Postcard from The Netherlands

We have been regular visitors to The Netherlands for twenty years now and have a small holiday home in the south of the country in the province of Zeeland. The southernmost part of the province (Zeeuws Vlanderen, or Zeelandic Flanders) is an area that has no land border with the rest of the country, being separated from it by the mighty Scheldt river, one of the primary waterways into the heart of Europe. When we first visited Zeeuws Vlanderen you reached it either by a very long detour via Antwerp in Belgium or a small car ferry between the ports of Vlissingen and Breskens. It made it feel remote. Then the opening of a 6km tunnel at the industrial town of Terneuzen transformed journey times and the economy of this part of the country. It has made Zeeuws Vlanderen more accessible and it certainly feels a little less remote these days. We tend to travel there via Calais in France, as it is less than 2 hours drive.

My daughters are both studying for exams this summer and we all needed a change of scene, so we decided to take a short break. The weather wasn’t great and the travel chaos was even less great, but it did us the world of good. This is such an under-rated part of Europe (the only visitors tend to be Dutch, Belgian or German), but for us it was like medicine for the soul!

Friday, 1 April

Bumper to bumper at the Eurotunnel!

We leave home straight after the end of school and drive to the Eurotunnel port at Folkestone, a journey of 275 miles. We make good progress, which stalls completely once we are diverted off the M20 (a section of which had been turned into a lorry park, under Operation Brock). The volume of traffic is such that the 2-3 mile journey from Eurotunnel motorway junction to the passenger terminal takes almost three hours! At least once we arrive in France, there is almost no traffic on the roads and we arrive at our destination in the early hours of the morning.

Saturday, 2 April

A long lie-in then a trip to the nearest supermarket in Breskens and a leisurely lunch, which must involve frites!

More vakantie apartements in Breskens

A stroll around this small town shows that since our last visit, more tourist developments have sprung up. I am happy to see this lovely place thriving, not least since it will benefit us, as we rent out our holiday home, but a part of me has mixed feelings; I’m not sure I want lots of tourists here!

Some of the lake’s permanent residents pay us a visit!

The weather is cold, colder than I have ever experienced here in the spring, but we are just happy to be away…and enjoying the wildlife.

One of our favourite things to do here is to take an evening stroll on the dyke beside the village. The views are always rewarding.

Sunday, 3 April

We take a trip to Brussels, to collect my husband from the airport, as he was unable to travel with us on Friday. It’s about 100km, or a 90 minute drive. I am nervous navigating the complicated ring road and finding city centre parking, but it is Sunday morning and therefore less busy. It is still cold, but it’s bright and sunny. Brussels is a beautiful city. It is also big. We stick to exploring the old town, which reminds me of Bruges minus the canals, and enjoy sipping coffee on pavement cafes, hearing clocks chiming the hour, wonderful shops, confectioners and more frites.

Monday, 4 April

No trip to Zeeland for us is complete without a day in Middelburg. This place is a hidden treasure – I’m almost afraid to mention it! This medieval town retains much of its traditional architecture and yet it has the atmosphere of an everyday working place. The quality of life here must be wonderful. My husband and I have often fantasised about renting a house here for a few months once our children have left home! There is a wonderful town square, with its spectacular town hall, edged by pavement cafes and restaurants, a museum, grand churches, picturesque canals and bridges, lovely shops, the best bookshop in southern Holland (De Drukkery), a student population and of course, coffee and frites! We often cycle here from our holiday home – we can bike to the ferry at Breskens and then cycle the 8km beside the canal, using the excellent Dutch cycle paths. But it is too cold and wet today, even for all but the hardiest of Dutch cyclists.

Tuesday, 5 April

The day begins with appelflappen from the village bakery. Then we decide to head to the smart Belgian coastal town of Knokke-Heist, an attractive seaside resort which seems to consist mainly of second homes. It is quiet on a Tuesday. Most of the residential buildings are apartments, weekend homes for a wealthy Brussels elite, most likely. There are many beautiful art galleries and expensive shops, most of which only open at weekends. It has a vast beach, much of which is taken up with beach huts and cafes and bars, and a wide and long promenade. Knokke is only 30 km from our house and we have visited it often over the years. One of our favourite things to do when the children were younger was to take the Kusttram which runs for 67 km along the coast from Knokke to De Panne. You can get on and off to explore the different towns and attractions en route. Today we stayed in Knokke and just strolled around, and sampled yet more frites and ice-cream.

Wednesday, 6 April

Our short break is over and it’s time to head home. The return journey is thankfully less eventful than the one getting here. We are astonished by the size of the queue of what appear to be thousands of lorries stranded on the M20, waiting to get into Dover. My heart goes out to those drivers, who have no facilities and only the food they will have brought with them.

I did not do much reading while I was away, it being primarily a family holiday with quite a bit more packed in than we had intended.

Relaxing in The Netherlands

Holland is a fascinating country. My family and I have been going there for years, usually spending a week or so there in the Spring. Whenever I tell people that I am off to the Netherlands they utter an interested “Oh!” but I am sure that what they are really thinking is “Why?”!

IMGP0012.JPGWe spend our Spring break in the south of the province of Zeeland, in an area that borders Belgium and which was until very recently separated from the rest of the country by the mighty Schelde river.  The opening of a 6km vehicle tunnel in 2003 beneath the Schelde at the town of Terneuzen, brought huge economic benefits to the area. On a map, Zeeland looks like a collection of islands jutting out into the North Sea, which appear to be joined to the rest of the country by the most tenuous of links. In truth, this part of the Netherlands does indeed have a tenuous grip on the land, much of it having been reclaimed from the water by sheer force of will and human ingenuity. These tracts of land are known as polders and maintaining the dikes and the drainage systems, the sea defences and the canals, is a national preoccupation.

From time to time, the sea reasserts itself (and we will no doubt see more of this across the world as low-lying lands will be the first to be hit by climate change and rising sea levels). The last major incident was in January 1953, when a storm surge in the North Sea led to the deaths of 2,551 people, including 1,836 in the Netherlands, and 326 in eastern England and Scotland. A total of 9% of Dutch farmland was under water. (See the images below of exhibits from the wonderful Watersnoodsmuseum in Ouwekerk.)

I have only known about the 1953 flood since 2002, when we first started going to this part of the Netherlands, and every year I have learned more and am increasingly fascinated not only by the history of this and similar events, but also by the relationship the country has with the sea and mor widely with nature. Much of the landscape of Zeeland is man-made, many of the beaches where we have spent some glorious sunny days have been created, but I find there is a greater harmony between human enterprise and nature and an immense respect for the natural world that I have seen in few other places.

 

From where we stay in the village of Hoofdplaat, in the area known as West-Zeeuws Vlanderen (nearest town is Breskens), we are within cycling distance of many pretty Dutch towns. We are also driving distance from the Belgian towns of  Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, even Brussels. Amsterdam and Rotterdam are even do-able on a day trip.

Our annual trip to the Netherlands is one of the most relaxing and energising weeks of my year. The biggest problem is returning to gridlocked England and making the snail’s-pace journey back up to the north via the M25 and M6. As for the potholes…! Something you seldom see on Dutch roads. I recommend Zeeland for a relaxing break…just don’t tell anybody. Please.

Which places do you find most relaxing? What quality is it that creates that feeling for you?

 

%d bloggers like this: