This past weekend was my last weekend in Dordrecht for a few months; on Thursday I’m off to Prague and will be tour guiding throughout the summer, mainly in Eastern Europe. It was almost as if Mother Nature had heard my pleas, as the weekend was beautiful and sunny.
At first, I didn’t know how to take this. That would be right, I thought. Finally the weather improves and I’m just about to take off, and when I return it will be grey again. But I decided I may as well embrace it. One day we took to our bikes and explored the Biesbosch (a national park near Dordrecht) and the other day we made for the train and ventured south to Zeeland.
Yes, this is the original Zeeland, the one Australia’s southern neighbour (of whom I still haven’t visited) deemed itself the new and improved version. Zeeland is one of the Netherlands’ twelve provinces and next to North and South Holland, one of its most historic ones. It’s extremely watery, consisting of a couple of peninsulas, islands and a chunk of land connected only to Belgium. These guys are sailors, explorers and slave-traders. And to get an idea of it all (we’d visited some of Zeeland’s water projects previously) we headed for its capital, Middelburg; a place that’s closer to Bruges than Dordrecht.
Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Whilst we were treated to scenes of farmland, trees and plenty of empty space while choo-chooing through Zeeland, Middelburg was gorgeous. We’re talking really, really pretty. I don’t often gasp when a building or historic site comes into view, but I did it twice in Middelburg. Only 45,000 people may call the provincial capital home, but it certainly packs a punch.
Of course, it helped that it was a nice day. The canal waters glistened, the paint on the wooden houses seemed richer and the few green leaves on the trees flickered in the breeze, as if greeting us. We sat on Damplein in the sun and ate kibbeling (fried fish), feeling the warmth on our faces that had eluded me since Valencia, and Paul since Vietnam.
The Dam area is nice, but it wasn’t for me the highlight of Middelburg. There were just too many cars; urban planner Paul pointed out that one underground carpark would be enough for Dam to get its groove back. The stately homes were pretty though, obviously built from the proceeds of the spice and slave trade.
Middelburg was a VOC city (the Dutch East India Company), just like Amsterdam, Delft, Hoorn, Rotterdam and Enkhuizen. Their membership’s legacy comes in the form of the city’s architecture, which is always just that bit more elaborate in VOC cities.
We pottered around, admiring the cathedral (as you always do), before heading to the Abdij. This was the first place that made me gasp; only later did I read that the thirteenth century abbey is mainly a reconstruction following World War II damage, but it still doesn’t take much away from the sheer bulk and beauty of what is now home to Zeeland’s provincial government.
The pictures don’t do the place justice unfortunately; I needed the panorama function to give an idea of how massive the place was and how spacious it was in the courtyard. You could easily play a game of football in there, surrounded by the turrets, medieval glass windows (I’m always a sucker for those) and the little red shutters.
Walking around the Adbij, The Hague’s Binnenhof (Dutch Parliament) started to make a lot more sense. In fact, the Netherlands made more sense. The Adbij basically looks like a medieval Flemish version of the Binnenhof; it was as if those in Bruges built it instead. There were soaring towers, gothic vaulted roofs, the works. If you came from Zeeland, you’d be immensely proud of the building, and could be forgiven for believing it superior to the Binnenhof. I loved it, full stop.
My second gasp came in the way of the City Hall, which is now used for the Roosevelt Institute, part of Utrecht University (and in a weird way, one of their professors took my American history subject at Leiden). Now, I was not expecting this. The City Hall looked like something out of Bruges or Ghent, minus the throngs of tourists and overpriced cafes in its vicinity. This is in the middle of a city roughly the size of Shepparton and with a similar regional function.
So thankyou, Middelburg. I’ve seen a lot of the Netherlands now – probably more than most Dutch people – and you were able to surprise me. You got not one, but two gasps.