Let’s start this off in complete honesty – I have never been the biggest fan of the Netherlands. In fact, I’ve been holding a giant grudge against the entire country ever since I lived in Rotterdam for seven months and made one bad experience after the other. Rationally, I am fully aware of the fact that the way I experience a place says nothing about the place itself, only about me, and I also know that it is unjust to generalize my negative feelings and apply them to the whole city, region, or country altogether. But – what can I say, I am a human, we get emotional sometimes.
Still, in the four years that have passed since I lived in the Netherlands I have always had a nagging voice at the back of my mind, telling me to go back and get my opinion changed. Well – last weekend, I had the chance to spend a few days in Tilburg and the Brabant region, and what happened then came as a shock both to me and to everyone who knows me: I liked it. More accurately: I loved it! Let me take you along with me to show you why.
I feel like the Netherlands made every effort possible to make me see the good side this time around: 20 minutes after arriving in Tilburg, a little city in the region of Brabant, we were already standing in the middle of a food truck festival. The way to my heart definitely goes through the stomach – I was in snack heaven. While I was eating my way through vegetarian Bitterballen, crispy fries, and everything else that the Dutch could think to throw in the fryer, I got the slight hunch that maybe, just maybe, this county wasn’t half bad. The atmosphere at Smaak Karavaan (taste caravan) did its best to make me love the place, as well – and if that wasn’t enough, the friendly Dutch around us were so welcoming that I almost couldn’t handle it. Seriously, Netherlands – how did I miss this before?
When I woke up the next day, I thought to myself that last night was probably just an exception. The real Netherlands will greet me today, just as they did four years ago, with rain, wind, and the annoying tendency to pronounce my name as Fanessa (instead of Vanessa). But nothing of the sort happened – instead, we were presented with tiny, sun-filled streets, lined with vintage shops and unique designers. We spent the rest of the morning at De Pont museum exploring Dutch (and international) contemporary art, perfectly happy and content. After having lunch at Anvers, we set out to explore the little streets and cute alleyways a bit more (always marvelling at the many bikes, of course, because – how can you not?).
The whole reason why we came to Tilburg and Brabant in the first place started only in the evening, though: BrabantNacht. Organized by Visit Brabant, this night is made for explorers: eight iconic locations throughout Brabant region opened their doors to visitors during nighttime, to discover the Dutch South in a new light. Our location was Safaripark Beekse Bergen, just a little outside of Tilburg.
We were greeted with a cocktail served in a coconut which transported me right back to the many evenings chilling on a beach in the Caribbean – only the vibes were more African this time, and the weather a teensy bit colder. Then, we hopped on a jeep which would take us to our first safari for the night, right through the vast territory that Safaripark Beekse Bergen occupies. You really wouldn’t think you’re in the Netherlands anymore, looking at the setting sun, giraffes roaming the grasslands, zebras quietly munching away in between. What a change of scenery – the views couldn’t have been more different from the Netherlands I thought I knew.
The night continued with a braai, or African barbeque, and then it was time to turn on our flashlights: we would be heading out through the safari park on foot this time, in the pitch dark. This is when the nocturnal animals wake up – we saw the dancing eyes of hyenas blinking in the blackness, a cute red panda slowly making its way from one tree to another, and a family of elephants enjoying the warm evening, probably one of the last this summer, as fall is drawing closer and closer.
While walking, we really experienced the immense size of the park – what we saw was only a small fraction. The Dutch couple walking next to us, who visit often with their two young children, told us about the space – there is even a river running through the territory, allowing visitors to do boat tours. Our guide told us about the daily work with the animals, stories from caretaking, and about the affection that starts growing when you deal with them every day.
I don’t usually go to zoos (which is what Safaripark Beekse Bergen is – a zoo, albeit a very large one), and I don’t even imagine that I will go back to one in the near future – but seeing one in the dark, learning so much about the animals and what it takes to care for them, proved interesting. Exhausted from the long day, we crawled into our extra cozy tents (ever tried glamping in the middle of a zoo? It’s fun!) and went to bed.
The next day was departure day – and who would have thought, I actually felt sad to leave. I guess I’ve learned my lesson – the Netherlands are a beautiful country. The weekend in Brabant opened my eyes and gave me the opportunity to reevaluate my opinions, something that I long thought I should do. Who knows, maybe next time, I’ll even go up to Rotterdam and fall in love with the city, just as I did with Tilburg and Brabant….
*My boyfriend and I were invited to BrabantNacht by Visit Brabant. All opinions expressed are my own.