Agent comments give added spice to three-country fam excursion

Travel Weekly's Michael Ardizzone traveled on a Collette Tours agent fam trip to the Netherlands, Belgium and France. His report follows:

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- Traveling with a group of agents, and getting their opinions on everything from food to fams to fares, was at least as eye-opening as visiting the destinations themselves.

Our six-night fam trip was an abbreviated version of Collette's nine-night Netherlands-Belgium-Paris escorted tour. The itinerary was ideal for those who prefer not to spend all day in the bus, as the longest rides did not exceed three hours.

Some of the fam trip highlights included:

Amsterdam

The agents' view of Amsterdam was summed up by Mary Ellen Travis of All-Ways Travel in Knoxville, Tenn. "The museums and the architecture were awesome," she said. However, the agents noted that Amsterdam's reputation just might raise eyebrows with some clients, as marijuana and hashish are legal here in small amounts. There are dozens of "coffee bars" -- the euphemism for marijuana bars -- throughout the city.

On the other hand, the city is not known for violent crime, although our tour guide warned us about pickpocketing. "It's just like any other city. You just have to watch out and be careful," said Patricia Sheppard of Abingdon Travel in Abingdon, Va.

The city's other notorious aspect, the Red Light district, is more tame than its reputation might suggest. Although some senior groups might object to the idea of a walking tour through such a place, few of them can resist the temptation to take a peek once they get there. The numerous, gawking tour groups plodding through the area are proof of that.

But if your clients really have a problem with Amsterdam's dark side, you can book them in a hotel in a nicer part of town, generally near the Rijksmuseum, and they'll likely never be exposed to the city's vices.

Shelly Bell of Empress Travel in Schenectady, N.Y., said she wouldn't hesitate to send clients to Amsterdam, but added, "You just have to educate them. And you have to know your client."

One of Amsterdam's big draws is its excellent art museums. The Van Gogh museum is under renovation until May, yet art lovers can view part of the collection temporarily on exhibit in the Rijksmuseum for a separate entrance fee.

The Rijksmuseum is an imposing building housing 200 rooms of art, much of it from the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age. Included are some paintings by Vermeer and many works by Rembrandt. His masterpiece, "The Nightwatch," is considered the Rijksmuseum's main attraction.

The consensus among the agents was that the Anne Frank House was the most compelling attraction in the city. In four-and-a-half rooms, young Anne, her parents, sister and four others, lived for almost two years in hiding from the Nazis. On a small map, Anne's father Otto Frank recorded the Allied advance based on radio reports and news from their caretakers.

Visitors can see the authentic newspaper clippings (including photos of then Princess Elizabeth of England) that Anne pasted on her bedroom wall. Although the original furniture is long gone, video presentations have been added to supplement the printed displays, telling of the Frank family's suffering in Nazi-occupied Holland and the Holocaust.

There are plans to create a space in the building for temporary exhibitions, a multimedia resource center and other enhancements. Warn your elderly or infirm clients that the stairs in the Anne Frank House, as in many Dutch canal houses, are very steep and narrow.

As Amsterdam is known for its diamond industry, the Collette package included a quick visit to Coster Diamonds, steps from the Rijksmuseum. The stop was short on tour and long on sales pitch, but most of the group ooohhed and aaahhed at the sparkling stones, available in many pricey categories.

In contrast, one of the best attractions in Amsterdam is free: the city itself.

Your clients can spend some worthwhile time doing nothing, watching the water wind through 160 canals and under 1,200 bridges, strolling the streets and admiring the 17th century canal houses, which were copied in the fashionable cities all over Europe.

Delft

Delft, less than an hour from Amsterdam, is ideal for day trips and famous for its blue and white porcelain. Yes, the prices are high, but the product is exquisite.

Delft is a small, picturesque city with canals and touristy local shopping located in a ring of streets around the gigantic and architecturally stunning Markt square, a bastion of Flemish architecture from several centuries. Regularly held flower and food markets take place in the square, the heart of the city. There is a tourist information center at No. 83.

The city also is known as the hometown of the 17th century artist Vermeer, who lived on Markt square. Plaques around the city center give information about his life and art. Visitors can see the city through his eyes by standing in various spots from which he painted some of his most famous works.

