In ABC cities, D for delight

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Amsterdam, Brussels and Cologne, as their tourist officials want you to say, make up the ABCs of Northern Europe. The cities are linked in a three-country, three-city tour that highlights their proximity and accentuates their cultural links and differences.

The cities are separated by a few hours by train and abound in marvelous museums, art and music. All three have been centers of trade and commerce since the Middle Ages. They share traditions of excellent hotels, good food and civic festivals, but despite the similarities, they have an abundance of national and historic differences that make the tour unique.

Amsterdam was occupied swiftly by Germany during World War II and was not bombed, so the canals still crisscross the city between rows of tall, narrow, gabled patrician houses characteristic of this delightful city. Because taxes originally were levied according to the width of the house, the wider the house, the richer the owner.

During the annual Queen’s Day festivities on April 30, the canals are crowded with boats filled with singing, cheering and imbibing revelers, many proudly wearing orange. The sidewalks and bridges overflow with flea markets. Locals reserve their spot along a canal the night before the celebration, and the entire city appears to be buying and selling. It’s a grand sight and lots of fun.

There’s no transportation in the city center on Queen’s Day, and with vendors selling food and drink and restaurants buzzing from early to late, there’s a boisterous atmosphere of merriment.

Amsterdam dates from 1200, when two fishermen and a seasick dog sought refuge from a storm in the Zuider Zee. The dog and the fishermen are represented on the city’s coat of arms, carved on the Old Customs House and on the facades of the Old Stock Exchange and the Mint Tower.

The city derives its name from its location at the point where the small, bifurcated Amstel River is joined by a sluice dam, originally built about 1240. Amsterdam is 18 feet below sea level, and its buildings are constructed on wooden and concrete piles. The canals and ditches divide the city center into about 90 islands connected by hundreds of bridges, including eight drawbridges.

Amsterdam’s original houses were of wood and were destroyed by several fires — later it was decreed that houses must be built of brick or stone. The city’s oldest wooden house, dating from the 15th century, has been restored in the Begijnhof, a cluster of small houses around a garden, built for pious laywomen.

Amsterdam thrived as a port in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the mid-14th century, it became a toll point for importing beer. Amsterdam’s merchants grew rich trading spices, beer, fish, cloth, furs and grain and built gabled houses along the canals, which were completed during Amsterdam’s golden age, the 16th to 18th centuries.

The architectural style and decorations tell the date of the construction of the house: triangular stone gables date from the 16th century, step gables from the 17th century, and the French baroque influence of Louis XIV from the 18th century. The hooks on the gables were and are used to hoist heavy furniture.

About 600 old gable stones, decorative plaques indicating the profession or name of the original owner before the advent of street numbering, are still found. The oldest, dating from 1603, depicts a milkmaid balancing buckets.

One of the canal houses has a church in the attic. Catholic worship was forbidden in the Protestant Netherlands in 1573. In 1661, a Dutch merchant bought three adjacent buildings, one on the canal and two behind, taking the ground floor for his family living quarters and converting the loft into a secret Catholic church. A museum since 1888, the house gives a visitor a sense of 18th-century Dutch life.

The graceful gabled houses bordering the canals mostly have been converted into offices and hotels, but the narrow side streets and alleys are residential and commercial, and an occasional new gable stone identifies a small shop.

Among the magnificent buildings in central Amsterdam are the Gothic Oude Kerk, the Old Church, begun in 1250. It is Amsterdam’s oldest stone building. It’s in the celebrated bordello district, where scantily dressed young women sit or stand in wide windows to attract the attention of passers-by. If the curtains are drawn, they’re busy.

Art exhibitions as well as services are held in the church. Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, is buried in one of the 2,500 graves beneath the church floor. The church has one of the oldest timber roofs in Europe and a grand 1740 organ. On the lintel over the door to the sacristy is inscribed the caution, “Marry in haste; repent at leisure.”

The 17th-century Town Hall became the Royal Palace in 1808 when Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, was king of the Netherlands. Since the return of the House of Orange to the throne, it has been the official palace of the monarch, who uses it for state ceremonies.

De Waag (the Weigh House) was built in 1488 as a town gate and is the only remnant of the original town walls and gates. After 1617, it was the place where heavy objects, such as ships’ anchors and cannons, were weighed. The upper floors were occupied by various guilds, whose emblems are still visible above the gates.

A fascinating sight is the roof of the Trippenhuis, built by a wealthy family of iron and weapons traders. Its corner chimneys are shaped like cannon barrels.

Amsterdam is known for its contemporary architecture, too. The old 19th-century docks on the four peninsulas between the Central Station and Zeeburg Island in the eastern part of town have been converted to residential dwellings. Canals in the peninsulas have created islands, connected by fanciful iron bridges designed by contemporary artists.

