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Exploring Dutch Culture

The Junior Journey group stands outside of the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels.
The Junior Journey group stands outside of the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels.

Jun 14, 2017

By Pedro Cuervo '17

Edited for content and length

The first two things that popped into my mind when I decided to travel to Belgium and the Netherlands on my Junior Journey trip were food and history. Those two things are generally what excite me anyways, and going to some of the most culturally and historically rich areas of the world would surely satisfy my hunger.

Before this trip, I did not know very much about Belgium. I knew that the capital of the European Union is there and that it is caught awkwardly between France and Germany. I also knew that it was the site of many important battles, including Waterloo and the Battle of the Bulge. I knew the Netherlands was famous for their Navy, art, and the Anne Frank House. I was excited to come and see for myself what both countries had to offer, and I was not disappointed.

Belgium is a country that is situated between two cultures: the French and the Dutch. Accordingly, this made Brussels a city of many languages. People there spoke four of them: French, Dutch, Flemish, and English. This made it interesting to communicate with a lot of people in the country, but with 30 percent of them knowing English, it was a lot easier than I expected. From the second I arrived in Belgium, I could immediately tell that it is a much more peaceful city than any large city I had experienced in America. There were quiet cars, quiet people, and it seemed as if everyone went to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. Walking around late in the evening made it seem like we were in a ghost town.

A student standing with the flag of Belgium in front of Saint Nicholas' Church in Ghent.

The best part of Belgium was visiting two towns away from the capital, Bruges and Ghent. Bruges is one of the most important cultural and historical centers of the world. It is around 1000 years old, and the city has been mostly preserved for all of that time. Our tour guide educated us about the different parts of the city and the different types of architecture and people that lived there; the city had buildings adjacent to each other with completely different architecture styles. The canals and bridges over them were wonderful to see, with some of them dating back over 700 years. The local chocolate did not disappoint either.

After visiting Bruges, we travelled to Ghent in the afternoon. Ghent has one of the most magnificent cathedrals a person could ever lay eyes on. I marveled at the intricate paintings, magnificent sculptures, and towering ceilings within. Old cathedrals are not only important because of their religious significance but because some of the most important cultural developments in history occurred in them.

The one in Ghent was basically a museum, just like every other major cathedral that we visited. It was adorned with stained glass, statues, and famous paintings as far as the eye could see. In my opinion, if a person could visit basically any historical town in Europe and had the opportunity to see only one thing, it would have to be the town's cathedral.

We took a train to Amsterdam. Travelling by train is extremely common in Europe, and it is much cheaper than driving or flying. Upon arrival, we took a bus tour of the city. Amsterdam seemed to be a very crowded place. There were bikes everywhere, and according to our tour guide there were 1.6 million bikes in the city with only 800,000 inhabitants. Amsterdam is a much more commercialized and busy city than Brussels. Amsterdam is a much louder city, with parts that seemingly never went to sleep. There was always somewhere to go or something to do. The city is a blend of different cultures from all over the world, mainly because Amsterdam was once the most important port on Earth. Traders brought back food and culture from every corner of the world, which made Amsterdam the cultural melting pot that it is today.

Inside the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.

Seeing the Red Light District was an extremely eye opening and sobering experience. Even though red light districts are not part of American culture, it is a very normal thing in Amsterdam, and for good reason. The protections that are in place for the women there make it safer for everyone involved. Every woman has a safety button that they can press to call for help, and there are many police officers and other people willing to spring into action if something goes wrong. Their stance on marijuana is similar. Amsterdam acknowledges that prostitution and marijuana consumption will happen, and they decided to allow it and regulate it instead of turning their backs to it.

My favorite part of Amsterdam was the Rijkmuseum, which we visited on Thursday. This is the most famous museum in the Amsterdam, and it holds breathtaking collections of different types of art from several different eras. Walking through this museum was like taking a trip through time. I could see how people lived in past centuries, and I could also see what they thought was important or what types of features they put emphasis on.

Instead of a museum only filled with paintings or sculptures, this museum was adorned with beds, tapestries, doll houses, fireplaces, ship models, firearms, and other artifacts. On top of that, some of the most famous paintings in the entire world reside in that museum, namely the Night Watch by Rembrandt. This painting, which is 14 feet tall and nearly 12 feet wide, is so important that if the museum were to be evacuated because of a fire or other disaster, the painting would be the first thing out, before any man or woman.

While we were in the Rijkmuseum, something amazing happened. The sky cleared up for the first time during the entire trip, and it remained mostly clear for the final couple of days we spent there. Amsterdam transformed into a bright and colorful city under the sunlight, and it became all the more fun to explore.

The group outside a church in Bruges, Belgium.

In the afternoon after visiting the Rijkmuseum, we spent a lot of time walking around and looking at the city. All of the canals, bridges, and shops were my favorite part of Amsterdam. The people in the city were generally very kind but also shy. Looking at random people and smiling and saying hello was not a normal occurrence like in the United States.

Our single trip out of Amsterdam was to The Hague, where the international court and the Peace Palace are. Learning about how world peace developed and the different thinkers that contributed to the library there was extremely interesting. The Peace Palace is an internationally important symbol that represents global unity and the desire to bring justice to all corners of the Earth.

As a whole, visiting Belgium and the Netherlands for a week was an exciting experience that enabled us to see how different people live. While many things there seemed to be of higher quality, especially the food, the cost of living is much higher than in the United States. One example of this was the price of a meal in a restaurant. In any general restaurant, a meal would cost at least 20 dollars, and every glass of a beverage leveraged a cost, including water.

Since Europe is so full of history, there was always something historically interesting to see, whether it was where the Treaty of Ghent, the treaty that ended the War of 1812, was signed to the place Anne Frank and her family spent years evading Nazi capture.

Everyone should visit this part of Europe because of the rich culture and history that resides there. The magnificent cathedrals, handmade chocolate, beautiful countryside, breathtaking art, and intricate architecture make this a trip that anyone could enjoy. I am a firm believer that seeing different places and experiencing different cultures makes one a more complete individual.