Cycling on water, crossing the Houtribdijk

It’s not every day that you get to cycle across one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World – even if it’s only one of the Seven Wonders according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That though is what I found myself doing as I cycled along the Houtribdijk, a 30km-long dike that connects the new Dutch town of Lelystad to the ancient Dutch town of Enkhuizen just to the north of Amsterdam.

The Houtribdijk forms part of the immense Zuiderzee Works, a series of dams, dikes, locks and sluices begun in 1932 with the construction of the Afsluitdijk. Intended to protect the Netherlands from floods that periodically devastated the country, the Afsluitdijk transformed the Zuiderzee from a large saltwater inlet of the North Sea into a freshwater lake, the IJsselmeer. It also began a large-scale land reclamation programme that added an extra 1,650km2 of dry land to the Netherlands.

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The city of Lelystad, my start point, was built in the 1960s on land reclaimed from the water. Today it’s home to 75,000 people, and sits about 3 metres below sea level. It would be fair to say that Lelystad’s very existence depends on the Afsluitdijk keeping out the waters of the North Sea. The Houtribdijk was built at the same time as the city. When it opened in 1975 it sliced the IJsselmeer in two, creating a new lake to the south, the Markermeer.

The original plan had been to drain the Markermeer and reclaim another 700km2 of new land. That was derailed by growing financial and environmental concerns in the 1980s, so the Markermeer remained a lake and has become a vital recreational area and wetland habitat. As you cycle along this enormous hydraulic engineering project, the vast expanse of grey-blue water seems to stretch forever, merging seamlessly with the horizon.

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah's Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah’s Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

I cycled from Lelystad’s train station to the shore of the Markermeer where fishing boats and pleasure boats mingle along the shoreline. Improbably, in the harbour was a 70m long ‘replica’ of Noah’s Ark – I’m not sure how you can have a replica of something no one has ever seen. The Ark is billed as the first floating biblical theme park. It’s spent the last five years touring Europe, but is now back in the Netherlands.

Leaving that absurdity behind, I passed an actual replica of a 17th-century Dutch East India Company ship, the De 7 Provincien. In the background was the magnificent Anthony Gormley sculpture, Exposure, of a crouching man looking out over the water next to the Houtribdijk. I was soon on top of the lock system that allows boats to transfer between the two halves of the lake, and I could see the dike snaking into the distance.

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

The cycle lane starts alongside the N302 main road, but soon drops down below the road so that you’re cycling alongside the water, and the 8,500 vehicles that pass along the dike each day are several metres above you. It’s quite strange, but very peaceful as you can’t see or really hear the traffic. Boats pass by as you cycle along, and after a couple of bends in the road the route becomes arrow straight.

I reached Trintelhaven, an ‘island’ in the middle of the dike with a small harbour, car park and restaurant. It also has a small beach. Carrying straight on I finally popped back up onto the top of the dike and I could see my destination, the beautiful medieval town of Enkhuizen. I didn’t have long in Enkhuisen before jumping on a train towards the equally attractive town of Hoorn.

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’

Indistinct at first, it takes a while to make out the shape that squats impassively on the edge of the water. When its form finally takes shape, it is something of a Eureka moment. A sense of disbelief at the scale of the what I was seeing started to wash over me. A vast metal man sits on his haunches looking out over the still, grey water of the Markermeer. Magical realism living in the Dutch landscape.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

On a cold but sunny morning, steam rising from the ground, it felt like we were seeing the remnants of a long-forgotten ancient civilisation. For anyone who has seen the Angel of the North, or the cast-iron life-size figures of Another Place on Formby Beach, or even Event Horizonwhich once graced London rooftops, this extraordinary piece of public art couldn’t be by anyone other than Anthony Gormley.

Officially opened in 2010 and titled Exposure, less generous observers refer to it as de hurkende man, the squatting man. Less politely, some people refer to it as de poepende man, the shitting man. It’s not difficult to understand why.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

What’s less understandable is why it took me nearly two years to discover this monumental sculpture. You’d think something this dramatic and beautiful would grace the covers of tourist literature, or even find its way into a guidebook or two. I only found out about it while flicking through the KLM in-flight magazine en route to Schiphol one day.

To give this behemoth some context, it stand 26 metres tall and weights 60 tonnes. It has over 5,000 components with 14,000 metal bolts holding them together. If it looks like it has been bolted together from bits of old electricity pylon, that’s because it was specially manufactured by a Scottish company that makes electricity pylons. It took three years to make all the parts and over a month to construct.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

This doesn’t tell the whole story. Its geometric design required the collaboration of two universities to develop special software and algorithms, allowing a 3-D digital model to be created that could then become a physical sculpture. It ran over budget and spiraling costs almost saw it scrapped. It finally ‘opened’ nearly ten years after the original competition was launched by the municipality of Leylstad.

