Zierikzee and the longest bridge in the Netherlands

Timing is everything in life. On my cycle around Zeeland my time, and luck, were up. I’d had nothing but glorious weather, cycling under blue skies and a hot sun as I toured Zeeland’s coast and interior. That was about to come to a dramatic end. After leaving the mighty storm barrier of Oosterscheldekering behind, I headed into a strong, and getting stronger, wind en route to the ancient fishing village of Zierikzee.

Out of time. The Scheldt estuary from Zeeland Bridge, Zeeland, Netherlands

Out of time. The Scheldt estuary from Zeeland Bridge, Zeeland, Netherlands

I was looking forward to seeing Zierikzee and then to cycle across the Zeeland Bridge, at 5km in length the longest bridge in the Netherlands. I can report from first hand experience that half way across the Zeeland Bridge is no place to find yourself during a thunder storm. This is especially true when the rain is monsoonal and lightning is streaking across the sky. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I reached Zierikzee after struggling for 20km into a headwind along the banks of the eastern Scheldt. After a full day of cycling it was exhausting stuff, and I was glad to arrive in the late afternoon for a rest and some food. I passed through one of the town’s medieval gates, it was immediately apparent that this was an historic town.

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee dates back to at least the mid-12th Century. It was a fishing village before becoming one of the towns of the Hanseatic League. Thriving on trade and fishing, it suffered a sudden decline in the 16th Century. That doesn’t seem to have prevented the town from constructing a wealth of beautiful buildings.

I parked the bike and went for a walk around, conscious that I wouldn’t have much time to explore before needing to get going again. It was another 25km to the town of Goes (there really is a town called Goes), where I’d get the train back to The Hague. The old part of Zierikzee is wonderful and, because I’d arrived in the late afternoon, there weren’t many other tourists.

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee’s central square is an attractive open space ringed by cafes and restaurants. I found a table overlooking the harbour and ordered up some food. I was only in the restaurant for 30 minutes, but in the time it took to eat a sandwich and sample a local beer the weather had changed dramatically. Big ominous-looking clouds had swept in and rain was definitely headed my way.

I’d have liked to spend a little more time wandering Zierikzee’s atmospheric streets, but I was now in a race against time and the elements, a race I was never likely to win. I cycled towards the Zeeland Bridge and, in the hope that the rain would hold off until I was on the other side, set off across its dramatic 5km distance. There were fabulous views down the estuary to the Oosterscheldekering.

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The rain started to fall in big, heavy drops that grew in intensity until I was soon cycling into a torrential downpour. Thunder roared overhead, lightning illuminated the sky and the wind howled. I entertained myself making up newspaper headlines about the death of an idiot who decided to cross a bridge in the middle of a storm. It seemed like an eternity before I reached the other side.

The rain and lightning were extraordinary, so I took shelter under the bridge and waited. The storm eventually passed and somewhat bedraggled I set off again for Goes. It turned out that this was a false dawn. Ten minutes later the heavens opened again and I found myself wondering if people actually drown while cycling in Zeeland.

The Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Scheldt estuary from Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Scheldt estuary from Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, near Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, near Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Goes is supposed to be an interesting town to visit, but I was soaked and my only interest was to not be there. I eventually I found my way to Goes train station and…wait for it…went.

Cycling the Rijnkanaal to medieval Muiderslot

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.

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

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.

Cycle bridge over the Rijnkanaal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cycle bridge over the Rijnkanaal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cycle bridge over the Rijnkanaal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cycle bridge over the Rijnkanaal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cycle route along the Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycle route along the Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycle route along the Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycle route along the Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycle route along the Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycle route along the Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

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.

Zuiderzee fort near Muiden, Netherlands

Zuiderzee fort near Muiden, Netherlands

Harbour in Muiden near Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Harbour in Muiden near Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

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.

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

View over the Zuiderzee, Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

View over the Zuiderzee, Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

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.

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

Muiderslot castle, Netherlands

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, 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

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.