The Netherlands is jam-packed with historic towns, many so quintessentially Dutch that the national tourist board must daily pinch itself to make sure it’s not dreaming. The tiny village of Marken, with its small harbour surrounded by warehouses-cum-restaurants and wooden fishermen’s houses, is so traditionally Dutch that I felt obliged to pinch myself as well. It verges on ‘quaint’, and I can imagine it gets crowded in summer, but on a spring morning it was peaceful.
Marken was once an island, for centuries home to an isolated but thriving fishing community: herring was the staple catch, but whaling became important for the island as well. The reduced economic importance of these two industries saw the island’s fortunes and population dramatically decline, to the point of near abandonment. This was reversed in 1957 when the government built a causeway connecting Marken to the mainland, paving the way for today’s staple catch of tourists.
This village dates from the 13th Century, and retains a strong sense of traditional life. Until modernity began to intrude, the small fishing communities of the Zuiderzee were an anthropologists dream, with unique traditions, clothing and songs. In Marken, men wishing to ask a woman for her hand in marriage would make a pair of elaborately carved clogs. He would then secretly leave them on the doorstep of the woman’s house. If she wore the clogs the next day the proposal was accepted. A clog-based version of online dating.
In the Netherlands nothing says ‘I love you’ more than two hunks of wood attached to your feet, so it’s a surprise that the tradition has died out. There’s still a clog workshop in the village making traditional Marken designs for tourists with more space in their suitcase than common sense. The village is split into two main parts: the area around the harbour and a cluster of fishermen’s cottages built on small man-made hillocks around the church. Buildings were constructed on these raised areas to protect them from regular flooding.
Cycling from Amsterdam, I arrived at Marken’s pretty harbour along the top of a dyke that offered sweeping views over the Gouwzee towards Monnickendam, another historic fishing village. Parking the bike, I treated myself to some kibbeling (fried fish pieces) from the fish stand on the waterfront before going for a stroll around town.
The most fascinating area is close to the church where several dozen fishermen’s cottages bunch around small open areas connected by narrow alleyways. It isn’t a large place, but walking around the houses is atmospheric. Feeling transported back a couple of centuries by Marken’s old world charm, I was jolted back to reality by the town’s coat of arms displayed over the entrance to the town hall: unmistakably, a male African head straight out of the handbook of colonial stereotypes.
This appears to be a Dutch folkloric depiction of the head of a ‘Moor’. A racially charged Europe-wide emblem with origins in the Spanish Reconquista, the protracted conquest of Spain’s 700 year-old Moorish caliphate by Christian armies. As part of the Spanish Empire, this concept would have been well known in the Netherlands.
The ‘Moor’s Head’ symbolises the triumph of 15th Century Christianity but its use in the Netherlands goes back to the 13th Century. Its modern use as a coat of arms, in a nation that was heavily involved in the slave trade, seems odd, but this is one of those Dutch contradictions. The highly divisive depiction of Zwarte Piet, a much loved but essentially racist caricature who accompanies Sinterklaas (Dutch Santa Claus), has similar origins.
I couldn’t decide whether keeping the coat of arms was an insensitive decision to flout modern concepts of European multiculturism, or a commendable effort not to sweep history under the rug. Answers on a postcard please! Mulling over the fact that in Europe, even in the smallest village, you’re never far from a much bigger history, I headed back to my bike and set off on a circuit of this beautiful island.