Bizarrely, given all of these trials and tribulations, it’s quite hard to get to if you don’t know where you’re going. Cycling from Leylstad train station we didn’t see  a single signpost to guide curious visitors. Given its size, it really shouldn’t be so difficult to locate.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

The Squatting Man sits on a polder overlooking the Markermeer close to the Houtribdijk, one of the great engineering feats of the endless Dutch battle against water. When the ancient inland sea, the Zuiderzee, was closed by the construction of the Afsluitdijk in 1932, it improved flood protection and created Western Europe’s largest lake: the IJsselmeer.

Huge land reclamation efforts saw a new Dutch province created, and the city of Leylstad was founded on land once under water. The Houtribdijk was built in the 1960s and 70s and today connects Leylstad with the Medieval town of Enkhuizen. It sliced the IJsselmeer in half, creating the Markermeer in the process.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

The view from Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

The view from Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

Water played a role in the creation of Exposure. As global warming raises sea levels, the polder upon which the Squatting Man crouches will have to be built higher, slowly covering the sculpture. So it’s not just something beautiful to admire, it has meaning as well.

The truly wonderful thing about Exposure is that from a distance it is clearly a man, squatting. Move towards it though and it starts to lose shape and form until, when stood next to it or walking underneath its hulking mass, it becomes nothing more than a tangle of meaningless pieces of metal. The illusion undone by proximity.

When is an island not an island? When it’s Urk.

Well over a thousand years of human history have unfolded in and around the village of Urk. Until 1939 Urk’s history was that of a small island community living an independent life in the Zuiderzee (South Sea).  When the Afsluitdijk was completed in 1932, bringing an end to the periodic destruction of North Sea floods, Urk’s days as an island were numbered.

As well as turning the saltwater Zuiderzee into Europe’s largest fresh water lake, the Ijsselmeer, the Afskuitdijk changed the isolated existence of Urkers for ever. It heralded a remarkable phase of land reclamation around the shores of the Ijsselmeer, including the Noordoostpolder which now connects Urk to the rest of the Netherlands. Urk is an island no more.

Urk, Netherlands

Urk, Netherlands

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Urk, Netherlands

Urk, Netherlands

For centuries the fishing boats of Urk left its harbour and set out to seek their fortune in the fisheries of the North Sea. As a poignant memorial overlooking the Ijsselmeer makes clear, this was an occupation that brought with it many risks. The violent storms that can consume the North Sea meant many Urkers never returned from the sea.

The history of this community is so intimately entwined with the sea I’d be surprised if Urkers didn’t have brine running in their veins instead of blood. The island developed its own traditions, its own culture, distinct clothing and its own dialect, Urkish. Even today, 80 years after being connected to the mainland, the Urkish dialect is still used within the community.

Memorial to those lost at sea, Urk, Netherlands

Memorial to those lost at sea, Urk, Netherlands

Memorial to those lost at sea, Urk, Netherlands

Memorial to those lost at sea, Urk, Netherlands

Memorial to those lost at sea, Urk, Netherlands

Memorial to those lost at sea, Urk, Netherlands

Memorial to those lost at sea, Urk, Netherlands

Memorial to those lost at sea, Urk, Netherlands

To underline the connection to the sea, one of many Urk folkloric tales involves a rock that pokes above the Ijsselmeer’s waters, the Ommelebommelestien (try saying that after a couple of beers). It’s claimed this is the birthplace of all Urkers. Legend has it that the child’s father had to row to the rock, open a door beneath the waterline and collect the baby from its watery birthplace.

Although tourism is much more important than it once was, fishing is still the lifeblood of the village. This is central to the identity of the community, clearly marking it out from the agricultural communities that have sprung up on the reclaimed land which now surrounds Urk. Urks boats now have to travel much further to access the sea, or its fishermen travel to ports elsewhere.

Religion also makes Urk different. The town sits in the Dutch ‘Bible Belt’ and has a disproportionate number of churches. Almost nothing opens on a Sunday.  This underlines a bigger truth about the Netherlands: perceptions of an ‘anything goes’ society with legalised soft drug use and prostitution, has to be offset against the staunch Calvinism that runs through society.

I cycled from Lelystad along the shore of the Ijsselmeer in the early morning. On a calm sunny day the views over water were spectacular. I crossed the bridge over the Ketelmeer – stopping to allow some boats through – before arriving on the Noordoostpolder and onwards to Urk. All of my journey was made on land that a hundred years ago was under water.

