All too often, we drive off the cross-Channel ferries and head south deeper into France or even further afield. But recently in search of pastures new Anna Hyman and friends heeded the advice to ‘turn Left at Dunkirk’ and headed for Holland and Flanders instead.
DFDS Ferry from Dover
We boarded the DFDS Ferry at Dover, swiftly settling ourselves into the comfort of the Premier Lounge for the crossing to Dunkirk. It passed remarkably quickly with the help of a newspaper, a glass of prosecco and a light meal.
Two hours later we were passing through the flat Flanders countryside heading towards the south of the Netherlands and in particular the province of Brabant.
It had been many years since my previous visit to Brabant which had included the fairy tale world of the Efteling theme park and the wildlife safari park of Beekse Bergen.
It was good to be back.
This time however, bearing in mind the new animated film devoted to the painter Vincent van Gogh ‘Loving Vincent’ friends and I were heading for some of the places that had inspired him to paint such pictures as his famous ‘Potato Eaters’.
Eindhoven – once home to Philips lightbulb company
But first to Eindhoven a city which started life as a small town in about the 11th century.
It might forever have remained a small town but for the industrial revolution and the building of canals, railways and roads to say nothing of the dawning of light bulbs.
For it was in Eindhoven that Philips set up their light bulb manufacturing company resulting in a rapidly growing workforce and population.
It is now one of the largest cities in the Netherlands and has evolved into a city with a reputation for design, technology and industry.
A city of light
It was dusk by the time we had arrived at our hotel created from what was once one of the Philips factories. Undeterred however, we set forth to explore this city of light.
Unfortunately the Glow Festival held each November and which attracts thousands of visitors from far and wide to witness the week-long spectacle of light- artworks playing on streets and buildings had taken place two weeks before our arrival. Nevertheless there was still enough going on to keep us interested and enthralled.
With its museums and design studios Eindhoven is often referred to as the design capital of the Netherlands.
Hardly surprising with intriguing futuristic sculptures and buildings like the glass Blob, or the more conservatively designed central railway station with its stunning innovatively new 90m long Space art- installation displaying images of the world as seen from satellites.
A homing pigeon cocktail
We contented ourselves with another aerial view of the city, this time from the Vane restaurant’s Skybar.
Naturally, we stopped long enough to enjoy one of its sublime signature cocktails called ‘Postduif’ (racing/homing pigeon) made from rum, a Ceylon tea liqueur and roasted-pineapple syrup, and decorated with a feather.
Be warned it packs a hefty alcoholic punch; we took care not to fall off our perches, err, bar stools. vane-eindhoven.nl
Intriguing places to eat
Another intriguing building, once an army barrack, was the one we dined in that evening – Kazerne, part restaurant, part art gallery and part shop.
Diners are encouraged to walk round the big open-plan room during courses to inspect the artwork.
Great cooking by the way. www.kazerne.com/en/restaurant
En route to Kazerne we called in at an exciting new concept in Eindhoven, the welcoming and lively Down Town Gourmet Market. Food markets are popular in the Netherlands but here they provide a service too. Food and drinks are brought to the tables from the surrounding food outlets and food can even be ordered from the table using a mobile app. downtowngourmetmarket.com
Nuenen and van Gogh
A mere 10km from Eindhoven is Nuenen. With its neat houses, poplar trees, canals and wind and water mills it might have remained an attractive dormitory village of Eindhoven had it not been for one man. Today art lovers from around the world flock to Nuenen to pay homage to the world famous and prolific painter – Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh lived here 1883 – 1885 observing and painting its buildings and inhabitants (especially the peasants) – recording them for posterity in 195 paintings (including his famous ‘The Potato Eaters’), along with some 350 drawings, sketches and watercolours.
An exhibition spread over three floors of the Vincentre at Berg 29 provides fascinating information about how he lived and painted during his time in Nuenen. Admission is €7.50 for adults and for an extra €2 an excellent English audio tour is available. vangoghvillagenuenen.nl
It’s also well worth spending €4.95 on the booklet ‘Out and about with Vincent’ – on sale in the shop. It gives details of various walking and cycling routes in and around Nuenen and its pretty countryside.
Vincent painted here!
Outside the Vincentre stands one of the red-topped information columns which are located round the village at various points denoting where Vincent, as he signed himself on his paintings, would have set up his easel to paint or sketch.
Not surprisingly the village has a number of restaurants and cafes but we drove the short distance to the Opwettense Watermolen – a former watermill painted by van Gogh. It’s now an attractive restaurant and the lunch was very good too. We recommend the club sandwich. dewatermolenvanopwetten.nl
Den Bosch and the Noordbrabants Museum
We found further evidence of van Gogh at Den Bosch, or to give it its more formal name – s-Hertogenbosch. Den Bosch is the capital of North Brabant and is where another famous painter, Hieronymus Bosch, was born and lived.
Given more time we would have liked to have explored this interesting looking city with its extensive canal system and glorious Gothic St John’s cathedral. But for this visit our priority was the Noordbrabants Museum, housed in the old Government Palace, and in particular its excellent art collection including several paintings by van Gogh. You could easily devote several hours to the museum, stopping every now and again for refreshments in the restaurant.
