Giethoorn, a picturesque village in the Dutch countryside with thatched farmhouses, narrow canals, countless wooden bridges and tranquil wetlands, is best experienced in all its glory by boat.
Words by Thessa Lageman
We begin our visit cycling along the Noorderpad, a small path next to a canal, towards the central part of Giethoorn. A chilly fog hangs in the air, and most residents are probably still asleep.
The canals and lakes here are the result of peat cutting, a substance that was traditionally used for centuries to heat houses in the region. We cross a few small brown-and-white-painted bridges, pass some thatched-roof farms and a lake called Molengat (Mill’s gap). The colours of the grain growing in the fields, the birches, the reeds and the water radiate beautifully in the early morning glow.
It has been years since I first visited Giethoorn, a village of 2,620 inhabitants in the Dutch countryside. After having lived abroad for a few years and only recently returned to my home country, I am seeing the Netherlands with fresh eyes. I’m curious to find out if the village that is renowned as the ‘Venice of the north’ and that has been described as ‘straight out of a fairy-tale book’ and even ‘the cutest, most adorable town in the world’ is indeed so picturesque.
The village can be reached by taking a train to Steenwijk and from there it’s a short bus ride. However, the last bus leaves the village early, so spending the night here is perhaps not a bad idea. My father wanted to join me, and we spent the night in Hotel de Dames van de Jonge, a quaint, small hotel in between a canal (of course) and a field of sheep. It is in the quieter northern part of the village, where fewer tourists go. Gabriella Esselbrugge, who owns and runs the hotel with her mother, told us her grandmother has been renting rooms to tourists since the 1950s. “The village has always had a certain attraction,” she had told us enthusiastically the night before. “Personally, I love taking my boat to the lake and going ice skating in winter.”
Painters, actors and poets
After a while, we reach the Binnenpad, the main path in the centre that is too small for cars. We sit down for coffee in Grandcafé Fanfare. “After the Dutch film Fanfare came out in 1958, a lot more people started to visit Giethoorn,” owner Arie-Willem Vermeij tells us. The film plays continuously in the café, and some attributes used in the film, such as a tuba, are still present. When the owner bought the cafe 10 years ago, people told him Giethoorn was on the decline, but that clearly proved to be wrong. “In the past, most visitors came for a day trip; nowadays they often stay longer and they come from all continents.”
Outside, we meet resident Klaas van der Veen (whose name very aptly means ‘of peat’), who has offered to show us around the village. He is 75 but looks more youthful and tells us he moved to Giethoorn in the 1970s from the west of the country. In those days, many famous Dutch painters and poets settled here. After his retirement from the military, he started showing tourists around on a voluntary basis. According to him, Dutch painter Willem Bastiaan Tholen was the first to put Giethoorn on the map, so to speak. “He was the first of many painters who have painted scenes from Giethoorn, in 1880,” he says. “After that, people from Amsterdam started visiting the village.”
Giethoorn is said to have been founded around 1230 by Flagellants, fugitives from the Mediterranean who practised a form of mortification by whipping their flesh. I read that the name Giethoorn means ‘horn of goats’ because the residents found many horns here after a major flood in the Middle Ages. However, van der Veen doubts the story and thinks Giethoorn means ‘black corner’, referring to a bad place where nothing grew.
If so, times have certainly changed. We traverse a steep bridge – one of the 180 or so bridges in the village – while a Chinese girl takes a selfie with the bridge in the background. The bridges now consist of eight wooden planks, whereas in the past they were made of just one plank, van der Veen tells us. “Not that easy to cross at night,” he remarks. On some of the bridges leading to private gardens, we see signs with Chinese characters, probably meaning something like ‘Private property. No trespassing allowed’. Giethoorn’s popularity with foreign tourists, especially from Asia, is a recent phenomenon, and some tourists don’t realise that this is a real village where people live, not an open-air museum.
We pass farms with high ‘camel roofs’, where the hay used to be wintered. Building vertically was the only option, as the farms have been surrounded by canals. This also means they can only be reached by boat or by walking over a footbridge. Therefore, things like shopping and moving from place to place are done by boat, and even the postman, garbage collectors and fire brigade use boats.
Gondolas or punts
“Recently, I visited Venice in Italy for the first time,” van der Veen smiles. “I told my family we were going to visit the ‘Giethoorn of the south’.” He adds: “I like both, but of course there is no similarity.” Well… that may perhaps be so, although both have canals with traditional boats – gondolas in Venice, punters in Giethoorn. These flat-bottom boats – known as ‘punts’ in English – have been in use since the Middle Ages. They are propelled with a long punt pole pushing against the bottom of the canal, which is usually no deeper than one metre here because of the peat extraction.
There used to be more than 20 punt yards here; however, there is only one company worldwide that still builds these boats, located along the main path. “I’m the tenth generation,” says owner Jan Schreur, while showing us a new punt he is working on. In another room, he restores old tour boats. “Nowadays, tourists like the boat trip to be really comfortable,” he explains, “so we install electric heaters on board and even Wi-Fi and sockets for charging their phones.”
I feel that a visit to Giethoorn isn’t complete without a boat trip, so we hop on a tour boat departing from a nearby café. Three girls from Australia sit behind us. “It’s different from other places we’ve seen, and it’s great that there are no cars,” they say, while we glide under the wooden arched bridges.
“There is some unique heritage here,” a retired surgeon and photographer from Taiwan smiles, when we return via the Bovenwijde lake. “Those cottages are definitely photogenic.”
I can’t deny that, I think, when we head to Smit’s Paviljoen, a café that has been around since 1935, for some delicious Dutch pancakes with icing sugar. I enjoyed our stay and plan on returning soon. Perhaps I could hire a punt for a day, visit one of the music or sailing festivals in summer or go cycling through the nearby wetlands of National Park Weerribben-Wieden.
Jakarta to Amsterdam
Flight Time 13 hours 20 minutes
Frequency 6 ﬂights per week
From Colours March 2017
5 Senses – Scent
You can smell the kniepertjes, thin, hard, sweet waffles, from afar. They are baked in special waffle irons at the Museumboerderij ’t Olde Maat Uus (Binnenpad 52, next to the church) by women wearing traditional costumes − black dresses and lace caps. Eight pieces are sold for a euro. Inside the museum (an old farm), you can get an idea of how life was in the past and learn about some of the village’s traditions.