The eastern Netherlands Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
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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.

Top image: Nijmegen © DutchScenery/Shutterstock

Arnhem and around

On the south side of the Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe, about 25km from Apeldoorn, Arnhem was once a wealthy resort, a watering hole to which the merchants of Amsterdam and Rotterdam would flock to idle away their fortunes. All seemed set fair until World War II, when, in what was an unmitigated disaster for the town, hundreds of British and Polish troops died here during the failed Allied airborne operation codenamed Operation Market Garden. Much of Arnhem took a pasting and although some of the key buildings were subsequently rebuilt, today’s city centre can’t but help seem a little dreary: only on its leafy outskirts do you get much of a sense of what Arnhem was like before the war. Perhaps inevitably, the city is still something of a place of pilgrimage for British visitors, who congregate here every summer to visit the crucial sites of the battle, including Arnhem’s John Frostbrug. Despite this, it’s also a lively town with a good selection of restaurants, bars and hotels. What’s more, Arnhem makes a first-rate base for visiting a number of neighbouring attractions, most memorably the Airborne Museum Hartenstein at Oosterbeek, the Nederlands Openluchtmuseum, the country’s largest open-air museum, and Burgers’ Zoo, with its sizeable menagerie of animals housed in sensitively re-created habitats.

Operation Market Garden

By September 1944, most of France and much of Belgium had been liberated from German occupation. However, fearing that an orthodox campaign to roll back the German army further would take many months and cost many lives, Field Marshal Montgomery decided that a pencil-thrust north through the Netherlands and subsequently east into the Ruhr, around the back of the heavily fortified Siegfried Line, offered a good chance of ending the war early. To speed the advance of his land armies, Montgomery needed to cross several major rivers and canals in a corridor of territory stretching from Eindhoven, just north of the front, to Arnhem. The plan, codenamed Operation Market Garden, was to parachute three Airborne Divisions behind enemy lines, each responsible for taking and holding particular bridgeheads until the main army could force their way north to join them. On Sunday, September 17, the 1st British Airborne Division parachuted into the fields around Oosterbeek, their principal objective being to seize the bridges over the Rhine at neighbouring Arnhem. Meanwhile, the 101st American Airborne Division was dropped in the area of Veghel to secure the Wilhelmina and Zuid-Willemsvaart canals, while the 82nd Division was dropped around Grave and Nijmegen, for the crossings over the Maas and the Waal.

The Americans were successful, and by the night of September 20, sections of the British army had reached the American bridgehead across the River Waal at Nijmegen. But the landings around Arnhem ran into serious problems: Allied Command had estimated that opposition was unlikely to exceed three thousand troops, but, as it turned out, the entire 2nd SS Panzer Corps was refitting near Arnhem just when the 1st Division landed. Taking the enemy by surprise, 2nd Parachute Battalion, under Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost, did manage to capture the north end of the road bridge across the Rhine, but it proved impossible to capture the southern end. Surrounded, outgunned and outmanned, the 2nd Battalion held their position from September 17th to the morning of the 21st, a feat of extraordinary courage and determination. Meanwhile, other British and Polish battalions had concentrated around the bridgehead at Oosterbeek, which they held at tremendous cost under the command of General Urquhart. By the morning of the 25th it was apparent that reinforcements in sufficient numbers would not be able to get through in support, so under cover of darkness, a dramatic and supremely well-executed withdrawal saved 2163 soldiers out of an original force of 10,005. There has been controversy about the plan ever since, with many arguing that it was poorly conceived, while others claim that it might have worked but for a series of military mishaps.

Deventer

Glued to the east bank of the River IJssel, Deventer, some 30km from Zwolle, is an intriguing and – in tourist terms – rather neglected town, whose origins can be traced back to the missionary work of the eighth-century Saxon monk, Lebuinus. An influential centre of medieval learning, it was here in the late fourteenth century that Gerrit Groot founded the Brotherhood of the Common Life, a semi-monastic collective that espoused tolerance and humanism within a philosophy known as Moderne Devotie (“modern devotion”). This progressive creed attracted some of the great minds of the time, and Thomas à Kempis and Erasmus both studied here. Today, Deventer makes for a pleasant stop, with a handful of fine old buildings and a good bar and restaurant scene.

