I felt compelled to visit Broek in Waterland. Not because travel guides insist it’s ‘not to be missed’, not because of its beauty or history, not even because Napoleon visited with Empress Marie Louise in 1811. I had to visit Broek in Waterland because Google Translate told me that the name in English meant ‘Pants in Waterland’. The translation of a Dutch newspaper article claimed, “Pants is a crazy town, with amazing characteristic houses. It used to be quite a carnival of colors.”
‘Crazy’, ‘amazing’ and ‘carnival’, ‘Pants in Waterland’ seemed like my kind of town. ‘Broek’ in Dutch has a number of meanings, mostly related to things that cover the legs. These include ‘pants, trousers, leggings and trews’, and I’m not sure ‘trews’ has been used since the 18th Century. Broek also means ‘swamp’ and ‘marsh’. ‘Marsh in Waterland’ makes a lot more sense in this waterlogged region.
Cycling from Monnickendam to Broek the landscape is dominated by polders, criss-crossed with narrow channels of water, all well below sea level. Given a chance, the North Sea and the former Zuiderzee would rush in and submerge the region, as they’ve done numerous times over the centuries. Modern engineering and a dogged determination to tame nature keep the waters at bay. Which is just as well for the thousands of dairy cows that are as much a feature of the landscape as the polders.
In this relentlessly flat landscape I spotted the spire of one of Broek’s churches long before I arrived. The village is very pretty, large houses hint at its history and former prosperity. Not that it isn’t prosperous today, it definitely is, enough not to need tour bus-style tourism. In fact, it’s actively discouraged, which probably makes Broek a bit snooty. In the 18th Century foreign visitors frequently remarked on Broek’s cleanliness, the denizens of the village clearly take pride in maintaining that tradition. Definitely snooty.
Originally Broek was a small fishing village, but the 17th and 18th Centuries saw a steady flow of wealthy Amsterdam ship owners and merchants moving out of the city and building grandiose houses here. It’s only 10 kilometres to central Amsterdam, and what self respecting wealthy person wouldn’t want a country retreat? There were a few interruptions to its growth – the Spanish burned it to the ground during the Eighty Years War – but it went on to thrive.
After a short wander around the village, and a quick drink in the De Witte Swaen, I was on my way again. After a day of cycling I was headed to Amsterdam only a few kilometres away – but which could be another country altogether. Returning to the urban environment I popped into one last village.
Watergang – which if Google Translate is to be believed, means waterway or watercourse – is a very literal name for a village in the Netherlands. It’s a tiny place of around 300 people that dates back to the late 16th Century, with a church originally built in 1642 that is a registered national monument.
Watergang sits on the Noordhollandsch Kanaal, a canal stretching 75km from Den Helder on the North Sea to North Amsterdam. It was built in 1824 to shorten the route ships had to travel to reach Amsterdam, and because Amsterdam’s harbour on the Zuiderzee was beginning to silt up. The canal only proved economical for around 50 years; too small for bigger ships it became obsolete when the North Sea Canal opened in 1876. It provides pleasant cycling though, and I followed the route all the way into Amsterdam.