Wandering the Waterland, from Marken to Holysloot

In the wide open spaces of Waterland the sky is vast, made bigger by being mirrored in the ever present water that gives the region its name. Here, you can truly appreciate just how far below sea level much of the country finds itself. Leaving Marken behind, I cycled along the top of dykes encircling the island: flat pasture land dotted with sheep and cows on one side, the blue-grey water of the IJsselmeer dotted with the sails of boats on the other. The Netherlands does picturesque on a grand scale.

I headed to the lighthouse at the tip of island, then took the causeway linking Marken to the mainland. The causeway is a reminder of how the Dutch have shaped this landscape, just one example of the saying, “God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands”. After centuries of fighting with nature, much of this land was reclaimed following the building of a dyke to seal it off from the North Sea. The dyke tamed the water, but it also killed off the economic lifeblood of the historic fishing villages along this coast. Tourism has benefited while tradition has been eroded.

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

It’s a peaceful region to cycle through, and distances between its lovely villages are short enough that you can make detours to explore down the narrow roads that criss-cross it. Every road seems to offer a multitude of photo opportunities of traditional Dutch landscapes. There’s a surprising variety of wildlife, particularly birds that attract a steady stream of twitchers.

I passed through the tiny village of Uitdam, which sits on a thin strip of land wedged between the IJssemeer and yet more water. If you live in Uitdam you should probably keep a floatation device handy at all times. Delightfully named Holysloot was my next destination. I made the diversion based only on the name, but this tiny place set amidst a landscape of polders turned out to be a picture postcard perfect village.

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Entering the village you pass a striking white church on the only road into and out of the village. I may be wrong, but anywhere with less than two roads really is a backwater. My map claimed that there was a ferry to take me across yet more water so I could continue my journey. It was closed and I had to retrace my steps down Holysloot’s only road.

The village name is deceptive. I’d assumed it had religious meaning – this region was one of the first to adopt the teachings of Martin Luther, John Calvin and the Reformation – but the Dutch language is perverse in the way it sometimes seems like English but isn’t. Holysloot is a corruption of ‘holleY-sloot’ meaning ‘low lying river’ – everything has a water theme in this part of the world. Villagers are known as Holysloters, all 160 of them.

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling around the island of Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

The village is one of the oldest settlements in Waterland, and for much of its history it was a poor place. Today the village has a prosperous air, but still feels isolated. I imagine that a hundred years ago living here must have felt like you’d fallen off the face of the earth – into a big puddle.

Time may not have stood still in Holysloot but it’s definitely been running more slowly than elsewhere. I’d hoped for a cafe but luck wasn’t on my side; the village does have a restaurant that looks like it caters to weekending Amsterdammers, but it too was closed. The weather can turn on a dime here and the wind was becoming a gale, formidable dark clouds were sweeping across the sky and it was becoming clear that I was going to get wet. Time to move on.

I’m not a fair weather cyclist, but the Waterland is open country with little shelter, and the wind and rain can be terrible. Checking my map, the larger village of Ransdorp was only few kilometres away and seemed to offer the hope of finding shelter…

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Holysloot, Waterland, Netherlands

Wandering the Waterland, Marken

The Netherlands is jam-packed with historic towns, many so quintessentially Dutch that the national tourist board must daily pinch itself to make sure it’s not dreaming. The tiny village of Marken, with its small harbour surrounded by warehouses-cum-restaurants and wooden fishermen’s houses, is so traditionally Dutch that I felt obliged to pinch myself as well. It verges on ‘quaint’, and I can imagine it gets crowded in summer, but on a spring morning it was peaceful.

Marken was once an island, for centuries home to an isolated but thriving fishing community: herring was the staple catch, but whaling became important for the island as well. The reduced economic importance of these two industries saw the island’s fortunes and population dramatically decline, to the point of near abandonment. This was reversed in 1957 when the government built a causeway connecting Marken to the mainland, paving the way for today’s staple catch of tourists.

Harbour, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Harbour, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen's cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen’s cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

The view across Gouwzee towards Monnickendam, Waterland, Netherlands

The view across Gouwzee towards Monnickendam, Waterland, Netherlands

This village dates from the 13th Century, and retains a strong sense of traditional life. Until modernity began to intrude, the small fishing communities of the Zuiderzee were an anthropologists dream, with unique traditions, clothing and songs. In Marken, men wishing to ask a woman for her hand in marriage would make a pair of elaborately carved clogs. He would then secretly leave them on the doorstep of the woman’s house. If she wore the clogs the next day the proposal was accepted. A clog-based version of online dating.

In the Netherlands nothing says ‘I love you’ more than two hunks of wood attached to your feet, so it’s a surprise that the tradition has died out. There’s still a clog workshop in the village making traditional Marken designs for tourists with more space in their suitcase than common sense. The village is split into two main parts: the area around the harbour and a cluster of fishermen’s cottages built on small man-made hillocks around the church. Buildings were constructed on these raised areas to protect them from regular flooding.

Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen's cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen’s cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen's cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen’s cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen's cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen’s cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling from Amsterdam, I arrived at Marken’s pretty harbour along the top of a dyke that offered sweeping views over the Gouwzee towards Monnickendam, another historic fishing village. Parking the bike, I treated myself to some kibbeling (fried fish pieces) from the fish stand on the waterfront before going for a stroll around town.