Cycling along the IJssel

Beginning at the Wilhelminabrug in Deventer, a signposted cycleway follows the banks of the IJssel 20km south to Zutphen. It’s a gentle ride through farmland and along quiet, winding lanes, with plenty of places to stop for a picnic and some fine views of the river and the weeping willows that thrive along its banks. Once in Zutphen, the return journey can be made either along the opposite shore, bringing the total distance to around 45km, or direct by train. You can rent bikes for the day from both Deventer and Zutphen train stations.

Elburg

Once a Zuider Zee port of some renown, tiny Elburg, 17km southwest of Zwolle, abuts the Veluwemeer, the narrow waterway separating the mainland from the Oostelijk Flevoland polder. In recent years, the town has become a popular day-trip destination, awash with visitors who come here to wander the old streets, a handsome collection of brick cottages bleached ruddy-brown by the elements beneath dinky pantile roofs. Elburg is also full of cafés and restaurants, some of whom serve the local delicacy, smoked eel.

Elburg was a successful port with its own fishing fleet from as early as the thirteenth century, but the boom times really began in the 1390s when the governor, a certain Arent thoe Boecop, redesigned the whole place in line with the latest developments in town planning, imposing a central grid of streets encircled by a protective wall and moat. Not all of Elburg’s citizens were overly impressed – indeed the street by the museum is still called Ledige Stede, literally “Empty Way” – but the basic design, with the notable addition of sixteenth-century ramparts and gun emplacements, survived the decline that set in when the harbour silted up, and can still be observed today. Elburg’s two main streets are Beekstraat, which forms the northeast–southwest axis, and Jufferenstraat/Vischpoortstraat, which runs southeast–northwest; they intersect at right angles to form the main square, the Vischmarkt.

Enschede

East of the River IJssel, the flat landscapes of the west give way to the lightly undulating, wooded countryside of Twente, an industrial region within the province of Overijssel whose principal towns – Almelo, Hengelo and Enschede – were once dependent on the textile industry. Hit hard by Asian imports, all three have been forced to diversify their industrial base, with mixed success. The largest of the three is Enschede, some 50km east of Zutphen, whose desultory modern centre is partly redeemed by St Jacobuskerk, built in 1933 in neo-Byzantine-meets-Art Deco style with angular copper-green roofs, huge circular windows and a lumpy main tower. The main reason to visit, however, is to see the outstanding collection of fine art gifted to the city by a wealthy mill-owning family, the van Heeks, and now housed in the Rijksmuseum Twente.

Rijksmuseum Twente

Housed in an Art Deco mansion of 1930 on the northern edge of town, the Rijksmuseum Twente contains two key sections – fifteenth- to nineteenth-century art and modern and contemporary art, primarily Dutch with the emphasis on Expressionism. Among a fine sample of early religious art, three particular highlights are a set of brilliant blue and gold fragments from a French hand-illuminated missal; a primitive twelfth-century woodcarving of Christ on Palm Sunday, and a delightful cartoon strip of contemporary life entitled De Zeven Werken van Barmhartigheid (“The Seven Acts of Charity”).

Of later canvases, Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Richard Mabott is typical of his work, the stark black of the subject’s gown offset by the white cross on his chest and the face so finely observed it’s possible to make out the line of his stubble. Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Winter Landscape is also fastidiously drawn, down to the last twig, and contrasts with the more loosely contoured figures and threatening clouds of his brother Jan’s Landscape. Moving on, Jan Steen’s The Alchemist is all scurrilous satire, from the skull on the chimneypiece to the lizard suspended from the ceiling and the ogre’s whispered advice. Steen also mocks sex, most memorably here in his Lute Player, which features a woman with bulging breasts and flushed countenance in the foreground, while on the wall behind is the vague outline of tussling lovers.

