Elegant `barging' through the waterways of Holland

All the best travelers are a little nosy, a little lazy, and love good food and boats. Therefore, they are naturally well-adapted to spend a week barging through the Netherlands and neighboring Belgium. The nosiness comes in because you can see quite a lot from the vantage point of a barge. You can sit up in bed and get a duck's-eye view of a duck negotiating a water landing, with its loss and sudden regaining of dignity.

Or you can sit in a deck chair amid geraniums and get a very good look into other people's gardens, or at other people's well- scrubbed barges. The Dutch appreciate water -- there is a boat here for every 13 people -- and each cheery brick house turns its best face to the river.

Another interesting thing about traveling by barge is that you are something of a tourist attraction yourself. The people you are staring at, the women in raincoats and head-scarfs, all walking dogs or riding thick black bicycles, and the men in gaffer caps, fishing from under gigantic umbrellas, all take a break to stare back at you.

Particularly, I suspect, if your barge is Floating Through Europe's beautiful brown and yellow Juliana. Any boat lover knows the slightly obnoxious, full-of-yourself feeling of being aboard -- however temporarily -- the best-looking craft on the water.

If you doubt that a barge can be beautiful, you have not been to Holland. Barges here have curtains. The Juliana also has potted plants in the cozy dining room-cum-lounge, which is all softly polished wood and bright brass. Here our group, mostly people who had just retired or were just about to, consumed gigot of lamb and homemade mint ice cream, and discussed everything from traveling in China to the New York City Ballet. (One small white-haired lady eclipsed everyone by having been to Antarctica.)

And if the words barge, barging, and bargee do not automatically connote elegance to you, you might change your mind after tasting the cooking of Philippe, our blond and beaming chef from Ghent, who never freezes anything unless it's a dire necessity, and who shops en route for the fresh vegetables essential for nouvelle cuisine.

The cabins have neat little bathrooms, complete with hairdryer and hand-milled soap. And chocolates and a rose appear by your bed every night -- somehow this never palls.

Each week the Juliana wends her way, proceeding at a pace like a slow trot, either from Amsterdam to Bruges, or back again.

A curious feature of leaving Amsterdam on a Sunday, as we did, is that, while there are 13 bridges to be lifted and lowered, there are only two bridgekeepers, who pedal manfully on their bicycles from one bridge to the next. ``We're doing our best,'' one called to us.

Some bridges seem quite new and fairly high-tech, while others have all sorts of fascinating padlocks and cranks that need fiddling with before the bridge can be lifted. There is even one very peculiar one that our bridgekeepers had to hoist by hand. ``If you look back, you'll see them jumping up and down to close it,'' said Zo"e, our young British guide.

Caviar and overnight at Weesp on the river Vecht, then off again next morning, so gently that I didn't even wake up.

A charming stop is the dairy farm ``De Willigen,'' right on the canal, a short distance from Weesp, where Kirby, the farmer's wife, explained the making of cheese. We looked at curds and whey, visited a few cows, and saw yellow rounds being piled on shelves to age.

Kirby's grandfather, who is now in his 90s, used to run this farm; inside the thatch-and-brick barn, you can see the old implements, and buy cheese with ginger or nettles or garlic, which is sold only here.

Despite the misty weather, I couldn't tear myself away from the deck as we journeyed up the river Vecht, with its willows, herons, and wrought-iron gates, along with its mansions -- all pure 18th-century in their grace and clarity of design. All buildings here are brick, roofed in brown tile or thatch. Some have fancy cut-out eaves, and ornamental shutter designs -- white, with red triangles point-to-point.

The river winds a little, so the scene is always unfolding before you: straight rows of narrow trees with sky showing through them, flat green fields, houses with great hippy tiled roofs, once in a while a windmill, and the smooth gray river, reflecting whatever is above it. The occasional church spire fills a real need for punctuation in this pruned and watery landscape.

And whenever we passed through a bridge, the keeper, with a big amused grin, would hold out a fishing rod with a miniature wooden shoe on the end, for his traditional tip of one guilder.

After lunch, Zo"e took us on a bus excursion to Gouda to see the oldest town hall in Holland (circa 1450) and the windows of St. John's Church, half an acre of painted glass. Another Gouda specialty is siropwaffles, thin wafflelike cookies with a honey syrup inside, like cold, brittle pancakes.

The scenery got a bit more industrial as the Juliana left the river, so people piled onto sofas and tended to knitting, puzzles, and mystery books. (Good travelers are flexible.)

But people who like boats like everything about them. That afternoon we refueled the Juliana next to a shop that had ``everything for the bargee'' as Adam, our Welsh captain, said, and all our good travelers had a great time trying on rubber bargee clogs.

Alas, I had arranged to continue on alone in Antwerp, leaving the others to examine its Rubenses and then cruise onward to Bruges, still moored in the Middle Ages; the castle of Ooidonck, looking a magical pink in photos; and the ancient city of Ghent.

But before disembarking, I climbed to the bridge to talk to Adam about barges, and he assured me that Holland is the place to be if you love them.

``They're like shoeboxes, these boats,'' he said. They have a flat bottom and straight sides. And they're not ideal to maneuver; you have to stick pretty much to the middle of the canal.''

Barges here have other uses; as there is a housing shortage in Holland, many people live on them, he said. Or sometimes Americans will buy an old barge whose trading license has run out, make it into a houseboat, and cruise about Europe for five or 10 years.

Floating Through Europe also operates barge tours in France, but the feeling there is quite different. The French focus on having a good time, and their attitude toward their barges is laissez-faire, Adam said.

But in Holland, waterways have a high priority -- more freight is carried by barge than by truck -- so the Dutch are competitive. People are out cleaning their barges all the time. And the captain has to know a lot more rules and regulations.

He looked a little surprised when I remarked about the beauty of the Juliana. ``But this is the best,'' he said.

Practical information. Floating Through Europe has nine barges that tour the rivers and canals of Germany, Britain, and France, as well as Holland and Belgium. The ``Tale of Two Countries'' cruises, described here, will beheld between the end of May to mid-August; the cost ranges from $1,095 to $1,545 per person, double occupancy. Flower-lovers might consider taking one of the spring tulip cruises, scheduled this year from April 6 to May 18.

The Juliana, launched in 1982, carries 24 guests andhas a crew of seven.

Some of the other boats are smaller, carrying 8, 10, or 12 passengers. For more information, call Floating Through Europe, 271 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016. Tel. (212) 685-5600.

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