A journey down the Noord, Dordrecht to Rotterdam

Back on the streets of Dordrecht after our elevating experience on top of the Grote Kerk, we wandered aimlessly down small alleys with fascinating shops, over canal bridges and along the river front until we found a pleasant restaurant overlooking where the Oude Mass, Beneden Merwede and Noord rivers meet. This is a busy river junction and lunch came with a steady flow of shipping to entertain us.

Harbour, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Harbour, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Alleyway, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Alleyway, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Wine barrel motif on a door, Dordrecht, Netherlands

WIne barrel motif on a door, Dordrecht, Netherlands

It was here that I learned a salutary life lesson: when a waiter tells you that the type of meat in the dish you’re considering ordering is “meat”, chances are you should opt for something else. Even if it is a Dutch speciality, and even if half of the diners in the restaurant are eating it. I’ve decided to adopt this as a guiding principle for the rest of my life, largely on the assumption that the rest of my life will be longer and more pleasant if I don’t consume dishes with the magic ingredient “meat”.

Ominous looking sheep, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Ominous looking sheep, Dordrecht, Netherlands

To be honest, if you exclude Indonesian food (of which some of the best outside of Indonesia is to be found here), my experience of Dutch cuisine so far is that it can be pretty uninspiring. I don’t want to generalise, but there are a lot of deep friend croquette-type things, deep friend bitterballen, gehaktballen, raw pickled herring, alarmingly red-coloured sausages and very stodgy cakes. That said the kibbeling, small pieces of lightly battered fried fish served at numerous street stalls, is rapidly becoming a favourite.

Decorous window, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Decorous window, Dordrecht, Netherlands

A disappointing lunch over, we set off to find the water taxi stand which would hopefully take us down the Noord river to Rotterdam. The integrated transport system in the Netherlands is one of the country’s wonders. Everything just works. On our trip to Dordrecht we took a tram, an intercity train, a boat and a newly built metro. Everything was on time, clean, efficient and affordable.

Swing bridge, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Swing bridge, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal meets river, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal meets river, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Decorative doorway, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Decorative doorway, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Not only that, you can pay for all forms of transport with one prepaid card. The miraculous OV-chipcard can be used anywhere in the country. It makes British public transport look like something from a dystopian future, a future where making as much money for private companies at the expense of everyone else is the only criteria for success. Hmm, now I mention it that sounds familiar. British politicians should be forced to work in Dutch public transport before they are allowed to start messing with British trains and buses.

Water taxi flag, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Water taxi flag, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Barge on the Noord, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Barge on the Noord, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Big ship on the Noord, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Big ship on the Noord, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Safely on board the small and swift river taxi, we sped down the Noord passing much bigger freight and cargo ships. Soon we were in the suburbs of Rotterdam and then right in the heart of the city. It was wonderful. The sun was out so we walked to the central station, although we could have used the tram or the bus. It was on this walk that we came across one of Rotterdam’s most notorious pieces of public art. Spoiler alert, if you are easily offended don’t read on…

Arriving in Rotterdam on the Noord, Netherlands

Arriving in Rotterdam on the Noord, Netherlands

Rotterdam bridge over the Noord, Netherlands

Rotterdam bridge over the Noord, Netherlands

To describe Santa Claus with butt plug, a sculpture by Californian artist Paul McCarthy, as controversial is an understatement. Its enough to bring tears to the eyes, and makes Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa look like the Milky Bar Kid.

This 18-foot high latex-like representation of Santa Claus wielding an enormous, there are no other words for it, butt plug, sits in a public square at the end of a busy shopping street. Seeing it in such ordinary surroundings is something of a shock to the system, so to speak. Typical of modern art, Santa has ended up looking much like a garden gnome with a slightly, if understandably, maniacal look in his eyes.

'Santa Claus with butt plug' by Paul McCarthy, Rotterdam, Netherlands

‘Santa Claus with butt plug’ by Paul McCarthy, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Leaving Santa behind – the statue has a tendency to make everything sound like innuendo – we decided to ride the newly constructed metro system back to The Hague. We could have taken a train or a bus, and probably a hot air balloon, but decided we’d had enough excitement for one day.

Up above the streets and houses…in Dordrecht

Breathless, with the pounding hearts of the unfit, we emerged into the blinding light. It took a few seconds of retina adjustment after the dim light of the spiral staircase before our new reality swam into view, but there was no doubt, we’d made it to the top of the bell tower of Dordrecht’s Grote Kerk. Up here the difference between perception and reality became obvious; from the ground the tower doesn’t look all that high, looking down on the now diminutive city below proved how wrong we’d been.

Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The view from Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The view from Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

I’d started by counting the stairs but lost count half way up while focusing on breathing and survival. I’m told there are 279 stairs but you can take it from me, it seems like a lot more than that. Once you’re up there though the views from the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Our Lady Church), as the Grote Kerk is properly known, are spectacular.

The view from Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The view from Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The view from Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The whole of Dordrecht is laid out before you and you can follow the course of the surrounding rivers for miles; the city of Rotterdam is easily visible over 25km away. From the top of the tower the volume of shipping using the rivers becomes obvious. Small passenger ferries, sail boats, long and thin river cruisers and numerous cargo boats ply these waters. Trade and leisure linking Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland with the Netherlands and the North Sea.

The view from Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The view from Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The view from Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Standing on top of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk I felt connected to the rest of Western Europe; the timeless nature of these rivers, and the role they have played in the history of Europe, suddenly hit me. There is nothing like a bit of perspective to put you in your place and time. While I was musing over the nature of existence my attention was caught by the remarkable sight of a railway bridge ascending into the air.

This feat of engineering – lifting an entire section of a major railway line 50 metres upwards – was done to allow a few small sail boats to pass under the bridge, their masts otherwise too high to get underneath. On the far side of the railway bridge, a road bridge was also raised. This calm scene belies the turbulent history of these bridges, the capture of which was critical to German military operations in World War II.

Views of Dordrecht's bridges from the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Views of Dordrecht’s bridges from the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Views of Dordrecht's bridges from the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Views of Dordrecht’s bridges from the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Views of Dordrecht's bridges from the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Views of Dordrecht’s bridges from the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Views of Dordrecht's bridges from the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Views of Dordrecht’s bridges from the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Taking the bridges at Dordrecht intact was vital for Germany’s plans to overrun the Netherlands, the capture of Belgium and the invasion of France. It was here on May 10, 1940, that German airborne forces fought a series of vicious battles against poorly equipped Dutch defenders. The Dutch defeated the first attacks but eventually succumbed to the inevitable. Although the bridges fell into German hands, Dutch forces in Dordrecht continued to hold out for a while longer.

Winding our way back down the stairs of the tower, we walked through the lovely and unpretentious church. It is an old building, the earliest parts dating from around 1120, while the tower was finished in around 1470. The space inside is huge, with beautiful arches illuminated by the sun and wooden choir stalls dating to the 15th Century. What struck me most though was how similar some of the tombs were to those I’d seen in former Dutch colonial towns. In Galle, Sri Lanka, the carvings on tombs were almost identical.

Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Tomb, Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Tomb, Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

On one wall of the church is an unremarkable memorial to the remarkable events of an earlier attempt by another European dictator to control the continent. The memorial is to a 22-year old English sailor, John Western, who died taking part in the 1793 siege of Willemstadt. The French Revolution was in full swing and, threatened with invasion by an alliance of European countries, French armies were marching across Europe ‘liberating’ people from tyranny and creating Republics supportive of France.

John Weston memorial, Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

John Weston memorial, Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

In the Netherlands the French sought to eliminate English influence in the country by removing the authoritarian Stadtholder, William V, from power. The Dutch resistance at Willemstadt – a remarkable star-shaped fortified town guarding the Holland Diep river – was supported by British ships. It was on one of these ships that the unfortunate Lieutenant Western found himself in March 1793. He died fighting French forces which would eventually conquer the Netherlands in 1795, forcing William V into exile in London.

Stained glass window, Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Stained glass window, Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Statue of local bigwig, Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Statue of local bigwig, Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The Napoleonic Wars would rage across Europe for another 20 years. Until 1806 the Netherlands would be known as the Batavian Republic, and was little more than a client state of France. Between 1806 and 1810 Napoleon forced the Dutch to accept his brother, Louis Bonaparte, as King of Holland. The first and last time the Netherlands was officially known as Holland, not that this has stopped people erroneously referring to it as Holland ever since. It finally became the Netherlands again in 1813 and has been so ever since.

Exploring an underappreciated gem, Dordrecht

Legend has it that in the 17th Century, when the town of Dordrecht imposed heavy taxes on the importation of meat, two enterprising locals hit upon a cunning plan. To avoid paying the meat tax, and presumably after a suitable amount of ‘Dutch courage’ had been consumed, they dressed a sheep as a man and attempted to walk arm-in-arm with the sheep past the tax inspectors. The sheep, which by this stage must have been wondering just what these two inebriates had in mind, gave the game away by bleating.

