Lovely Dutch towns you’ve never heard of
There’s more to the Netherlands than Amsterdam and tulips
Our friends who live in central Amsterdam welcome visitors, but they’re getting a little tired of tourists, as more than 18 million of them arrive each year. Tourists crowd the cafés, party all night in thousands of Airbnbs and, worst of all, they stop to take selfies and block the cycle paths!
Amsterdam is in danger of becoming loved to death. Amsterdam City Council is legislating to limit the tacky souvenir shops and fast food outlets that are springing up everywhere, replacing old establishments the locals used to frequent.
“Why can’t tourists spread out a bit?” moan our friends. “This country has so many nice places.”
“Such as?” I ask.
They suggest towns generally overlooked by international visitors. The Netherlands is small and its rail system is highly efficient; almost everywhere is just an hour or two from everywhere else. So, my wife and I make it a project – visiting Dutch towns we know nothing about.
Wherever we go, we find interesting snippets of history, small-scale museums, beautiful town squares, outdoor terraces, cosy cafés, canals and rivers, monumental churches, leafy parks and relaxed, car-free town centres.
And, best of all, it’s delightful to meet locals who have time to smile, chat and proudly show off their town to visitors, genuinely hoping we’ll enjoy our stay and want to come back.
It’s an excellent start; the wide avenue leading from the train station to the mercantile township of Zwolle is lined with elegant 19th century houses and soon emerges on a moat with a belt of green parkland. Passing through the 14th century Sassenpoort mediaeval gatehouse brings us to a beautifully preserved town, with narrow cobbled streets and squares with café tables under the plane trees.
We’re intrigued by the modern art in the Museum de Fundatie and Herman Lamers’ Glazen Engel (glass angel) sculpture in front of the gothic St Michael’s Church.
The highlight for us, however, is the Waanders in de Broeren, the most beautiful bookshop we’ve ever seen, in the converted Broeren Church. No matter that most of the books are in Dutch – there are vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and organ pipes still in place. It also has a café – of course it does. Downloading a book to the e-reader can never match this.
The complicated name – ’s-Hertogenbosch – may be unfamiliar, but the town’s most famous son is better known. The 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch’s Where’s Wally-style paintings depicting The Garden of Earthly Delights and Heaven and Hell, are notable for their details of what may await us in the hereafter. None of his paintings remain in his birthplace, but the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center in a former church has reproductions of most of them, with excellent explanatory notes. Sculptures based on surreal characters from his work hang from the ceilings and are also dotted around unexpected corners of the town.
‘Den Bosch’, as it’s more commonly called in the Netherlands, also boasts the country’s largest Catholic church, the gothic St John’s Cathedral, dating back from the 14th century.
Local pastries taken with koffie are known as Bossches bollen (‘Bosch balls’). About the size of a tennis ball, this Dutch take on profiteroles has a chocolate coating and a whipped cream centre and is a signature treat from the Den Bosch area.
The ornate gables of the spectacular buildings by the waterfront and town square of Hoorn are a testament to the town’s role as an important port during Holland’s Golden Age in the 17th century, when ships brought untold riches to the Netherlands. Cape Horn at the tip of South America is named after the town.
The statue of Dutch East India Company captain Jan Pieterszoon Coen, founder of Batavia, now Jakarta, stands proudly in the centre of Hoorn’s city square. Coen was regarded as a Dutch hero until the 19th century, though the statue is controversial, given what is now known of Coen’s brutal violence to his underlings and enemies.
In the newly opened Museum of the 20th Century, a collection of artifacts of ordinary home life provides us with plenty of, “Oh remember, we used to have one of those in our kitchen” moments.
A short train ride away is Enkhuizen, where old Dutch houses have been transplanted into the lovely open-air Zuiderzee Museum. Volunteers in traditional dress enthusiastically demonstrate the ancient arts of making fishing nets, windmill maintenance and doing the laundry with steam power.
Walking from the station through beautiful Valkenburg Park, we arrive at Breda Castle, a place where the world was changed. In 1667, it was here that English and Dutch envoys met and agreed to stop blowing up each other’s merchant ships. The Dutch would be allowed to retain their coveted colony of Surinam, Dutch Guyana. In return, the English would get control of a modest trading post on the American east coast and New Amsterdam became New York. It seemed like a good deal at the time.
Breda is now a handsome market town, dominated by the spire of the massive Church of Our Lady, in which members of the House of Orange-Nassau, ancestors of the present royal family, are buried.
Like many visitors, we visit the Begijnhof, a cluster of simple terrace houses arranged around a chapel and herb garden, originally built for the devout single women known as the Beguines. A small museum tells their story.
If Breda’s streets seem relatively quiet, in the evening it’s all go in De Boterhal (‘Butter Hall’), a bubbling craft brewery, wine bar and restaurant, obviously popular with a young crowd. We enjoy tapas plates and sample the selection of the Sint Joris beers brewed in the basement of the building.
Dordrecht is theoldest city in South Holland, the province that also encompasses the Hague, Delft and Rotterdam. Like so many Dutch towns, it is built on the water, so of course a walk around the harbour, admiring the yachts, old and new, is mandatory.
The town’s little museums are less daunting than those in larger cities, and there are no crowds or queues. We enjoy spending some time with old Dutch masters in the Dordrecht Museum, then stroll across to the former home of 19th century banker and art collector Simon van Gijn. Van Gijn bequeathed his richly furnished house to the town to transform into a museum, Huis van Gijn.
For us, however, Dordrecht’s particular appeal lies just outside the town, in De Biesbosch – 90 square kilometres of wetlands that now form a national park. During World War II, this maze of waterways was a hiding place for resistance fighters, sheltering from the Nazi occupiers. Now birdlife abounds in the lakes and rivers. There are beavers here, too, we’re told, though we’re not lucky enough to spot them. Nevertheless, we enjoy a cycle trip through the park and
lunch in the Biesbosch Museum café.
The suggestions from our Amsterdam friends keep coming. “Why don’t more people go to Zutphen, Alkmaar, Leeuwarden, Middelburg, Apeldoorn, Deventer, Nijmegen..?”
Amsterdam is still special, but we now know we’ve only just begun.
Photography by Richard Tulloch.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies to Amsterdam from eight Australian cities via major gateway cities in Asia in conjunction with its codeshare partners.
www.klm.com.au; http://air france.com.au
Trains run regularly to all the above towns from Amsterdam Central Station. Approximate trip times are: Zwolle 90 minutes; ‘s-Hertogenbosch 55 minutes. Hoorn 30 minutes; Breda 80 minutes; Zutphen 85 minutes; Dordrecht 65 minutes. For full timetables, fares and connections from other Dutch towns, see ns.nl/en
When to go
Peak tourism season in the Netherlands is during the European summer holidays from August to September, but even then, these towns are unlikely to be overcrowded. Visit any time!
The official Dutch tourism site has more about each of these towns, including things to do, accommodation and dining options. holland.com