(Editor’s note: This post is part of our continuing series of travel stories about unconventional destinations accessible to Europe-based expats.)
When you think about cities and towns in the Netherlands, everyone thinks about Amsterdam. Let’s face it: it is the most famous city in the Netherlands. Famous for its liberal progressive attitudes, stunning art museums, De Walletjes Red Light District, its misnamed coffee shops that sell marijuana, Anne Frank House, canals, tall skinny houses and groups of noisy stag parties.
Although it’s a fabulous, vibrant city to visit, Amsterdam is not representative of the Netherlands as a whole. In fact, many Dutch people don’t even visit!
I live in a small town that is so quintessentially Dutch you think you have walked onto a film set, or somehow inadvertently found a time loop that has whisked you back to medieval times, very different from the capital city. Heusden, Noord-Brabant is a picture postcard town that is virtually unknown to foreign tourists.
Heusden is a fortified town, or vesting, west of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (“Den Bosch” in colloquial Dutch). The small town is surround by earthen walls, known as bastions, shaped as a star with the Bergsche Maas River to the north and a moat surrounding the enclosed town. Founded in the 12th century, the original fortress was built to protect itself against warring individual dukedoms (before the Netherlands was an established country) and the invading French and Spanish.
Heusden remained loyal to the Spanish king until 1576 when the rather impressive sounding peace treaty, Pacification of Ghent, was signed, and the various rebel provinces put aside their religious differences and joined together choosing peace and the leadership of William of Orange … at least for a time! Then the fortifications were improved upon, leading to the star shape favored by the Italians.
Heusden is no longer fending off foreigners but embraces its role as a tourist destination. In 1968, the town was in disrepair, and the mayor at the time borrowed money from the government to restore the old buildings and re-create the medieval town.
The cobbled streets no longer echo the sound of horse-drawn carts but provide an authentic feel to the vesting. The town offers a museum, tourist office – complete with a movie telling the history of the town – and a 30meters-square model of the town, guided walking tours, a plethora of art galleries and interesting little stores, several delicious restaurants, three windmills and a harbor.
Living in Heusden can be entertaining, particularly in the summer as the harbor fills up with a selection of various sized boats and tourists arrive by bike, motorcycle or car. The streets are filled with wandering tourists who, to locals, can be somewhat frustrating as many of them fail to realize they are streets, not footpaths!
The harbor provides me with hours of entertainment from my window as I observe the rituals that seem to run alongside the ownership of a boat.
The size of the boats, the style, and the owners all differ and provide fascinating “people watching.” I’ve seen teenagers sitting on board studiously doing their homework on the last day of the weekend, and various sized dogs, all of who seem to enjoy the experience.
Notwithstanding one little dog who, when he braved the leap from vessel to shore, seemed to decide there was no way he was ever going back onboard. He spent the best part of the afternoon providing his owner with exercise around the harbor despite the application of various capture strategies.
He was finally apprehended and, with a look of resignation and a hanging head, reentered the life of a sailor. I couldn’t help but think of the old practice of “press ganging” itinerants in port towns as I watched his dejected face appear behind a porthole.
It seems the size or style of the boat can also reflect the age of the sailor, although I appreciate this is a generalization. The teenagers arrive in tenders or dinghies with music playing, then you have the bronzed, medallion man with the beautiful girlfriend poised on the back of the loudly reverberating speedboat.
Finally, the older generation’s comfortable, large, home-on-the-waves moors for several days as they relax and explore the locale.
I love to watch this life of living on the water, and I marvel at their tidy and well-organized existence, living in an area the size of my bedroom, or in some cases the ground floor of my house! A caravan on water basically, with all the nifty cupboard space and efficient gadgets.
Most of the vessels are Dutch with their flags flying proudly from the stern, some German but occasionally I see someone from farther afield, a boat from Jersey, one of the British Channel Islands, and from much farther away, Australia!
We also have visits from river cruisers who amaze me as the crew negotiates a snug mooring for these elongated hotels afloat. Once moored, visitors wander out looking slightly dazed as they photograph our windmills and cute homes. I delight in catching snippets of conversation in English as they wander past and photograph my door decoration of flower filled clogs.
This year Heusden has been busier than usual, as it has been mirroring the 500th anniversary of Den Bosch’s most famous son, painter Jheronimus Bosch.
In the spring a battle between Den Bosch and Heusden in 1481 was reenacted. The argument was over the re-direction of the silted up river, which left Heusden off the major route and seriously affected its economy. This was never politically resolved until April this year when a peace treaty was signed by both communities … things move slowly in the Netherlands!
Despite the cold weather, an enormous crowd watched as the battle was very slowly fought over the rights of the river, complete with explosions and commentary. The town threw itself whole-heartedly into this historic event with the locals dressed in medieval clothes, and the harbor and market place were transformed to a time past.
Once again, in June, the town was transported back in time for a historic 17th century fair weeken. It was charming to see this quaint town as it may have once appeared.
Heusden has many events over the year such as a Brocante (Flea) Market on the first Saturday of the month and music events like the Shanty festival when local folk groups entertain with songs once sung on busy sailing vessels.
Wintertime sees the arrival of Sinterklaas in the harbor, (scheduled this year for 12 November 2016 at 14.00) accompanied by his controversial helpers, Pieten. There can be nothing more Dutch than this white haired, bishop-type character coming into port, with his black helpers throwing traditional candy to the singing, excited children lining the dock.
The weekend of Candlelight Shopping in December (16 & 17th December 2016) is a charming event when on Friday and Saturday evening the streets of Heusden are lit by candlelight, braziers warm the shoppers who wander around the stores and open-air stalls. Gluhwein is sipped in the chilly air and music adds to the festive feel of the old town.
Living in a small, mostly undiscovered tourist destination has its ups and downs. Life in the winter is quiet and a little gloomy and in the summer negotiating a run to the bakery can be annoying as you trip over the heels of a meandering tourist. But then I look out my window at this quintessential Dutch scene…windmill, harbor, cobbled streets, and I think how lucky I am to have found this little corner of the Netherlands.
Thinking about going? Here are some resources:
• Click here for information about Heusden’s Candlelight shopping event.
• Here’s the link to Heusden’s tourism website, which has a lot of great information in English.
Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she lived in Boston, Mass for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Jackie is becoming an expert at re-inventing herself! Trained as a nurse in UK, in the United States, she worked for nine years as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News. She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.