A town twinned with Cape Horn

The lovely town of Hoorn became wealthy and famous thanks to its position on the former Zuider Zee, an arm of the North Sea that gave ships access to the Baltic in the 15th Century. By the 17th Century Hoorn was a centre of global trade as one of the major ports of the Dutch East India Company. It was during the Dutch golden Age that the town gave its name to Cape Horn, the most southerly tip of the Americas.

It might be hard to guess at today, but for a small place Hoorn has an extraordinary history.

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

When the Zuider Zee silted up in the 18th Century Hoorn’s importance faded and its port, which in former times saw ships arrive from the furthest corners of the globe, became a backwater.

Everything about the town points to the water and many sailing boats still sit at anchor in the multiple harbours. The boats still have access to the old Zuider Zee but today most of them are used for sailing the landlocked IJsselmeer lake. The lake was created by the building of the Afsluitdijk to seal off the Zuider Zee from the open ocean.

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The towns former wealth is obvious as you wander streets lined with historic houses, centuries-old churches and reminders of the former sea trade. On a canal near the port the road name gave a hint of the former trade in this part of town. Hoorn is located close to the German border, Bierkade is where German-made larger beers were offloaded into warehouses.

Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Former warehouse on Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Former warehouse on Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

I came across a pink house with three hedgehogs high above the door. This, it turned out, was the former home of a wealthy merchant family and the three hedgehogs their official coat of arms. Hedgehogs seem quite normal when you consider that the official coat of arms of Hoorn is a red horse with a golden horn (which I suppose makes it a red unicorn).

Three hedgehog coat of arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Three hedgehog coat of arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Coat of Arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Coat of Arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn’s decline as a sea port saw it turn its attention inland and become a centre for agricultural trade, but it never regained its former glory. Today tourism adds significantly to the economic mix of the town, including many people from Amsterdam coming to sail boats and swap the city for the sea breezes coming off the former Zuider Zee.

Sunset, Hoorn, Netherlands

Sunset, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Visiting in winter, the sun descended early and a biting cold followed in its wake. Luckily, Hoorn has a host of pleasant restaurants and lively bars that welcome you off the street with a warming glass or two.

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

After I’d warmed my bones I took another stroll around the harbour and then meandered back to the train station. As if by magic, ships in the harbour had been transformed with nightfall; many of the boats had seasonal lights illuminating their masts and strung around their hulls. It made the town even more atmospheric.

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, the ‘trumpet’ of the Zuider Zee

Back in the Netherlands following the holidays, the weather cleared up just enough to make a trip further north to the ancient town of Hoorn. One of the old Zuider Zee ports, Hoorn was once one of the most important and wealthiest towns in the Netherlands. Today the town still reflects the great wealth that was generated by global trade, and is an inviting place to stroll.

Settled around the 8th Century and granted city status in 1357, the horn-shaped harbour (which gives Hoorn its distinctive name) was perfectly located on the Zuider Zee (a branch of the North Sea) for the Baltic Sea Trade, particularly the trade in herring. In the 15th Century herring made Hoorn rich.

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Hoofdtoren, harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Hoofdtoren, harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

Already rich, Hoorn became fabulously wealthy thanks to the discovery of trade routes to the Far East. Dutch East India Company founder, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, came from Hoorn and the town was one of the company’s most important bases. Ships departed to return laden with spices from Batvia (Jakarta, Indonesia). This made the Netherlands a powerful trading nation and led to the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age.

It was Coen’s vision that led the Dutch to build an empire in what is modern-day Indonesia, an empire which lasted until 1949 when Indonesia won independence following World War II. Coen has a large statue in the central square, the Rode Steen.

The harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour and boats, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Cabin Boys of Bontekoe, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Cabin Boys of Bontekoe, Hoorn, Netherlands

It was from Hoorn that Willem Corneliszoon Schouten departed in 1615 in search of an alternative, western route to the spice islands of Indonesia. This he did by sailing into the Pacific Ocean after rounding the tip of South America which, naturally, he named Cape Horn (Kaap Hoorn) after his home town.

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn’s fame led the 17th Century Dutch poet, Joost van den Vondel, to refer to it as the “trumpet” of the Zuider Zee. It looked like Hoorn’s position as one of the preeminent Dutch trading ports would go unchallenged, but the good times came to an end in the early 18th Century. The disaster that sealed Hoorn’s fate was the silting up of the Zuider Zee and Hoorn’s own port. Ships were no longer able to reach the Baltic.

Westfries Museum, Hoorn, Netherlands

Westfries Museum, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Without Zuider Zee access, the trade in exotic spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and mace, which had created vast profits and seen Hoorn flourish, ended abruptly. Hoorn sunk into relative obscurity.

To understand the Zuider Zee, and what happened after it had silted up, you really need to look at a map. A modern map won’t reference the Zuider Zee, because once it had silted up the Dutch realised that if they built dykes and sealed this inland sea it could be drained and turned into farm land. This was proposed in the 17th Century but only became reality with the construction of the Afsluitdijk in 1920.

The harbour and dyke, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour and dyke, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Today the Zuider Zee is a lake split into two parts: the IJsselmeer and Markermeer. Hoorn remains an important port for leisure craft and the harbour is full of sailing boats, crewed on weekends by people from Amsterdam. Approaching from the train station and not the water gives a false impression of Hoorn, despite having a lovely central square, the town’s true heart is the harbour.

Central square, Hoorn, Netherlands

Central square, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Hoofdtoren, Hoorn, Netherlands

The Hoofdtoren, Hoorn, Netherlands

I made my way to the harbour and started my exploration of this charming town. One thing about the herring and spices that were traded through this port, they have bequeathed the town some wonderful buildings. One of the oldest, dating from 1632, now houses the fascinating Westfries Museum – a good place to start if you want to get your bearings on the town’s history.