Visitors to Holland are quickly taught the rule – don’t stand chatting in the bike lane. So it’s a surprise when in the cycling paradise of Zeeland we come across Dutch premier Jan Pieter Balkenende and his retinue doing just that, blocking our progress across the Eastern Schelde dam. Sleek black limousines are parked on the path by the ‘bikes only’ sign.
‘The prime minister of South Korea is visiting,’ a driver tells us. ‘We’re showing him our dykes.’
Ah, fair enough. Everybody should see these dykes. As sea levels rise, the world will have much to learn from the Zeelanders. My wife and I came here to ride through the idyllic countryside, past the old windmills and through the ancient towns and villages, but we’re finding the modern engineering just as impressive.
The residents of this chain of flat islands have had a love/hate relationship with the sea for centuries. In good times, the sea provided the wealth that made a town like Middelburg one of the most important trading centres of renaissance Europe. In bad times, when dykes were breached by warfare or sea surges, Zeeland has literally and tragically gone under.
We start our tour in Middelburg, a splendid medieval city on the island of Walchers. I say ‘medieval’, though few buildings survived the German fire bombing in 1940. A remarkable reconstruction effort has made the town look old and beautiful again. The mighty clock tower Lange Jan (Tall John) erected in the time of William of Orange, dominates Middelburg, while below it the 12th century abbey has been converted to a museum. The modern art in the temporary exhibition leaves us a little bewildered, but the sun shines in a lovely abbey courtyard, and we enjoy a coffee and a local Zeeuwse bolus, a doughnut-like scroll with apple and cinnamon to sweeten the glug.
Next morning we roll down beside the canal to Middelburg’s competitor, Vlissingen. By reputation it’s a no-nonsense business centre, less touristy than Middelburg. We particularly enjoy the Maritime MuZEEum. As well as a good coverage of early and modern seafaring it shows a short film (in English) telling of Zeeland’s tragedy during WWII. As Allied forces closed in on the German troops occupying Middleburg, the dykes came down and the sea came in. Those who escaped with their lives lost their homes, livestock and livelihoods.
We wind our way north along the coastal villages, now popular seaside resorts. Bulldozers continuously reinforce the dunes along the North Sea, while behind them forests have been planted and wetlands developed. Thousands of wading birds are breeding and hundreds of Zeelanders and tourists are out cycling and walking.
We come to the magnificent Delta Works, where we meet the aforementioned heads of state. A remarkable system of dams and floodgates keeps the sea at bay, allowing it to flow through when it’s behaving itself and keeping it out when it looks dangerous.
The Delta Works are not only impressive, they’re also beautiful. The road swoops evenly towards a perfectly regular row of blocks and arches stretching into the distance. Floodgates, each forty metres wide, let the sea slosh through below. Road signs are bright royal blue, boom gates red and white, and soaring above us are rows of modern white windmills, silently generating power. Somebody very efficient is in control in Zeeland, and we find it reassuring.
I was interested to read (in Alain de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work) that the picture postcard windmills of old were often condemned as ugly industrial blots on the landscape, until Golden Age painters like Jacob van Ruysdael pointed out their charm. Maybe in 300 years’ time there’ll be a preservation society fighting to save a few elegant white specimens from our primitive age of electricity.
When the cavalcade of dignitaries moves on, we ride across the dam behind it. We’re on the ‘Strijd Tegen Water’ (‘Fight Against Water) cycle route. It leads us around sea walls and through lovely Zierikzee to Ouwerkerk, now a neat little village, with cropped trees and manicured gardens. It’s hard to imagine that on the night of February 1, 1953, this was the scene of the Netherlands’ greatest natural disaster.
When a massive storm burst the dyke, the ocean rushed in. Over 1800 people and 182,000 animals drowned. Fifty thousand homes were destroyed and for the next eight months high tides washed over the island, covering everything in a thick layer of sand.
The event is remembered in the nearby Watersnoodmuseum, or ‘Water Emergency Museum’. Housed in the massive ‘caissons’, concrete bins that eventually dammed the breach, it gives an excellent explanation (in English and Dutch) of the disaster, moving eye witness accounts and an inspiring summary of the clean-up and subsequent engineering works, designed to ensure that it never happens again.
The final section of the museum, opened just the day before our visit, looks into the future. In times of climate change, the world may well look for ideas in an efficiently organised country where more than half the population already lives below sea level.
As we enthusiastically sign the visitors’ book we notice the names on the previous page – J.P. Balkenende and Mr Han Seung-Soo. We assume their messages (illegible to us, especially the one in Korean) say they enjoyed Zeeland as much as we did.
Getting there: Trains run every hour from Amsterdam to Middelburg. The trip takes about 2.5 hours and costs EUR26.30 one way.
Staying there: B&B de Kaepstander in Middelburg has doubles for EUR67. See kaepstander.nl. Numerous other accommodation options are on vvvzeeland.nl
Further information: Entry to the Maritiem MuZEEum costs EUR8, and the Waternoodsmuseum EUR6. See muZEEum.nl and vvvzeeland.nl.