Dutch fairy-tale land. The Holland of old is recaptured in the quaint villages of Giethorn and Urk and a very special museum
IT'S an otherworldly feeling to drive through green fields and realize that, by rights, you ought to be underwater. Water -- too much of it -- is a constant theme wherever you go in the Netherlands. That's true whether you are excitedly hunting for signs of old Holland (windmills and canals) or passing through new Holland's polders (sea bottom transformed into fields of grazing cattle and planned cities).Skip to next paragraph
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I was on the lookout for quaintness, so my tour plan included the funny little towns of Giethoorn and Urk on the west side of this small country, and the Zuiderzeemuseum, where one goes to see exhibits on local architecture, a few hours north of Amsterdam.
But in the Netherlands, the practical and the picturesque exist together. New Holland keeps intruding. The ways, old and new, that the Dutch cope with their low country turned out to be a recurring motif in my journey.
Thus, the highlight of Giethoorn (``HEET-horn'') is its canals. That's why you must stop at the tourist board (look for the sign that says VVV) as soon as you arrive, because you can't see much of Giethoorn from the road.
If you park your car in the VVV lot, you can pick up a map and head across the street to a paved path leading through a soggy field. If you follow it, wondering where on earth you're going, you'll see a small bridge on your left. When you go over it, you are in another world.
A small canal of brownish water, some 12 feet wide, forms the main street of Giethoorn. All travel here is done by boat. Mail is delivered, cows go to and from pasture, harvests are brought in, and families go to church on the canal. Trees and wooden bridges arch over it. Only a footpath borders it on each side.
The houses are like those in ``Alice in Wonderland'' illustrations. They're brick, have a rounded sloping shape, and are neatly thatched.
Each is set back a few feet from the footpath, has dark green doors, and, of course -- this being Holland -- plants and tiers of white lace adorn their windows.
Also compulsory is an intensely colorful postage-stamp garden.
I walked along, sniffing aromas of apples and wood fires. There wasn't a car in sight; if there were any, they must have been tactfully concealed behind barns.
It was a gray day, and some hefty white ducks were enjoying the canal and the weather. Goats and cows posed in the fields in the distance. Once in a while a flaxen-haired child would whiz by on a bicycle.
All other residents stayed in their snuggeries, except for a crew at work rethatching a roof, with additional thatch in bales piled on a boat moored alongside. Numerous long, narrow boats for showing visitors around in the summer were clustered in quiet side canals, indicating that tourists by the busload are not unknown here.
I recommend a chill, gray, autumn day, when the only sounds are rustling yellow leaves and an occasional sharp bell of a bike behind you. Then Giethoorn is a fairy-tale land you have almost to yourself.
After you leave Giethoorn for the old fishing village of Urk, you're in polder country. Towering watercolor-gray clouds press down on green fields. Substantial brown barns cozy into the landscape. The horizon is about the same, left and right, fore and aft.
The Dutch are sensitive to minuscule changes of altitude, emphasizing to the visitor variations that would pass unnoticed elsewhere. The reason is that a few feet here is the difference between being above water or below it.
Now on a modest rise in the Noord Oost polder, Urk was originally an island in the Zuider Zee. It isn't a particularly pretty town. Its tiny brick row houses of fairly recent vintage give it a look of being suspended in air.
Tourists go to Urk because a few of its people still cling stubbornly to the quaint costumes of their former isolation as an island in the Zuider Zee. You see elderly women, and a few men, wearing peasant outfits.