Wandering the Waterland, Broek in Waterland

I felt compelled to visit Broek in Waterland. Not because travel guides insist it’s ‘not to be missed’, not because of its beauty or history, not even because Napoleon visited with Empress Marie Louise in 1811. I had to visit Broek in Waterland because Google Translate told me that the name in English meant ‘Pants in Waterland’. The translation of a Dutch newspaper article claimed, “Pants is a crazy town, with amazing characteristic houses. It used to be quite a carnival of colors.”

‘Crazy’, ‘amazing’ and ‘carnival’, ‘Pants in Waterland’ seemed like my kind of town. ‘Broek’ in Dutch has a number of meanings, mostly related to things that cover the legs. These include ‘pants, trousers, leggings and trews’, and I’m not sure ‘trews’ has been used since the 18th Century. Broek also means ‘swamp’ and ‘marsh’. ‘Marsh in Waterland’ makes a lot more sense in this waterlogged region.

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling from Monnickendam to Broek the landscape is dominated by polders, criss-crossed with narrow channels of water, all well below sea level. Given a chance, the North Sea and the former Zuiderzee would rush in and submerge the region, as they’ve done numerous times over the centuries. Modern engineering and a dogged determination to tame nature keep the waters at bay. Which is just as well for the thousands of dairy cows that are as much a feature of the landscape as the polders.

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

In this relentlessly flat landscape I spotted the spire of one of Broek’s churches long before I arrived. The village is very pretty, large houses hint at its history and former prosperity. Not that it isn’t prosperous today, it definitely is, enough not to need tour bus-style tourism. In fact, it’s actively discouraged, which probably makes Broek a bit snooty. In the 18th Century foreign visitors frequently remarked on Broek’s cleanliness, the denizens of the village clearly take pride in maintaining that tradition. Definitely snooty.

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Cycling in the Waterland near Broek in Waterland, Netherlands

Originally Broek was a small fishing village, but the 17th and 18th Centuries saw a steady flow of wealthy Amsterdam ship owners and merchants moving out of the city and building grandiose houses here. It’s only 10 kilometres to central Amsterdam, and what self respecting wealthy person wouldn’t want a country retreat? There were a few interruptions to its growth – the Spanish burned it to the ground during the Eighty Years War – but it went on to thrive.

After a short wander around the village, and a quick drink in the De Witte Swaen, I was on my way again. After a day of cycling I was headed to Amsterdam only a few kilometres away – but which could be another country altogether. Returning to the urban environment I popped into one last village.

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang – which if Google Translate is to be believed, means waterway or watercourse – is a very literal name for a village in the Netherlands. It’s a tiny place of around 300 people that dates back to the late 16th Century, with a church originally built in 1642 that is a registered national monument.

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang, Netherlands

Watergang sits on the Noordhollandsch Kanaal, a canal stretching 75km from Den Helder on the North Sea to North Amsterdam. It was built in 1824 to shorten the route ships had to travel to reach Amsterdam, and because Amsterdam’s harbour on the Zuiderzee was beginning to silt up. The canal only proved economical for around 50 years; too small for bigger ships it became obsolete when the North Sea Canal opened in 1876. It provides pleasant cycling though, and I followed the route all the way into Amsterdam.

Wandering the Waterland, Monnickendam

The brash tourism of Volendam came as a surprise after tranquil Edam, as if Amsterdam’s tawdry Martelaarsgracht had been transplanted to the lakeside. The crowds of day-trippers seemed like a good reason for taking the easy way out, and I headed for the exit.

Leaving behind the ‘I Love Volendam’ t-shirts, giant wooden clogs and multiple opportunities to have a photograph in traditional Dutch costume, I cycled the few kilometres to Monnickendam, somewhere I’d seen described as ‘a small town where all is history’.

Day tripping in Volendam, Netherlands

Day tripping in Volendam, Netherlands

Cycling along the IJsselmeer near Volendam, Netherlands

Cycling along the IJsselmeer near Volendam, Netherlands

De Speeltoren, Monnickendam, Netherlands

De Speeltoren, Monnickendam, Netherlands

De Speeltoren and Waag, Monnickendam, Netherlands

De Speeltoren and Waag, Monnickendam, Netherlands

The once proud Zuiderzee fishing fleet that was the backbone of Monnickendam’s economy is long gone; if you’re a whale that’s probably a good thing. In the 17th Century the town grew into one of the most important Dutch whaling centres. The Dutch led the world in whaling, killing over 30,000 whales in the 17th and 18th Centuries alone, and making vast profits along the way. The town retains traces of the industries, such as soap making, that relied upon whaling; unsurprisingly, it isn’t something that features prominently in tourist literature.

Tourism is important to Monnickendam’s economy, but retains it’s seafaring traditions as one of the largest harbours for yachts and other leisure craft on the Markermeer. It’s also a working shipyard, centuries of shipbuilding tradition being put to good use repairing and building boats. This includes numerous old trawlers, which picturesquely dot the old and new harbours.

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Things might have been very different had plans to reclaim the land that sits beneath the waters of the Markermeer been completed. When, in 1932, the government built the Afsluitdijk to tame the Zuiderzee, it heralded an ambitious land reclamation project. This included the area around Monnickendam. In 1976 a second dam, linking Enkhuizen with Lelystad, was constructed, splitting the Zuiderzee in two and creating the Markermeer – which was to be drained to create agricultural land.

It’s hard to imagine, but Monnickendam would have been left high and dry. Instead of standing on the old harbour and looking out over the waters of the Markermeer, I might have been looking out over fields scattered with cows. This ancient fishing village could have become an agricultural town. I might not have minded if Volendam had been reclaimed, but Monnickendam would have been a tragedy.

