The Dutch struggle with water is writ large in the region north of Amsterdam known, without a hint of irony, as Waterland. The relationship with water has shaped the entire landscape of this region for over a thousand years and, coincidentally, explains why clogs are made of wood. Its history alone makes a visit to Waterland worthwhile, but it has much more to offer. Beautiful villages full of wooden houses, seemingly stuck in an earlier century, dot a landscape of polders scattered with black-and-white cows.
Although it sits on Amsterdam’s doorstep, Waterland is a picture postcard perfect rural idyll, far removed from the tourist- and cycle-clogged (no pun intended) streets of the Dutch capital. The one exception to this rule is Volendam, which is a terrifying mix of tourist hoards (row upon row of tour buses filled the entrance to the town), Dutch cliché (think photos in Dutch costume, wooden tulips and foam clogs) and seaside resort smelling of fried fish.
It’s a region as pretty as any in the Netherlands, ideal for exploring by bike straight from the centre of Amsterdam – fortunately most tourists don’t so the area remains tranquil. Leaving the city behind, 30 minutes of cycling takes you into the middle of the countryside. Out here time seems to slow down, the tempo calms down, and the sound of the city is replaced by bird song.
There are lots of places to rent bikes in Amsterdam, but I brought my bike on the train from The Hague – taking bikes on Dutch trains is fabulously easy. The front of Amsterdam’s Centraal Station is a disorienting mass of people, bikes, trams and buses, so I headed to the rear of the station. Here you can take a free ferry to Amsterdam North, or follow a cycle path along the waterfront to Amsterdam East and a bridge over the IJ, the body of water connecting Amsterdam to the North Sea.
I was headed for Marken, one of the most picturesque of Waterland’s many picturesque villages, about 20km from central Amsterdam. Marken sits on a small island in the IJsselmeer, the vast lake that was formed by damming the former Zuiderzee in the early 20th Century, and is now connected to the mainland by a 3km causeway built in 1957. It makes for a good day trip by bike, with the possibility of lots of side trips to other villages.
Crossing the Zuiderzeeweg, a long bridge connecting Amsterdam to Waterland, my route took me along the top of dykes that protect Waterland from the IJsselmeer. Although it can be windy, cycling on top of the dykes has advantages – being slightly elevated in a country as flat as the Netherlands means excellent views.
The landscape was given permanent shape in 1932 when the Zuiderzee was dammed, allowing the land to be drained and cultivated. Before this, the region was largely wetlands with small villages and farms prone to regular flooding. A particularly devastating flood in 1916 (in the midst of World War I) led the government to build the Afsluitdijk to finally tame the Zuiderzee.
In spring the landscape is a riot of colour, as wild flowers are joined by thousands of birds returning from their winter retreats. The only down side was the profusion of insect life. There were billions of insects in the air, at times I found myself cycling through dense clouds of them. I was covered in insects by the time I reached Marken. They were in my hair, ears, nose and had even found their way into my pockets. It was pretty disgusting.