High points of the modern and contemporary section include Monet’s volatile Falaises près de Pourville; a characteristically unsettling canvas by Carel Willink, The Actress Ank van der Moer; and examples of the work of less well-known Dutch modernists like Theo Kuypers, Jan Roeland and Emo Verkerk.

Kampen

Pocket-sized Kampen, just ten minutes by train from Zwolle, strings along the River IJssel, its bold succession of towers and spires recalling headier days when the town was a bustling seaport with its own fleet. The good times came to an abrupt end in the sixteenth century when rival armies ravaged its hinterland and the IJssel silted up – and then Amsterdam mopped up what was left by undercutting its trade prices. Things have never been the same since and, although Kampen did experience a minor boom on the back of its cigar factories in the nineteenth century, it remains, in essence, a sleepy provincial town. It only takes a couple of hours to explore central Kampen: its medley of handsome old buildings spread over six streets that run parallel to the river – and are themselves bisected by the Burgel canal. The logical place to start exploring is the IJssel bridge, which crosses the river from beside the train station to hit the town centre about halfway along.

Nijmegen

Almost certainly the oldest town in the Netherlands, Nijmegen sits on the southern bank of the River Waal some 20km from Arnhem. The town’s medieval core was flattened in World War II, though key buildings – like the Grote Kerk – were subsequently rebuilt in imitation of the originals, and modern Nijmegen is a lively and appealing place, with a congenial street life. If the weather is good, join the locals down by the River Waal, where there is a pleasant riverside promenade and you can observe the barges and boats churning along on what is one of the region’s busiest waterways.

The Noordoostpolder

Nudging out into the IJsselmeer about 20km northeast of Zwolle, the pancake-flat Noordoostpolder was the first large segment of Flevoland to be reclaimed from the ocean. It has the wide skies that characterize the polders, and these can indeed be breathtaking especially at sunrise and sunset, but – and this is where it really scores – it also incorporates two former Zuider Zee islands. One is home to the engaging fishing village of Urk while the other, Schokland has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 and boasts a particularly fascinating museum.

Flevoland rises from the deep

Following the damming of the Zuider Zee and the formation of the IJsselmeer, the coastline east of Amsterdam was transformed by the creation of the Netherlands’ twelfth and newest province, Flevoland, which was reclaimed from the sea in two major phases. Drained in the early 1930s, the Noordoostpolder was the first major chunk of land to be salvaged and during the process two old Zuider Zee islands – Urk and Schokland – were joined to the mainland. The original aims of the Noordoostpolder scheme were predominantly agricultural, with the polder providing 500 square kilometres of new farmland, which the government handed out to prospective smallholders. Yet it soon became apparent that there were issues: very few trees were planted, so the land was subject to soil erosion, and both the polder and the adjacent mainland dried out and started to sink – problems that persist today. The Dutch did, however, learn from their mistakes when they came to drain the next large slice of Flevoland in the 1950s and 1960s: they created an encircling waterway, which successfully stopped the land from drying out and sinking, and the government tried hard to make the new polders more attractive to potential settlers, planting mini-forests and setting aside parkland. Together, these two newer polders, the Zuidelijk Flevoland and Oostelijk Flevoland, now form one large chunk of reclaimed land in front of the old shoreline, effectively a polder-island that comprises the bulk of Flevoland. The new polders were also used to house urban over spill with the creation of two new medium-sized towns, Almere and Lelystad, the latter named after Cornelis Lely (1854–1929), the pioneering engineer who had the original idea for the Zuider Zee scheme.

Urk

Easily the most interesting town on the Noordoostpolder is Urk, a burgeoning harbour, shipyard and fishing port, where a series of narrow lanes – and tiny terraced houses – indicate the extent of the old village before it was topped and tailed by new housing estates. Before it became part of the mainland, centuries of hardship and isolation had bred a tight-knit island community, one that had a distinctive dialect and its own version of the national costume. Most of Urk’s individuality may have gone, but its earlier independence does still resonate, rooted in a fishing industry that marks it out from the surrounding agricultural communities. One Urk peculiarity that remains today is its addresses: traditionally the village was divided into areas called “Wijks”, though nowadays the streets also have names – the tourist office, therefore, is at both Raadhuisstraat 2 and/or Wijk 2-2.

