Zwolle, the compact capital of Overijssel about 85km from Amsterdam, is on the up. Not so long ago, it was a dowdy sort of place, but it has recently attracted substantial investment and the results are plain to see in a flush of modern buildings and the revival of its old harbour, which is now jammed with sailing boats and vintage canal barges.
An ancient town, Zwolle achieved passing international fame when Thomas à Kempis settled here in 1399. Thereafter, it went on to prosper as one of the principal towns of the Hanseatic League, its burghers commissioning an extensive programme of public works designed to protect its citizens and impress their rivals. Within the city walls, German textiles were traded for Baltic fish and grain, or more exotic products from Amsterdam like coffee, tea and tobacco. The boom lasted some two hundred years, but by the middle of the seventeenth century the success of Amsterdam and the general movement of trade to the west had undermined its economy – and Zwolle slipped into a sort of provincial reverie from which it is now emerging with much of its old centre intact and well preserved. Unusually, Zwolle’s moat has survived in fine fettle, encircling the centre and overlooked by nine, seventeenth-century earthen bastions that once protected the city. These bastions are seen to fine advantage on the walk in from the train station with fountains playing in the moat and the fortifications clearly visible among the trees.