Hanseatic glories in ancient Elburg

Medieval Elburg is unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in the Netherlands. Sitting on the shores of the former Zuiderzee, it was a prosperous fishing village when, in 1390, it was redesigned along a grid system and surrounded by defensive walls and moat. The straight cobbled streets and narrow lanes are reminiscent of modern Manhattan*, only in miniature. At first glance, it’s presence in the middle of the Dutch countryside is a bit of a mystery, but this was cutting edge urban design in 14th century Europe and Elburg was major trading town thanks to its role in the Hanseatic League.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Cycling through peaceful Dutch countryside along the shores of the former Zuiderzee, I arrived in Elburg on a sunny Sunday morning. The Netherlands is not the busiest place on Sunday mornings but, even by Dutch standards, Elburg was unnaturally quiet. As I walked the beautiful, deserted streets, I marvelled at the tranquility and did begin to wonder where everyone was – it was a bit too quiet, like a zombie apocalypse may have happened. Then the church doors opened and – excuse the inappropriate pun – all Hell broke loose.

This is traditional Netherlands, a place as far removed from the dubious delights of Amsterdam only an hour away by car. In another nod to the similarities with the United States, this part of the Netherlands is De Bijbelgordel, the Bible Belt, an area populated by a higher than average percentage of conservative Dutch Calvinists. Elburg is right in the middle of De Bijbelgordel and on a Sunday morning it shows.

Hundreds of people flooded onto the streets. Friendly chatter shattered the peace, as whole families in their ‘Sunday Best’ poured into the town centre in a scene that has been played out in this historic town for centuries. Dozens of people cycled past, and small traffic jams formed as cars and bikes crammed into the streets at the same time. As luck would have it, I was standing near the Reformed Dutch Grote Kerk, the largest church in Elburg and epicentre of all this action.

As the crowds dispersed, I wandered into the church and a vicar (if that’s what they’re called in the Netherlands) told me that I had five minutes before they closed. It wasn’t long before one of the congregation had started chatting to me though, and the vicar joined us to discuss the history of the church and town. Outside, the hubbub had died down, the good people of Elburg had vanished again. I set off to explore the once more empty streets and to uncover the town’s interesting history.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Unfortunately, Sunday may not be the best time to visit Elburg. It has a town museum and, intriguingly, a Jewish museum. None were open, because in De Bijbelgordel very little is open on a Sunday – not even the Jewish museum. That was a shame because Elburg once had a small but thriving Jewish community, that traced its origins back to the mid-17th century arrival of Ashkhazian Jews from Eastern Europe. Their story is fascinating.

Different from the earlier migration of Sefardian Jews who came from Portugal and Spain and settled in cities, the Ashkhazian Jews were often poor and settled in rural areas. By the mid-18th century the Jewish community was fully integrated into the life of Elburg. The Second World War saw most of Elburg’s Jewish population rounded up and sent first to Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz. Only one member of the community who was transported to the death camps survived the war.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Disappointed that I couldn’t visit the museums, I had a snack in a cafe and walked down to the old harbour passing through the only remaining city gate, the 16th century Vischpoort (Fish Gate). As part of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of towns and guilds trading across Europe, it was from here that Elburg’s boats made the town rich from trade across Europe. This was Elburg’s peak of influence, before it became a sleepy backwater.

The town saw little 19th century industrialisation and the railway, which provided a big boost to neighbouring towns, bypassed Elburg. From its once mighty position in the Hanseatic League, the town came to depend upon fishing for its living. While Elburg has had some rough times, it feels prosperous again today. Seemingly little changed from medieval times, it now attracts increasing numbers of tourists – just don’t visit on a Sunday if you want to visit any museums.

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* The very fact of the existence of a Dutch-inspired grid system, lends extra weight to my theory that the Dutch have left a far greater imprint on the modern United States than anyone might imagine. New York was first New Amsterdam, before the turbulent 17th century wars in Europe saw it ceded to the English. Two centuries of English rule did little to undo early Dutch influence, apparently. While we’re on the subject, if you think apple pie is an All-American treat, think again.