Last year was the 400th anniversary of the birth of Rembrandt van Rijn, and the city exploded with Rembrandt exhibits. Rembrandt remains a vital part of the city. Many of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings are in the Rijksmuseum. Although the main part of the museum is closed for renovation and the new Rijksmuseum is not scheduled to open until mid-2008, the highlights of the golden age remain on exhibit. Among them is Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” (which turned out to be a day watch after it was cleaned).

The stunning Van Gogh Museum has the largest collection of works by Vincent van Gogh. About 200 paintings were given to the Netherlands by the artist’s sister-in-law and a nephew on condition that they never leave the painter’s native land. On the lower floor, partly underground, is a space for temporary exhibits. “Max Beckmann in Amsterdam, 1937 to 1947” is there through Aug. 19.

At Keukenhof in Lisse, a few miles outside Amsterdam, not only are the bulb gardens ablaze with flowers, but the grounds are dotted with contemporary works by Dutch and other European sculptors. This year, the festival runs through May 20 and honors the Swedish botanist and physician Carolus Linnaeus, who first classified tulips in the 18th century.

BAUBLES AND BONBONS

Brussels lies in the heart of Belgium, a country divided between the Walloons, who speak French, and the Flemish, who speak Dutch. Its name dates to a seventh-century manuscript that spoke of “Brouscella,” meaning “settlement on the marshes.”

Brussels is famous for its Grand’Place, a square surrounded by magnificent medieval buildings; for the statue of “Manneken Pis”; and for extraordinary art nouveau buildings, but chocolates and beer are highlights of any visit to Belgium’s capital. Cocoa beans were brought to Spain in the early 16th century, but it took more than 100 years for the first traces of cocoa to get to Ghent, Belgium.

Pressed chocolate tablets, pastilles and figures were produced in Belgium by Berwaerts Chocolate Co. in 1840, but the chocolate industry took off after the Belgian colonization of the Congo, where fine-quality cocoa beans grow.

In 1912, Jean Neuhaus invented what became the hallmark of Belgian chocolate: the praline, a chocolate shell that could be filled with cream or nut paste. The recipes for these chocolates have been passed down and are closely guarded family secrets. To protect his delicate confections, Neuhaus designed a rectangular box, called a ballotin.

In the 1920s, the Belgians invented the small chocolate bar, weighing about 5 ounces, which became a popular, affordable snack. Today, Belgian chocolate is famous for its rich taste, soft textures and delicate flavors. In Brussels, a visitor will find not only the well-known brands, such as Neuhaus, Leonidas and Godiva, but numerous chocolatiers making delicious confections, often by hand, in the center of town.

One such chocolatier is the house of Wittamer, a chocolate manufacturer and pastry shop opened in 1910 as a bakery. Proprietor Myriam Wittamer says the company is still family-owned and became famous for its invented flavors, including six types of tea. One of the company’s signature chocolates is a bright red chocolate heart made of dark chocolate with a filling of raspberry-flavored white chocolate.

Wittamer doesn’t limit its creativity to pralines. Under the auspices of Michael Lewis-Anderson, stylist and chocolate decorator, it offers many witty chocolate creations at the shop: bunnies for Easter, hats for Mother’s Day and high heels for any special day.

To celebrate the opening of the new DVF boutique in Antwerp, Miss Wittamer created chocolate wear to honor her childhood friend Diane von Furstenberg. The designer’s wrap dress was re-created in chocolate-covered cookie dough, and there also was a chocolate version of a bracelet designed for Mrs. von Furstenberg. Everything is created in the kitchen workshop behind the shop.

The Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, on a little street just off Grand’Place, contains everything about how chocolate is made. Three floors are filled with chocolate memorabilia, photographs, maps and videos. On the ground floor, chocolate master Henri Snackers demonstrates techniques and offers samples.

Brussels is crowded with young designers, goldsmiths, silversmiths and craftsmen. Inexpensive, high-fashion costume baubles as well as expensive one-of-a-kind pieces are ubiquitous in Brussels’ trendy shops.

Christa Reniers is one of the new breed of jewelers. Known for her work in silver in organic shapes, Miss Reniers employs seven persons who produce 10,000 pieces each year.

Hats are part of the fashion scene, as exemplified by the talented Christophe Coppens, who designs for men as well as women. With tongue in cheek, he describes his first men’s collection as “Errol Flynn meets the bohemian lifestyle in the shop around the corner. Boring is sexy.”

City districts have been organized into fashion tours for visitors interested in seeing the colorful, youthful designs of clothing, accessories and jewelry.

CATHEDRAL AND CARNIVAL

Cologne (Koln in German) was an original member of the Hanseatic League of merchants. The center of the city was destroyed in World War II, but its 600-year-old cathedral, the city’s symbol, remained standing; the cathedral was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996. Its soaring spires are visible from far up the Rhine and appear almost within touch as a train pulls into the station in the heart of the well-restored city. Allied pilots used these spires as a sighting point during World War II.

