The Boots & Bowtie Manifesto
The Boots and Bowtie walker is someone who, like us, enjoys a good walk in beautiful country, accompanied by great food and drink. Carrying no more than a light backpack, he or she stays each night in a hotel or bed and breakfast (chambre d’hôte), not necessarily deluxe, but certainly a comfortable place to shower and sleep after the day’s adventures. In the evening, the Boo &Bow walker enjoys a good meal somewhere nearby, again not necessarily expensive, but certainly delicious, and either lunch or dinner might be a fabulous picnic. We especially like food and drink that is part of a local tradition, something produced on such a small scale it won’t get to the supermarket. We’ll clue you in to some of the really special treats you might not encounter otherwise.
Since you’re not carrying cooking equipment (beyond the corkscrew), sleeping bag or tent, your pack is light. A day pack is ideal in fact; bring something clean to go out in and you have the “bowtie” bit sorted.
Most of our walking routes include at least one overnight stay, which should refresh you after the day’s exertion and put you in a good frame of mind for the next day’s walk. We seek out friendly bed-and-breakfast establishments or small hotels that are quiet, restful places to sleep and are located comfortably near places to eat. The walks often follow one of the many long-distance footpaths in the network of the “Sentiers Grand Randonnées” (in Dutch “Lange Afstand Wandelpaden”). This brilliant system – more at www.era-ewv-ferp.org – can take you everywhere in Europe from Scandinavia to the Adriatic. For the time being, though, we’re sticking closer to our home in the Netherlands.
Why spend our vacation walking?
If you are coming to Europe for the first time, you probably want to see “the sights”, and we don’t want to stop you. But if you want to slow down, even for just a day or two, a Boo&Bow walk is an immensely satisfying way to experience the countryside and its inhabitants (human and otherwise). The places we’ve explored all have a wealth of cultural and culinary traditions which the motorist’s radar cannot possibly perceive through the billboards. A walking pace allows you to stop (on a dime!) and smell the flowers. Your rhythm changes, and although you may have been partying until the wee hours in Paris clubs last week, you may find yourself happily turning in at 10:00 PM and waking up at 6:00 raring to go.
This is not the cheapest way to travel, but it doesn’t have to be terribly expensive and is very good value for money. European campsites are cheap but tend to be crowded and noisy, especially in summer. And when all you really need is to wash, eat, and fall into bed, the beautiful country resort hotel with TV/fax/phone/pool/ conference facilities is overpriced. Of course you have our permission to choose either of these, but we won’t be listing them.
That good meal: our usual pattern is picnic lunch and dinner out; it cuts the monotony, and in theory eating only one meal a day in a restaurant makes eating less expensive. (Of course you can picnic on foie gras and champagne if you choose; it’s your vacation.) We also realize that hunger is the best sauce, and that you may not be out for the three-star dining experience every night, whether for sartorial or financial reasons. Even Mrs Boots has acknowledged the enormous aesthetic thrill of a simple meal of Vlaamse frites on a cold and rainy Flemish night. But we don’t want you to pay too much for a bad meal, and we’ve found that sometimes an unassuming-looking place will have wonderful, locally produced food. It may be very simple food, but it should be good. There are all sorts of variations possible, for example, you may hit a town on market day and decide to spend the next couple of days sampling the range of local delights. Find a spot with an inspiring view, uncork the wine and unwrap the cheese as you listen to the birds and you may experience a converging of your senses in a moment you’ll remember forever.
We’re writing this mostly for people who will be traveling to Europe and want a few days off from cities (or for the expat living here who would like to see a bit of countryside but doesn’t know where to start). Why not trek through spectacular mountains with a Mediterranean cuisine? you may wonder. Well, if you’re coming for a holiday you have enough to pack without worrying about taking your crampons and special gear for a couple of days. Healthy exercise is one thing, an expedition is another. We will enable you to burn enough calories so you to eat and drink well without the guilt if you’re prone to that sort of thing.
The Benelux countries are accessible, in terms of terrain, language, accessibility, and budget.
Yes, Holland and Flanders are largely flat, but not everywhere, and the Belgian Ardennes is a magical place of hills and woods and charming monasteries that make fabulous beers and, did you know, cheeses (not for nothing did Shakespeare set “As You Like It” in the Forest of Arden). Long ago in what is now the Benelux, glaciers moved the land into some interesting masses that you won’t see if you stick to the “Randstad” area of the Netherlands (the agglomeration of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht that form the boundaries of what most visitors get to). This area offers some lovely hiking. Its appeal is precisely that the up and down bit won’t be too challenging – if you want a challenge, just add a little more walking in a given day. The views can be lovely as long as you’re not expecting Alpine heights.
Even in small villages, the people speak at least a smattering of English. Despite a booming rediscovery of traditional methods of food- and drink-making and a new pride in some old traditions, people are aware of their status as citizens of Europe and know they have something to offer. If you have a smattering of French or German it will help you recognize signs and menu entries. We’ll be providing a glossary of frequently encountered terms in the book.
And towns and villages are close enough together here that you can walk from one place to another easily, leaving one town after breakfast and getting to another by morning coffee time if you so desire. Starting points for almost all of these walks can be reached by public transit, while others are better reached by car. A few regions, such as the south of Holland’s province of Limburg, have an extensive bus network that caters to walkers. If you can take advantage of one of these systems, leave your car and its attendant worries at home. If you’re used to car travel, it may sound complicated to start your trip by taking a train and then a bus to a tiny village, but it’s easily done.
Five-star hotels are definitely to be found, as well as plenty of campgrounds (see manifesto for why we’re in the middle) and a range in between the extremes. We’ve found a lot of bargains in the small-and-unassuming type of places. If we still need to convince you of the value for money here: the Dutch, known for their price-conscious habits, go here for their vacations. Say no more!
Is there really anything to eat?
Why ramble in the Benelux at all, if you’re interested in food? Fair question, but here we strongly feel that you’ll be surprised. Belgium in particular has a fabulous culinary tradition, firmly based as it is on French cooking, yet more willing to experiment, and with far less reliance on goose liver and caviar. In the Netherlands, a country whose cooking has always been regarded as uninteresting, to put it kindly, there are some wonderful restaurants. Yes, a nation of farmers and sailors (and dope-peddlers and oil magnates), but one where you can eat brilliantly, IF you know where to look. The best Dutch cuisine, rather than copying the French, relies on local fish, shellfish, game and cheeses to create something genuine and delicious. And there’s more to Dutch cheese than Gouda and Edam. We can’t wait to tell you about it.
We’re busy now collecting information about the various walks we want to present. These will include part of the Achterhoek (in the east of Holland; we’ll be explaining it all in the book), a route near Arnhem, one near Nijmegen, the Voerstreek of Belgium, south Limburg, the area around the Belgian town of Spa, and a ten-day walk from Maastricht to Luxemburg City.
Once the book’s out, we’d love to hear from you if you have additions/subtractions, comments, or criticisms about the routes or food-and-drink-related entries.
Anne Hodgkinson Mitchell Sandler