The journey I was about to undertake would not only in geographical terms span vast distances over land and sea……it was an odyssey which would cover a period of over four hundred years and one in which I would try to establish a “connection” with my ancestors.
Navigating the paper chase of history and ancestry is never easy, but I was armed with a copy of the family tree which was sent to me by The Hague in Holland in 1987, packed in my hand luggage, and one which I had perused times without number. The records I had obtained set the dates from 1625, but a cousin of mine who travelled to Holland a few years ago had visited the town of Cuylenborg and even met some townsfolk with the same surname.
The records he sent me dated from 1320. I was off on a tour of Holland and two Benelux countries and time was of the essence since the tour involved a packed itinerary everyday with some free time in between. I hoped to make a special trip to Cuylenborg in the free time available. It was a long long trail a winding, to quote the lyrics of an old song……….When I met my Tour Director in Amsterdam, he told me that in view of the busy tour schedule,which commenced the next day, a special trip to the home of my ancestors would be highly unlikely even in the free time available in between our daily travel itinerary. I still held on to the dream…….
The gentle throbbing of the four Rolls Royce Trent Jet Engines – the beating heart of the giant Airbus A-380 – as it sat on its designated runway at Tullamarine International airport, resembled the disgruntled growls of an angry beast straining at the leash in order to break its chains and seek its freedom. Inside the huge airbus, the cabin crew were all “action stations” as they prepared for take off, while the complement of passengers – 542 as I later found out, sat patiently lost in their own thoughts in anticipation of the long journey ahead. Ensconced in seat No.41 D, the lyrics of a country hit by the late Don Williams came to mind – “Some broken hearts never mend / Some memories never end……..” I mentally paraphrased the lyrics with my own version adding the words “Some Journeys never end……..” My experience has taught me that at the end of each destination, a new journey begins, there are new trails to explore, and distant horizons beckon, depending on how one fine tunes one’s antenna to life’s sensitivities. While the cabin crew explained the safety precautions, I was lost in a reverie of my own, until the calm collected voice of the Captain came soothingly over the speakers “Cabin crew prepare for take-off…..” and a few minutes later the behemoth of the skies slowly hurtled down the runway picking up speed as it went along. Then gradually, with the grace of a ballerina this giant Beluga gently lifted up into the night sky its engines at full throttle, slotted on to its flight path, and roared off defiantly on the 14 hour 15 minute non stop flight to Dubai. I was bound for Amsterdam after a three hour transit in Dubai, from where the flight to Amsterdam entailed a time of seven hours and fifteen minutes.
Twenty four hours and thirty minutes later I was one of the hundreds of passengers at Schipol International Airport standing in line in the “ALL OTHER PASSENGERS” queue waiting to clear Dutch immigration. Citizens of all European countries had a separate queue to facilitate immigration formalities. Exhausted beyond limits, I was finally happy to present my passport to the immigration officer. He took one look at it, looked at me again and then stated the obvious “But this is a Dutch name !!” As coherently as possible I explained to him that my Dad’s ancestors originally hailed from the Dutch city of “Cuylenborg”‘ and left Holland around the mid 1600’s to go to Dutch occupied Ceylon to seek their fortunes. He then replied that he had heard about the Dutch East India Company, and with a cheery “Enjoy your stay in Holland” he stamped my passport and waved me on……And this was my genesis to getting acquainted with the land of my forefathers.
