Visiting North Holland and the Enclosing Dike

September 19, 2013 by

City Tours & Sightseeing, Europe, Places to Go, Things to Do

Rain is pouring down on us as we stand right in the middle of the Enclosing Dike (‘Afsluitdijk’) in the North of Holland. It seems a little bit ironic. The Netherlands is a country that has fought water ever since the first people came to live here -and we’re getting a first-hand experience just what that means.

I’m Dutch myself and have cursed our weather more than once, but today I’m letting go all my frustrations and go back in time to find out more about my country’s love-hate relationship with water.

Fighting water… and misconceptions

Constructed between 1927 and 1933, the Afsluitdijk connects the North-Holland province with the Friesland province and runs over a length of 32 kilometers. It’s a fundamental part of the larger Zuiderzee Works that dams off the Zuiderzee (a salt water inlet of the North Sea) and turns it into the fresh water lake of the IJsselmeer.

Our tour guide Monique (who I caught speaking no less than an impressive 7 languages) explains that with only one mountain of 323 meters in the South, the Netherlands is an open, flat country with 26% of the land lying below sea level. With six rivers, one interior sea and an open sea in the West and North, water literally is everywhere.

“When the Romans visited this part of Europe, one of them sharply noted that the country  seemed unlivable and that the people lived no different than crabs in these humid, wet, cold  and windy conditions.”

Around 1100, the people of The Netherlands started working tenaciously and dug canals to protect the land from flooding. They also created dikes, dams and polders (a low-lying, drained piece of land) to fight the water. No wonder ‘Je maintiendrai’ (I will maintain) has been the motto of the country since 1815.

You can see the IJsselmeer on the left (lower part of the dike) and the Zuiderzee on the right.

You can see the IJsselmeer on the left (lower part of the dike) and the Zuiderzee on the right.

Keeping history alive

Over 10.000 windmills were used in the 17th century to pump away the water to create all the polders you can still see today, but after the industrial revolution only about 1000 of them remained. Most of them now have the status of a monument.

Theo Siepen is retired and now volunteering and training to become a miller at flour mill ‘De Herder’ (The Shepard) in the former prosperous trading town of Medemblik. First, he shows us the grounding attic. “Here, the miller checks the quality of the grounded flour before it’s further processed into flour used for products such as pancakes. This is also the place where the miller checks the weather, to adjust the mill to the direction of the wind and therefore the speed of rotation.”

After climbing a second narrow flight of stairs, we arrive at the stone attic where a millstone of 1,5 tonnes grinds the grain into flour. Through a pipeline, the flour is then drained back down to the grounding attic. “This mill can produce 125 kilos of flour per hour”, Theo adds with a proud smile.

Monique translating Theo's explanation of how the millstone works.

Monique translating Theo’s explanation of how the millstone works.

A second millstone is opened for visitors to get a good understanding of how it all works.

A second millstone is opened for visitors to get a good understanding of how it all works.

Travelling back in time

Between the historical Zuiderzee cities of Medemblik and Hoorn steam trains travel from village to village through the flat country side. The collection of steam locomotives and wagons are being restored and over the 20 kilometers railroad track from 1887, kept running ever since. The original stations are fully intact as well and along the way, we make a stop at one of them to have a closer look.

The center of Medemblik, where you can clearly see how people live on the dike built to retain the water next to it.

The center of Medemblik, where you can clearly see how people live on the dike built to retain the water next to it.

On the historical train stations, volunteers are dressed as they would have been in the 18th century.

On the historical train stations, volunteers are dressed as they would have been in the 18th century.

A country that thrives on water

Founded in 716, Hoorn is a welcoming city with around 70.000 inhabitants. During Holland’s ‘Golden Age’ (or ‘Golden Century’), Hoorn was an important home base for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and a very prosperous center of trade, mostly of exotic spices.

We get some time off to explore the historical center of Hoorn, but it’s a bit hard to get a good sense of the place as there is a massive fair going on when we are there. We do get to appreciate most of the beautiful buildings. The buzz that’s going on actually gives a good idea of how the streets must have been crowded with tradesman during the VOC times -apart from the screams coming out of a huge roller coaster, perhaps.

After the completion of the Enclosing dike, Hoorn was no longer a seaport, but after the Second World war, the city saw a period of renewed growth. All buildings in Hoorn have been restored today and given a new function. The VOC warehouses have been turned into apartments, the cheese warehouses into a museum or restaurant and in the old butter hall, you’ll find modern art.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587–1629,) is famous for his violent raids in the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia), where he "founded" the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1619.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587–1629,) is famous for his violent raids in the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia), where he “founded” the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1619.

On the 'Rode Steen' square, you can also find the incredibly detailed building of the West-Fries Museum (right photo).

On the ‘Rode Steen’ square, you can also find the incredibly detailed building of the West-Fries Museum.

At the end of the day, the rain has faded and blue skies appear. Although I still prefer the sun, I do got to appreciate the rain a little more. Water has played an important part in shaping the Dutch landscape and maybe even more the character of the Dutch people. It’s not something we think about every day, but this trip was a great reminder of a force of nature we must respect and never take for granted.

The North-Holland including Enclosing Dike Tour runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 9:30am. For 55 Euro, a multi-lingual and knowledgeable tour guide shows you around the North of Holland by bus. The steam train is included in the price. You have to provide your own lunch (The town of Medemblik offers something for everyone) and you’re back in Amsterdam around 6pm.

-Nienke Krook

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One Response to “Visiting North Holland and the Enclosing Dike”

  1. Ramesh@Day Rooms Says:

    I have heard that the official name for Holland is different, is that true ?

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