ASSEN (The Netherlands), Dec 3 — It’s not quite sunrise and we find ourselves on a train out of Amsterdam. With no plan and barely an idea of what we should do. (Don’t panic, the hitchhiker’s maxim goes, all across the galaxy.)
One of the best ways to explore the lesser-known parts of a foreign country is to escape its capital, at least for a day. Free from the expectations of fulfilling a tourist’s itinerary (“Don’t miss the red light district. Or the Anne Frank Musuem. Oh, and...” well-meaning friends would advise), we can discover something new with innocent eyes and open hearts.
Our train enters the station of Assen, a small town in the north-eastern province of Drenthe. Everything is silent. Dawn is just breaking. As we leave the station and stroll along the streets, the quiet is unnerving at first, after the 24/7 cacophony of Amsterdam, but slowly we recognise this feeling as surprise, as pleasure.
We follow the small canals that ring the city, so green and full of life: trees, reeds, grass, mosses and algae. A couple of cyclists pass us. Day or night, this is the best way to move around in the Netherlands, as the country is unbelievably flat; indeed, we’ve learned that, here, the cyclists’ right of way precedes those of pedestrians and motorists.
The heart of Assen is perhaps the Marienkamp Abbey, a former convent built in the early 13th century (around the time the name Assen was first recorded). Today, the abbey has been transformed into part of the prestigious Drents Museum. The old building houses an extensive collection of archaeological artefacts and contemporary artworks, chronicling the area’s history from past to present. A place for us to linger and to take our time, like much of Assen itself.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, there is an outdoor market in the town centre. Now, nearly every Dutch town has its own weekly market but the Assen Weekmarkt has the distinction of winning the award for the “friendliest market” (gezelligste markt) in the Netherlands. We can certainly attest to the affable vendors, always ready with a smile.
Part of the fun is watching the stalls being set up by the vendors, entire structures in their variegated finery appearing where there was nothing but empty streets moments before. After all, how many outdoor markets have a “bakery” stall where breads and pastries are freshly baked before your eyes? On-site ovens churn out Dutch delights such as appeltaart (apple pies), sûkerbôle (sugar bread), banketstaaf (flaky pastry log with almond paste) and even spekkoek, an Indonesian-influenced layered spiced cake.
Assen is too small to host a botanical garden but the florist’s stall with the profusion of blooms more than make up for that deficiency. The butcher boys don’t simply offer raw cuts of meat; they offer ready meals in the form of grilled sausages, hot wings and hamburgers. An whole rotisserie chicken saves you the hassle of a heatwave in your own kitchen.
There are popcorn and gummy bears; there are oysters on the shell and the catch of the day. There is, because this is practically every Dutch person’s favourite snack (or at least those we’ve met), at least one stall selling Vlaamse frites — possibly the tastiest, crunchiest fries in the world — if not more.
We wander from stall to stall, mingling — it seems — with all the townspeople. It’s as though every house in Assen has emptied itself and flooded the market with people carrying baskets and recyclable bags. The chatter amongst the marketgoers is barely intelligible; folks in Assen have no reason to shout and holler. Until they do.
The races, the races! We’re off to the races!
Yes, Assen may be the epitome of small town life with a deeply satisfying slow pace — but the tempo can quicken unexpectedly. Every summer since it started in 1925, the roar of motorcycle engines engulf the town as the Dutch TT Circuit returns.
There are different races held here throughout the year, such as the British Superbikes in October and the Superbike World Championships in April, but for locals, nothing beats catching the original, Dutch TT Superbike races.
The superbikes chase each other on the tracks, faster and faster till they become a blur, slowing down only around the bends. The circuit winds this way and that, and the crowd is a wall of sound, cheering as their favourites pass, one more round closer to the finishing line.
The festive atmosphere extends beyond the circuit as there is a veritable carnival of vans and kiosks encircling the stadium. Kids flock to the candy stalls, leaving only when their fingers are full of the garish-coloured treats.
Young men and women in summer-friendly singlets and bikini tops pass out flyers to concerts, events and other performances: Come, come, don’t miss our show, tickets are selling fast!
If Assen prides itself on its laid-back nature, this is a very mutable nature, shifting without remorse as seasons turn. Folks here don’t ask whether the slow life or a faster existence is better; why not enjoy both, they reason instead, quite correctly.
When the races are over, it is time for the spectators — and us — to depart. Walking down from the stands in orderly files, we can hear snatches of conversations in a multitude of tongues: English, Dutch, French and German. Everyone is still energised by the adrenaline rush. The races, the races!
Most of us return to the town centre. Nothing beats slowing down again with a cuppa at one of Assen’s idyllic cafés. An espresso for those who can still manage the hit of caffeine; a soothing pot of chamomile tea for those who prefer turning in early.
As the sun sets, a few of the market stalls are still open past the official closing hours for which the late shoppers are thankful. Perhaps a last minute purchase of fresh cherries to snack on during the train ride back to Amsterdam (or elsewhere) would be nice.
A perfect cap to a lovely day out in Assen where the fast life and the slow life mingle so easily.
Brink 1, Assen, Netherlands
Tel: +31 592 377773
Open Tue-Sun 11am-5pm; Mon closed
Located around Noordersingel, Nieuwehuizen, Brinkstraat and on Saturdays, extends to De Brink
Open Wed 10am-5pm and Sat 9am-5pm
TT Circuit Assen
De Haar 9, TE Assen, The Netherlands
For list of upcoming events, visit www.ttcircuit.com/en/events/