(Editor’s note: This post has been updated. This year, the Thorn Christmas Market is scheduled for Sunday, 17 December. Mark your calendars ….)
We’ve done posts about Europe’s largest Christmas markets, and they are wonderful. Dispatches has posts about unknown places where you can go back in time.
But one of the defining moments of being an expat is when you realize you’re beginning to become someone else.
Which is the flash of insight I had during a visit just before Christmas last year.
We were visiting the community Christmas market on an ancient estate in Thorn.
I’m getting my wurst and beer for lunch when the guy working the food tent looks up and says something in Dutch. I apologize in English and in what I think is Dutch. (I use the word “schlecht” or “bad,” to describe my language skills, which is actually German. I stay in a state of perpetual linguistic confusion.)
He switches to English, smiles and says, “I thought you were one of the neighbors.” Which is the nicest thing anyone has said to me since I moved to the Netherlands in March, 2016.
We came here to make money. But the longer we’re here, the more we appreciate the sense of community in the Netherlands, especially outside the big cities, and long to be part of it.
If you’re going to live here, you need to at least try to understand European culture.
Thorn – called the White Village because nearly all the 16th, 17th and 18th Century buildings in the Old Town are painted white – literally on the Netherlands/Belgium border is a great place to start.
In the Limburg province, it’s an easy drive from major expat communities including Amsterdam, Eindhoven where we live, and Brussels. With its proximity, restaurants and shops, Thorn is an easy day out that never disappoints. The perfect Christmas quick trip.
So, when my wife Cheryl read there was a Christmas Market, we had to go.
The main Christmas market is held on the grounds of the Kasteelhoeve De Grote Hegge, a large estate that’s still a farm, but generates revenue as an events center with guest rooms and a restaurant.
The market was fine, if a bit underwhelming after Brussels. Lots of food and Glühwein of course. But Thorn had something none of the larger markets have … local flavor, good cheer and authentic community participation down to locals dressed up as Dickens characters.
For the record, Christmas in the Netherlands seems pretty fluid. The actual religious observation has little in common with the American Christmas, which is really a derivation of the British Christmas.
In Thorn, the celebration was more in the tradition of the communal fest, with the main point being just getting everyone together, then bombarding them with American Christmas tunes.
Few Americans have ever heard of Thorn, but it’s a fascinating place on several levels. I rarely get deeply into history on travel posts because hanging out, shopping and partying tend to get in the way. But Thorn has an intriguing history, especially if you’re a feminist.
(I’m business partners with my wife and we have two liberal teenage daughters … what do you think?)
Anyway, Thorn is unique in all the world in that it was ruled for centuries by women. Until Napoleon arrived in 1795, it was an independent “princess-pality” within the Holy Roman Empire.
Starting in the 12th century, a group of 20 women headed by an abbess ruled Thorn from a large abby-turned-convent on the edge of town.
To be part of this de facto royalty, a woman’s royal lineage (we’re going by memory here from what we were told) had to date back to the abby’s 12th century origins. They had to prove they had 16 ancestors of noble birth – eight on their father’s side, and eight on their mother’s.
There are still plenty of reminders of Thorn’s regal past.
The monumental Abdijkerk Thorn (abby church) in the center square dates back to the 10th century, and the interior is one of the most lavish we’ve ever seen.
We dropped in during the Christmas market, which was on a Sunday, just before a concert. And if you’re going, make a point to attend at least of the concerts. (You can see the schedule here.)
The altar area is considered one of the grandest in the Netherlands. It’s so elaborate you could spend hours examining all the sculptures and architectural flourishes, and the church is full of spectacular Renaissance paintings. So try to visit when it’s open.
In the events space of the castle itself, we met Jack and others at the booth for the Friends of Thorn, a history-and-heritage group drumming up support for its 50th anniversary bash on 25 June, 2017.
The group raises money for local projects including funding monuments. Jack told me the space we were in had been the tithing barn at one time … where residents of the mini-nation brought 10 percent of their earnings to cover their taxes.
Friends of Thorn fund all the monuments you see including plaques documenting all the abbesses dating back to Benedicta in 992. They all have regally long names such as “Anna Salome van Manderscheidt-Blankenheim.” Mercifully, they didn’t have to put them on drivers’ licenses.
Thorn was on the front lines at the end of World War II as Allied forces – principally irregular Belgian and Luxembourgish fighters – pushed out SS troops using Thorn as their base. Locals who fell both in World War I and World War II have several monuments around the town.
Now, about those white houses.
The origins according to everything I’ve read date back to about the time of Napoleon, when the French invaded in 1794 what was then the “Austrian Netherlands.”
War refugees began to move into Thorn, taking over the houses of the aristocrats who’d fled. The French levied property taxes based on the size of windows. So the poor would brick up the windows, then whitewash the houses to cover up the subterfuge. Viola!
Despite our never having heard of Thorn, the rest of the world has.
The place is crammed with tourists from Britain, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands during the summer. Thorn is on a chain of large lakes along the Maas River called “Maasplassen” that extend up to the shopping city of Roermond on the north and down to Maaseik on the south. So it’s also a boating and outdoors center.
Also, you can easily do Roermond and Thorn in one day.
My advice … when your here in Limburg, do what the Dutch and Belgians do.
Indulge in the pastries and desserts. Sample the coffee and beers. Then get outside and walk the town and the fields around Thorn. Soak in the culture and the bonhomie. Drink in life.
Go native, or go home.
Yes, there’s shopping, and it kind of indicates the sort of sophisticated traveler traffic this place gets. De Kluis Thorn is a large art gallery/boutique with a lot of high-end artwork, apparel, crafts and gifts.
Cheryl really likes Bad & Tafel (Bed and Table) a Dutch chain of shops carrying discounted linens including sheets, duvet covers, napkins and bathrobes. Our guy there says Bad & Tafel also has shops in other Dutch towns including ‘s-Hertogenbosh, where they carry wildly expensive Frette sheets at deeply discounted prices.
There are dozens of cafes and restaurants ranging from high-end to super-affordable. In the summer, all have
The Central Limburg Tourist Office has a great website with info on all the attractions in the region.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.