Daytrip: Travel through time and landscapes
H.J.A. Hofland; Journalist and writer H.J.A.
Hofland has worked for NRC Handelsblad (formerly Algemeen Handelsblad)
since 1953, mostly as commentator and columnist.
There are no sleeping compartments on domestic Dutch trains and there are very few domestic flights. If you live in Den Burg, on the island of Texel, and need to attend a meeting in Maastricht, an overnight stay is unavoidable. If you need to go to a birthday bash in Sluis in Zeeland Flanders but live on Schiermonnikoog, you'll need a toothbrush. Almost every other return journey within the Netherlands can be made in a single day. Dutch literature has nothing to equal Paustovsky, Chekhov, Jack London or Jack Kerouac. However broad the horizon, it always contains a few houses. It is, in brief, a small country.
Nevertheless, it is possible to make great journeys in the Netherlands, combining beautiful, flowing landscapes with visits to unique sights. I could advise you to take a train to Kampen, via Zutphen, the town of the many towers, and visit the largest cigar on earth (according to the Guinness Book of Records). Or perhaps a visit to Delfzijl, in the far north-east of the country, to visit the park with the statue of Maigret, that immortal creation of Georges Simenon, who chose the port town as the setting for one of his books.
But instead, let me suggest that you follow the route that I will describe here. Why this route? Because it condenses the entire country into less than twelve hours. It will take you - by train, boat and bus - through the centuries, from 1540 to the present day, along glory past, forgotten and new, through magnificent landscapes and over the water until the land itself disappears. Start at Amsterdam Central Station, and buy a train ticket to Lelystad.
Take the 7.10 train. Amsterdam Central Station! The heart of the country! When the station was constructed in 1895, Lelystad hadn't even been built. On its present site flowed a vast expanse of water, the Zuiderzee. Those wanting to cross it had two options: take the train round, or take the night boat across to Lemmer in Friesland.
The night boat left from the quay behind the station. Relatives would wave as the ship departed into the autumn night, slowly disappearing into the mist. Perhaps a storm would brew up. On the IJ, the water might still be calm, but on the Outer IJ, the seas would be getting choppy. As the moon breaks through the clouds and casts its light on the blue-black mass of water below, the white crests swell and disappear like the heads of the shipwrecked passengers who will never return to shore.
Over the centuries, thousands of ships were lost on the Zuiderzee. The wrecks are strewn over the seabed, which is now a polder. When excavated, they are a treasure- trove for archaeologists. Wreckage from allied planes that crashed over the water during the war is also found occasionally. Sometimes, the crew was unable to extricate itself, and the remains are carefully recovered, relatives are traced, in Britain, America or wherever, and the bodies are sent for burial with the honour they deserve, fifty years on.
The 7.10 train to Lelystad is a double-decker. Second class is almost as comfortable as first class. It doesn't matter whether you sit on the right or on the left, but the view is better from the upper deck. At first, you don't really notice that we're leaving Amsterdam behind us, because the city extends like all modern cities, with endless housing estates, forcefully modern offices and factories. Little by little, the cities are eating away at the meadows, that's very obvious here. Between Amsterdam and Weesp, we see the Netherlands' biggest problem, the struggle over the distribution of land.
Every square foot is fought over by city planners and communicators and the ecologists, defenders of the ancient countryside. The party of economic expansion has been winning for years, and the country has become richer and uglier as a result. In the national fight for space, the urban agglomeration in the western provinces is the daily front line. We are twelve minutes into our journey, it is 7.22. Change trains at Weesp, the 7.24 service to Lelystad leaves from the other side of the platform. Now watch carefully. The train travels a few more miles over the old land that has been here for centuries, before going over a bridge.
We are surrounded by water: the IJmeer to the left, the Gooimeer to your right. After that, we're on new land, southern Flevoland to be precise. Here, thirty years ago, the seabed became visible after seven months of pumping water. Very little land on our planet is as new as the land of southern Flevoland.
At 7.37, the train stops in Almere, a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants. It is the youngest of the Netherlands' boom towns, in an area which retains a 'frontier' atmosphere. The first pioneers, a few dozen, began building here in 1976. Ten years later, the 50,000th inhabitant was registered, with the 100,000th following some eight years after that. While the city continues to grow, our journey goes inexorably on, into the new country, to Lelystad.
The city is named after the engineer C. Lely, who came up with the idea of draining the Zuiderzee over a hundred years ago. Many different plans were made, but it was Lely's plan which was, generally speaking, carried out. Our train carries on over virgin lands, fertile soil for grain, fruit, cattle - all manner of useful things. Soon, however, we reach a different landscape, marshy, full of shrubbery, trees which aren't arranged in straight lines but which grow and die according to where the seeds fell. These are the Oostvaarders Plassen, a wild, unfettered and totally man-made nature reserve.
