Duke of Alba's attempt to impose the Inquisition. The only reason Antwerp is in Belgium today (instead of Holland) is that the army allied with Philip II of Spain managed to conquer the city, whereas the Dutch cities to the north continued to fight on.

Zenith: Prosperity returned soon after, and the 17th century brought the zenith of Antwerp's commercial and cultural development. Cathedral building, painting, and great civic monuments transformed the city into a treasury of Baroque art and architecture. Rubens' Elevation of the Cross and Deposition are preserved in the city's majestic Gothic cathedral. During Napoleon's occupation, Antwerp was used as a naval base for the French blockade of England. It fell to the Germans in both world wars, and was one of the hardest-hit victims of Hitler's V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks.

Antwerp today: It thrives again, thanks to dozens of industrial plants built by U.S. and Canadian firms. There are oil refineries and chemical works that keep the rest of Europe supplied. The city now sprawls outward in all directions: a new tunnel, named for President Kennedy, passes under the Scheldt River.

Malines, known as Mechelen in Flemish. Pop.: 70,000. Malines is a center of the Catholic faith in Belgium, mainly because of the much-revered Cardinal Mercier, who rallied the people against the Nazis in WW II.

A brilliant court. The city's important role in Belgian history is due to Princess Margaret of Austria, who settled in the city and brought the leading intellectuals of the day to her court. Erasmus and Thomas More were the two most famous. Painters and craftsmen were handsomely patronized, and they showered the city with their works. Many of these skills continue today, including the art of bell ringing, a local tradition going back to the Middle Ages and revived in the 19th century. The world's only bell-ringing academy still functions in the town, where one can hear the shimmering scales of young carillonneurs faithfully carrying out their "homework." Another local craft is tapestry making, one of the most skilled in Europe. The huge tapestry donated by Belgium to the United Nations building in New York was designed and made in Malines.

(COURIER: Now start your introduction to Brussels.)

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