Legend has it that in the 17th Century, when the town of Dordrecht imposed heavy taxes on the importation of meat, two enterprising locals hit upon a cunning plan. To avoid paying the meat tax, and presumably after a suitable amount of ‘Dutch courage’ had been consumed, they dressed a sheep as a man and attempted to walk arm-in-arm with the sheep past the tax inspectors. The sheep, which by this stage must have been wondering just what these two inebriates had in mind, gave the game away by bleating.
Taking this legend of idiocy as a mark of civic pride, the good people of Dordrecht have adopted a rams head as a symbol of the city. The local people are known as Schapenkoppen (Sheepheads), the football team has a rams head on its club motif and there is a local delicacy known as Schapenkop (sheephead), which mercifully turns out to be a biscuit and not the actual head of a sheep.
Knowing this, I had high hopes for Dordrecht, and it was in Baldrick-like* spirits that we approached our visit to this lovely and fascinating town. My guidebook says that Dordrecht is often overlooked by people visiting the Netherlands, many of whom head to Delft or Amsterdam and pass up the opportunity to walk Dordrecht’s ancient and historic centre. That would be a mistake, Dordrecht is a splendid place to explore.
Like so much of the Netherlands, water defines Dordrecht. The town sits on an island surrounded by no less than five rivers, which must put it in the running for some sort of record. The Oude Maas, Beneden Merwede, Nieuwe Merwede, Hollands Diep, and Dordtsche Kil rivers can only truly be appreciated by boat, luckily there are plenty of boats still sailing the rivers. In fact, I was surprised not just by the number of ships but by the size of some of them. They looked like they belonged on the ocean.
The Beneden Merwede and Nieuwe Merwede join forces just outside Dordrecht to form the River Waal, which further upstream becomes the Rhine as it passes through Germany and along the Franco-German border, before heading into Switzerland. We happened to witness the launch of a river cruiser flying a Swiss flag. Curious, I discovered that it was a new ship built in Dordrecht but registered in Switzerland for tax reasons. It was collecting passengers then sailing to Basel.
Granted city status in 1220, Dordrecht is the oldest city in the southern Netherlands. Although a few areas of the old city are architecturally unlovely, Dordrecht’s historic centre is stuffed full of attractive examples of Dutch 17th, 18th and 19th Century buildings. Some date from much earlier. The Grote Kerk, or Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kerk (Our Dear Lady Church), was constructed between the 1280s and the 1470s.
The Grote Kerk is by-far-and-away the largest building in Dordrecht, dramatically overshadowing the surrounding streets and visible for miles. Its completion in 1470 came half a century after the disastrous St. Elisabeth Flood of 1421, which ranks as the 20th worst flood of all time – although I have no idea who decides these things. The flood must have been on the minds of people who built the huge tower high above the water.
The flood was caused by terrible storms in the North Sea which broke the dykes; a massive tide swept inland causing perhaps as many as 10,000 casualties. The flood created an inland sea which surrounded and cut off Dordrecht for several decades. The majority of the land on which the modern city stands has been reclaimed from the sea water through the construction of polders. The flood may have been devastating but since then the people of Dordrecht have been busy building.
Over nine hundred buildings in the centre are considered national monuments; 160 are considered municipal monuments; and 400 are regarded as characteristic buildings. I’m not sure what a ‘characteristic building’ is, but this impressive array of historic structures puts Dordrecht only eighth in the top ten Monumental Cities in the Netherlands. Seriously, only eighth.
A walk around the centre of Dordrecht reinforces a sense of the richness of the town’s past and the ever present history that still clings to the streets. It also entails countless crossings and re-crossings of canals, many of which link the surrounding rivers with small internal harbours. The harbours are crowded with boats – including many traditional boats – which gives an impression of what Dordrecht must have looked like when it was a major trading centre.
Given the living history, it amazes me that people would decide not to visit Dordrecht. I’ll be going back, thats for sure.
* For anyone unfamiliar with Blackadder, the long running BBC sit-com, Baldrick is an idiot-like character who occasionally has rapier-like insight, but more commonly hatches moronic “cunning plans”.