Schloss Schwerin, a fairytale castle on Lake Schwerin

Sitting picturesquely on an island in Lake Schwerin, the glorious Schloss Schwerin is a magnificent sight as you approach along the lake shore. Its pale stone seems to reflect the sun, making it glow softly in the morning light. It’s considered to be one of the best existing examples in Europe of the historic-romanticism architectural style. Basically, it looks like a building straight out of the overwrought imagination of a Disney film set designer, although it wouldn’t look out of place amongst the chateau in the Loire Valley.

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

I arrived in the morning in the car and was able to drive right up to the castle entrance. I was hoping to find a car park, but instead found three security guards, who advised me that I couldn’t park there. This, it turned out, was because the castle still houses the State Parliament of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and they’re a bit wary of strangers parking their cars near to where the parliamentarians enter the building. Sadly, the Far Right AfD are the second largest party in the parliament, which takes away some of the fun of a visit.

It was sunny so I decided to start with a stroll around the expansive parklands. The main grounds are on the mainland, accessible via a bridge from the island on which the castle sits. I walked down the garden’s central avenue to get a spectacular view back down to the castle. Walking through shady woodland I reached the lake shore for even more extravagant views of the castle across the water. Following the lake edge I made my way back to the castle and the well maintained gardens. It was still early and there weren’t many people around, adding to the serenity.

There has probably been a castle or fort here since the 10th century, but the castle you see today dates from extensive 19th century remodelling and rebuilding in preparation for accommodating the court of the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The aristocratic House of Mecklenburg ruled Mecklenburg-Schwerin for eight centuries, playing a role in virtually all major European conflicts during that period. They were influential in the unification of Germany in 1871, before being abolished during the Weimar Republic in 1918, following Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

This place has seen some history. It has also accumulated a number of art collections, including an incredible collection of Masters from the Flemish and Dutch Golden Age now housed in the nearby Staatliches Museum. Inside the castle itself (€8.50 entrance), the well preserved Grand Ducal Apartments are the main attraction. There is still some renovation work going, part of ongoing efforts to have the castle listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, which meant some parts of the castle weren’t open.

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

The luxurious interiors are sumptuous on the eye, with gold gilding everywhere and beautifully painted ceilings. Thanks to the relative obscurity of Schwerin there were few other people visiting and no tour groups. It’s not often you can say that if you’re visiting such a historic place these days. The Grand Duke’s throne room is perhaps the finest of all the rooms. Like any good castle, Schloss Schwerin comes with a ghost, the legendary Petermannchen – whose only crime it seems to me, was to be a person of restricted height.

It took me a little over an hour to complete the full tour, there are English translations of the information boards, which is helpful, but there’s not a lot else to detain you. It meant I had a bit of time left to visit the gardens again before heading to Lubeck and the next part of this mini German roadtrip.

Schwerin, the city on seven lakes

Schwerin is a pretty town of around a hundred thousand people and, surprisingly, for a place as small as this, it is also the capital of the German state of Mecklenburg–West Pomerania. The main reason for a visit is to see Schloss Schwerin, the beautiful castle that dates back to the 14th century and sits on the outskirts of town (of which, more later), but this former seat of the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg has much more to offer. Its old town survived the Second World War largely intact, and today sits attractively amidst a watery landscape of seven lakes.

Am Markt, Schwerin, Germany

Am Markt, Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Pfaffenteich, Schwerin, Germany

Pfaffenteich, Schwerin, Germany

I decided to spend the night here rather than press on to Lubeck, and I’m really glad I did. If for no other reason than I was able to stay in the delightful Zum weißen Haus, a B&B that was the nicest place I stayed on this trip. It also meant I got to see the town in the evening and enjoy some local cuisine. Let’s be honest, not unlike a lot of Germany, that means ‘hearty’, ‘meaty’ and almost certainly accompanied by potatoes. After a day exploring I figured I’d earned it, not to mention sampling some beers at a local watering hole, the Altstadt Brauhaus.

I’d arrived in the morning after an early start from Berlin. After finding somewhere to park in the town centre I headed to Am Markt, the central square that is towered over by the cathedral and ringed by historic buildings. The cathedral dates back to the 12th century, and is famous thanks to Count Henry of Schwerin. He returned here after attempting to recapture Jerusalem during the Fifth Crusade, allegedly with a drop of Christ’s blood contained inside a jewel. He placed it in the cathedral, which instantly became a pilgrimage site.