In the collective human mind, the stereotyped image of Holland is a land of windmills, tulips and wooden shoes. This is almost cliched, because Holland today is much more than that. Amsterdam was my first port of call and I soon found it to be a free spirited city with an incredible diversity of cultures and cuisines in a fairy tale village like setting. The Dutch word “Gezellig” roughly translates it as ‘Cosy’ and ‘Convivial’. Its full meaning is more experienced than defined. It is a fascinating city. One hundred and sixty five canals criss cross the city spanned by 1753 bridges adding to her charm. In fact Amsterdam has more canals than Venice and getting on the water is one of the best ways to feel her pulse. The canals were built during the “Golden Age” which roughly spanned a good part of the 17th century. Feel the good vibrations as you sit by the canals and watch the boats glide by and time permitting, you can check the cities 3050 houseboats. A cruise along the famous “World Heritage” listed UNESCO canal district will reveal the elegant merchant’s houses which have lined the canals over the past 400 years, the majestic facades and gables, beautiful churches and the iconic “Magere Bruge (” The ‘Skinny Bridge”) and many more delights. The canals are just a backdrop for Amsterdams treasure packed museums, vintage shops, breweries, ultra niche restaurants, Dutch gin distilleries, and all the chocolate, coffee and cheese shops one could wish for ! It must be noted that since 2005 the houseboats have been required to connect to the cities sewerage system, and specialised cleaning boats patrol the canals regularly, to keep the waterways as pristine as possible. I would add that Amsterdam today is a city of coffee, cheese, and chocolate! Practically every street has one of these shops to satisfy one’s sweet tooth or caffeine cravings. And there is an added bonus – or temptation. Wander into any of these shops and there are rows of samples with all types of cheese and chocolate for the customer to sample before making a purchase. If one does not make a purchase, he or she is free to sample all they wish to anyway ! That is what I call an incentive to an indulgence – just nibble your way through on your own “tasting tour !”
Amsterdam’s love affair with coffee goes back a long way. The first coffee beans in Europe were “discovered” in the conquered Ottoman army garrisons. In the 17th century the Dutch bypassed the Arab trade monopoly in coffee and also opened up large plantations in the territories which they conquered. The writer Sanne Deurloo in her book “Why do we drink so much coffee?” writes “…….Coffee and the Dutch are made for each other ! Unlike with wine and beer, you can drink coffee all day long and not get sick….!!!” What a tantalising incentive to join the thousands of caffeine cravers ! The latest statistics place Spain and Italy second to Holland’s coffee rankings, and the American giant “Starbucks” got a foothold in Holland only five years ago. Much bigger than “Starbucks” is “Bagels and Beans” the Dutch Coffee giant which quoting their advertisements, “serves coffee pastries and happiness”.
ON YOUR BIKE
Bicycles are what moves the masses to work in this delightful city which has more bicycles than cars. The young and the old, everybody rides a bike. Policeman on duty, executives in suits, clerks, schoolchildren, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers , pedal power is their preferred mode of transport, and two wheeling is a way of life here. It is how the Amsterdammers get to work, do their shopping, and keep a date . The visitor if so inclined has an abundance of bike rental shops if he or she wishes to take a spin. Many visitors rent bikes and leaving the city behind head for the beautiful and green nature reserve called very aptly, “Waterland”.
THE JEWISH QUARTER
In the heart of Amsterdam is the Jewish Cultural Quarter. Magnificient synagogues, striking buildings and impressive memorials dominate the streetscape of the city’s Jewish neighbourhood. Jewish history, culture and traditions are evident in the Jewish Historical Museum and the national Holocaust Museum. Visiting the home of Anne Frank is a powerful and moving experience. During World War 2 the Germans occupied Holland in just five days, and many Jews like the Frank family went into hiding. The Franks moved into the upper floors of a building with another couple, the Van Pels. Here they survived until they were betrayed by the Gestapo in 1944. Except for Mr.Otto Frank, Anne and the rest perished in the gas chambers in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The story is too well known to bear repeating here.
THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT
The centuries old Red Light District – or should I say the infamous Red Light District is where the action is pretty volatile ! And here’s the contradiction – The oldest historic church in Amsterdam the “Oude Kerk” (Old Church) is incongruously situated in full view of The Red Light District !! Once a Catholic church, it is now Protestant and dates from 1306. Many famous citizens including Rembrandt’s second wife Saskia VanCuylenburg are buried under the tombstones. The city’s oldest church bell which dates from 1450 is in this church.
THE ART WORLD
Each year, millions of visitors visit Holland and head for the world class art museums. Art collections take pride of place and one cannot walk a kilometre without bumping into a masterpiece. The glory goes to the tortured genius Vincent Van Gogh who toiled in ignominy while supported by his brother Theo. The other favourite Dutch Masters like Vermeer, and Rembrandt, are big drawcards, but the art scene in this city goes well beyond them. Several art galleries in the city provide an outlet for avant-garde and emerging artists. But three iconic figures like Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Jan Vermeer are some of the world’s most revered and celebrated painters. Perhaps the 17th centuries greatest artist Rembrandt Van Rijn was born in Leiden in 1606, the son of a miller. By the 1620’s this genius of the brush and pallette had become an accomplished painter. I crave the readers indulgence if I dwell on Rembrandt among a host of other painters, because this is where my family name enters the picture.
