How many small, relatively-unknown town jewels in the Netherlands can you visit on a day-ticket for the train? We went to find out.
According to the Dutch rail operator’s website, www.ns.nl, a day ticket is good from midnight until 4am the following morning for any route shown on the official train map. The idea was simple — after a decade of living in the Netherlands I wanted to visit some of the smaller towns I had not yet seen on my travels to date; to make a whirlwind tour to the far corners of the Lowlands.
Can’t find the ferryman
So, on a grey and foggy day during the holidays, I set off with a vague plan and a copy of the rail map. First, I would travel to Enkhuizen at the western tip of the Ijsselmeer to take the ferry (marked by a black dotted line on the map) across to the famous fishing village of Urk. From there, I wanted to go up to Friesland, then the extreme east of the country by the German border, south and finally the extreme southwest (Zeeland), before returning home to Amsterdam. It’s a small country, right?
Not wanting to be tethered to too strict a timetable, I did not bother to look up train times and connections; I thought I would just ride the system a bit like the bus. When I got on board the train to Enkhuizen, I asked where to get the ferry. The conductor told me it didn’t run at this time of year. “So Enkhuizen is the end,” I asked. “Yeah,” he replied, “the end of nowhere.”
Apparently the old joke holds true — you can’t get there from here. Urk is only reachable by boat in the summer months or by bus from Lelystad in the winter. As I had gone as far as I could go, I decided to check out Enkhuizen. The day I arrived it was shrouded in heavy fog and mist, cold and very, very windy.
The train pulls into a station just at the edge of the harbour. Enkhuizen is an ancient fishing town, once one of the main sites of the East India Company (VOC) and founded back in 1335 as an important port on the Zuiderzee. It is also a town that survives mostly on boating and tourism in the summer months. Sheltering in the warmth of the VVV (tourist information) office right next to the harbour, I was treated to an in-depth list of what there was to do — most of which was boating-related and only open in the summer.
Now, on a cold and blustery day in December, the choices were simpler, the main museum Zuiderzee, or a “quaint” town walk. I opted for the walk and was almost immediately rewarded. Right across from the harbour park was a beautiful wrought iron arch leading to an amazing park neighbourhood, the Snouck van Loosen Park. This park was built as a legacy in 1835 to provide decent housing for working men.
Standing gazing up at the arch, an old man smiled at me and said: “It is beautiful and quiet, take a walk”. He was right and I found it fascinating the way the place combined park and housing, quiet and incredibly atmospheric on such a foggy day. The housing was incredible and I was sure no longer working class as it had an air of gentility to it.
There are many ancient parts of the city including old harbours, bits of the original wall and the “Boerenhoek” (farmer’s corner) where you can still find farms and working orchards inside the city walls. In the early 1600s, there were 22,000 people — now there are less than 17,000.
After the city walk, past the three old guys fishing on the edge of the canal, I realised I had not seen one person who did not appear to be Dutch. And the smiling had stopped soon after I left the park (if you don’t count the young dark haired guy who appeared to leer more than smile). I stopped a young, blonde Dutch woman in a waitress uniform outside of one of the many hotel/restaurants as she was unlocking her bike and asked what the people of Enkhuizen are like if you live there?
“I wasn’t born here,” she told me. “I come from Brabant where people are warmer, easier. It was very lonely for the first year or two after I arrived. Now, it’s a different problem because it’s so small everyone knows everybody else.” She moved her thumb and fingers together like a ducks bill to show the idea of wagging tongues. And foreigners — do they have any other than the tourists in the summer? “Well, I have seen a few Moroccans and a couple of Turkish people, oh and Surinamese, but not many. It’s not a city like Hoorn. I think they must have been born here.”
I was curious to speak to one of these rare local immigrants (perhaps rarer than the odd ducks found in the park), but I did not run into a single, visually identifiable non-Dutch person.
It was at this stage I threw the idea of going north out the window, I was freezing and the papers had said it was warmer and sunnier down south. I would turn my trip around and head south next.
I had to double back as far as the “city” of Hoorn so I could go west and then all the way down south — using the Intercity trains to get through the Randstad as quickly as possible. Flat, flat fields and fog as far as the eye can see, no wonder some of the artists from here went crazy…
Time seemed to disappear in great gulps. What with various delays, waiting times and travel — it had already taken almost five hours and I had seen only one village! This was obviously the draw back to the whole round-robin idea. I would also have to be careful the later it got, as the local trains stopped much earlier than the main lines.
