The closing of the Zuider Zee and the draining of the Noordoostpolder transformed northwest Overijssel: not only were the area’s seaports cut off from the ocean, but they were placed firmly inland with only a narrow channel, the Vollenhover Kanaal, separating them from the new polder. As a result, Vollenhove and more especially Blokzijl, the two main seaports concerned, reinvented themselves as holiday destinations and today hundreds of Dutch city folk come here to sail and cycle.
Traditionally, both Vollenhove and Blokzijl looked firmly out across the ocean, doing their best to ignore the moor and marshland villages that lay inland. They were not alone: for many centuries this was one of the most neglected corners of the country and things only began to pick up in the 1800s, when the “Society of Charity” established a series of agricultural colonies here. The Dutch bourgeoisie were, however, as wary of the pauper as their Victorian counterparts in Britain and the 1900 Baedeker, when surveying the colonies, noted approvingly that “the houses are visited almost daily by the superintending officials and the strictest discipline is everywhere observed”. The villagers were reliant on peat for fuel and their haphazard diggings, spread over several centuries, created the canals, lakes and ponds that now lattice the area, attracting tourists by the boatload. The big pull is picture-postcard Giethoorn, whose mazy canals are flanked by splendid thatched cottages, but try to avoid visiting in the height of the season, when the crowds can get oppressive.Read More
Tiny Blokzijl, some 5km north of Vollenhove, is the prettiest of the area’s former seaports, its cobweb of narrow alleys and slim canals surrounding a trim little harbour, which is now connected to the Vollenhover Kanaal. The town once prospered from the export of peat and boasts dozens of seventeenth-century buildings, dating from its heyday. The most conspicuous is the Grote Kerk, which, with its splendid wooden pulpit and ceiling, was one of the country’s first Protestant churches.
Giethoorn’s origins are really rather odd. No one gave much thought to this marshy, infertile chunk of land until the thirteenth century, when the local landowner gifted it to an obscure religious sect. Perhaps to his surprise, the colonists made a go of things, eking out a living from local peat deposits and discovering, during their digs, the horns of hundreds of goats, which are presumed to have been the victims of the great St Elizabeth’s Day flood of 1170; duly impressed, the residents named the place Geytenhoren (“goats’ horns”). Later, the settlers dug canals to transport the peat and the diggings flooded, thus creating the watery network that has become the number one tourist attraction hereabouts – and no wonder: Giethoorn is extraordinarily picturesque, its slender brown-green waterways overseen by lovely thatched cottages, shaded by mature trees and crisscrossed by pretty humpbacked footbridges. The only fly in the ointment is Giethoorn’s popularity: avoid the centre of the village in the summer, when the place heaves with tour groups.