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Ijsselmeer near Urk, Netherlands

Urk is a compact place centred around the picturesque harbour. Fishing and leisure boats litter the harbour, spend any time on the docks you’ll see boats come and go. Further back from the harbour are rows of fisherman’s cottages, many with images of boats with their numbers on, which I assume means the inhabitants work on that boat.

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

There is pretty church with a graveyard on a hilltop, but beyond that the village wasn’t as attractive as I’d expected. As I cycled back out of town a large pack of motorbike enthusiasts were arriving and a couple of tour buses were parking near the harbour. It was definitely time to make my excuses and leave.

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.

Preserving the traditions of the herring fleet

Fish and fishing have been central to the history and culture of the communities that for centuries have lived and worked along the shores of the Zuiderzee. In the 17th Century, Zuiderzee towns got rich from the trade in spice, gold and silk that flowed to these waters all the way to India, Japan, China and Indonesia. The wealth it generated was so enormous it launched the Dutch Golden Age. The towns of Hoorn and Enkhuizen were founding members of the Dutch East India Company, and trade with the East saw them flourish for a century or more.

It was fish and fishing that was the mainstay for most communities in this region though. North Sea herring, supplemented by whaling, formed the backbone of their economies until the 18th Century, by which time many harbours had silted up and ocean-going boats couldn’t reach the open sea. The Zuiderzee continued to provide a living for many communities, and eel became an important catch. It is the history of these communities that is preserved at the open air Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen.

Drying fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drying fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Known as the Southern Sea in English, the Zuiderzee was really a large bay of the North Sea. It was created in the 13th Century by rising sea levels that flooded the land, and a series of ferocious storms which destroyed the dunes and marshlands that formed a natural barrier to the sea. Although it extended 100km inland, had a coastline of around 300km and covered a vast 3,200 square kilometres, the water was rarely more than 4 metres deep. This gave rise to the iconic flat-bottomed boats with keels attached to their sides that remain a feature of the former Zuiderzee.

Over the centuries North Sea storms, similar to those that helped form the Zuiderzee, regularly brought death and destruction to this region. The St. Elizabeth’s Day Flood of 1421 was one of the worst; it caused massive damage and left up to 10,000 people dead across the country. There were dozens of smaller floods over the centuries, but also some much bigger natural disasters, including the Great Storm of 1703, one of the the worst ever recorded in northern Europe.

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The idea of damming the Zuiderzee to prevent these disasters had first been mooted in the 17th Century, but it was the vicious floods of 1916 that finally pushed the Dutch government into action. It took nearly two decades more, but eventually the Afsluitdijk, a 32km dyke sealing the Zuiderzee off from the North Sea, was completed and the Zuiderzee became the IJsselmeer, Western Europe’s largest lake.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

School room, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

School room, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

This was little short of a disaster for the communities of the Zuiderzee, the fishing fleet became redundant as the salt water of the Zuiderzee turned into the fresh water of the IJsselmeer. Villages and towns lost the mainstay of their livelihoods and most communities went into a spiral of decline. Centuries old traditions began to be lost and an entire part of Dutch history appeared to be on the verge of extinction.

Until, that is, the idea of the Zuiderzee Museum took shape. Recreating a traditional fishing village, original historic buildings from across the region were brought to Enkhuizen and turned into a late 19th, early 20th Century Zuiderzee fishing village. There are 130 buildings in the museum-cum-village, many of them are inhabited by people who dress in traditional clothing and continue traditional trades, such as smoking fish, to recreate the lives of typical villagers. It is a brilliant and atmospheric place to visit, and offers a unique insight into a way of life that has all but vanished.

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Hand washing, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Hand washing, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

As a footnote, the construction of the Afsluitdijk wasn’t just about preventing natural disasters; it was part of a larger plan to reclaim more land from the water. By 1968 three large areas of over 1,300 square kilometres of ‘new’ land had been created. Villages like Elburg which had once been on the coast found themselves inland, and new towns like Lelystad and Almere were constructed on the new land.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Toilet door, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Toilet door, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

A new dam linking Enkhuizen with Lelystad was constructed in 1976 as a prelude to a fourth reclamation project, but rising environmental concerns put an end to this and any further projects to reduce the former Zuiderzee in size.

Enkhuizen, a Dutch Golden Age gem

The glories of the Dutch seafaring past are nowhere better illustrated than in Enkhuizen. Long the home of a fishing fleet, in 1602 Enkhuizen became one of the founding ports of the Dutch East India Company. Trade in precious metals and silks, and even more precious spices, from Japan, China, Indonesia and India flowed through the town, making it one of the wealthiest in the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. The town flourished on the vast profits from trade, leaving behind an almost perfectly preserved town centre much of which dates from the 17th Century.