The Am Markt provides a pretty focal point for the town and, while Schwerin may not have a wealth of glorious buildings, take any of the roads that radiate from the square and you’ll find cobbled streets and historic buildings. It’s not obvious, to me at least, but Schwerin was in East Germany, now a hotbed of extremist politics. I saw an office of the far right AfD party – one in five people in this state voted for them in 2017. In their window was an ‘I ❤ Germany’ bag. I’m pretty sure it’s possible to ❤ Germany without hating everyone else, but no one seems to have told the AfD.

I wandered around for a while before heading to local lunchtime institution, Weinhaus Wöhler, for something to eat. They have a pleasant courtyard but deciding what to eat was something of a lottery. No one spoke English and the German menu was filled with colloquialisms that confounded Google Translate. After Berlin it was a bit of a shock to be in an area where very few people spoke English. Pot luck landed me with a dish of chicken and curried vegetables, pretty tasty and a much needed change from sausage, potatoes and cabbage.

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Bear blowing bubbles, Schwerin, Germany

Bear blowing bubbles, Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

I walked off lunch with a stroll around the Pfaffenteich, the small lake in the heart of the town. On the far side was an odd looking orange building that looks like a North African castle has escaped and taken up residence. Today, this building is home to the state interior ministry, but during the communist era it was home to the Stasi secret police. From the top of the lake is a pedestrianised street that runs down to the largest lake in the area, the Schweriner See, and to Schloss Schwerin, my next destination.

A day strolling through central Berlin

My final day in Berlin before catching the train back to the Netherlands started early, with a walk through the Tiergarten bathed in early morning sun. The peace and quiet was only occasionally interrupted by a cyclist or dog walker. I was making my way to ‘museum island’, which sits in the River Spree and is home to a number of (you guessed it) internationally acclaimed museums. First though, I stopped at perhaps Berlin’s most sombre sight, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaikirche, Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaikirche, Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

The site sits at the end of the Tiergarten, close to Brandenburg Tor and the Reichstag. Its 2,711 dark grey concrete slabs are designed almost like a maze, but when you walk through them the ground undulates like a wave creating an odd sense of uncertainty. It was built to commemorate those murdered in the holocaust, and occupies an area that was once part of the ‘death strip’ of the Berlin Wall. In the quiet of the early morning, it was a sobering and emotional experience.

Such a huge and centrally located memorial is testimony to Germany’s recognition of the horrors committed in the 1930s and 1940s, but that legacy is now under attack. A leader of the far-right AfD party, Alexander Gauland, who recently caused a storm of protest by calling the Nazi era a “speck of birds shit” on German history, criticised this memorial, saying “Germans are the only people who plant a monument of shame in the capital”. Revisionist history seems to be growing in popularity everywhere in Europe.

I made my way to the famous boulevard, Unter den Linden, past Humboldt University, and across the Spree to visit the epic Pergamonmuseum. There are so many excellent museums to choose from in this small area, but the Pergamon is exceptional. It houses monumental buildings from antiquity, including the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate. The latter, constructed on the orders of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, is utterly magnificent. The rest of the museum is filled with a mind-boggling array of priceless artefacts.

I left the museum uplifted, and spent a hour wandering the pleasant area around the vast, domineering Berliner Dom. In the park outside people were having barbecues and musicians entertained the crowds. I headed over the river into the area of Mitte filled with good cafes and restaurants to find somewhere for lunch. I passed a memorial to a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis (here, there’s always something to remind you of that period) before finding a nice cafe close to the Sophienkirche.

Time was passing and I would have to leave early the next day, so I went back through Alexanderplatz (always an interesting place to be) to visit the oldest church in the city, the 800-year old Nikolaikirche. This iconic twin-towered church overlooks the river and is at the centre of the historic heart of Berlin, parts of  which were faithfully rebuilt after the war. It’s a bit touristy, and the restored historic buildings rub shoulders with modern concrete structures, but there are several traditional german pubs serving good food and even better beer.

I had one last place I needed to visit to complete my trip down memory lane, the Prater Beer Garden. I was introduced to this traditional beer garden by a friend when visiting Berlin for work, we had such a good time on a warm summer evening the memory of it has stayed with me. Late afternoon on a hot day, the place was packed. I joined a mixed table of Germans and Americans to enjoy a beer and giant pretzel in the sun, safe in the knowledge that I’d be returning soon.

Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Sophienkirche, Berlin, Germany

Sophienkirche, Berlin, Germany

Jewish cemetery memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Jewish cemetery memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Prater Beer Garden, Berlin, Germany

Prater Beer Garden, Berlin, Germany

Cold War history and the ghost of Bertolt Brecht in Berlin

I’d arrived in Berlin without a plan, at least not a coherent one. I wanted to revisit some of the places I’d been before, and to check out some neighbourhoods that had been recommended to me, but other than that I just followed my nose. I made an early start on my second morning in the city, getting the U-Bahn to the Berlin Wall Memorial and Museum in Mitte. I arrived before the museum opened, but the memorial park over the road has excellent audio and video exhibits that you can visit at any time.

There’s little left of the wall that defined the geography of Berlin from 1961 to 1989. When it was built it had little regard for communities or families, cutting across roads and rail lines, and bringing normal life in the city to a halt. Destroying the hated symbol of a divided city was a very popular thing to do. The museum and memorial park has retained a segment of the original wall, not just the concrete blocks that were targets for graffiti in the West, but also the watchtowers, searchlights and electronic detection devices collectively known as the ‘death strip’.

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

It combines this with testimonials of those the wall affected, and remembers the 136 people who died attempting to cross the wall. There’s audio of people’s stories and you can read about how the wall came to be constructed. Unsurprisingly, the local council wanted to get rid of the whole thing, but the city insisted on keeping it. The museum does an excellent job of explaining the social, political and economic causes and effects of the wall. Afterwards, you can visit a peaceful cemetery which, like so much else in Berlin, became off limits for anyone on the wrong side of the wall.

It turns out that Bertolt Brecht, the legendary playwright, theatre director and founder of the Berliner Ensemble, lived quite nearby at the Brecht House on Chausseestrase. As a Marxist playwright, Brecht was despised by the Nazis, he fled Germany fearing for his life when Hitler came to power in 1933. He ended up in the United States where, as an anti-Fascist, he was initially welcomed. A suspected communist in post-war America he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He returned to Europe in 1947, and then to live in East Berlin in 1949.

His final years, before his death in 1956, were spent at this house and, to my surprise, he is buried with his  partner, Helene Weigel, in the adjacent Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery. It’s only possible to visit the house on a guided tour, I’d arrived just in time for the final tour of the day – at midday – but I couldn’t find anyone to ask for a ticket. I hung around until a woman appeared. I was the only person for the tour that day and had a personalised visit in English. It was brilliant.

I went to the cemetery to see Brecht’s and Weigel’s grave. I picked up a leaflet about the cemetery and even I recognised several of the names in it. Passing a mausoleum that still carried bullet holes from fighting in World War Two, I spent a peaceful hour just wandering around this shady space. This is Berlin’s version of the Père Lachaise in Paris or Highgate in London. Amongst other luminaries buried here are philosopher Friedrich Hegel, author Heinrich Mann, and eight members of the 20 July 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler, that was led by Claus von Stauffenberg.

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Bertolt Brecht's grave, Dorotheenstädtischer, Berlin, Germany

Bertolt Brecht’s grave, Dorotheenstädtischer, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

It’s impossible to avoid history here, or to stray into the realms of cliche describing a visit to Berlin. After a morning exploring, I set off looking for lunch. Luckily, I was near the mind-bendingly trendy streets behind Oranienburger Strasse. There are more boutique restaurants, bistros and cafes here than London’s Shoreditch. I found a deli that did a superb bagel and salt beef, washed down with a craft beer recommended to me by two friendly Americans on the next table. Fully refreshed, it was time to get back on the streets.

Berlin, the city on the Spree

I first visited Berlin in early 1988. I still recall the sense of total trepidation on the train journey across the communist German Democratic Republic to West Berlin. The Soviet Union’s new policy of Glasnost, or openness, meant travelling through East Germany wasn’t as difficult as in the past, but the Communist authorities were still very much in control. West Berlin, split into zones of control between American, British and French administrations, was a surreal place to arrive, familiar and alien at the same time.

I crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, it felt thrilling in a ‘Boys Own’ sort of way to pass from the American Zone into the Russian Zone. My recollections of that day trip into the East are hazy, but I have strong memories of eating sausage and drinking a beer in Alexanderplatz. Not to mention being stopped for jaywalking by a policeman – my overactive imagination envisaging ten years in the Gulag for a minor offence. In the end I was given a slap on the wrist and allowed to continue walking the streets of Mitte.