Historic building, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Historic building, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Taking this legend of idiocy as a mark of civic pride, the good people of Dordrecht have adopted a rams head as a symbol of the city. The local people are known as Schapenkoppen (Sheepheads), the football team has a rams head on its club motif and there is a local delicacy known as Schapenkop (sheephead), which mercifully turns out to be a biscuit and not the actual head of a sheep.

Knowing this, I had high hopes for Dordrecht, and it was in Baldrick-like* spirits that we approached our visit to this lovely and fascinating town. My guidebook says that Dordrecht is often overlooked by people visiting the Netherlands, many of whom head to Delft or Amsterdam and pass up the opportunity to walk Dordrecht’s ancient and historic centre. That would be a mistake, Dordrecht is a splendid place to explore.

Canal and boats, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal and boats, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal bridge, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal bridge, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Like so much of the Netherlands, water defines Dordrecht. The town sits on an island surrounded by no less than five rivers, which must put it in the running for some sort of record. The Oude Maas, Beneden Merwede, Nieuwe Merwede, Hollands Diep, and Dordtsche Kil rivers can only truly be appreciated by boat, luckily there are plenty of boats still sailing the rivers. In fact, I was surprised not just by the number of ships but by the size of some of them. They looked like they belonged on the ocean.

Dordrecht City Hall straddles a canal, Netherlands

Dordrecht City Hall straddles a canal, Netherlands

Canal and buildings, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal and buildings, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The Beneden Merwede and Nieuwe Merwede join forces just outside Dordrecht to form the River Waal, which further upstream becomes the Rhine as it passes through Germany and along the Franco-German border, before heading into Switzerland. We happened to witness the launch of a river cruiser flying a Swiss flag. Curious, I discovered that it was a new ship built in Dordrecht but registered in Switzerland for tax reasons. It was collecting passengers then sailing to Basel.

Dutch barge on the Oude Masse, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Dutch barge on the Oude Masse, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Granted city status in 1220, Dordrecht is the oldest city in the southern Netherlands. Although a few areas of the old city are architecturally unlovely, Dordrecht’s historic centre is stuffed full of attractive examples of Dutch 17th, 18th and 19th Century buildings. Some date from much earlier. The Grote Kerk, or Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kerk (Our Dear Lady Church), was constructed between the 1280s and the 1470s.

The Grote Kerk is by-far-and-away the largest building in Dordrecht, dramatically overshadowing the surrounding streets and visible for miles. Its completion in 1470 came half a century after the disastrous St. Elisabeth Flood of 1421, which ranks as the 20th worst flood of all time – although I have no idea who decides these things. The flood must have been on the minds of people who built the huge tower high above the water.

Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Grote Kerk, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal and boats, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal and boats, Dordrecht, Netherlands

The flood was caused by terrible storms in the North Sea which broke the dykes; a massive tide swept inland causing perhaps as many as 10,000 casualties. The flood created an inland sea which surrounded and cut off Dordrecht for several decades. The majority of the land on which the modern city stands has been reclaimed from the sea water through the construction of polders. The flood may have been devastating but since then the people of Dordrecht have been busy building.

Canal and boats, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal and boats, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Restaurant, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Restaurant, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Over nine hundred buildings in the centre are considered national monuments; 160 are considered municipal monuments; and 400 are regarded as characteristic buildings. I’m not sure what a ‘characteristic building’ is, but this impressive array of historic structures puts Dordrecht only eighth in the top ten Monumental Cities in the Netherlands. Seriously, only eighth.

A walk around the centre of Dordrecht reinforces a sense of the richness of the town’s past and the ever present history that still clings to the streets. It also entails countless crossings and re-crossings of canals, many of which link the surrounding rivers with small internal harbours. The harbours are crowded with boats – including many traditional boats – which gives an impression of what Dordrecht must have looked like when it was a major trading centre.

Historic buildings, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Historic buildings, Dordrecht, Netherlands

No idea why...a giraffe, Dordrecht, Netherlands

No idea why…a giraffe, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Given the living history, it amazes me that people would decide not to visit Dordrecht. I’ll be going back, thats for sure.

* For anyone unfamiliar with Blackadder, the long running BBC sit-com, Baldrick is an idiot-like character who occasionally has rapier-like insight, but more commonly hatches moronic “cunning plans”.