AMSTERDAM, Jan 15 — Some of the best holidays are spent not in the big capitals of the world but in smaller, lesser-known sleepy hollows not far from them. Going off the beaten track may mean fewer famous landmarks and obvious Instagram opportunities, but it also means you’ll see something that’s not replicated in a million postcards.
The ordinary can be quite extraordinary, if you keep an eye out for it.
So it is with this in mind that we set off on a weekend getaway from Amsterdam, heading 20 kilometres north to the Waterland region. The idyllic pair of Volendam and Marken — two small fishermen’s towns — is perfect for a day trip, so we start early from the Amsterdam Central Station. It takes only slightly more than half an hour to reach our first stop, the picturesque Volendam, by bus.
Along the way, we enjoy the natural beauty of the Dutch landscape, surreal in the early light diffused by morning mist. Trees, fields and herds of cows pass us by, and before we know it, we are here. Our itinerary is pretty much our own as Volendam is easily covered on foot. No hurry, no rush.
Volendam (which means “filled dam”) used to be the harbour of nearby Edam, before it was dammed up, hence the name. Most people here fish for a living though the small town also became an artists’ retreat in the early 20th century; Picasso and Renoir were the most renowned painters to have stayed here.
Perhaps this might explain the distinctive look of Volendam (sometimes called “the pearl of the Zuiderzee”), in particular its colourful houses. Certainly not something we’d associate with a typical drab fishermen’s village. We wander about the labyrinth of narrow streets, admiring the old buildings. For lovers of Dutch culture, one popular activity is to try on traditional costumes (klederdracht) in photo studios and to have your picture taken.
That’s a bit to kitschy for us but there’s plenty else to admire: the architecture and cobblestone streets, the canals and the drawbridges, the restaurants and cheese shops, and even music. Volendam is known for its own unique brand of music called palingsound, which means “eel sound” — a reference to the livelihood of the townspeople.
Speaking of eels, we start to feel peckish. Lest we forget (and how could we, with water all around us), Volendam is a fishermen’s town so seafood is always the dish of the day. Smoked eel, in particular, is a beloved Dutch speciality here and we enjoy it in a warm, soft bun as a light lunch. For something heavier, a sit-down meal would entail freshly cooked fish served with butter en eek, a butter and vinegar sauce.
We make our way to the bustling harbour, swarming with boats, yachts and amateur canoeists. Seagulls soar above us. Young boys check their lines to see if they’ve caught anything. (Many, surprisingly, are successful. It’s in their blood, we guess.)
The placid waters before us are intoxicating, like a fine wine — though, just like fine wine, better appreciated by enthusiasts; those who get seasick even with the calmest conditions may well turn away in horror. For others, this is exactly what they’re seeking when travelling to the waterland.
From the harbour, we hop on a ferry to visit the nearby village of Marken, which used to be a former island in the Zuiderzee and is now a peninsula. Marken is quiet and beautiful; there’s no other way to describe it. Thanks to a light drizzle, the streets appear deserted and blissfully free of people.
It’s a rare opportunity to savour the charm of this tiny village with no other soul in sight. The wooden houses here are characteristic of Marken’s conservation of traditional Dutch culture. (So much so that Marken used to be regarded as a relic by anthropologists, a haven undisturbed by modernisation in the Netherlands.)
We stroll and allow ourselves to get lost (as best we can; if Volendam is small, Marken is smaller still). Docked boats and yachts, gardens and canals, heavy clouds and mists: these all combine to create a silent, blurred beauty.
Soon it is time for us to retrace our steps back to the pier for our return ferry to Volendam, and then our bus to Amsterdam. We bid farewell to both magical places. There’s an Old World wonder, a palpable sense of romance, and we are blessed to have experienced it.
Take the Bus 312 or Bus 316 from the Amsterdam Central Station to Volendam. Trip takes about 35 minutes; a one-way ticket costs €4.39 (RM21) if you travel with the OV-chipcard. From Volendam to Marken, take the Volendam-Marken Express ferry, which costs €9.95 (RM47) return or €7.50 (RM35) one-way. For departure times, visit www.markenexpress.nl