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Back in the west, I walked along the wall to the still bullet- and bomb-scarred Reichstag building. It was in a desolate no man’s land and still resembled the war-torn building I remembered from pictures of the fall of Berlin in 1945. The Brandenburg Gate came with a backdrop of the Berlin Wall snaking around it. I walked down the main avenue of the Tiergarten to the Soviet War Memorial to the Russians who died in the battle for Berlin. There were Soviet soldiers guarding the monument. It all felt very permanent.

My next visit came two years later in the summer of 1990. I flew into the iconic 1920s Tempelhof airport, which in the 1930s provided a backdrop for the Nazi regime and, during the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, became an international symbol of the Cold War. As introductions to a city go, it was one redolent of the worst history the 20th century has to offer. Luckily, I’d arrived in a Berlin that was on the cusp of momentous change – the Berlin Wall was being reduced to rubble and turned into tourist memorabilia. I have a couple of pieces of it somewhere.

In November of 1989, mass demonstrations had forced the East German authorities to allow free movement between east and west, and by the time I arrived the dismantling of the dictatorship of the German Democratic Republic was already underway. It was an extraordinary time and place to find myself. The feeling of history changing course seemed to be everywhere and, despite the physical apparatus of the Cold War being visible, everything was different.

Berlin is a city that has fascinated me most of my adult life, and I’ve visited a few times for work and pleasure since those youthful trips. Later this year, we’ll be moving to live there, but it is a very different city that awaits us thirty years after my first visit. Today, Berlin seems firmly focused on the future, massive construction is going on across the city to accommodate a growing population. A visit to investigate our neighbourhood options opened my eyes to a simple fact: my mental topography of Berlin is well past its sell by date.

Statue of Friedrich II, Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Statue of Friedrich II, Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Trabant museum, Berlin, Germany

Trabant museum, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

French Church and Friedrich Schiller monument, Berlin, Germany

French Church and Friedrich Schiller monument, Berlin, Germany

It isn’t hard to find reminders of the past, but if you want a symbol of where the city is headed, it is that Check Point Charlie is now an urban beach with bars and cafes. I felt a little outraged that something so meaningful had been ‘desecrated’, but who wants to live with the past for ever? It was the same revisiting places I’d encountered all those years ago. Mitte is now a painfully trendy district filled with bleeding edge restaurants, bars and shops. The Reichstag has been given a remarkable makeover, and the Soviet war memorial is no longer guarded by soldiers.

I spent my time on this trip walking from place to place, connecting the dots between districts in an effort to get a better sense of the jigsaw of central Berlin districts and how they fit together. It certainly wasn’t long enough to come close to understanding this extraordinary place, but it whetted my appetite for more.

Destination Berlin

Four years and four months, almost to the day, after arriving in the Netherlands, we’re heading off to pastures new. Starting in August, an exciting new adventure will begin in the German capital, Berlin. A new job, new apartment, new neighbourhood and a new language to try to master (never really got the better of Dutch). I was recently in Berlin for a few days when the temperature was in the high 20s, it was a good time to visit but I’m told the winter can be terrifying – and very, very long.

A bear, Berlin, Germany

A bear, Berlin, Germany

Four days was just enough to get a taste of this extraordinary city. Berlin is undergoing a huge transformation, made visible everywhere by the sheer mass of construction taking place. As you walk around its different neighbourhoods, it feels like an exciting, progressive place, facing only forward. It’s rightly thought of as one of Europe’s most liveable big cities and a renowned centre of culture. But it is still a city shackled to its recent past. Whether the abomination of the Nazis or the city divided by the Cold War, you don’t have to look far to be reminded of darker days.

It will to be a big wrench to leave the Netherlands, a place that we’ve grown to love, but I can already tell that Berlin is going to be fascinating. A few days spent exploring the city, was followed by a road trip back to the Netherlands – Bremen, Hamburg, Lubeck and Schwerin. I’d never been to any of these places before, and it made me realise how little I know Germany. There’s more to come from the road trip soon, for the time being here are a few impressions from Berlin’s sunny streets.

Homage to The Hague

The Hague has been the backdrop for our lives in the Netherlands for just over four years, yet I’ve written very little about the many charms of this vastly underrated city. Although Amsterdam is the capital city, The Hague is home to the Dutch government and the Dutch monarchy, it’s where the diplomatic community is gathered, and is one of the most international cities I’ve visited. Walk the streets during the week and you’ll hear a couple of dozen languages being spoken. There are excellent museums, as well as a decent food scene, but tourism has yet to have any real impact on the city.

