The canals of Amsterdam – or the grachten, rather, as they are called in Dutch – are an amazing sight and I love walking around Amsterdam trying to find the nicest houses and details.
Naturally, it isn’t only the actual waterways that are so pretty, but the combination of beautiful town houses, canals, houseboats, quaint little cafés or pubs and shops.
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The World Heritage Site is limited to the ring of canals built in the 17th century, namely those reaching out from the old town centre up to and including the Singelgracht. The area was granted World Heritage Status due to the amazing city planning and necessary engineering works to carry out the plans: The area is reclaimed land, land that has been claimed from a previously uninhabitable swamp. What I find astonishing, is how the architects and engineers not only built a city from swampland, but also made the results look pretty. They could have made do with a not-so-nice, but practical solution – but instead they chose to put a lot more money in and build a lovely new district. Though, in all fairness, the money was actually put in by rich merchants, who wanted pretty houses… A success all round, I’d say.
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According to the offical description by UNESCO, ‘this urban extension was the largest and most homogeneous of its time. It was a model of large-scale town planning, and served as a reference throughout the world until the 19th century’. The description continues to state that
‘It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning, and a rational programme of construction and bourgeois architecture.’
Definitely a Must-See! I like visiting Amsterdam any time, but it is especially charming around Christmas, with an ice-rink in front of the Rijksmuseum and christmassy food stalls and lights everywhere.
The Beemster Polder is one of those UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you could easily visit without realising its special status and I am happy to say that I, for once, didn’t make that mistake. Beemster is a large-ish area in the province of Noord-Holland, situated to the North of Amsterdam. It was created by draining a large lake in the early 17th century, thus reclaiming land for agriculture.
The Beemster polder is a lovely area – green, with lots of canals and bordered by rows of trees and farms with sheep and cows everywhere – and basically a byciclist’s heaven. The landscape is shaped like a checkerboard, with straight lines for canals and land and even though I would never have expected it, this is one of the reasons the polder holds heritage status: the geometrical layout of the reclaimed land is, apparently, an example of Renaissance landscaping principles.
I highly recommend exploring the area by bicycle, as you get much closer and get to see much more than just driving through in a car. Combining parts of different cycle routes, I spent a whole day cycling through Beemster and neighbouring areas – thus also taking in the famous cheese town Edam and the old fishing village Volendam. As the area is quite flat, you don’t need to be super fit to spend a day cycling, it is actually quite relaxing. There are cycle maps available for free at the tourist centres (VVV), which are perfectly sufficient – but there are also more detailed maps on sale. The Dutch also have a genius system of signage for their cycle ways, namely the knooppunt system. There are signs at frequent intervals and you can follow the knooppunts (points) and basically make up your own route, if you like.
Compared to some other World Heritage Sites, the Beemster polder may seem a little unspectacular, but the calming effect of spending a day or a few here should not be underestimated. It is a perfect spot for spending time outdoors and simultaniously having the chance of taking in Dutch culture and learning about watermanagement, cheese or fishing, and if you crave a little more urban action, Amsterdam is only about an hour away.
Whenever I think of the Netherlands, the first image that comes to my mind is of flat, green country, divided by countless canals and dotted with windmills. In truth, there are only a few places left where you actually have an abundance of windmills, and one of them is the World Heritage Site Kinderdijk.
At Kinderdijk, you find a network of a staggering 19 windmills within a relatively small space and the sight is amazing. The Dutch may be sick of hearing this, but in the eyes of tourists windmills are quintessentially Dutch and they’re quite mad about having their photos taken with one.
Much more than just looking pretty in an old-fashioned sort of way and making for a sufficiently touristy photo opportunity, windmills are evidence of Dutch engineering genius. If it wasn’t for windmills, quite a large chunk of the Netherlands might still be uninhabitable swampland or covered by water entirely. Rather than just be used to grind grains, windmills in the Netherlands are, or were, used to pump water and help make the country habitable.
‘the Mill Network at Kinderdijk-Elshout is an outstanding human-made landscape that bears powerful testimony to human ingenuity and fortitude over nearly a millennium in draining and protecting an area by the development and application of hydraulic technology.’
I was utterly amazed to find out from the above mentioned description of the site that the windmills ‘function as fall-back mills in case of failure of the modern equipment’ even today. From one of the volunteers on site I learned that most of the Western part of the Netherlands would be underwater in case pumping should stop for three months. Let’s hope all those pumps and hydraulic systems keep going!
At the pumping station at Kinderdijk, you can watch an interesting, hands-on display, as well as a film on the history of the site and how water management with the help of windmills works. There are also two museum windmills, which can be entered and explored. All the other windmills can be viewed from several walkways. For the ones further from the entrance, little jetties have been built to provide better photo options – towards the end of summer, the reeds on the edges of the canals grow very tall and if it wasn’t for those wooden platforms, you’d hardly be able to see some of the windmills. There are also benches at frequent intervals, so you can have a rest or even a picnic. When I visited, you could buy pancakes and ice-cream from stalls near the first museum mill – I don’t know if they are available all the time, though.
Although the area isn’t too large and can easily be explored on foot, I would recommend renting a bicycle from the cafe/gift shop. However, you should watch out for tourists who apparently haven’t ever ridden a bike before, have hardly any control over it and go here, there and everywhere across both lanes. If you see one of those, take cover. On the whole, cycling through the lush, green countryside with canals on both sides and windmills seemingly everywhere is a wonderfully relaxing pastime.
In case you visit in summer or generally when it is warm and sunny, you may want to bring a cap or sun hat. I didn’t, because I thought it wouldn’t be that warm at the beginning of September and quickly regretted it. There is hardly any shadow to be found along the paths and cyclelanes connecting the windmills and if the sun is out, it will burn down on you relentlessly. I paid for my foolish misjudgement with a splitting headache.
There are several ways of getting to Kinderdijk, which lies roughly within a triangle between Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Utrecht. You can visit by car, of course, but public transport is also an easy option, with bus connections from the three cities mentioned above. From Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Kinderdijk can also be reached by means of the Waterbus, i.e. by boat. It takes about half an hour and is a nice change to sitting on a bus or going by car.
I absolutely loved this World Heritage Site, as it allows you to experience a typically Dutch landscape, learn about the history of the area and the underlying engineering methods and also to either walk or cycle around in the open air. A definite must-see!