The cornerstone for the cathedral, built on the site of a pagan Roman temple and an early Christian church, was laid in 1248, but the cathedral was not completed until 1880. It was built to house the relics of the Three Kings, brought to Cologne in 1164. During the Middle Ages, Cologne was an important destination of Christian pilgrims.

The relics of the Magi are kept in a casket behind the main altar. The second treasure in the cathedral is a triptych painted by Stephan Lochner in the 15th century. When closed, the “Annunciation” is on view; when open, the “Adoration of the Magi,” flanked by St. Ursula, daughter of a Christian king and the patron saint of Cologne, is revealed. Legend has it that St. Ursula was martyred by the Huns with her 11,000 virgin companions (or perhaps there were just 11) in Cologne in the fourth or fifth century.

The cathedral has 12 bells, the largest of which, St. Peter’s Bell, affectionately called “fat Peter” because of its size, is the world’s largest free-swinging church bell. The large plaza to the side of the cathedral is used for one of Cologne’s six Christmas markets. Recently, Cologne artist HA Schult exhibited his 1,000-man army of “Trash People,” figures made of trash, representing all the trash mankind produces, on the plaza.

The Romans arrived in Cologne in the first century, and the city became an important colony in the empire. Some of the Roman city that had been covered in the Middle Ages was unearthed by the World War II bombing. Visible are parts of the original wall; several watchtowers; a monument to a German tribe living in the area, built in 24 B.C.; and the oldest square stone masonry building north of the Alps.

The Cologne Carnival, dubbed the “fifth season,” officially opens at 11:11 on Nov. 11, but the festivities don’t get started until the Thursday before the beginning of Lent, when women’s night opens the street carnival at the old marketplace. By tradition, women are allowed to cut off the tie of any man within reach and to kiss any man they desire.

On the Sunday before Lent, hundreds of thousands watch parades led by the city’s schoolchildren and the inhabitants of Cologne’s various districts. The carnival reaches its peak on Rose Monday, when more than 1 million people, many in costume, watch the procession with its prince, peasant and maiden.

Revelers on floats throw baubles and sweets to the crowds in the street. Troupes of dancing girls entertain the crowds as part of the parade. The carnival prince and the maiden are symbols of the integrity of the city, while the peasant represents the city’s drink, Kolsch beer, the pride of Cologne. This top-fermented beer is brewed according to a special recipe and may be brewed only in and around Cologne.

Cologne is also known for eau de Cologne, its French name. The French originally called it “eau admirable” for its many claimed curative powers. It became eau de Cologne after French soldiers brought it back from Cologne at the beginning of the 19th century. It was first manufactured in Cologne by Johann Maria Farina in 1709. The Farina perfumery can still be visited in Cologne’s old town. The shop has a small but interesting museum devoted to the art of making eau de Cologne.

Each citiy offers pleasures and places of interest — the first three letters of the alphabet are just the beginning.

• • •

United Airlines flies nonstop from Washington Dulles International Airport to Amsterdam and Brussels; KLM flies nonstop from Dulles to Amsterdam. There are no nonstops from Washington to Cologne.

Train schedules, tickets and passes for travel between Amsterdam, Brussels and Cologne can be obtained from Rail Europe: call 888/382-7245 or visit www.raileurope.com.

Sofitel Amsterdam is in the center of the city and within walking distance of Central Station and many important buildings; Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 67; phone 31 20 627 59 00. Trams to various parts of the city stop a few steps from the hotel entrance.

Conrad Brussels, Ave. Louise 71, Brussels; phone 32 2 542 4242, is a five-star luxury hotel with well appointed rooms, excellent service and fine food, one of the city’s top hotels.

Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Trankgasse 1-5, Cologne, is an elegant, beautiful hotel, near the railroad station and across the plaza at the side of the cathedral; phone 49 221 2701 or visit www.excelsiorhotelernst.de.

For information about Amsterdam: canal tours, www.canal.nl; Rijksmuseum, www.rijksmuseum.nl; Van Gogh Museum, www.vangoghmuseum.nl; Amsterdam Tourist Board, www.visitamsterdam.nl or www.amsterdamtourist.com; Keukenhof, www.keukenhof.com.

For Brussels: www.visitbelgium.com or www.belgium-tourism.be; fashion designers, www.modobruxellae.be; art nouveau walk, www.brusselsartnouveau.be; chocolate museum: 9/11 rue de la Tete d’Or, phone 32 2 514 20 48, or visit www.mucc.be; Wittamer Chocolatier, 6-12 Place du Grand Sablon, phone 32 2 512 37 42; www.wittamer.com.

For Cologne: www.koelntourismus.de or www.cometogermany.com; Museum of Fragrances, Farina House, Obenmarspforten 21, phone 49 221 3 99 89 94 or visit www.Farina1709.com; museum information: www.museenkoeln.de.

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