THE WONDERS OF WATERLAND
In the Eastern part of Noord Holland there’s a region known as Waterland that’s dotted with charming villages, extensive grasslands, and picturesque harbours. As the name implies this part of the Netherlands is very…, well, watery. There are ditches, dikes, and canals criss-crossing the landscape everywhere, and most of the towns look out onto the Markermeer, a man-made lake reclaimed from the North Sea. It’s a beautiful part of the Netherlands and a great place to spend the day, as we found out today.
Waterland has both lived off, and struggled against, the water for ages. Most of it is situated well under sea level (the lowest point being 7m below sea level), and over the centuries was often subject to severe flooding. To protect themselves, their homes, and their farms from the floods, the Dutch inhabitants of Waterland built numerous dikes. These were effective against all but the worst of floods.
In 1916, however, a disastrous series of floods made the Dutch government decide that they needed to do something to protect Waterland once and for all; and so they built a dike across the mouth of Zuiderzee (once part of the North Sea). Called the Afsluitdijk this ambitious dam was finished in 1932 and effectively eradicated the threat of flooding for Waterland.
One of the other consequences of the dike is that it separated the Zuiderzee from the rest of the ocean, allowing the newly formed water body to transform into a fresh-water lake. This lake is called the Markermeer and is the heart of Waterland today.
There are lots of little villages to visit in Waterland, and the whole region is easily reached by bus from Amsterdam. We chose 3 towns to explore for today: Edam, Volendam, and Marken. First stop: Edam, after which a certain delicious cheese is named. Quaint and charming don’t begin to describe the little village of Edam; it’s all cobbled streets, traditional Dutch townhouses, and picturesque canals spanned by centuries-old drawbridges.
Edam is steeped in maritime tradition and history dating back to 1230 when the first dam in the River Ij was constructed (hence the town’s name: E-dam). From that moment on Edam prospered, first as a cheese market town, then as a herring fishing port, and in later centuries, as a shipbuilding centre. Although prosperity reigned, Edam endured periodic flooding from the Zuiderzee. The building of the Afsluitdijk fixed this, but also ended the town’s shipbuilding and herring-trading industries. Thankfully, Edam still had its cheese markets to fuel its economy (the town still has a weekly cheese market which runs every Wednesday). Most of the town’s architecture dates back to the 17th century when things were booming in Edam; today it’s a quiet retiree’s and tourists’ town with cafés, restaurants, and souvenir shops to go with the beautiful buildings.
The Netherlands is very small, so the distances between villages is often (unsurprisingly) very small. For example, it’s just 2.5km from Edam to Volendam. Rather than catch the bus between these Waterland villages, we walked, enjoying the rural and village views along the way.
With its pretty harbour and scenic waterfront promenade, Volendam has been popular with visitors for centuries. In the early part of the 20th century it became something of an artists’ retreat, with both Picasso and Renoir spending time here. Today it’s a VERY touristy Waterland favourite, that’s really more kitsch than quaint. Still, we enjoyed going for a stroll along the harbour, admiring the boats moored there and soaking up the glorious summer sunshine.
Like Edam, Volendam once was a prosperous fishing port and shipbuilding centre that suffered a serious economic downturn after the building of the Afsluitdijk. Luckily tourism picked up where the herring boats left off, and Volendam is now one of the bigger and busier towns in Waterland.
After exploring a bit of Volendam we sat down to a lovely lunch of salad and kibbeling en frites (i.e. bite sized chunks of lightly battered, crisply fried cod served with chips/fries), before hopping on the ferry across to the island* of Marken.
*Technically Marken is no longer an island – it is now connected to the mainland via a land bridge. Before 1957, however, it was a tiny little isolated community, out in the middle of the Markermeer.
The boat ride from Volendam to Marken only took half an hour and the views across the Markemeer along the way were great. There were lots of people out in their boats, enjoying the weekend weather and cruising around Waterland like us.
Marken was once a prosperous fishing township with a harbour for whaling and herring fishing ships to pull into; when the Zuiderzee was diked off, however, Marken became a virtual ghost town. It was only when the land bridge was built in the mid-20th century that the community became revitalised, fuelled by the every-increasing numbers of tourists who come to enjoy the hamlet’s lakeside location and beauty.
Walking around Marken, we noted how the traditional wooden cottages were all tarred black to protect them against the elements. It was interesting too to see how the oldest homes were only built on top of the sand dunes to help keep them dry when storms and high tides used to whip the Zuiderzee into a frenzy (no such concerns now that the Afsluitdijk is in place, of course).
After wandering through Marken for a while we stopped in at one of the waterfront cafés for one of the best iced coffees in the world* before heading back on the bus to Amsterdam. A little sunburnt but blissfully content, we’re back in town now, wondering if summer days can possibly get much better than this…
*It’s a big call, I know, but this truly was a work of art: the shot of espresso was mixed with ice, coffee ice cream, and milk and blended into a soft, creamy coffee slushy of awesomeness.