If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like on the Dutch waterways, you’ll find there’s more to them than windmills and clogs...
Join us on a trip down Holland’s waterways to discover a lot more than windmills and tulips
Visiting an unfamiliar country, I admit to a slight tendency to believe the stereotypes – and so it was with our first boat trip in the Netherlands. Not quite the clichés like tulips, clogs and windmills; more the idea of cruising along long straight canals across a flat landscape largely below sea-level, punctuated by towns and villages where lift-bridges would span the waterway as it passed right through the centre.
And the start lived up to some of our expectations, as we left Le Boat’s new base in the Vinkeveense Plassen, a large expanse of water formed from ancient peat workings in an area of flat countryside south of Amsterdam, briefly held up the main road traffic as a bridge-keeper opened our first lift-bridge for us, climbed our first lock, and headed east along the straight Middenwetering canal.
A sharp right turn amid a cluster of houseboats took us on to the Angstel river, and shortly afterwards on the right bank we spotted our first windmill. Meanwhile, a glance to the left revealed what I initially thought to be a goods train in the distance – but soon realised it was actually a sizeable barge loaded with freight containers. This was a sign that we were about to emerge from our quiet backwater and join the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal. That’s the Amsterdam – Rhine Canal in English, or as we nicknamed it, ‘The M1’.
It’s said to be the busiest freight waterway in western Europe, and as we turned right and entered its wide waters, we could believe it. Our widebeam cruiser, while large by the standards of British canal craft, was dwarfed by the constant stream of barges of all sizes from the occasional old-fashioned 350-tonner up to a monster oil-tanker with a 5,900-tonne maximum load – and a tug pushing four lighters, each capable
of carrying 2,800 tonnes. To put that in context, that single push-tow would carry a similar amount to the entire Grand Union Canal Carrying Company’s fleet of almost 200 pairs of narrowboats.
All very exciting and completely different from the occasional barge seen on the UK waterways – and while we were expected to keep out of their way, the canal was plenty wide enough and the commercial skippers gave us a decent berth when they overtook us – not the most relaxing experience. So it was a slight relief to take a left turn through a narrow (by Dutch standards) flood-lock, enter the River Vecht and stop for the night at a pleasant mooring in the small town of Maarssen.
This was a classic Dutch town: the canal running through the centre with streets on both sides (spanned by a pair of characteristic bascule bridges) – and with a good choice of restaurants.
Although we planned to explore the Vecht further, the following morning we turned around and returned to the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal to pay a visit to the city of Utrecht.
Old canals run right through the centre, but the tight bridges mean that visiting craft (especially larger cruisers) are advised to tie up on the edge of the city. We moored on the south-west side and took a tram in to see the cathedral and the old canals.
Locks (other than flood-locks open at both ends) are a rarity in this part of the Netherlands (they aren’t exactly frequent in most parts of the country) so it was unusual to pass through two in quick succession as we headed for our overnight stop in Nieuwegein. On the other hand, away from the modern canal (which is spanned by a series of large steel or concrete bridges), lift-bridges dating from the days of masted sailing barges are extremely common – and we were getting used to the assortment of
ways to operate them. Some have a keeper on duty while others involve calling a phone number on a sign (which might connect you to a bridge-keeper, or might open the bridge automatically); a few featured a pushbutton that we reached out to press with our boat pole. Passing under a series of different types, we reached our overnight mooring at the start of the Hollandse IJssel.
This river continues westwards via Gouda (don’t miss the cheese museum!) with connections to Delft, Leiden and other parts of South Holland. But our large Vision cruiser, while very comfortable and spacious with its three en suite cabins and huge saloon and galley, is too large for some of these smaller waterways. However, the fleet includes a range of different sizes of craft, many of which are well-suited to the smaller waterways.
Retracing our steps to Maarssen, we were soon back on the River Vecht, and once again remarking on the difference between the river and the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal. This was the route taken by barges before the canal was opened in 1952 and it’s now a quiet rural waterway, the preserve of leisure craft as it winds its way northwards through old towns and villages.
It’s very slightly reminiscent of some of the middle reaches of the Thames, twisting and turning its way through quiet countryside interspersed with grand waterside houses that were once the country estates of the wealthy merchants of Amsterdam.
We passed through towns and villages including Breukelen, Loenen, Vreeland and Nigtevecht, all with their lift-bridges and windmills, before reaching Weesp (pronounced ‘waisp’) for an overnight mooring. Built around a series of waterways – the Vecht, the Smal Weesp and a couple of old town canals no longer navigable – we took rather a liking to the town; it’s well supplied with waterside bars (serving a wide range of Dutch beer styles rather than just the ubiquitous pils) and restaurants, as well as three historic windmills, a splendid church and a chocolate factory.
