There is a surprising variety in the different parts of the Netherlands, if you go off the beaten track. One such area, largely unknown to UK tourists, is Zeeland Flanders.
This part of the Netherlands is cut off from the rest of the country by the mighty Schelde waterway, and is only accessible by a 6,600 metre long road tunnel from Goes, (opened in 2003) or by ferry from Vlissingen (Flushing). Its land border is with Belgium, and is actually the sea port for the canal network to Ghent (which is only 24 miles away). This area has its own local dialect and character.
For me it was a bit of an adventure to get there. I had been staying in the typically neat and tidy small Dutch town of Lisse, and an early morning bus took me to Sassenheim railway station. The 3 minute connection time meant a dash from the bus to extract a ticket from the machine (the station is unmanned) and up the steps as the train rolled in. Dutch public transport is very good and efficient – puts us to shame.
The local train took me to Leiden to change into an inter city for Vlissingen. Ominously the platform was packed with (mostly) men wearing red and white Rotterdam football scarves and each seemed to be carrying a 6 pack of beer – but it was all good natured. After Dordrecht and Rotterdam the train was quite lightly loaded, and we rolled into the border town of Roosendaal. Here we curved off sharply to the right and our super 10 coach double decker train became an all stations local stopper!
Eventually we stopped at Goes The landscape is as flat as a pancake and the rectangular fields reminded me of the Mondrian and Rietveld Dutch design school, maybe this was where they obtained their inspiration.
Goes has just one platform with a track on each side, and outside is the neat bus station. The connecting bus for Terneuzen arrived promptly and off we went. The landscape has now lost its wide vast expanse of flat fields. Now the view is foreshortened by the long, grass covered, sea dykes. We were below sea level. We plunged into the Schelde tunnel (how on earth is such a long tunnel ventilated?) and emerged to gyrate our way into a bus station in the middle of nowhere. Buses came and went exchanging passengers, and then we carried on into Terneuzen
I was told that it is our fault that this part of the Netherlands is isolated from the rest. There have been many changes of ownership of these lands over the centuries, but this separation only happened in 1830 when we decided to let the Belgians have their independence. But where to draw the boundary? The Belgians and the Dutch wouldn’t agree, so some bright spark went back into history to when a king, Graaf Jans, built a huge dyke all around this coastline and onwards towards what is now Germany. We declared this the border, and around 85,000 Dutch folk found themselves cut off.
Historically, they were always closer to the Belgians. After all, the Ghent people were great traders and their canal to the sea came to Terneuzen and developed greatly. Even today an astonishing 70,000 ships pass through the sea locks here every year. It is the third largest port in the Netherlands after Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
It is quite surprising (well, to me it was, the locals are used to it) to see a wall of different coloured containers passing along the top of the dyke that surrounds the town, floating past higher up than you are! A stroll along the promenade at the top of the broad dyke shows how important this waterway is. I never saw less than 4 ships going past. Long, low flat barges were being overtaken by huge container ships.
The population of Terneuzen is around 55,000 people, including its small suburbs, but it seems much smaller than that. It is the largest centre of population in this special part of the country, but the regional capital is Middleberg – across the water and far away. (Incidentally Middleberg means middle castle – because the town has a castle in the middle of it!)
The people of Terneuzen live in very neat and well ordered rows of houses stretching away from the coast in Mondrian style straight lines and blocks. There are cycle lanes, pedestrian lanes, and it is all impeccably clean and organised. The most interesting part of the town is the old part at the mouth of the Ghent canal.
This is quite a small area. It has a pedestrianised shopping zone, a market square, and some interesting old buildings, but not many as this entire region tended to be destroyed by various wars, including World War 2. The oldest streets, “Herengracht”, “Kersstraat” and “Noordstraat”” clustered around the 16th century ramparts.
The town map shows the highlights. There is the old bridge, a typical Dutch lifting bridge over a canal. Nearby it shows the “Flying Dutchman”. The captain, Willem Van Der Decken, came from here. He cursed God, and set sail in the three masted ship on Easter Sunday – and was never seen or heard of again, condemned to sail the seven seas for ever. I searched round and round looking for this ship, which according to the map looked like a replica of the “Flying Dutchman” – then I realised that it is a black modern representation of a sailing ship, perched on a pole in the canal! There is the Willibrord tower. Willibrord was an Irish monk who brought Christianity to the Low Countries, and is the patron saint of the Netherlands. The tower was once part of a church I guess; now it stands in isolation, close to a large statue of the Sacred Heart. There is the Grote (big) church, and the Stadthuis. This is the town hall. It is a bleak bunker of a building, with bits sticking out that make it look like a battleship stranded on the shore.
There seems to be an unusually large amount of cafes and restaurants, and feeling hungry I went into the “T Gerecht” on the market square. As usual, everyone speaks English, and the cheerful lassies produced an English language menu. I asked if they had many English speaking customers – she said, no, mostly Americans from a big Dow Chemicals plant nearby. Most tourists are German, as it is not so far away from their border and they love the coast here. She couldn’t remember when they last had guests from England, and had never had Scots before!
This is definitely a land for us to explore.
Altogether I really liked Terneuzen. It certainly does not have tourist mania. There are no open top buses, canal cruises or shops selling tat. I had to hunt for postcards and could not find a book or brochure about the town or region in any language. The people were open and friendly, and spoke to me, in shops, bus stops, or just in passing. You certainly do not get that in cities.
It is a good base to explore the rest of the area too. Zeeland or “land in the sea” as the buses have on their sides, has areas such as “drowned land of Saeftinghe” and other old polders, from the centuries battle with the sea. There are forts and dunes, 17 kms. of sandy beaches and dykes, and the largest contiguous wet lands in Western Europe.
Hulst is the best kept fortified town in the Netherlands, and received its royal charter in 1180. It was a great port, but it silted up. Aardenburg was inhabited in 5,500 BC, a Roman city, a pilgrimage destination, and after World War 2 Queen Wilhelmina first stepped ashore on her native soil here at Eede.
Axel has the busiest market in the region on Saturdays. Once fortified, it was destroyed several times, lastly in World War 2, and was liberated by Free Polish forces. Oostberg is the only place in the Netherlands that can lay claim to a Unicorn. Breskens, with its ferry to Vlissingen, has a fishing industry and market, and a big marina.
When I left Terneuzen, it was on the bus, under the Schelde, train to Amsterdam (all connecting and easy as is normal there) and it came as a culture shock to go out into Amsterdam with its hordes of tourists, shops, noise, and higher prices for everything! I hadn’t realised how relaxed I had been in Zeeland Flanders.
If you want to explore somewhere quite different, peaceful, friendly and full of special character, go to this Dutch enclave stranded on the other side of the Schelde. Here you will meet the genuine people of the Netherlands going about their daily lives behind the shelter of their sea dykes, living at or below sea level, and cheerfully welcoming.
Don’t forget that it is easy for us to go to the Netherlands. KLM fly daily from both Aberdeen and Inverness - the Amsterdam Schiphol airport has the railway station underneath it with connections to anywhere at least once per hour, and fares are cheaper than here.
For more information go to the efficient Dutch tourist board.