In 1631 he went to Amsterdam having obtained employment to manage an art studio of a wealthy art dealer, Hendrick VanCuylenburg. In 1634 he married his bosse’s niece, Saskia VanCuylenburg. Unfortunately, Rembrandt fell out with his boss, but his wife’s money helped him to buy the house next door. Here he turned out his masterpieces, his paintings were a success and his studio became the largest in Holland. Saskia and he had a son Titus who was born in 1641. But then tragedy struck. In 1642 Saskia died and the business suffered a sharp decline. That same year he produced his masterpiece “The Night Watch” which can be seen in all its splendour in the world famous Rijks Museum. If one has been travelling a jaded vale in the world of art, one look at Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” will propel one to a mountain of enthusiasm. So graphic and realistic are the characters in this painting that they seem to be reaching out to the viewer over the centuries. This painting literally comes alive……….
The Rijks Museum and the Vincent Van Gogh museum are a must for lovers of art. The Rijks is of course Holland’s top treasure house, while the latter houses the largest collection by Van Gogh. There are over two hundred canvases on display, plus other works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Monet. While Van Gogh expressed the emotion of his tortured soul in his paintings, perhaps the most beautiful words he ever spoke were “The more I think it over, the more I think there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people…..”
The port city of Rotterdam is worth a visit. Most of the city was bombed out during World War 2, but has been completely rebuilt and is a joy to behold. To really appreciate the panoramic views of Rotterdam, ascend the iconic Euromast Tower and the beauty of this city and its surrounding landscapes will stun the senses. Visit the famous Food Market which has food from almost every European, Meditteranian, North African and Middle Eastern country to whet one’s appetite. A visit to Delft famous for its porcelaine blue pottery will not disappoint. Having visited the Wedgewood Pottery Plant in England a few years ago, and now having visited the Royal Delft Pottery workshop in Delft I surmised that beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder………
The fortified city of Maastricht with its beautiful old churches, ancient city walls and stunning merchant houses took centre stage on my visit to this city. Ambling through the cobblestone streets is a delight. And, on the way to Rotterdam discover the spectacular straight line of nineteen working windmills or the “Kinderdijk”.These windmills built in 1740 are below sea level and were built to pump water out of reclaimed land. And Masstricht is the home town of the classical music virtuoso Andre Rieu – the genius who gives the classics a shade of pop, which has kindled a love of the classics in pop and rock music fans. He is their favourite son as I soon discovered in the short time I spent in this city.
DEN HAAG – or THE HAGUE
Its treasured monuments, historic districts and prime location near the North Sea coastline makes The Hague one of the most extraordinary cities in Holland. Popularly known as “The Royal city by the sea”, The Hague is the residence of the Dutch royal family who have occupied it for the past four hundred years, and is also the seat of government. This entire area is set in a dreamworld fairy tale setting and a feast for the eyes to behold. It is a city easy to explore on foot and visitors who stay here for a few days will be amply rewarded with the numerous attractions the city offers – museums, theatres, royal parks, restaurants galore, art museums, historical monuments……..in short a cultural cornucopia to satisfy the most fastidious visitor.
On the way to Rotterdam and Utretcht in the North, my Tour Director showed me the sign leading off the highway to the town of ‘Cuylenborg’. (The “Van” has been omitted because it simply means ‘OF’ in Dutch). Alas for reasons explained earlier, a visit to this town was not possible and for now remains an elusive dream. What I have highlighted is only a very brief thumbnail sketch of the myriad delights of this country which will always be a land of scenic landscapes dotted with windmills, centuries old picturesque villages , babbling brooks and green pastures, meandering canals, locals dressed in traditional costumes, Dutch specialities and picture postcard beauty. There are certain things in this world which one sees with one’s soul…….as Helen Keller, the American author and lecturer who lost her sight at the age of 18 once said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart……” .Helen Keller was one of the most visually challenged and inspiring people, and the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree .
Part two of this article THE LAND OF MY FOREFATHERS – THE BENELUX BONANZA – will follow. It deals with my visit to two Benelux nations, Luxembourg and Belgium. It further confirmed to me that journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware……..
By Bernard VanCuylenburg