Except, that is, for the seaside resort of the virtually unpronounceable Scheveningen, a place name so fiendishly tricky to pronounce correctly it was said to be used to identify German spies in the Second World War. Ironically, Scheveningen’s beach is now one of the most popular places in the country for German tourists. I’m loath to encourage an upsurge in tourism, but on a recent sunny weekend I decided to spend a day wandering the city exploring some of my favourite haunts.

Binnenhof, The Hague, Netherlands

Binnenhof, The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

Peace Palace, The Hague, Netherlands

Peace Palace, The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

It’s true that The Hague lacks the wealth of historic buildings that grace other Dutch cities, and even though I live overlooking a canal, this is not a city that can rival Utrecht or Delft for quaint canals. It’s also true that the Dutch often consider The Hague to be boring, with a cultural scene that is less cutting edge than Rotterdam and less varied than Amsterdam. When I moved here, my boss suggested that since I’d lived in London I might want to work in The Hague and live somewhere more exciting.

The Dutch have a saying, “Amsterdam to party, Rotterdam to work, Den Haag to live”, and the truth is that we’ve not regretted a single day of our time spent here. Where else could you find the Mauritshuis, perhaps the most perfectly sized art gallery in the world, and also home to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. It might be the most famous piece in the former 17th century palace, but I rarely visit without marvelling at the many other Dutch masters on show: Rembrandt, Steen, Hals, Rubens, van Dyck, Dou.

The Mauritshuis sits next to the 13th century Binnenhof, which was at the centre of Dutch government during the 16th century Golden Age, and is still home to parts of the modern Dutch parliament. This historic area of the city is where you’ll find good restaurants and upmarket shopping. First though, spend an hour or two hanging out in one of the pleasant restaurants in Plein, the most perfect of all The Hague’s squares. Traffic free and with lots of outdoor seating, it’s the place to watch the world go by.

Afterwards, go for a stroll in the nearby Lange Voorhout and don’t stop until you find yourself surprisingly in the middle of the Haagse Bos woods. Here you’ll discover the Huis ten Bosch, one of the three official royal residences, and the excellent Louwman Museum. Hop on a bike and head back to town, because no visit to The Hague would be complete without seeing the utterly brilliant Panorama Mesdag, the epic creation of the city’s most famous artist.

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

Mesdag is most famous for his seascapes and nearby is the Zeeheldenkwartier, Sea Heroes Quarter, filled with quirky shops, and good restaurants and bars, including the Grand Café Victoria on the area’s centrepiece Prins Hendrikplein. From here it’s only a tram ride away to the beach at Scheveningen, where you can stroll the re-opened pier. There are some good eating and drinking options along the pier, including a restaurant out over the water, and the elevated position gives great views along hundreds of kilometres of golden beaches.

Walk along the beach away from the centre of the resort (like many seaside towns this is the least attractive part of the beach). Go north and find a good beach bar to sit down and watch the sun set over the North Sea. If you’re lucky, you can do this while drinking something brewed in one of the local microbreweries, Kompaan or De Prael. You can stay down on the beach until the early morning, or grab another tram back into town to sample some of that ‘boring’ Hague nightlife. I’m going to miss this city.

Fort Bourtange, a journey back to the 16th century

The Netherlands has its fair share of beautiful medieval towns that double as star forts, surrounded by defensive canals and moats, but few compare to the extraordinary star fort of Bourtange. It may be small, it takes ten minutes to walk the complete circuit of the inner defences, but it is uniquely well preserved and gives a real insight into what it would have been like to have been garrisoned here in the 16th and 17th centuries – it was built in 1580 by the Dutch in an attempt to isolate the Spanish garrison in nearby Groningen.

The Dutch War for Independence, also known as the Eighty Years’ War, was only in its infancy when Bourtange was constructed on the orders of William I, Prince of Orange. Groningen was a major city in the north of the Netherlands and depended on supplies from Germany. The fort was meant to disrupt Spanish supplies and cut Groningen off from trade routes into Germany. Today, it lies only a few kilometres from the modern German border, and to get there and back entailed crossing national boundaries a few times.