Running until 28 January 2018 is an exhibition devoted to the making of the world’s first fully painted film ‘Loving Vincent’. 65,000 frames on over 1000 canvases were painted by some 100 painters to bring realism to van Gogh’s life story.
Another fascinating and intriguing exhibition which runs until 25 February 2018 is by Tim Walker: ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights – A Fashion Photographer sees Bosch’. hetnoordbrabantsmuseum.nl
A local speciality and a street of restaurants
There are many restaurants and cafes in Den Bosch so keep an eye out for one selling a local speciality – a Bossche Bol – a decadent, large profiterole (about the size of a tennis ball) filled with whipped cream and covered in dark chocolate.
That evening in Den Bosch we discovered a street of foody delights – the Korte Putstraat. It’s a small street lined wall to wall with restaurants. Some of the restaurants offer a walking dinner where it is possible to have a three-course meal with each course in a different participating restaurant. It turned out to be an evening of delicious fun. We ate at restaurants Lux, Zoetelief and Breton – all of them excellent.
Like van Gogh we also spent time in Antwerp. Van Gogh eventually made his way to Antwerp. He left Neunen for the city in 1885 to attend some art classes and also in the hope of selling some of his paintings. Whilst he appears to have liked Antwerp it was not an altogether successful visit. But nevertheless he did paint eight pictures here.
Peter Paul Rubens – another great painter
And whilst none of Van Gogh’s paintings can be seen in Antwerp the city was the home of another great painter – Peter Paul Rubens; and no visit to Antwerp is complete without a visit to his home and studio.
His house, where he also received his distinguished guests (including royalty) who wanted him to paint for them, is a fascinating mix of opulence and homeliness designed in the style of an Italian villa. On its walls hang several of his own works of art and also those of his colleague van Dyck. Adjacent to the house is the huge workshop where both Ruben and his students carried out his many commissions. rubenshuis.be/en
Ruben’s paintings can be found in the major city churches but if time is short, make for Antwerp’s huge seven-aisled Gothic cathedral to see several examples of his magnificent altarpieces.
Antwerp is also a major port
Even though Antwerp is some 80 km inland it is an important seaport capable of accommodating large cargo ships and liners. It was an easy stroll from Rubens House to the banks of the river Scheldt and the modern-design and stylish restaurant RAS. Our Thai beef lunch was great as were the views out over the river. ras.today/en
Having experienced night views over Eindhoven we had to look down on Antwerp too, so we took the escalators up several floors to the top of the MAS museum to see the city and its river spread out beneath us. Conveniently opposite the MAS building we found the restaurant LUX which proved to be a great place for an elegant, delicious dinner. luxantwerp.com
Learning more about print in the Plantin-Moretus museum
Another must-see in Antwerp is the Plantin-Moretus house and printing works, now a museum devoted to the history of printing.
It is a fascinating museum featuring a printing room, library, workshop and offices with a wealth of printing equipment including two of the oldest printing presses in the world, as well as an original Gutenberg bible.
It is also the only museum in the world to hold UNESCO World Heritage status. museumplantinmoretus.be/en
Flanders is famous for its frites and in need of a quick lunch we popped into the Frites Atelier-Amsterdam.
(The company came up with the idea for the Frites Atelier in Amsterdam – hence the name, but they do also have branches in The Netherlands.)
Have your frites plain, or with a selection of mayonnaises, or with speciality toppings like the delicious Flemish stew. Yummy. fritesatelieramsterdam.com
Chocolate and cookies
Should you tire of museums there are the tempting shops – so many of them specialising in fine chocolates and other goodies – tucked down narrow cobbled streets. We purchased delicious biscuits from Philip’s Biscuits at Korte Gasthuisstraat 39 and chocolates from G Bastin at Paardenmarkt 108 and chocolates and patisserie from Joost Arijs at Vlaanderenstraat 24.
Don’t spend all your time looking longingly into the tempting shop windows; take a moment to gaze up at Antwerp’s rich architectural styles, and if time allows, walk along its imposing river front or for a glittering experience head to the city’s diamond quarter.
Antwerp, as we had discovered, also makes a good stop-over destination on the road between the Netherlands and Dunkirk. Dunkirk to Antwerp takes less than two hours, and only another hour to reach Holland.
Being careful not to crush our bags of cookies and chocolates we headed back to Dunkirk for the 16.00 DFDS ferry sailing and home. However, we suspect it won’t be too long before we turn left again.
DFDS: DFDS operates services from Dover to Dunkirk and Dover to Calais, offering up to 54 daily sailings, with prices from £39 each way. All Dover-France ships feature a Premium Lounge, which can be booked for an additional £12 per person each way. Priority boarding is also available from £10 per car each way. dfds.co.uk
Rubens Hotel, Antwerp: hotelrubensantwerp.be
We first stayed at the Rubens Hotel some 15 years ago. On the reception desk were bottles of sherry and port along with appropriate glasses for guests to help themselves whilst checking in. We are delighted to say the tradition in November 2017 was still going strong. A nice touch.