Urk irked

The damming of the Zuider Zee posed special problems for the deep-sea fishermen of Urk and it’s hardly surprising that they opposed the IJsselmeer scheme from the beginning. Some villagers feared that the disappearance of their island enclave would spell the end of their distinctive way of life (by and large they were right), but it was the fishermen who were most annoyed by the loss of direct access to the North Sea. After futile negotiations at national level, the fishermen of Urk decided to take matters into their own hands: the larger ships of the fleet were sent north to fish from ports above the line of the Afsluitdijk, particularly Delfzijl, and transport was organized to transfer the catch straight back for sale at the Urk fish auctions. In the meantime, other fishermen decided to continue to fish locally and adapt to the freshwater species of the IJsselmeer. These were not comfortable changes for the islanders and the whole situation deteriorated after the Dutch government passed new legislation banning trawling in the IJsselmeer in 1970. When the inspectors arrived in Urk to enforce the ban, years of resentment exploded in ugly scenes of dockside violence and the government moved fast to sweeten the pill by offering substantial subsidies to compensate those fishermen affected. This arrangement continues today and the focus of conflict has moved to the attempt to impose EU quotas on the catch of the deep-sea fleet.

Wind turbines

A small army of wind turbines strings out along the shores of the IJsselmeer and the Veluwemeer, but they also pop up on many other rural horizons from Friesland to Zeeland. In the countryside, solitary turbines provide electricity for farmers, while on the coast and out to sea, banks of turbines harness the incoming weather systems, providing electricity for thousands of households. Erected in the 1930s, the first wind turbines provided electricity for remote communities in the US and the Australian outback. However, their full potential wasn’t realized until research into cleaner forms of energy, carried out in Denmark and Germany during the 1970s, produced mechanisms that were both more efficient and more powerful. Ideally suited to the flat, windswept polders of the Netherlands, the first Dutch turbines generated 40 kilowatts of electricity; output is now a beefier 600 kilowatts – enough for a single wind farm of 50 turbines to provide power to 6500 households.

Northwest Overijssel

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.

Blokzijl

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

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.

The Veluwe

Stretching west of the River IJssel, Gelderland’s Veluwe (literally “Bad Land”) is an expanse of heath, woodland and sandy dune that lies sandwiched between Apeldoorn in the east, Amersfoort to the west, Arnhem in the south and the Veluwemeer waterway to the north. For centuries these infertile lands lay pretty much deserted, but today they make up the country’s busiest holiday centre, dotted with a profusion of campsites, bungalow parks and second homes. The only part of the Veluwe to have survived aesthetically intact is the Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe, a slab of protected land lying just to the north of Arnhem – and home to one of the country’s most vaunted art galleries, the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe

One of the region’s most popular attractions, the Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe is an expanse of sandy heaths, lakes, dunes and woodland crisscrossed by cycle trails, with a number of hides from which you can observe its varied fauna. The park was formerly the private estate of the Kröller-Müllers: born near Essen in 1869, Hèléne Kröller-Müller came from a wealthy family who made their money in the manufacture of blast furnaces, while her husband, the ever-so-discreet Anton came from a Rotterdam shipping family. Super-rich, the couple had a passionate desire to leave a grand bequest to the nation: a mixture of nature and culture, which would, Hèléne felt, “be an important lesson when showing the inherent refinement of a merchant’s family living at the beginning of the century”. She collected the art, Anton the land and its animals – the moufflons (wild sheep) were, for example imported from Corsica – and in the 1930s ownership of the whole estate was transferred to the nation on the condition that a museum was built inside the park. The resulting Kröller-Müller Museum opened in 1938 with Hèléne acting as manager until her death in 1939, and a Sculpture Garden was added a few years later.

