Back in the Netherlands following the holidays, the weather cleared up just enough to make a trip further north to the ancient town of Hoorn. One of the old Zuider Zee ports, Hoorn was once one of the most important and wealthiest towns in the Netherlands. Today the town still reflects the great wealth that was generated by global trade, and is an inviting place to stroll.
Settled around the 8th Century and granted city status in 1357, the horn-shaped harbour (which gives Hoorn its distinctive name) was perfectly located on the Zuider Zee (a branch of the North Sea) for the Baltic Sea Trade, particularly the trade in herring. In the 15th Century herring made Hoorn rich.
Already rich, Hoorn became fabulously wealthy thanks to the discovery of trade routes to the Far East. Dutch East India Company founder, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, came from Hoorn and the town was one of the company’s most important bases. Ships departed to return laden with spices from Batvia (Jakarta, Indonesia). This made the Netherlands a powerful trading nation and led to the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age.
It was Coen’s vision that led the Dutch to build an empire in what is modern-day Indonesia, an empire which lasted until 1949 when Indonesia won independence following World War II. Coen has a large statue in the central square, the Rode Steen.
It was from Hoorn that Willem Corneliszoon Schouten departed in 1615 in search of an alternative, western route to the spice islands of Indonesia. This he did by sailing into the Pacific Ocean after rounding the tip of South America which, naturally, he named Cape Horn (Kaap Hoorn) after his home town.
Hoorn’s fame led the 17th Century Dutch poet, Joost van den Vondel, to refer to it as the “trumpet” of the Zuider Zee. It looked like Hoorn’s position as one of the preeminent Dutch trading ports would go unchallenged, but the good times came to an end in the early 18th Century. The disaster that sealed Hoorn’s fate was the silting up of the Zuider Zee and Hoorn’s own port. Ships were no longer able to reach the Baltic.
Without Zuider Zee access, the trade in exotic spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and mace, which had created vast profits and seen Hoorn flourish, ended abruptly. Hoorn sunk into relative obscurity.
To understand the Zuider Zee, and what happened after it had silted up, you really need to look at a map. A modern map won’t reference the Zuider Zee, because once it had silted up the Dutch realised that if they built dykes and sealed this inland sea it could be drained and turned into farm land. This was proposed in the 17th Century but only became reality with the construction of the Afsluitdijk in 1920.
Today the Zuider Zee is a lake split into two parts: the IJsselmeer and Markermeer. Hoorn remains an important port for leisure craft and the harbour is full of sailing boats, crewed on weekends by people from Amsterdam. Approaching from the train station and not the water gives a false impression of Hoorn, despite having a lovely central square, the town’s true heart is the harbour.
I made my way to the harbour and started my exploration of this charming town. One thing about the herring and spices that were traded through this port, they have bequeathed the town some wonderful buildings. One of the oldest, dating from 1632, now houses the fascinating Westfries Museum – a good place to start if you want to get your bearings on the town’s history.