It also has an interesting history: there are remnants to be explored of the series of bastions which fortified the town, and formed part of the Hollandse Waterlinie or Dutch Water Line. A line of defence in existence from the 16th to the 20th Century, this consisted of a series of areas of low-lying land which could be flooded to stop an advancing army.
The next day we were headed for the busy modern canal again and a trip into Amsterdam – but first, another Dutch stereotype put in an appearance as we cruised the Smal Weesp through the centre of the town. Unlike almost everywhere else we passed, the three bridges through Weesp are subject to a modest toll, which is still collected in the traditional manner by the bridge-keeper dangling a wooden clog on a string.
It was a blustery day as we headed for Amsterdam along the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal. The wash of passing freighters added to the waves on the increasingly wide water as the canal broadened out to join the IJ, the half-mile wide channel running past the city centre. Not only is it busy with barges, it’s criss-crossed by passenger ferries, and frequented by ships including an enormous cruise liner named Costa
Packet –’nuff said. Getting into a marina to visit the city might have been interesting, had it not been for our boat’s controls: these not only include the bow thruster that’s standard on large cruisers, but also an alternative joystick control that allows you to spin the boat on the spot or to move it bodily sideways!
Amsterdam’s attractions are many – not least its historic canals, of which the city has more miles than either Birmingham or Venice. But then it was time to return to the River Vecht – and this time, to the lower reaches downstream of Weesp.
The river here is rather larger and, as we followed its final windings, we were starting to see more traditional Dutch sailing barges and seagoing craft on the approaches to Muiden. This is a
‘Now it’s a quiet rural waterway, the preserve of leisure craft as it winds its way northwards through old towns and villages’
traditional port on the shore of what is now the freshwater IJsselmeer lake – but was once the Zuiderzee, a large inlet of the North Sea. It was also where we passed through our first ‘real’ lock (other than flood-locks left open at both ends) since the outskirts of Utrecht. Rather curiously, considering that we were approaching the mouth of a river, we rose about a foot or so – but that’s the Netherlands and its interesting approach to land drainage.
This marked yet another change of scenery – a few hundred yards beyond the lock, we passed Muiden Castle and headed out into a buoyed channel along the edge of the IJsselmeer – close to the shore on our right, but with nothing but water, sailing boats and a few islands stretching to the horizon on our left.
We headed eastwards, following the buoys into an inlet that led under a railway viaduct into a long lake a mile wide called the Gooimeer, which in turn led via another bridge into a second lake called the Eemmeer. These might at first sight have seemed like natural lakes, but they aren’t. They represent the channel that was left when large areas of the former Zuiderzee were drained with new earthworks and pumps to create new land, in a huge reclamation project which went on for much of the 20th Century.
On our right was the former seashore, with old towns and harbours at Huizen and Spakenburg; but on our left was the 500 square miles of the new province of Flevoland, formerly under water but home to 400,000 people today. It’s mainly farmland but also includes – as we discovered to our slight surprise – a sizeable naturist park!
We spent the night in a small marina at the mouth of the Nijkerk Canal, enjoyed a traditional Dutch supper of Gehaktballen (meatballs) in the marina bar, and watched an evening sailing regatta against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset. And then, just in case we thought this was a sleepy backwater frequented only by yachts, a tug and lighter arrived at 9.30pm – followed by a 1,000-tonne barge a couple of hours later. Both had gone before we woke up in the morning.
A change from the previous day’s mainly cloudy weather to glorious sunshine showed the lakes off at their best as we returned to Muiden, where we tied up alongside one of the many sailing barges to look round the town. Then it was back to Weesp for the final time.
The last day of our cruise meant we were headed back to Vinkeveen. We didn’t have enough time to take the Vecht all the way back up to Maarssen, but we couldn’t resist a quick spin up the river and back for a few miles, before rejoining the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal for the run back to the River Angstel.
The River Vecht rewarded us with a couple of surprises: firstly, did I say it had been the preserve of leisure craft since 1952? Not quite, as we found out when we met a 1,000-tonne gravel barge using the river to get to the branch canal to Hilversum. And the second surprise: as we cruised round a large loop of the river, cut off by a shortcut and now home to an assortment of residential craft, we spotted several storks nesting in the riverside trees, feeding their young.
I don’t think they were on my list of Dutch stereotypes!
Looking out across the IJsselmeer and (inset)
classic Dutch view at Loenen aan de Vecht
Traditionally Dutch on the River Angstel
The Vision cruiser at Maarssen on the Vecht
Lift-bridges come in all shapes and sizes: this one is in Utrecht
Breukelen on the River Vecht