Think of international gateways to Amsterdam, and you might think of the trains that carry more than a quarter of a million people to and from Centraal Station each day from destinations across Europe; or, you might be one of the 55 million people from 296 destinations who passed through Schiphol Airport last year. Alternatively, you might decide to arrive in Amsterdam by boat as people have been doing for the last 800 years.
The European river system, and the canals that connect it all together, have been central to trade and transport for centuries. In an era of affordable aviation, high speed trains and road haulage, I had the idea that inland shipping was obsolete. It came as a bit of a surprise when I stood on a bridge over the Rijnkanaal, the Rhine Canal, to realise the size and importance of this 72km-long waterway. Connecting Europe’s most powerful economy with the North Sea via Amsterdam, this is the most heavily used canal in Western Europe.
The Rijnkanaal only opened in 1952, but its strategic importance cannot be underestimated. Thousands of 3,000-ton barges travel this waterway each year carrying goods to and from Amsterdam, where they connect with much larger ocean-going ships on the North Sea Canal. This traffic is added to in summer by hundreds of pleasure cruisers that sail for up to two weeks along these waterways.
Travel the Rijnkanaal from Amsterdam and you’ll eventually find yourself in Germany and, depending upon which river system you follow, you could find yourself in Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia or even Hungary a few days later. I was on two wheels and my plans were a little less ambitious: a day trip taking me to the medieval castle of Muiderslot, on the shores of the former Zuiderzee just south-east of Amsterdam, before heading inland to the lovely town of Weesp and back to the city.
Cycling along the Rijnkanaal you see lots of barges, heavily laden and sitting very low in the water. It is a beautiful route as you leave Amsterdam behind and emerge into the countryside. I was headed for Muiden Castle, or Muiderslot in Dutch (Muiden = rivermouth, slot = castle), which was built and destroyed in the 13th Century, and rebuilt in the 14th Century. It sits on a formerly vital trade route on the River Vecht, and while it protected trade it was also used to extract money from merchants trading along the river.
The castle was built by the legendary Floris V, Count of Holland. Floris spent much of his life at war or entangled in various alliances with other European princes, and Muiderslot was probably a wise investment to defend his lands. Ironic then that he would be imprisoned in Muiderslot just prior to suffering a bloody death at the hands of his own nobles. It’s said that Floris was loved by his people, gaining the ironic nickname ‘God of the Peasants’ because he knighted several dozen of them, much to the displeasure of the nobility and church.
The Ridderzaal, one of the main buildings of the Binnenhof Houses of Parilament in The Hague is modelled on Muiderslot, and was also completed during the reign of Floris V.
Despite being quite small, Muiderslot is fabulously picturesque, dramatic fairytale towers surrounded by a protective moat. It comes straight out of a Disney animator’s imagination, and just needs a distressed princess with unnaturally long hair to complete the cliché. It’s been the backdrop for numerous films and is one of the most famous castles in the Netherlands. Being only a short day trip from Amsterdam I expected it to be busy, luckily it wasn’t too crowded and wandering around was fun.