The most fascinating area is close to the church where several dozen fishermen’s cottages bunch around small open areas connected by narrow alleyways. It isn’t a large place, but walking around the houses is atmospheric. Feeling transported back a couple of centuries by Marken’s old world charm, I was jolted back to reality by the town’s coat of arms displayed over the entrance to the town hall: unmistakably, a male African head straight out of the handbook of colonial stereotypes.

Town Hall, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Town Hall, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Harbour, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Harbour, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

This appears to be a Dutch folkloric depiction of the head of a ‘Moor’. A racially charged Europe-wide emblem with origins in the Spanish Reconquista, the protracted conquest of Spain’s 700 year-old Moorish caliphate by Christian armies. As part of the Spanish Empire, this concept would have been well known in the Netherlands.

The ‘Moor’s Head’ symbolises the triumph of 15th Century Christianity but its use in the Netherlands goes back to the 13th Century. Its modern use as a coat of arms, in a nation that was heavily involved in the slave trade, seems odd, but this is one of those Dutch contradictions. The highly divisive depiction of Zwarte Piet, a much loved but essentially racist caricature who accompanies Sinterklaas (Dutch Santa Claus), has similar origins.

Mainstreet, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Mainstreet, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen's cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen’s cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen's cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Fishermen’s cottages, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Mainstreet, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Mainstreet, Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

Marken, Waterland, Netherlands

I couldn’t decide whether keeping the coat of arms was an insensitive decision to flout modern concepts of European multiculturism, or a commendable effort not to sweep history under the rug. Answers on a postcard please! Mulling over the fact that in Europe, even in the smallest village, you’re never far from a much bigger history, I headed back to my bike and set off on a circuit of this beautiful island.

The view across Gouwzee towards Monnickendam, Waterland, Netherlands

The view across Gouwzee towards Monnickendam, Waterland, Netherlands

Wandering the Waterland

The Dutch struggle with water is writ large in the region north of Amsterdam known, without a hint of irony, as Waterland. The relationship with water has shaped the entire landscape of this region for over a thousand years and, coincidentally, explains why clogs are made of wood. Its history alone makes a visit to Waterland worthwhile, but it has much more to offer. Beautiful villages full of wooden houses, seemingly stuck in an earlier century, dot a landscape of polders scattered with black-and-white cows.

Although it sits on Amsterdam’s doorstep, Waterland is a picture postcard perfect rural idyll, far removed from the tourist- and cycle-clogged (no pun intended) streets of the Dutch capital. The one exception to this rule is Volendam, which is a terrifying mix of tourist hoards (row upon row of tour buses filled the entrance to the town), Dutch cliché (think photos in Dutch costume, wooden tulips and foam clogs) and seaside resort smelling of fried fish.

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

It’s a region as pretty as any in the Netherlands, ideal for exploring by bike straight from the centre of Amsterdam – fortunately most tourists don’t so the area remains tranquil. Leaving the city behind, 30 minutes of cycling takes you into the middle of the countryside. Out here time seems to slow down, the tempo calms down, and the sound of the city is replaced by bird song.

There are lots of places to rent bikes in Amsterdam, but I brought my bike on the train from The Hague – taking bikes on Dutch trains is fabulously easy. The front of Amsterdam’s Centraal Station is a disorienting mass of people, bikes, trams and buses, so I headed to the rear of the station. Here you can take a free ferry to Amsterdam North, or follow a cycle path along the waterfront to Amsterdam East and a bridge over the IJ, the body of water connecting Amsterdam to the North Sea.

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

I was headed for Marken, one of the most picturesque of Waterland’s many picturesque villages, about 20km from central Amsterdam. Marken sits on a small island in the IJsselmeer, the vast lake that was formed by damming the former Zuiderzee in the early 20th Century, and is now connected to the mainland by a 3km causeway built in 1957. It makes for a good day trip by bike, with the possibility of lots of side trips to other villages.

Crossing the Zuiderzeeweg, a long bridge connecting Amsterdam to Waterland, my route took me along the top of dykes that protect Waterland from the IJsselmeer. Although it can be windy, cycling on top of the dykes has advantages – being slightly elevated in a country as flat as the Netherlands means excellent views.

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

The view to Marken, Waterlands, Netherlands

The view to Marken, Waterlands, Netherlands

Marken harbour, Waterlands, Netherlands

Marken harbour, Waterlands, Netherlands

The landscape was given permanent shape in 1932 when the Zuiderzee was dammed, allowing the land to be drained and cultivated. Before this, the region was largely wetlands with small villages and farms prone to regular flooding. A particularly devastating flood in 1916 (in the midst of World War I) led the government to build the Afsluitdijk to finally tame the Zuiderzee.

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Cycle path along the IJsselmeer, Waterlands, Netherlands

Durgerdam, Waterlands, Netherlands

Durgerdam, Waterlands, Netherlands

Durgerdam, Waterlands, Netherlands

Durgerdam, Waterlands, Netherlands

In spring the landscape is a riot of colour, as wild flowers are joined by thousands of birds returning from their winter retreats. The only down side was the profusion of insect life. There were billions of insects in the air, at times I found myself cycling through dense clouds of them. I was covered in insects by the time I reached Marken. They were in my hair, ears, nose and had even found their way into my pockets. It was pretty disgusting.