The three provinces that make up the eastern Netherlands –Flevoland, Overijssel and Gelderland – are home to a string of lovely country towns, whose long and often troubled history is recalled by a slew of handsome old buildings. Among them, Zwolle, Deventer and Zutphen are perhaps the pick, but there are intriguing former Zuider Zee ports as well, most memorably Kampen and Elburg. For British visitors at least, the most famous town hereabouts is Arnhem, site of the “bridge too far” when the Allies tried unsuccessfully to shorten the war with a lightning strike. Art lovers, meanwhile, won’t want to miss the outstanding Kröller-Müller Museum set among the sandy heaths and woodland of the Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe.
Heading east from Amsterdam, the first province you reach is Flevoland, whose three pancake-flat, reclaimed polders – the twin Flevoland polders and the Noordoostpolder – incorporate two former Zuider Zee islands, Urk and Schokland, both of which are of considerable interest. The boundary separating Flevoland from the province of Overijssel runs along the old Zuider Zee shoreline and it’s here that the region comes up trumps with a string of one-time seaports, most strikingly the pretty little towns of Elburg (in Gelderland), Kampen and Blokzijl. These three, along with nearby Zwolle, the capital of Overijssel, enjoyed a period of immense prosperity from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, but the bubble burst in the seventeenth when the great merchant cities of Zuid- and Noord-Holland simply outplayed and undercut them. Later, these four towns – along with neighbouring Deventer and Zutphen – were bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, one happy consequence being that each of them boasts a medley of handsome late medieval and early modern houses and churches. Blokzijl also shares its part of the province with the lakes and waterways that pattern the postcard-pretty hamlet of Giethoorn.
Further south, Gelderland spreads east from Utrecht to the German frontier, taking its name from the German town of Geldern, its capital until the late fourteenth century. As a province it’s a bit of a mixture, varying from the uninspiring agricultural land of the Betuwe (Good Land), south of Utrecht, to the more distinctive – and appealing – Veluwe (Bad Land), an expanse of heath, woodland and dune that sprawls down from the old Zuider Zee coastline to Arnhem, incorporating the Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe. Anchoring Gelderland is the ancient town of Nijmegen, a fashionable university city, with a lively contemporary feel.