To say that Enkhuizen is an attractive place is something of an understatement. The town may have the trappings of the 21st Century, but it is remarkable how much of it has survived down the centuries. History seems to seep out of every building and it doesn’t take much to imagine yourself back in the 17th Century. The town is compact, but its narrow lattice of ancient streets and canals makes for rewarding strolling.

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The train journey from Amsterdam took us through the Waterland region and the equally historic town of Hoorn, another founding member of the Dutch East India Company. Enkhuizen is the end of the line for the train, the town’s station stops just short of the harbour and overlooks the IJsselmeer, the large body of water that used to be the Zuiderzee which once gave Enkhuizen’s ships direct access to the North Sea.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Most people who visit Enkhuizen, and it’s popular with tourists, come here because it’s home to one the best museums in the country. More of the brilliant Zuiderzee Museum  later, but the town is something a star attraction in its own right. We walked along the new harbour to the entrance into the old harbour. It’s a picturesque sight, ships masts in the background and towering over the whole scene is the Drommedaris, a 17th Century tower that was once part of the city defences.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Our explorations didn’t get very far. The sun was shining and the opportunity to sit outside in the sun was too enticing to pass up; it was time for lunch so we pulled up a chair at a table overlooking the old harbour and soaked up the atmosphere. Quite some time later we finally set off to explore the town before heading to the Zuiderzee Museum. Not for the first time since I’ve been here I marvelled at how the Netherlands has managed to physically preserve so much of its history. I can only lament the situation in the UK.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

IJsselmeer, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

IJsselmeer, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, like so many other Dutch towns, is so historic, so old Europe, so traditionally Dutch, so picture-postcard-perfect that it verges on the twee. That’s one of the most fabulous things about the Netherlands, but I’m beginning to worry I might be approaching historic town burnout. I’m pretty sure that’s a medical condition.

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.

A town twinned with Cape Horn

The lovely town of Hoorn became wealthy and famous thanks to its position on the former Zuider Zee, an arm of the North Sea that gave ships access to the Baltic in the 15th Century. By the 17th Century Hoorn was a centre of global trade as one of the major ports of the Dutch East India Company. It was during the Dutch golden Age that the town gave its name to Cape Horn, the most southerly tip of the Americas.

It might be hard to guess at today, but for a small place Hoorn has an extraordinary history.

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

When the Zuider Zee silted up in the 18th Century Hoorn’s importance faded and its port, which in former times saw ships arrive from the furthest corners of the globe, became a backwater.

Everything about the town points to the water and many sailing boats still sit at anchor in the multiple harbours. The boats still have access to the old Zuider Zee but today most of them are used for sailing the landlocked IJsselmeer lake. The lake was created by the building of the Afsluitdijk to seal off the Zuider Zee from the open ocean.

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

The towns former wealth is obvious as you wander streets lined with historic houses, centuries-old churches and reminders of the former sea trade. On a canal near the port the road name gave a hint of the former trade in this part of town. Hoorn is located close to the German border, Bierkade is where German-made larger beers were offloaded into warehouses.

Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Former warehouse on Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

Former warehouse on Bierkade, Hoorn, Netherlands

I came across a pink house with three hedgehogs high above the door. This, it turned out, was the former home of a wealthy merchant family and the three hedgehogs their official coat of arms. Hedgehogs seem quite normal when you consider that the official coat of arms of Hoorn is a red horse with a golden horn (which I suppose makes it a red unicorn).

Three hedgehog coat of arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Three hedgehog coat of arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Coat of Arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Coat of Arms, Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn’s decline as a sea port saw it turn its attention inland and become a centre for agricultural trade, but it never regained its former glory. Today tourism adds significantly to the economic mix of the town, including many people from Amsterdam coming to sail boats and swap the city for the sea breezes coming off the former Zuider Zee.

Sunset, Hoorn, Netherlands

Sunset, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Visiting in winter, the sun descended early and a biting cold followed in its wake. Luckily, Hoorn has a host of pleasant restaurants and lively bars that welcome you off the street with a warming glass or two.

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

After I’d warmed my bones I took another stroll around the harbour and then meandered back to the train station. As if by magic, ships in the harbour had been transformed with nightfall; many of the boats had seasonal lights illuminating their masts and strung around their hulls. It made the town even more atmospheric.

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands

Harbour, Hoorn, Netherlands