Cow-related humour in Kampen

Kampen. Remember that name, because it will feature in a travel story in a newspaper or magazine in the near future. The story will, inevitably, be titled “Kampen, the real Netherlands”, or something equally pointless. It will wax lyrical about the Medieval charms of this former Hanseatic League town and, I’m willing to bet, mention that there are few places on Earth with such a wonderfully preserved historic centre.

Mural on the Stedelijk Museum, Kampen, Netherlands

Mural on the Stedelijk Museum, Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

That might wash with someone who hasn’t spent two years wandering through the Lowlands, but not with me. Not any more. Honestly, it beggars belief that, in a country the size of a handkerchief, there are so many beautiful and extraordinarily well-preserved towns. So many, in fact, that I can no longer tell one from the other. So many that I’ve given up counting.

This is, I believe, known as a poverty of riches…and the Netherlands has an endless embarrassment of riches. This is less an epiphany than an acknowledgement of reality. I cannot begin to name the towns and villages I’ve visited with ‘perfectly preserved Medieval centres’. There are just too many. It would be fair to say that I’ve become a little jaded by such wonders.

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

IJssel river at Kampen, Netherlands

IJssel river at Kampen, Netherlands

So, it came as a bit of a surprise that Kampen was a pure, unexpected delight. Despite being fairly close to Amsterdam, it feels a long way from the tourist trail. I took the train to Leylstad and cycled the 50km along the beautiful shores of the IJsselmeer and Ketelmeer, stopping to take in the views over the water. By the time I reached the IJssel river separating me from the town, I’d definitely earned a beer.

Kampen sits at the mouth of the IJssel on the edge of the former Zuiderzee, which gave it access to the Baltic and North Sea. The IJssel then snakes its way from Kampen across the Netherlands until it reaches the Rhine. This made it the perfect location for trade between the Baltic and Germany, and was the foundation of the towns prosperity throughout the Medieval period.

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Medieval buildings, Kampen, Netherlands

Medieval buildings, Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Statue of fisherman and woman, Kampen, Netherlands

Statue of fisherman and woman, Kampen, Netherlands

The legacy of all that wealth can still be seen today in three original Medieval gates that once formed part of the defensive walls. It’s remarkable that these gates, dating from as early as the 14th Century, have survived into the the 21st Century, but they are not alone. Kampen has around 500 Medieval buildings and, avoiding the ugly modern-day shopping street, a walk around town reveals its history.

I stopped in at the Stedelijk Museum, itself housed in the beautiful former Town Hall built in the 14th Century. The museum has a fairly eclectic collection, but includes a fascinating history of the towns relationship with water, and the trade that made it fabulously rich and powerful in Medieval Europe. It relates the story of the last sturgeon to be caught in the Zuidezee before it was closed, killing off the towns fishing traditions.

Korenmarktpoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Korenmarktpoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Broederpoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Broederpoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Broederpoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Broederpoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Cellebroederspoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Cellebroederspoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Cellebroederspoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

Cellebroederspoort, Medieval gate, Kampen, Netherlands

The Stedelijk Museum also has an entire gallery dedicated to paintings of cows, this struck me as odd, although not as odd as a sculpture of a cow rearing up on its hind legs like a horse in the street outside.

Adding to this mystery was a photograph of a life-size model cow hanging from the picturesque 17th Century Nieuwe Toren. I asked the museum staff why there was a cow hanging from the top of the tower and discovered that this was the Kamper Cow, the basis of a long standing joke about the people of Kampen, or Kampers as they’re collectively known.

Cow sculpture, Kampen, Netherlands

Cow sculpture, Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

Kampen, Netherlands

The story goes that the townsfolk were worried by grass growing on the roof of the tower. Some bright spark had the idea to take a cow to the top of the tower so that it could graze on the grass. Needless to say, the cow met a decidedly unpleasant end and the story has been used to illustrate the stupidity of Kampers ever since. The model cow is hoisted up the tower in the summer during Kampen’s annual festival.

That sounds like a diary (or should that be dairy!!) date if ever there was one…