Sailing North Holland

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The rail system in the Low Countries is superb but the way to visit a land mass so covered with waterways is surely by boat. Traveling by water also seems appropriate considering how important the Dutch East India Company was to the area.

Photography by the authors

There’s something reassuring about returning to Amsterdam and finding little has changed. It remains the perfect “tourist town”: a superb airport connected to an easily-managed railway station with a train service that delivers you quickly to a downtown location with hotels like the IBIS within a three-minute walk.

Amsterdam is consistent. Bicycles are still everywhere with imperious cyclists mowing you down relentlessly. Canal boats in the foreground to showcase magnificent town houses along the canals. Flower markets on Singel with their cornucopias of offerings. The statue of Multatuli nearby as it has been since Hans Bayers created it in 1987 — and still reminding students how this activist writer condemned the Dutch East India Company for its colonial excesses.

The Louis Royer statue of Rembrandt, perhaps Amsterdam’s favorite son and certainly its oldest surviving statue in a public place, was cast in 1852 and moved to the center of the square in 1876.

But here’s a change! Two Russian artists have created a bronze reproduction of his most famous painting, The Night Watch, and it was displayed around the statue in 2012. A fundraiser began in January 2013 to keep the statues in the square throughout 2013. Let us hope the Netherlands can show us the money.

We used to understand the distinction between Holland and the Netherlands. The former, the Northern coastal area is part of the latter, a larger land mass, but it’s hard to be this logical when the country itself uses either term in an interchangeable way. For example, “the official website for the Netherlands is www.holland.com” but it hardly matters as travel writers don’t find this tourism office or Amsterdam’s particularly helpful — although the Netherlands gets more than 10 million foreign visitors a year.

The Netherlands is a small country: 70 miles East to West, 300 miles North to South, one-third of the land below sea level and a population of 17 million probably a bit uneasy about global warming.

The rail system in the Low Countries is superb with many of the train conductors fluent in English but the way to visit a land mass so covered with waterways is surely by boat. A river boat like Uniworld’s River Queen, for example, takes you not only to interesting places but also out into the country itself and into the past as well. There are places in rural Holland that haven’t changed that much in a hundred years.

How about Keukenhof Gardens, the jewel in an area that provides more than 90% of the world’s flower supply? Or Zaanse Schans, a 19th century Dutch village? Or walking around Hoorn, a town of 70,000 inhabitants one of whom in 1616 gave its name to the fearsome cape at the tip of South America? Or strolling around Enkhuisen? The town was once an important seaport for the Dutch East India Company until its harbor silted up and, finally, when a dam closed off the North Sea the town re-created itself as a vast outdoor museum.

Ready to go?

Keukenhof Gardens

The word keukenhof means “kitchen garden.” This spot, however, might be regarded as a bit more than that. Begun in 1947, it is 70 acres planted with seven million bulbs and open only nine weeks each year. During that time it sees two million visitors.

There are now more than 4,000 different types of tulip, which are planted in October and covered with hay as insulation. They grow in April and get their heads cut off to strengthen the bulbs until July (85% of tulips are sold as bulbs). The bulbs are separated out and stored until September. Then the cycle is repeated.

In the gardens you can listen to the organ “The Adriaen” playing on a perforated book system invented in 1897. It was built from old organ parts in 1978 by Henk Heuvel and restored in the Johnny Verbeeck factory in Belgium, the biggest organ factory in the world.

You can also encourage a young Dutchwoman, Bobien van Aalst, to pose for you in the ceremonial clogs available for photographers’ models. And you will see your first windmill. Holland had 10,000 once but now has only 1,000. Furthermore, the gardens have the only tulips we’ll see this cold, cold 2013 spring.

At the height of “Tulip Mania” — the dot.com-like stock market craze that hit wealthy Holland in the early 1600s — a single tulip could buy a three-story canal-side town house (and some of those homes of wealthy merchants had 40 rooms!).

The Dutch East India Company made its investors so wealthy that before the tulip market crashed “a flame-striped bloom called ‘Semper Augustus’ sold for 5,200 guilders in 1637 at a time when Rembrandt’s overpowering masterpiece The Night Watch sold for only 1,600 guilders!”

Zaanse Schans

The living, working, 19th century village Zaanse Schans brings you back to reality. Here you can see a village with even more windmills: 17th century mills where you can talk to the operator and see, for example, how his massive wheel crunches peanuts to make peanut oil.

You can see clogs being made and can have Sascha Phillipson demonstrate why Dutch cheese is so special. And for the shopping fanatics, yes, there are shops!

Hoorn

For many of the River Queen’s passengers this was a favorite stop. Hoorn was an easy walk from where we docked (beside a prison!). But all walks are easy in Holland; it’s so flat its highest mountain, Mt. St. Peter, is only 394 feet high and even then the country has to share the “mountain” with Belgium.