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Ironically, the fort didn’t see much action against the Spanish, perhaps its most perilous moment came in 1672, when the German Prince-Bishopric of Münster attacked and laid siege to it. By that point the defences had fallen into disrepair and the garrison consisted of only fifty men. It was repaired just in time and, thanks to the naturally marshy surroundings, the attack failed. This was to be the last time the fort would see serious action. Not too long afterwards, it was once again largely abandoned and left to decay.

Worse still, farmers started draining the surrounding swamp for land, removing one of its most important defences. The fort saw service again in the 18th century. Between 1739 and 1742 it was repaired and expanded, but this was only a temporary reprieve from its long-term decline. Military technology had advanced making the fort largely obsolete. So much so, that by the 1850s it had been dismantled and began a new life as a village. Fast forward a century to the 1960s, and the village in the former fort was also largely abandoned.

The authorities stepped in and decided to reconstruct the Bourtange of 1750, in the hope that tourism would revive its fortunes. The work to turn the fort into an open air museum wasn’t completed until 1992, but the three decade wait was well worth it. Visiting today is a remarkable experience, there were even a few people in period clothing. From the visitor’s centre, the short walk to the fortress takes you along the defensive moat – house tops, a windmill and church spire poking above the top of the earth defences.

It’s only when you walk across the drawbridge and through one of the two village gates that you really see what all the fuss is about. I strolled up a cobbled street, past lovingly restored buildings, one of which was a synagogue. In such a small place that seemed a bit strange, but by 1840 Bourtange was home to a thriving Jewish population. On the wall of the synagogue is a plaque commemorating the forty-two Jewish residents who where killed in Nazi death camps during World War Two.

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

I reached the very centre of the village a few yards further on. You know you’re in the centre of the star because there’s a circle out from which village’s few streets radiate. Turn slowly through 360° and you can see the entirety of Bourtange. I strolled around, looking into some of the historic buildings that are open to the public, and which tell the fort’s story. Afterwards, I walked the star shaped defences with good views over the village roofs and surrounding countryside.

It’s a beautiful place, and you can even spend the night here, which I imagine to be very atmospheric. Sadly, I didn’t have time for that. There are a couple of places to eat in the village though, so I had a snack before heading into Germany and onwards to Berlin.

Cycling through Gelderland to Royal Buren

Not long after I arrived in the Netherlands, I heard the story of how the current Dutch King, Willem-Alexander, once competed incognito in the legendary Elfstedentocht speed skating race in 1986. The then Prince Willem-Alexander registered for the event using the name W. A. van Buren, questions of who the mysterious van Buren really was emerged only during the race. In adopting the van Buren name he was continuing a royal tradition, both Queen Wilhelmina and Queen Juliana had used ‘Buren’ to hide their true identities.

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

The name was adopted as a nod to the royal family’s historic connection to the small, picture-postcard perfect town of Buren, which sits in Gelderland countryside south of Utrecht. Buren gained its royal prestige in 1551 when the then Countess of Buren, Anna van Egmont, married William I, Prince of Orange. Known as William the Silent, he was one of the key rebels to revolt against Spanish rule of the Netherlands, and was the leading military commander in the early years of the struggle for independence. It’s a critical historic connection in the Dutch national story.

My cycle route took me from Utrecht to the town of Houten, and then past several castles, none of which are open to the public, and through small villages to the pretty little town of Wijk bij Duurstede. The town sits on the Rhine, or the Nederrijn as the river is known here, and was a critical junction in trade links across Europe. No surprise then that a castle was built here to protect trade and extract tolls. Today, it’s a ruin, although one that has a cafe inside it. It’s evocatively set in woodland and surrounded by water.

I stopped for a drink and to shelter from the sun, before exploring the town and finding my way to the small harbour. This is overshadowed by a huge windmill which straddles the road into town, acting like a gateway. Apparently, it’s considered to be the world’s only ‘drive through’ windmill. The town was decorated with Dutch flags and orange bunting to mark the day the Netherlands was liberated from German occupation in the Second World War – a recurring theme everywhere on my route.

To reach Buren meant crossing the Nederrijn. On my map it wasn’t clear if there was a bridge, and as I cycled towards the crossing I could see a ferry arriving. I speeded up so as not to miss the boat, and got there just in time. It was only when we were crossing that I realised two things: there was a €0.80 fee for bikes and I didn’t have any money. Embarrassed, I asked the boatman if I could pay with card. I could not. A cafe on the other river bank proved to be my salvation. They were happy to charge €10 for iced tea and give me the change to pay for the boat.

