If travel broadens the mind, it also brings you into contact with the bizarre and absurd. Falling firmly into the second category, my visit to Ransdorp introduced me to an entirely new concept, fierljeppen. This uniquely Dutch-inspired activity involves leaping over bodies of water using only a pole, essentially a water-based version of the Olympic sport of pole vaulting. This, it turns out, is a traditional way for Dutch people to get around the waterlogged landscape.
Farmers would leap over drainage channels to reach their land – the image of clog-wearing people vaulting around the Dutch countryside is now permanently stuck in my head. Fierljeppen traditions are kept alive by numerous sporting clubs, including some in Germany. The world record holder is a Dutchman called Bart Helmholt. I owe this new knowledge to my visit to Ransdorp. Not because I witnessed fierljeppen, but because Ransdorp was briefly famous after contestants on an American reality TV show, The Amazing Race, were filmed performing fierljeppen in the village. Strange but true.
Ransdorp itself is another lovely village of wooden houses set amidst a picturesque landscape. It’s a tiny place, home to around 250 people, all of whom were gathered on the streets to greet me as I arrived in the village. There was even bunting. It turned out that they weren’t my official welcome party, but participating in a parade to celebrate the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War II.
Tractors pulled decorated trailers filled with people in fancy dress through the village, there was much excitement from the gathered crowd of literally dozens. It was fun to watch, although the gathering rain clouds were threatening to put a dampener on proceedings. One float passed by with people throwing plastic coins at the onlookers, quickly followed by people picking them up. I assumed they had some value, but people were collecting them to stop the village ducks from eating them. This is the sort of thing that keeps countryfolk awake at night.
Ransdorp’ s most striking feature, visible from miles away, is an oversized church tower. At thirty-two metres in height it is far-and-away the tallest building, not just in the village but in all the villages in the area. Started in the first half of the 16th Century, the tower was supposed to have a spire but was never completed. This could have been due to a lack of funds or because of the Reformation, no one seems to know. The tower remains famous thanks to Rembrandt, who sketched it and the surrounding landscape.
It’s difficult to imagine today, but Ransdorp has been the scene of some very turbulent history. The village was virtually washed away by the devastating St. Elizabeth’s Day Flood of 1421, and suffered at the hands of repeated floods over the intervening centuries. During the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence from Spain the village was largely destroyed, changing hands between the combatants several times. During the war, in 1572, Ransdorp was the scene of the torture and massacre of Catholic priests, presumably because they sided with Spain against the Protestant Dutch.
Ransdorp is only a few kilometres from the centre of Amsterdam, but it feels like it could be from a different time. Setting off towards the city, I got caught by a downpour as I cycled through fields of polders, but the rain quickly blew past to be replaced by more blue sky and sun as I finally arrived back at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station.