Our final morning in Holland started grey and dismal. We love Holland and the Dutch but the weather has really let the country down over the last couple of days. Our Eurotunnel booking wasn’t until 4pm, so what to do on a damp day with not much time to spare?
The Netherlands American Cemetery was 6km from Maastricht and, as the only American Military Cemetery in the country, was worth a visit. The site has a rich historical background lying near the Cologne – Boulogne Roman highway. In 1940, Hitler’s troops advanced over this route, overwhelming the area. In September 1944, German Troops used the same route for retreat.
As you would expect from a Military Cemetery, it was impressive. Stylish architecture and immaculately kept grounds gave it an air of peace and serenity. An unimaginable contrast to what was endured by troops and residents alike. A sobering experience as always.
Our journey back to Eurotunnel was dull motorway driving, much through thick fog. As we crossed the border into France the sun came out and it was glorious. It would have been nice to have seen it sooner.
Somehow, we had only bought one bottle of wine and that wouldn’t see us through until Christmas. Begrudgingly, we settled on a trip to Citie Europe when Google came to our rescue. John discovered a wine shop, highly recommended by Decanter magazine in the town of Ardres. A short 15 minute detour from Calais and we were in a 250 year old building, home to Boursot’s Wine Collection with prices ranging from 3 – 80 euros. It was a joy. The salesman took time to establish our tastes and make recommendations. We left with three cases of wine and will return on our next trip to France. A far cry from French hypermarkets although they also sell crisps.
So what we have learned about Kerst in Holland?
For most children in The Netherlands, the most important December day is 5th ‘Pakjesavond’ (Gift Evening), when Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) brings them their presents. Dutch folklore says that St. Nicholas lives in Spain and every year he chooses a different harbour to arrive in the Netherlands accompanied by his servants the ‘Piets’ who help deliver presents. Christmas Day is still the 25th December and is a quiet time when families attend church followed by a simple family meal. There are very few presents given at Christmas as these are exchanged earlier on St. Nicholas Day which is the more celebrated festival.
We have also learned a lot about Christmas Markets. Disappointingly, many stalls sell cheap tat made in China. In amongst those, if you look really carefully, you can find one or two local producers. A far cry from our rose-tinted expectations. The caves at Valkenburg were unusual but seemed to be missing some of the atmosphere of an outside market. Perhaps it was the lack of the scents of gluhwein and bratwurst.