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Gelderland, Netherlands

Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Sterren van Weleer, rabbit statue, Gelderland, Netherlands

Sterren van Weleer, rabbit statue, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

After that close escape, I cycled on tiny lanes through beautiful countryside towards Buren. I could see the steeple of the 14th century Sint-Lambertuskerk in the distance, which marked my destination. It was in this ancient church in 1551 that William the Silent married Anna van Egmont, there’s a bronze statue outside of the couple with their children. Sadly it wasn’t open when I was there, and I had to content myself with sitting in its shadow while having lunch at a nearby cafe.

The town has plenty of lovely old buildings and still retains some of the city walls that protected its inhabitants. Other than the church, Buren’s ‘major’ attraction is the early 17th century orphanage building. Bizarrely, this has been converted into a museum to the Dutch military police. Buren’s not a big place, and an hour after arriving I was on my way again, following the River De Korne to the next town over where I could get a train back to Utrecht.

Off the beaten path in medieval Lier

Well, OK, it’s something of an overstatement to claim the lovely Belgian town of Lier is off the beaten path, but for anyone who’s been to Bruges recently, a visit to Lier feels a little like you’ve dropped off the map. This is all the more surprising as Lier is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, an attractive central square, numerous beautiful medieval buildings, and some good eating and drinking options. I’m not sure there are many towns this size – around thirty-five thousand inhabitants – that can boast a similar wealth of riches.

Lier, Belgium

Lier, Belgium

Lier, Belgium

Lier, Belgium

Zimmer Tower, Lier, Belgium

Zimmer Tower, Lier, Belgium

Zimmer Tower, Lier, Belgium

Zimmer Tower, Lier, Belgium

Lier Belfry and Town Hall, Lier, Belgium

Lier Belfry and Town Hall, Lier, Belgium

I knew I was going to like Lier when we were accosted by a dapper older gentleman in a small bar where we were sampling one of the town’s famous beers. He was trying to sell us some lottery tickets for a rubber duck race that is held on the River Nete every year. Any town that holds a sporting event involving rubber ducks is always going to be my kind of place. He was very chatty and gave us the low-down on Lier, and a few good suggestions for how we spend our time in the town.

We’d arrived in the early evening and, conscious that restaurants tend to close quite early in small towns, we headed straight out to have dinner in the beautiful Grote Markt. Our restaurant overlooked one of Lier’s World Heritage Sites, the Lier Belfry (although technically it shares that status with 23 other Belgian belfries). Built in 1369, the belfry is attached to the Town Hall, formerly the Cloth Makers Hall, and together they straddle one side of the square.

The next day dawned bright and sunny, but the weather forecast was for rain so we headed out early to see the town illuminated. Hemmed in by the river and canals, the historic heart of Lier is pretty compact, making walking the centre in a morning very easy. We headed to the town’s iconic Zimmer Tower. Built in a 14th century defensive tower, the extraordinary ‘clock’ was added in 1930 and can simultaneously tell you lots of quite useless stuff, including the ‘age of the moon’, the zodiac, the seasons, and the solar cycle.

More helpfully, it also tells the time, day and month, as well as something called ‘the equation of time’. This is the discrepancy between two kinds of solar time, and is so fiendishly complicated that my brain melted when I read the explanation. Still, it’s a very beautiful thing and Einstein was a fan. I couldn’t help but notice that the globe that was on the clock, was positioned on ‘Belgian Congo’. Given Belgium’s appalling colonial record in Congo, this struck an odd note (no pun intended).

We walked along the river to the second of Lier’s World Heritage Sites, Lier beguinage. This is the quite amazing 13th century complex that housed a community of beguines, lay religious women who didn’t take vows. I’ve seen much smaller versions of these communities (many still only allowing single women over a certain age to live there) in the Netherlands, but the Lier beguinage is huge in comparison. In the early morning, walking through the narrow lanes on cobbled streets was atmospheric and peaceful.

We took a walk through a nearby park and ended up back in the town centre where we found a pleasant cafe for a cup of coffee. I suspect a day in Lier would be enough to see and do most of what is available to visitors, but the relaxed, friendly vibe was inviting enough to make me want to spend a bit more time there. Sadly, we had to be on our way back to the Netherlands, but not before we discovered a truly fascinating fact about the town.

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

It was here, in 1860, that the first mammoth skeleton discovered in Western Europe was unearthed. The mammoth is in a museum in Brussels, but I’d suggest it’s a fact the town should blow it trumpet about a little more.