To the Seven Mountains
A small voice in my head said “civilisation” as we pulled up outside of Haarlem station. I love Haarlem and it’s old city, even the clouds were breaking up and small patches of blue sky were becoming visible. I decided to grab the first train as far south as I could, heading for a place I had never heard of called Zevenbergen, or Seven Mountains. That was enough to spark my curiosity — given that the Lowlands are generally regarded as being pretty low.
I found out what he meant when I got to the Dordrecht station — I had just missed the local stop train and had almost an hour to wait. I went into the “Brasserie” at the station and had a coffee to warm me up. When the waitress came back to ask if I would like another one, I replied no. She then told me I had to leave. Was she joking? Unless I continued to buy and drink I had to leave. There were about 4 other customers in the place at the time. I left.On the train I met a middle-aged Dutch construction worker who now lived in Scheidam, having moved there from Dordrecht. I asked him which he preferred. “No question, Scheidam.” Why? “People from Dordrecht are real Dutch snobs, they wouldn’t lift a finger for you if you were lying in the street”.
By the time I got to Zevenbergen the light was just starting to fail. There were no signs of a tourist information office, so I set off for a stroll, looking for a likely person to talk to and to get the feel of the place. It was quiet; there were already few people on the street.
I met a thirty-something, blonde professional male waiting for a bus not far from the station and asked him to fill me in — why was it called the seven mountains? “That’s a really good question, no one knows, there is not even a hill, but there are a lot of green areas and parks. The people here are friendly to your face, but will stab you in the back.” I asked him why he lived there and he asked, “Have you been to Dordrecht?” He also told me it was a new town and that it had really grown back in the 60s and 70s. I watched as an ethnically-mixed group of teen boys shot past on their bicycles.
I was surprised to find that I really liked it; there was a warmth about the place, especially with all the open curtains on homey scenes and Christmas trees. The newest bits of the village/town were very cube-squared 60s Dutch modern (which included the main shopping area), but around the market square there were classic Dutch gingerbread houses (that could not have been very old because the brickwork was too regular and no dates on the houses). But what I especially liked were the streets comprised of 1930s single dwellings ringing the centre, the lovely flowing curves of the architecture and warm stained glass.
And I found one explanation for why the place is called Seven Mountains; the original settlement about 600 years ago was built inside a ring of seven sand dunes which have long since been eroded.Actually, he was not quite right about it being only a new town. A couple of monuments do exist; the Koetshuis was built in 1870 as stable, but now is an estate agents and the train station itself is one of the oldest in the Netherlands. But there is no ticket office and it has been renovated as a restaurant.
I had already decided that I was not going back to Dordrecht, so the next mainline station where I could change direction was Roosendaal. The idea was to zap straight across to the extreme Southeast and slightly south. I had spotted a town called Echt (real), just north of Maastricht.
Can’t go there
But then I learned something very important if you want to do this trek, train lines do not run the way you think they should. I would have to change twice, with longs waits to get to Echt even though it appeared to be almost a straight line on the map. But if I followed the mainline from Roosendaal to Zwolle, which curved and zigzagged, close to the German border up the eastern side of the country, I could pick a convenient town on the mainline.
I choose Elst, nestled between Nijmegen and Arnhem, simply because it was early evening when I arrived in Roosendaal and I realised that it would only get more difficult to find people to talk to and to see the town. I wasn’t going to make it to Friesland, this would have to be the last stop and then I could get a fast train back easily from Arnhem.
Elst felt deserted when the train pulled in with only a few people disembarking, even though it was not very late. I spotted a young Dutch guy, shaved head and boots, with an artist’s portfolio waiting to get picked up from the station. “This is a family sort of place,” he told me, looking like he had tasted something nasty. “People keep to themselves and there is no night life.” Apparently, there was also nothing he could think was really a must-see about the place. When I asked if there was any German influence in the area of the country, he turned around and walked off.
I soon found out he was right. Signs to the centre led to a shopping street that could have been anywhere NL. It was surrounded by lots and lots of those cubed-squared apartments buildings stretching as far as the eye could see. Elst, it appeared, was suburban anywhere and looked much like Amstelveen with slightly fewer patches of greenery.
I had had it; I was cold and tired, been on the road for more than 14 hours and wanted to go home, back to where there were still people around and lights and warmth. It was the holidays after all.A couple of empty bars, equally empty restaurants and a few people on the street who appeared not to hear me when I tried to speak to them; the only two pleasant things I experienced in Elst were the odd bits of sculpture dotted around the town and a very large and beautiful old cathedral, the Grotekerk (big church).
The journey had convinced me there was life outside the Randstad — yet during the cold winter months it isn’t exactly life as I know it.