The tour stopped at the Delft factory and showroom of De Porceleyne Fles (The Porcelain Jar), founded in 1653, the only remaining factory from that era. An interesting 45-minute tour (included on the Collette itinerary, but also available at group rates) with a video presentation ended in a lovely showroom filled with exotic porcelain of all colors and designs. VIP package tours, including refreshments, are available from the factory.

Two and a half hours on the bus brought us across the border into Belgium, past Antwerp to the city of Bruge.

The agents' choice: Bruges

"The French have been very good at liberating Bruges. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, hah! Yes, Napoleon 'liberated' us ... and made us part of France!" said Mr. Andrew, a tour guide for the city of Bruges.

Bruges, a medieval jewel, was probably the consensus favorite stop on the tour.

A jewel of a city deserves a gem of a tour guide. Mr. Andrew was part Bob Hope, part Andy Rooney and all informative. He is funny, educational and passionate about his beautiful corner of the world. At one point he stopped in his tracks and said, "I love this city," clutching his chest as if bringing his hometown close to him in an embrace.

And there is much to love. Lace and chocolates adorn window shops. Swans grace winding canals, and enchanting medieval architecture keeps visitors wide-eyed. It's a storybook place, as there are few modern buildings and little inappropriate development inside the old, egg-shaped center of the city. Tour buses are not permitted inside the "egg" except to pick up and drop off passengers. Due to its small size and narrow streets, Bruges is largely a walker's or biker's town.

Activity in Bruges revolves around two main squares: the Burg and the Markt, a short walk from each other. The Burg, once the square of the aristocrats, is an architectural text book, filled with Romanesque, French Classical, Baroque, Gothic, Modern and Renaissance buildings.

One of northern Europe's treasures also is located in Bruges: the only sculpture by Michelangelo that is permanently displayed outside of Italy. It's a simple, elegant "Madonna and Child," completed early in the artist's life, located in the Church of Our Blessed Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk). The towering church (its spire is 400 feet) charges a small admission price to the sculpture exhibit and other lesser works of art.

Other quality works of art can be enjoyed in the Groeningemuseum. It houses Flemish and northern European art, including paintings by Memling and van Eyck, as well as some modern art exhibits, including work by Magritte. Most of the group felt Bruges was the best stop on the tour and hated to leave for the 50-minute bus ride to Brussels.

A brisk, yet efficient walking tour of Brussels -- beginning in the spectacular Grand' Place -- gave the agents as good a feel for a city as three hours can allow. Yet the quick walking tour of the Belgian capital was a tease. "I wish we had spent more time in Brussels," said Travis of All-Ways Travel.

From Brussels, it took less than two hours on the Thalys (pronounced talus), one of France's superior high-speed TGV trains, to arrive in Paris. Agents noted how smooth the ride was although the top speed reached 175 mph.

Paris

There is enough do and see in Paris to fill guidebook after guidebook -- yet a very efficient, comprehensive, three-hour bus tour took us to points great and small within the city, with an hour stop at Notre Dame.

Shortly before we arrived, a French rail strike shut down all train travel. It was resolved only to be replaced by a strike at some of the museums, including the Louvre, the Gran Palais and the Petit Palais. While this still left many Parisian museums to explore, the crush at the still-open, wonderful Musee d'Orsay was too much to bear.

Another cultural focal point, the Pompidou Centre, is under renovation; its modern art museum is closed, yet its library remains open.

Although Paris' museums are many and varied, an interesting change of pace is Pere Lachaise cemetery. It is best known as the site of rock star Jim Morrison's grave, always surrounded by a band of teens. But it's a beautiful tree-lined place where many notables are buried -- including Collette, Edith Piaf, Victor Hugo, Chopin -- and it features many beautiful monuments, most poignant are those dedicated to concentration camp victims.

Collette's package included an evening at the cabaret, which generally went over well. However, the European attitude regarding sexuality clearly is different from the New World. Clients need to be told that the cabaret features topless dancers, an agent in our group suggested, so that if they find it objectionable, they can choose another activity for the evening.

The Collette tour included a very good dinner at the Jules Verne restaurant on the Eiffel Tower. The view, and the whole experience of dining on one of the world's most famous landmarks, is something that clients will surely remember for the rest of their lives.

The itinerary also includes a nighttime tour by water, on the Seine. Although the boat taken was no-frills, Paris at night made up for the lack of luxury.

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