Amersfoort: the Holland of yesteryear, far from the beaten track
By Gery de Pierpont
Prosperous merchant city, beer, tobacco and garrisons
All sorts of clichés come into our heads whenever the Netherlands is mentioned: its vast ports and canals, its cheese, its oysters and tulips and its bustling cities, choc à bloc with cyclists and windmills … our thoughts also turn to the celebrated paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer or Van Gogh as well as the old spires which seem to pierce the clouds over low-lying polders. Some of you may have had a chance to visit the impressive museums of Amsterdam, The Hague or Rotterdam. Or strolled past the traditional brick houses in Delft, Maastricht or Utrecht, or breathe in fresh sea air in the hanseatic towns in the North. This is just wonderful when not many tourists are about …
Many of these towns, founded in the Middle Ages have undergone great changes over time. They have grown larger, become more modern and undergone restructuring to keep pace with each era and reflect the prosperity of the Netherlands and their colonial empire. Fortunately, as far as the history buff is concerned, some small, centuries-old communities have ended up losing their way, for various economic, political or demographic reasons. These once flourishing towns carried on for few decades without new investments before slipping back into a traditional, almost forgotten role. It is still possible to come across some astonishing medieval residences (almost) in their original state, covered streets, fountains and old markets which rampant town development would certainly have banished to history.
Amersfoort, a few kilometres from Utrecht on the banks of the river Eem, is such a town. On the crossroads between the North and South of the country on a major East-West traffic route (North Sea – Germany), it developed at one of the rare safe crossing points in a marshy expanse.
Its first ramparts in the 13th century protected a wealthy population of weavers and cloth merchants. The region’s local springs (quite rare in the Netherlands) gave rise to numerous breweries. The town expanded to such an extent that new ramparts had to be built by the end of the 14th century. Thanks to a network of canals (such as in Amsterdam or Bruges) boats were able to circulate freely.
The “Koppelpoort” and the “Monnikendam”, which date from the beginning of the 15th century, were fortified gates which enabled incoming and outgoing boats to be monitored and access could be blocked by means of a heavy portcullis. Although they have been picturesquely restored, they are a reminder that the populations at that time were never completely safe. When the citizens in a town were quite wealthy, it was essential to protect themselves from outside attack and marauding bands in the service of local lords, whose rivalry was the source of many a conflict. This continued until the territory was unified under the Dukes of Burgundy and then the Emperor Charles V.
Amersfoort continued to flourish up until the 18th century, thanks mainly to its tobacco plantations, before falling into decline a century later. The development of the railways as well as the introduction of a considerable number of military barracks gradually stifled its entrepreneurial spirit. It was finally a governmental decision in the 1970s that re-boosted the economy in the city; so successful was this policy that the population has now doubled in size.
Discover the inner heart of Amersfoort
A stroll round the old city, with its maze of narrow streets, canals, bridges and intimate squares will delight cultural heritage buffs as well as poets, artists and photographers: the alignment of its houses, often old and quite small, will reveal a range of styles and eras in delightful harmony. You can admire authentic medieval shops with their tiny windows and matching shutters, their stone and brick step gables (at a time when most buildings were in wood) as well as a few private 18th century mansions of the well-to-do in a world where the economic use of space had until then always been the watchword (as it is on boats).. A group of so-called “wall” houses stand on the site of the city’s first rampart and are incorporated into its foundations.
St. George’s Church is worth a visit, for its hall-type architecture (its three naves are equal in height and width). Its original decor, obscured in the 16th century when the building was “simplified” for Protestant services, has recently been restored.
As for the Church of Our Lady, once a very sumptuous building, all that now remains is its alignment, picked out in the paving stones in the square of the same name. When it ceased to be in Catholic hands during the Reformation, the church was used to store black powder and as a workshop producing grenades. An explosion destroyed the old building in 1787. On the other hand, its spire still stands proudly against the town’s skyline. It is even one of the highest medieval spires in the Netherlands (98 metres). Today it symbolizes the geographical centre of the country, as shown on the metal inlays on the ground in the square. Its 100-bell carillon is so famous that an international bell ringers’ school has been set up here.
The Amersfoort miracle
It was thanks to the miraculous statue of Mary and the Infant Jesus and the thousands of pilgrims that it attracted, that the Parish of Our Lady was able to garner sufficient funds to build such an imposing spire (at the end of the 15th century). Here’s a wonderful story … Geertgen was a young country girl who came into Amersfoort to enter a convent. In her pouch she carried a statuette of the Virgin Mary, a souvenir of her childhood. Embarrassed by this tawdry little terracotta image, Geertgen threw it into the canal before reaching the town. Several days later, another woman was told in a dream to fish out the statuette. The candle that she placed next to Our Lady just would not blow out: she decided to offer the little object to the Church of Our Lady’s parish priest. A miracle, followed by a series of others, described in the minutest detail by the priest, then took place. Amersfoort became an important pilgrimage destination. The fragile statuette has unfortunately not survived to the present day, but its memory is still very much alive.
Away from mass tourism
The exceptional cultural heritage of Amersfoort does not have the place it deserves in tourist leaflets. It is as if the townsfolk wished to keep this “hidden treasure” for themselves and protect it from the hordes of foreign visitors who have turned the centre of Amsterdam into a Disneyland… so what a great privilege it is to have the opportunity to discover Amersfoort and stroll round a town which is still so authentically “Dutch”. Moreover, the “Levende Historie” Association organises various re-enactment scenes employing actors in period costume (in specific years during the summer months – enquire locally).
Why not visit the most attractive Flehite Museum, housed in a mansion dating from 1540 and devoted to the history of Amersfoort? The house of Piet Mondrian, the painter, is also worth a visit since we can enter the world of the artist, about whom one forgets – because he is so modern – that he was born in 1872! For lovers of the fine arts, there is the Museum of Local Painting (open on request) where numerous traditional techniques are on display. However, the city is above all a marvellous three-dimensional setting which should be explored on foot – lose yourself in the maze of little streets or take a boat (from May to October) along the canal …
There are plenty of breweries and restaurants, with welcoming terraces offering a host of local specialities (bitterballetjes, hutspot, karbonade, paling, haring, bietjes, watergruwel…). Do get someone to explain the recipe to you! The pubs “In Den Grooten Slock” and “Onder de Linden“, among the oldest in the town, are brimming with character … and if you would like to know more about beer brewing, the old “Three Rings” brewery is open on weekend afternoons.
A few kilometres north of Amersfoort, do visit the little port of Spakenburg, so anchored in the past that its inhabitants still wear their traditional costumes and headgear on Sundays. The museum of fishing, farming and bygone crafts displays, in a slightly old fashioned setting, a range of objects and well-worn tools each with its own tale to tell.
Life on board an old barge
To stay in Amersfoort, one “into history” address: the river heritage listed barge – the Vita Nova, moored along the quayside a few hundred metres from the famous “Koppelpoort”. Its owners are not only passionate about old boats but also fascinated by the history of their adopted town. Spending a night in a floating guesthouse is nothing if not original!
Interview of Joke Verzijde, owner of the “Vita Nova”, about visiting Amersfoort.
Do you think that discovering Amersfoort is an experience to be recommended or would you rather remain discreet about it so that this endearing destination will continue to harbour its secrets for the foreseeable future…? Please, leave give us your opinion hereunder.