This summer, my family of 3 embarked on an independent rail tour of the Netherlands and Belgium. They are referred to as the low countries because they are…erm….low. In fact, much of the area of Holland we visited is below sea level. The Dutch have become experts at reclaiming land from the sea and we were to find out how during the course of our trip.
We began by boarding a Eurostar train from London to Amsterdam and taking a short onward hop to Haarlem in North Holland. Holland often gets confused for the Netherlands just as England can get mixed up with Britain. However, our time in the Netherlands was entirely spent in the provinces of North and South Holland, so I have an excuse for interchanging the term Holland with the Netherlands, of which the former is a component.
The 2nd leg of our journey was from Haarlem to Dordrecht in South Holland. This was an easy leg, particularly compared to leg 3 from Dordrecht to Ghent, in the Flemish region of Belgium. Between Breda and Antwerp, we were on the intercity train from Amsterdam to Brussels. It was so overcrowded, that we were stuck in the space between carriages with all our luggage. This was the only time we failed to get a seat on a train and we were relieved to find comfortable seats between Antwerp and Ghent. We then travelled from Ghent to Namur, the capital of the Belgian region of Wallonia. The novelty here was seeing hills for the first time on our holiday, as well as noticing the language change from Dutch to French. We returned to London via Brussels.
On the whole, we found train travel to be easy in both countries. It is economical for families as children under 12 can travel any distance in the Netherlands for 2.50 euros per day and in Belgium there is no charge at all. For the above reasons, for travel between the 2 countries, it is better to book advance tickets through Belgian railways where cheap early bird fares are also available. Dutch journeys pre-booked on line offer a saving of 1 euro per ticket.
Our adventures included a small boat tour in Amsterdam accompanied by wine (apple juice for F), my wife S being tried for witchcraft, an afternoon at the seaside, guided tours around military tunnels and a World War 2 resistance house, visiting 250 year old windmills that created land below sea level, kayaking around the waterways of Ghent and embarking on a saxophone sculpture trail.
Individual blogs on these experiences will be written soon, but in the meantime, my daughter F is making her blogging debut and has selected her 3 highlights of the trip. I mean to say highlights in Holland and Belgium, because her real highlight of the entire trip was visiting Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross station in London! Anyway, with a bit of control freakery from me in the form of edits, here are F’s favourite experiences in the low countries.
Netherlands and Belgium, from a 12 (ed: actually 11) year-old’s eyes
Honestly, the best part is being left alone on a beach or exploring a castle by yourself. You won’t expect to enjoy some things, but in the end, you might actually have fun.
For example, The Gravensteen, a castle in the glorious city of Ghent, doesn’t look like something that would interest many people around the ages of 1-15, but it might surprise you. An audio guide is supplied, it’s included in the entrance cost, and is anything but boring. Both adults and kids alike may enjoy it. The audio guide is an array of short stories, some gory, some romantic and some utterly hilarious. One story tells you the narrator’s personal favourite executions that took place in the castle and I have to admit, that is probably my favourite. There are also some reinless walls where you can simply sit and enjoy the views, or use your phone (ed: watch little ones here).
The beach at Zandvoort is a lovely place to relax on a hot day, or again use your phone or read a book. The ocean may be full of Jellyfish, so watch your step! But when you’re left alone on this beach you can relax as the heat hits your skin (ed: parents were at a beach bar in full view of F, but she liked the idea of being alone and independent!). There are many beach cafes and restaurants and food trucks on the beach, so a bite to eat or a drink are never far.
The Citadel of Namur forms an interesting story. The best part is the tour of the tunnels. You get the chance to experience real events that happened, right where you’re standing. Plus, there are no wasps down there. The tour of the museum isn’t bad either. At the reception you may choose between a kids tour or an adults tour. The kids tour is more fun and gives you a little task after every story, whereas the adult tour isn’t as interactive as the child’s tour, but it is still informative.
The Netherlands and Belgium are on Europe’s North Sea coast between France and Germany
Both countries can easily be reached by train from London and other European cities. Click the links for Eurostar (from London), Belgian Railways and Netherlands Railways . Principal gateways by air are Amsterdam and Brussels Airports. Ferries also operate from the East of England