The view to the Markermeer, Monnickendam, Netherlands

The view to the Markermeer, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Eel fishing statue, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Eel fishing statue, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Cycling into town I found the old harbour and a cluster of cafes and restaurants overlooking the water. Sitting at one of the outdoor tables in the middle of this lovely town the past surrounds you, the old boats in the harbour reflecting centuries of maritime history. For a sign of the community of monks who gave Monnickendam its name you have to head to the enormous St. Nicholas church; the only other sign of the town’s founders is an alarming statue of a monk holding a large wooden club. Not exactly a recruiting poster for the monastic way of life.

Alarming monk, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Alarming monk, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Monnickendam, Netherlands

Monnickendam, Netherlands

Lutheran Church, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Lutheran Church, Monnickendam, Netherlands

The harbour is Monnickendam’s centre, and walking around the atmospheric narrow streets, beautiful old Dutch houses tilting at alarming angles above, inevitably brings you back here. The old town isn’t very large and doesn’t take much time to explore. I had a stroll then cycled into the interior of the Waterland region, just to see what Monnickendam might have looked like if the Markermeer had been drained.

Wandering the Waterland to the Big Cheese

Edam cheese is one of the world’s most famous; famous enough to be an iconic symbol of the Netherlands. Big wheels of the stuff, coated in red or orange wax, can be found on tourist literature from Amsterdam to Timbuktu. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Edam itself is an unpretentious traditional Dutch town of a few thousand people. Tourism hasn’t left it untouched, but it’s pretty low key. It’s a world away from the grotesque brashness of nearby Volendam, which is only worth visiting if you’re a social scientist studying what happens ‘when tourism goes bad’.

The ships that once sailed from Edam and other Zuiderzee ports carried Edam cheese with them around the world. It’s claimed that by the 18th Century it was the most popular cheese in the world; it’s safe to say that it helped put the ‘golden’ into the Dutch Golden Age. Preserved inside its waxy coat, it served as both food for a ship’s crew and something to barter with when ships reached the fabled spice islands of Indonesia. Quite what 17th Century Indonesians made of the rubbery yellow stuff (the cheese not the wax) has gone unrecorded.

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

One of the cheese makers, Edam, Netherlands

One of the cheese makers, Edam, Netherlands

Cheese or munitions? Edam, Netherlands

Cheese or munitions? Edam, Netherlands

I read somewhere that the round, hard balls of Edam could, in an emergency, double as cannon balls. It must have been a bit of a surprise, not to mention confusing, if you were an English or French sailor and mid-battle Dutch ships started bombarding you with lunch. Although I’m not sure Edam is considered to be food in France. The round wooden cheese moulds that Edam was made in also had a martial role, during riots they doubled as helmets. This, not unfairly, earned the Dutch the nickname of ‘cheese heads’.

I’d arrived by train in the eminently forgettable town of Purmerend, the nearest station to Edam, and cycled out into the surrounding polders. On a warm sunny day, the landscape was was alive with colourful flowers and it was a pleasure to explore more of the Waterland region.

IMG_7176

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

Cycling through Waterland to Edam, Netherlands

A large canal, the Purmerringvaart, connects the two towns and cycling its raised banks offered wonderful views over the countryside. I was enjoying myself so much the dozen or so kilometres whizzed past and I was suddenly in Edam. I knew I was in Edam because there was a life-size wooden cut out of a woman in traditional dress and clogs holding a large Edam cheese. Nothing says you’ve arrived in a Dutch cheese town more than that.

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam’s centre is small and compact, perfect for strolling. I stopped at an outdoor cafe next to a canal for some breakfast (resisting the urge to order cheese) and had a reviving coffee, before heading off on foot to unearth more cheesy delights. Come here on a Wednesday in July or August and you’ll be treated to a traditional cheese market with people dressed in costumes, a cheesy tourist spectacle no doubt! I was here on a Saturday and decided the next best thing was to make my way to the kaaswaag, or cheese weighing house.

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

The area outside the kaaswaag is where Edam’s cheese market has been held since the 16th Century. It was closed down in 1922 before being revived by volunteers as a tourist attraction. On a non-market day the kaaswaag is open as a cheese shop, with mounds of Edam on display and cheese tasting if you venture inside. The rest of the town takes little time to visit, I spent an hour or so wandering around, up and down canals and exploring narrow side streets.

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Edam, Netherlands

Cycling along the IJsselmeer, Waterland to Volendam, Netherlands

Cycling along the IJsselmeer, Waterland to Volendam, Netherlands

Leaving peaceful Edam behind, I rejoined my bike and set off towards the former Zuiderzee, now the IJsselmeer lake, from where I followed the shoreline to Volendam. I didn’t know much about Volendam, but the ranks of tour buses that greeted me as I arrived in the town were an indication that all was not well. The town’s once picturesque waterfront was mobbed by day-trippers; the smell of frites and kibberling accompanied me as I pushed my bike through the crowds along the front.

I’d planned to have lunch in Volendam, but everywhere was overcrowded. I decided I wasn’t in the mood for mass tourism and continued out the other side of town towards Monnickendam.

Wandering the Waterland, Ransdorp

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 tower, Waterland, Netherlands

Ransdorp tower, Waterland, Netherlands

Countryside near Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

Countryside near Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

Countryside near Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

Countryside near Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

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.

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

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.

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

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.

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

World War II parade, Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

Countryside near Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

Countryside near Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

Countryside near Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

Countryside near Ransdorp, Waterland, Netherlands

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.

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.