(Editor’s note: This is Part 2 in our series on Brabant is Open. Dispatches receives no remuneration for our series. VisitBrabant did pick up the costs of meals, hotel and transportation for this travel-industry tour. You can see Part 1 here.)
“See your home like a tourist.” Hmmmm …..
That was the intriguing premise of an invitation from VisitBrabant to go on their Brabant is Open tour, Brabant being the province where we actually live and where Dispatches is headquartered.
You’ve probably never heard of Brabant Province, which is a shame. It is a large but unsung Dutch province which includes the tech center of Eindhoven, the university city of Tilburg, Valkenswaard, the capital of the international horsey set, and the ancient city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, known to locals as “Den Bosch.”
Brabant is many things to many people, but until now, it’s never been what we could really call a “tourist destination,” at least not in the sense of an Amsterdam. Not that we as expats really get the whole tourist mindset.
We’ve never taken those package tours where you get off the bus at the tourist spots in Paris, then eat lunch at the authentic French tourist restaurant. Never stood in the blazing sun at Ephesus listening to guides expounding on Greek and Roman architecture. Never taken those river tours down the Rhine or Moselle, but only because we’ve never been able to afford them.
As expats, dipping our toes in the tourist thing sounded sort of fun and potentially ironic. We thought we knew so much about Brabant because we’re “locals.”
We didn’t know squat.
The tour departed from Stadbistro Christoffel, a restaurant in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Brabant’s only “name” destination in a region tourists rarely visit. Well, that’s not true. All the tourists here in Brabant drive over from neighboring Belgium. They look Dutch and speak Flemish, which is really Dutch, so you rarely see them clustered up trailing flag-waving guides, fretting they’ll get lost.
But I digress.
We usually hit Den Bosch’s restaurant row on Lange Putstraat. Christoffel is on the opposite end of the city, closer to the train station, tucked back off Korenbrugstraat. It was lovely, and we made a note to bring our friends and visitors to somewhere new.
That set the tone for our two days … we kept seeing places and making mental notes to return with friends, investors and even our Dutch friends.
This was the first stop, and I have to admit, I was ready to be underwhelmed. We go to ‘s-Hertogenbosch almost every week to eat and shop. Bored? Maybe a little …. Instead, the tour reinforced what a glossy city this is. Even the tourist office is really cool.
What we thought it was like: Small city, surprisingly sophisticated and wealthy, with great restaurants and posh shops.
What it’s really like: Small city, surprisingly sophisticated and wealthy with great restaurants and posh shops. BUT, Brabant is Open took us to sections of the city we didn’t know existed. For instance, did you know fashion designer Addy van den Krommenacker has a boutique/atelier on Verwersstraat? Queen Maxima of the Netherlands is one of his many clients. In fact, the whole Verwersstraat area is full of expensive stores we couldn’t afford, but was fun to see.
We also got a tour of St. Jans, the largest cathedral in the Netherlands. Like by a mile. The Dutch even call it the “Kanjermonument,” which translates to something like Giganto-monument.
This is a city that always has something going on and is the perfect place to stroll, shop and dine. We’ve never had a bad time here … and this was no exception, thanks to our guide Anissa Foukaine, who was amazing. More about her later in our “people we met” post.
Factoid: Den Bosch has canals, and the Binnendieze River actually flows under the city. On our tour, Anissa showed us the hatch in the street that opens up so people can pop up behind the City Hall, which is a thing for people getting married. Not making this up. Warning — part of the boat trip under the city is in pitch darkness. But this is the Netherlands, where technology reigns supreme. So there’s also a “City on Fire” video segment. Underground. On a river.
HET NOORDBRABANTS MUSEUM (The North Brabant Museum)
What we thought it was like: Crowded and tiny. The last time I was here was during the Bosch exhibition, which drew 425,000 people in three months and pretty much overwhelmed the city. Which explains how I so badly misjudged this museum.
What it’s really like: Noordbrabants Museum is a museum on par with the best in Amsterdam, which is really the point of the Brabant is Open campaign: Don’t think of coming here as a consolation prize.
The main building is the former governor’s palace with new wings added on.
Our presenter at the museum pointed out this is one of the Top 25 national museums in a country with the best in the world – Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis – and rightfully so. It’s a phenomenal museum, with gorgeous open galleries and a stunning collection. In fact, The North Brabant Museum is the only museum in the Southern Netherlands with Van Goghs. In the Vincent van Gogh pavilion, they tell the story of Van Gogh’s Brabant origins and his connection to what was then a peasant agrarian society.
