Travel – Netherlands

Liz Light travels to the forgotten world of the "Old" Zeeland.

It turns out Abel Tasman didn’t name our beloved country New Zealand. In 1642, when the explorer saw “a large land, uplifted high”, he thought he had found the west side of Staten Landt, an island on the bottom of South America.

But his bosses at the Dutch East India Company figured he was wrong, and named this new place Nieuw Zeeland (New Zealand), after a seafaring province in the Netherlands. Zea means sea… sea land.

Zeeland, a western province in the Netherlands, is in a delta of several major European rivers, including the Rhine, and encompasses numerous islands.

Half of the area is water and much of it is below sea level. Over the centuries, landless and hard-working Dutch people reclaimed the low-tide land using dams, dykes and canals.  

It’s fitting that, given the watery nature of Zeeland, my visit there is on a boat. River Empress is a cigar-shaped ship, purpose-built by boutique river cruise company Uniworld to be long, low and thin, as is required for canal and river travel.

She makes her way quietly through a black night, up and down locks, and when I wake in the morning, we are docked in Veere, a quaint heritage town  located in the heart of Zeeland.

On the elbow of where the river meets the delta, it’s clear that time has forgotten Veere. Cannons are placed all along the embankment, there are old-style windmills, sheep resting on grass – even a huge, piebald church half-destroyed by Napoleon, but later patched-up with various coloured bricks.

It’s easy to explore. I walk off the boat, over the dyke, past the church and through lanes to the town square. The centre is sweetly 18th century with an impressive Gothic town hall, its tall bell tower adding a vertical aspect to a flat place.

There is a museum, a few cafés, and a bar where couches are out on the cobblestones so customers can bask in the sun. And, of course, there is a shop specialising in all things wool.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Veere was a thriving port, whose prosperity relied heavily on wool. It was the trading station between Scotland and Europe. Scot merchants brought in wool and Dutch spinners and weavers turned it into cloth, which was traded with the rest of Europe.

In an ironic twist, it was New Zealand and Australian wool which headed back to the Netherlands in clipper ships to be spun and woven in the Midlands, that made the Dutch cloth industry uncompetitive and marked the beginning of Veere’s gradual decline.

Now, in the harbour, vintage sailing boats and modern plastic yachts line up, and the hustle of trade has long gone.

My friend and I borrow bikes from the boat. We zoom over a lock and down a dyke into rural Zeeland. The land is absolutely flat and perfect for cycling. After two hours on small, sealed roads, we pass only four cars, two runners and a woman exercising horses.

A nearby village looks like a tree-filled island floating on a sea of grass.

Houses cluster around a church and we park the bicycles at a big farm barn.

We meet two burly, red-faced farmers who can’t understand us, but through charades and gabble, they get that we are from New Zealand and we want to look at their animals. 

There are 30 cows, two docile bulls and 35 sheep with numerous fat lambs.It smells of straw, manure and cows, and the animals are as tame as pets.

It’s old-world and cute, but I still can’t figure out the economics – how are the stock, food and wages paid for?

The boat was due to depart at 4pm, and while it would be fun to continue cycling this countryside, we didn’t want it to leave us behind.

As the River Empress steams to Rotterdam through the rivers and canals of the delta, I sit on the top deck and watch Zeeland pass by.

It’s so low and flat, all sense of perspective has gone. The land seems a slither of trees and grass, with the odd farmhouse floating tenuously between the water and sky.

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