In this perfectly proportioned countryside, even the freedom comes in pre-fabricated form. A bird of prey drops out of the sky to catch a rat, but that's allowed here. In fact, the idea is for as many birds of prey to catch as many small, helpless rodents as possible. In the Dutch countryside, that's part of the plan.
The Dutch enjoy this kind of thing. Seeing something like this makes us feel a little wild ourselves. But not for long, because the train reaches Lelystad at 7.55. This remarkable settlement is nine years older than Almere, but has remained smaller. We'd like to have a look round here, but we simply haven't got the time. Remember, we have to be back in Amsterdam within twelve hours. Bus 150 to Enkhuizen leaves from the front of the station at 8.18.
We now commence on the strangest part of our journey. After a few minutes, it seems like the bus is about to drive straight into the sea. Never fear, however, for we are merely commencing on a 35-kilometer journey over a dyke. Water on both sides, so what's the dyke for? To connect Lelystad to Enkhuizen. But is this an important trading route? No. As it turned out, this dyke was built by mistake.
The project was completed in 1976, by which time many people had noticed that countryside was becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon in this country. Build another polder? At the expense of the wild water, the fish, the birds and the people who owned sailing boats? A re-think was called for. After ten years of hesitation, construction of the Markerwaard - as this polder was due to be named - was postponed and never again seriously considered.
But the dyke is here! As a monument, complete with motorway. The cost per kilometre is probably among the highest in the Dutch road network. If the construction costs were included in the bus fare, a return from Schiphol to Kennedy Airport would probably be cheaper. This magnificent and priceless part of our journey takes only 35 minutes, after which we arrive in Enkhuizen. It is nine o'clock, and it's almost impossible to believe that we only left Amsterdam two hours ago.
Enkhuizen is one of the most beautiful towns in the Netherlands. Fortunately, we have plenty of time, because our boat doesn't leave until 12.45. It's probably best to pop over to the tourist office for a brochure. There is a great deal on offer, for the town contains more Dutch history than I can recount in a single newspaper paragraph. There is one detail I should mention: the museum of ships in bottles. Three centuries ago, the ships for the East Indies left from Enkhuizen. The Dutch fleet ruled the oceans of the world. Enkhuizen still has its museum of bottled ships: they will never set sail again, but the memories live on.
Take your time for a leisurely walk along the docks, and relax at one of the bars by the old tower, the Dromedary, then go back to the station. The track ends where the wide seas begin. The most beautiful train stations are those on the quayside, on the boundary of two worlds. The boat to Stavoren should already be moored up. Get a ticket, hop on board and after the sound of the ship's whistle, the ship will make its way out of the harbour. Halfway to our destination, at the point of no return, we can see nothing but water in all directions.
The journey takes about an hour and a half. We get off the boat at Stavoren, an old merchant town where the trading routes to France, England and Latvia used to start and where no more than a thousand people live today. It is 14.05. The town is picturesque, its history is fascinating but has a tragic ending. We have little time for sightseeing, however, because the diesel train to Leeuwarden, the Frisian capital, leaves at 14.14. Our journey though the Frisian prairies takes more than three-quarters of an hour. Here and there, the large farms look like pyramids. A Frisian farmer is an emperor on his own land, and we can see why. We arrive in Leeuwarden at 15.05. If the trains are running on time, we have 31 minutes to wait for the InterCity service to Amsterdam, which arrives there at 17.59.
You might say that not much could happen on such a fast train. But remember: you're travelling through the countryside to which Vincent van Gogh moved on 11 September 1883 and where he made some of his most famous paintings: the land of the Potato Eaters. The farmers here used to live in turf huts. On 15 September 1883, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: 'Just to give you an idea of how authentic this region is. While I was painting in the hut, two sheep and a goat came to graze on the roof of this residence. The goat climbed up to the ridge and looked down the chimney. The woman, hearing something on the roof, shot outside and flung her broom at the afore-mentioned goat, which, nimble as a chamois, jumped down.'
So look outside and think of Van Gogh and the aforementioned goat. After Zwolle, the bridge over the IJssel, the river which provides the IJsselmeer with water, comes into view. Then the Veluwe, where the first Dutchmen, the Batavians, dwelled. After Amersfoort, we finally return to the urban agglomeration in the West that we left in an eastwards direction this very morning. Around the world, the Dutch world, in less than twelve hours.