And “Hoorn is so small” our guide Bart tells us, “if you’re looking for the closest bathroom it’s probably the one in your cabin.”

Delightfully small maybe, but at one time in the heyday of the Dutch East India Company Hoorn was one of its six most important ports. And in a way, explorer Willem Schouten was one of its most important sons. He named the dreaded tip of South America Cape Horn after his hometown in 1616.

A guide explained to us that when all of Europe was at war during the 17th century, the only place left for the Dutch was the sea, and, boy, we think, did they make it their own. The Dutch East India Company started with 22 ships but at its peak had 5,000. Bad weather sank 4%, annually, but its members still made enormous fortunes.

So here we are walking those old cobblestone streets, past warehouses that once stored sugar cane from Brazil and nuts from Africa and meat from North Germany and wood from Scandinavia — and maybe wool from Scotland until Veere in Zeeland, Netherlands, cornered that market. We pass buildings that stored wine and, of course cheeses. The Netherlands still export 27 million Edam cheeses every year to the world.

Even today, especially today, the homes look expensive. We stand in the main town square below the statue of the rather puffed up figure of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who was born in Hoorn in 1587 and died as the Governor-General of the East India Company in Jakarta in 1629. He was a controversial figure when the statue was unveiled in 1893 because, according to critics, “his violent mercantilism in the East Indian archipelago did not deserve to be honored.” Opinions like this were typical of the satirical writer Eduard Dekker who went under the name Multatuli (from the Latin “I have borne much”).

It is easier to admire the splendid West Frisian Museum housed in the 1632 States College building. It has, we are told, 27 rooms devoted to Holland’s Golden Age, but it is Monday and the museum is closed. Still the façade of the building is stunning and surely contrasts with the appearance of the old hospital next door.

We had a particularly helpful Uniworld guide on this tour, Colinda Visser. She stands at the door of the old hospital and challenges us on the significance of the grooves on the stone frame that bounds the entrance door. We don’t get the answer. They were caused at a time where plague struck so many seaports (perhaps from the ships’ rats) when superstitious townspeople touched the hospital’s entrance as they went past because surely that would save them from getting the plague.

Superstition didn’t save five Dutchmen 10 days after the Christmas of 1944 when they were strapped to an iron fence across the square in a corner of the Church wall and executed as a reprisal for the murder of a German officer as he sat waiting for a haircut in a local barbershop. The names of the five: Versfelt, Jonker. Jansen, Imming and Janssen are inscribed on a plaque on the church wall.

There are no winners in war, we think as we board our boat again for our next destination.

Enkhuisen

The South Sea that embraced Holland, the Zuider Zee, was dammed off in 1932 to protect Amsterdam and prevent the years of disastrous flooding suffered by such a low lying country. The resultant Zuider Zee became a fresh water lake half its size in a few years and turned the busy and important seaport of Enkhuisen into a historical remnant of the Dutch East India Company and later Holland’s herring industry.

At one time the port saw as many as 400 herring boats anchored in its harbor. So wealthy did the port become with the fishing industry it chose three herrings as its coat of arms.

“Many riverside dwellers put aside the oar for the spade,” according to a news sheet. “Once fishermen, they became farmers.”

“You will love Enkhuisen,” says Burt, our cruise director. “It’s like the Little House on the Prairie, Dutch style. Twenty-two museums!”

We take the ferry over to the tip of the land where the Zuiderzee Museum has developed. You could spend several hours wandering the streets of former laundries, mills, lime kilns, schools, warehouses, shops, churches and homes. Placards give the histories of the homes in fascinating detail — detail we suspect would be almost excruciating for casual readers, but one shop lured us quickly: the pharmacy.

The Apothecary of Great Gaper had its signature figure above its door. Apparently, the Medieval symbol of the open mouth advised passersby this is where you buy your medicines.

A book inside Slang Esculaap En Gaper tries to explain all this in Dutch. It was published by Roche in 1993. We Googled it but found little-to-no help. The pharmacist, who knew some English, explained that in the 1600s the Netherlands, with its extensive connections to what is now Indonesia, had many foreign, East Indian natives living here. For them a figure of a face showing their racial characteristics might suggest that others of their ethnic background meet here and here they would be welcomed.

What a nice thought to be welcomed when you are a stranger in a foreign land. We are welcomed ourselves a moment later, this Easter Time by two Dutch Easter Bunnies and their apple-cheeked children and handed some chocolate! We pass other children playing farmers and milking a wooden cow.

We head back for afternoon tea on the River Queen thinking life was low-key in some ways in Holland’s Golden Century.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.