When the Sea Goes Away, Marken and Volendam, Netherlands.

“God made the earth, the Dutch made Holland.” But they didn’t need an environmental impact statement.  During my day long layover in Amsterdam my friend Dave Lam drove up from Brussels and we went to visit two old (you could say former) Dutch fishing villages, Marken and Volendam.  Eighty years ago both towns sat on salt water, the Zuiderzee, a 60 mile long inlet from the North Sea.  Then they sat on the Ijsselmeer, the freshwater lake formed when a large dyke closed off the Zuiderzee from the North Sea. Now they sit on the Markermeer, another freshwater lake once removed from the Ijsselmeer by new dykes built in the 1970s.

Marken used to be on an island, until it was connected to the mainland by a dyke.  There is a long unfinished dyke stretching from the other end of the island toward Volendam that was never connected.  Both dykes were to enclose an area to be made dry land but the Dutch changed their minds in the ‘80s.  Whether it was environmental concerns, cost or the realization that with a lower birth rate Holland didn’t need any more land is the object of conflicting articles. But there is no doubt that both Marken and Volendam were changed utterly by the series of dams, dykes and canals.

The most important change is that the towns were cut off from the sea that provided their livelihood. Now instead of herring and other salt water fish, the towns’ catch is river eels.  Some of the old sailing wooden herring seiners have been reconstructed into excursion boats.  Both towns are now tourist towns but very different from each other.

Volendam is a “boardwalk” town, with a cobblestone “boardwalk” along the dyke that used to protect the town from the ravages of North Sea storms and surges that no longer reach its harbor.  It is still disconcerting to see houses on one side of the dyke below the level of the water on the other side of the dyke although not as disconcerting as if the North Sea were really at Volendam’s doorstep.  While the “boardwalk” in Volendam is very Dutch in appearance, it is also very boardwalk, especially in its smells, french-fries, warm sugar from candy makers, frying meats and suntan oil. The Dutch buildings contain familiar looking stores selling t shirts, postcards and all manner of plastic stuff.  The boardwalk in Wildwood N.J. does not sell faux wooden shoes but I would recognize most of the other stuff from any other boardwalk from Sharam el Sheikh in Egypt to Seaside Heights, New Jersey.  The beach is still there, but instead of salt water and waves there is fresh water and calm.  I guess the water in the lake is a lot warmer than in the North Sea.  I love towns like this, even though they are tacky, because people are having a good time, but I have to admit paying 75 Euro Cents (94 American cents) to pee is a bit stiff.

Marken is also a tourist town, but more New England than New Jersey.  If you don’t live here you must park outside town and walk through the streets and along the canals.  You can, as we did, take a boat on the 20 minute ride across what was planned to be farm fields but is still water, to Volendam.  The ride gives you a good lesson in the Dutch use of wind power.  Old windmills that pumped water out of farmland before electric or steam pumps, sit next to new windmills generating electricity while sailing boats cruise by both.  All harness a source of energy the Dutch have used for centuries.  In Marken the wooden houses have a New England feel, perhaps with a touch of Norway.   The houses sit along the dunes and dykes along with a lighthouse that is probably not much needed anymore.  Before the retreat of the sea many houses were on stilts in case of flood.  Now those home owners have bricked in the area under the original house to make a new ground floor.  Some houses actually have Dutch doors.  When Marken was an island it had a unique culture with its own costumes and an inbred population that was studied by anthropologists and geneticists. Now that it’s hooked to the mainland that has changed.  It has even lost its independent municipal status.  But the town is charming, old wooden houses, some deep green, have stark white window trim.  The harbor has its breakwater, and little cafes sit along the dyke that frames the harbor.  There is a church full of model boats, small town square and canals running through the town crossed by drawbridges named for Dutch royalty.   Swans and signets swim in the canals, which flow below the level of the Markermeer. It’s an enjoyable town to wander, although disconcerting to look up and see sailboats gliding by several feet above you.   The neighborhoods look lived in but there are a large number of Te Koop (for sale) signs in front of many of the homes.

We had a beautiful day, temperatures in the mid 70s, bright blue skies and pastel blossoms.  Both towns feature the Sitka Rose, a plant developed in my home town from the stem of the wild rose but with some genetic elements of the cultivated rose, especially the rose smell, which, in Volendam, makes itself evident when you get away from the smell of French fries.  I would guess that before the Zuiderzee was removed from the map the conditions, cool, damp and salt, were very similar to those for which the Sitka Rose was bred.

Mid afternoon we decided to drive to the North Sea itself for dinner.  As we approached the open sea we drove into a thickening fog.  The temperature dropped from 75 degrees to just under 60 during a very short drive.  On the North Sea beaches no one was swimming, but the sea air was refreshing and I enjoyed the cold breeze on my face.   Although I love living by the sea I like looking down on it rather than up to it.   A house below sea level just meters from the sea would take some getting used to.  I am more comfortable with my home in Sitka overlooking the sea from 100 feet up.

The satellite photos are particularly good for this post.  Go to the map on top and zoom in on each town.

Tomorrow we’ll travel to the Balkans to look at, what may be, the perfect Balkan town.

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