Medieval Elburg is unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in the Netherlands. Sitting on the shores of the former Zuiderzee, it was a prosperous fishing village when, in 1390, it was redesigned along a grid system and surrounded by defensive walls and moat. The straight cobbled streets and narrow lanes are reminiscent of modern Manhattan*, only in miniature. At first glance, it’s presence in the middle of the Dutch countryside is a bit of a mystery, but this was cutting edge urban design in 14th century Europe and Elburg was major trading town thanks to its role in the Hanseatic League.
Cycling through peaceful Dutch countryside along the shores of the former Zuiderzee, I arrived in Elburg on a sunny Sunday morning. The Netherlands is not the busiest place on Sunday mornings but, even by Dutch standards, Elburg was unnaturally quiet. As I walked the beautiful, deserted streets, I marvelled at the tranquility and did begin to wonder where everyone was – it was a bit too quiet, like a zombie apocalypse may have happened. Then the church doors opened and – excuse the inappropriate pun – all Hell broke loose.
This is traditional Netherlands, a place as far removed from the dubious delights of Amsterdam only an hour away by car. In another nod to the similarities with the United States, this part of the Netherlands is De Bijbelgordel, the Bible Belt, an area populated by a higher than average percentage of conservative Dutch Calvinists. Elburg is right in the middle of De Bijbelgordel and on a Sunday morning it shows.
Hundreds of people flooded onto the streets. Friendly chatter shattered the peace, as whole families in their ‘Sunday Best’ poured into the town centre in a scene that has been played out in this historic town for centuries. Dozens of people cycled past, and small traffic jams formed as cars and bikes crammed into the streets at the same time. As luck would have it, I was standing near the Reformed Dutch Grote Kerk, the largest church in Elburg and epicentre of all this action.
As the crowds dispersed, I wandered into the church and a vicar (if that’s what they’re called in the Netherlands) told me that I had five minutes before they closed. It wasn’t long before one of the congregation had started chatting to me though, and the vicar joined us to discuss the history of the church and town. Outside, the hubbub had died down, the good people of Elburg had vanished again. I set off to explore the once more empty streets and to uncover the town’s interesting history.
Unfortunately, Sunday may not be the best time to visit Elburg. It has a town museum and, intriguingly, a Jewish museum. None were open, because in De Bijbelgordel very little is open on a Sunday – not even the Jewish museum. That was a shame because Elburg once had a small but thriving Jewish community, that traced its origins back to the mid-17th century arrival of Ashkhazian Jews from Eastern Europe. Their story is fascinating.
Different from the earlier migration of Sefardian Jews who came from Portugal and Spain and settled in cities, the Ashkhazian Jews were often poor and settled in rural areas. By the mid-18th century the Jewish community was fully integrated into the life of Elburg. The Second World War saw most of Elburg’s Jewish population rounded up and sent first to Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz. Only one member of the community who was transported to the death camps survived the war.
Disappointed that I couldn’t visit the museums, I had a snack in a cafe and walked down to the old harbour passing through the only remaining city gate, the 16th century Vischpoort (Fish Gate). As part of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of towns and guilds trading across Europe, it was from here that Elburg’s boats made the town rich from trade across Europe. This was Elburg’s peak of influence, before it became a sleepy backwater.
The town saw little 19th century industrialisation and the railway, which provided a big boost to neighbouring towns, bypassed Elburg. From its once mighty position in the Hanseatic League, the town came to depend upon fishing for its living. While Elburg has had some rough times, it feels prosperous again today. Seemingly little changed from medieval times, it now attracts increasing numbers of tourists – just don’t visit on a Sunday if you want to visit any museums.
* The very fact of the existence of a Dutch-inspired grid system, lends extra weight to my theory that the Dutch have left a far greater imprint on the modern United States than anyone might imagine. New York was first New Amsterdam, before the turbulent 17th century wars in Europe saw it ceded to the English. Two centuries of English rule did little to undo early Dutch influence, apparently. While we’re on the subject, if you think apple pie is an All-American treat, think again.