The Kröller-Müller Museum

At the heart of the Hoge Veluwe National Park, the Kröller-Müller Museum houses the private art collection of the Kröller-Müllers. It’s one of the country’s finest art museums, comprising a wide cross section of modern European art from Impressionism to Cubism and beyond. It’s housed in a low-slung building that was built for the collection in 1938 by the much-lauded Belgian architect van de Velde with a new wing added in the 1970s to create a T-shape: the bulk of the collection is displayed in the original wing. There’s not enough space to exhibit all the museum’s paintings at any one time, so what’s on show is regularly rotated – though key works by the likes of Mondrian and van Gogh are pretty much guaranteed to be on display – and there’s also a lively programme of temporary exhibitions. The works of individual artists are not necessarily exhibited together, which can be frustrating if you are keen to see the work of a particular painter: to help you navigate, the museum supplies a free information booklet with museum plans entitled “12 Masterpieces”.

Vincent van Gogh

Hèléne Kröller-Müller’s favourite artist was Vincent van Gogh, whom she considered to be one of the “great spirits of modern art”, and the collection reflects her enthusiasm: the museum owns 91 of his paintings and 180 drawings, representing the largest collection of his works in the world bar the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Of the earlier canvases, look out for The Potato Eaters and Head of a Peasant with a Pipe, both rough, unsentimental paintings of labourers from around his parents’ home in Brabant. His penetrating Self-Portrait from 1887 is a superb example of his work during his years in Paris, the eyes fixed on the observer, the head and background a swirl of grainy colour and streaky brushstrokes. One of his famous sunflower paintings also dates from this period, an extraordinary work of alternately thick and thin paintwork in dazzlingly sharp detail and colour. The joyful Café Terrace at Night and Bridge at Arles, with its rickety bridge and disturbed circles of water spreading from the washerwomen on the riverbank, are from his months in Arles in 1888, one of the high points of his troubled life.

The Toorops and Mondrian

Other highlights of the museum’s collection include several revealing self-portraits by Charley Toorop (1891–1955), one of the most skilled and sensitive of twentieth-century Dutch artists, as well as a number of key works by her father, Jan Toorop, (1858–1928), from his early pointillist studies to later, turn-of-the-century works more reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and the Art Nouveau movement. Piet Mondrian is well represented, too: his 1909 Beach near Domburg is a good example of his more stylized approach to landscape painting, a development from his earlier sombre-coloured scenes in the Dutch tradition. In 1909 Mondrian moved to Paris, and his contact with Cubism transformed his work, as illustrated by his Composition of 1917: simple flat rectangles of colour with the elimination of any identifiable object, the epitome of the De Stijl approach. One surprise is an early Picasso, Portrait of a Woman, from 1901, a classic post-Impressionist canvas very dissimilar from his more famous works.

The Sculpture Garden

Outside the Kröller-Müller Museum, the Sculpture Garden is one of the largest in Europe. Some frankly bizarre creations reside within its 25 hectares, as well as works by Auguste Rodin, Jacob Epstein and Barbara Hepworth. In contrast to the carefully conserved paintings of the museum, the sculptures are exposed to the weather and you can even clamber all over Jean Dubuffet’s Jardin d’email, one of his larger and more elaborate jokes.

Zutphen

Zutphen, 13km south of Deventer, is everything you might hope for in a Dutch country town: there’s no crass development here and the centre musters dozens of old buildings set amid a medieval street plan that revolves around three long and very appealing piazzas – Groenmarkt, Houtmarkt and Zaadmarkt – with the disjointed seventeenth-century clock tower, the Wijnhuis marking the junction of the first two piazzas. Much of the centre is pedestrianized and, without a supermarket in sight, the town’s old-fashioned shops still flourish, as do its cafés and, in a quiet sort of way, its bars.

Sir Philip Sidney: or how to die heroically

It was here at Zutphen that Sir Philip Sidney, the English poet, soldier and courtier, met his end while fighting the Spanish in 1586. Every inch the Renaissance man, Sidney even managed to die in style: mortally wounded in the thigh – after having loaned his leg-armour to a friend – he offered his last cup of water to a wounded chum, protesting “thy need is greater than mine”.

Zwolle

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.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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