Also, the museum recently beat out Barbra Streisand for their latest, a view of a water mill that’s still intact a few miles away in Nuenen. Sadly, once the Bosch exhibit ended, the museum only has facsimiles of his work. But there are prints and a painting by Bruegel, who is just as fascinating, and only slightly less psychedelic.
The current exhibition of modern Chinese art is getting rave reviews. And our guide tipped us off that Noordbrabants Museum will bring Bosch works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition that starts in November.
What we thought it was like: Dispatches has run posts about Heusden, one of a network of fortress towns along the Maas (Meuse) River from Rotterdam down to Maastricht. So we expected an open-air museum.
What it’s really like: Heusden is a real city with real residents who – with the help of subsidies from the Dutch government – have returned what was once an abandoned historical curiosity to its former glory.
You know how we talked about irony at the beginning? Well, it caught up with us here. We got off the big Brabant is Open bus and there’s Martin Harding, our British friend. Not only is he there, he’s our English tour guide! Crazy ….
One of the best moments was a stop for coffee/tea and worstenbroodje at Bakkertje Deeg. Heusden is a center for artisans, and that includes the local bakery, where Lucas Vermeulen described himself as no ordinary baker, “but a bread designer.” Vermeulen told our group about how his son is the family’s 6th generation baker: “It’s good to see there’s a future for the man who works with his hands.”
Between shops, architecture and battlements on the river, Huesden is definitely worth a day trip … another place we made a mental note to bring friends and investors. Be sure to get a tour, because a lot has happened here in the last 800 years, and not all of it pleasant, including a Nazi atrocity during the closing days of World War II.
Factoid: You can take a 2-hour boat trip from ‘S-Hertogenbosch to Heusden.
Nuenen is another place we know well. In fact, this is one place there weren’t a lot of surprises. That said, the Vincentre, a museum dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh’s life in the village where his father was a pastor, never disappoints.
What we thought it was like: Small museum chock full of interactive video.
What it’s really like: Small museum chock full of interactive video. But we’d forgotten how well done Vincentre is. I’m a fan, so I could spend hours here. And the museum goes out of its way to provide translation audio for people who don’t speak Dutch.
After the museum, you can walk around the town with its green spaces, shops and no less than 22 spots directly related to the painter’s brief life. Nuenen is another destination in Brabant that never disappoints.
Hotel and restaurants
• We stayed at the Pullman Hotel in Eindhoven, which turned out to be super. We got a tour of the Pullman, which is really the only hotel in the center of Eindhoven that can be called a headquarters hotels for conventions and large groups. Cheryl worked in corporate hotel sales and she knows the industry inside and out.
She rates its meeting spaces and amenities top-notch with a variety of meeting room sizes to accommodate all groups up to a group of 400. Room amenities were all high-quality, and everything has been updated recently. Room sizes range from “cozy” to rather large suites. While we’ve not planned any large groups at the Pullman, if Cheryl were a meeting planner looking to book a group regionally, she would recommend the Pullman.
A note: The Pullman is a 5-star hotel, but because it’s also a business hotel, they rate themselves a 4-star so biz travelers don’t get dinged for staying at too nice a place.
• We ate dinner at the Restaurant De Watermolen Van Opwetten. This is at the watermill outside Nuenen we’ve been going on about that Van Gogh painted.
This is a very, very good restaurant with an outdoor terrace. We had the 30 euro prix fixe meal with Beef Bavette, and everything was first-rate down to the house red wine. The main restaurant really is in the rustic old mill replete with giant exposed oak beams and rough-hewn floors. BUT, in the Dutch style, the look is modern/traditional, pulled together with lighting, decor and color schemes.
A first-rate evening with great company. But be forewarned – a very popular spot on the weekends, so make reservations.
About Brabant is Open:
The campaign is the result of a partnership VisitBrabant, the region’s convention and visitors bureau, has created with a number of cities, organizations and businesses including:
• Safari Park Beekse Bergen and Efteling amusement park
• the cities of Bergen-op-Zoom, Breda, Den Bosch, Eindhoven, Helmond, Heusden and Tilburg
• the province of Brabant
• Brabant businesses including Fatboy home decor, Front-of-House music festivals, NBTC Holland Marketing, Omroep Brabant, De Persgroep media and TicketsPlus.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.