On our last full day in Amsterdam, we decided to explore some of the watery hinterland behind the city, around the shores of the IJsselmeer, which used to be the Zuiderzee. We didn't know much about this really, though I remember doing a primary school project about the Netherlands and lots of things about dykes and polders and the Zuiderzee and such like; we did not, for instance know whether it was fresh, salt or brackish water. I did know though, that by going to the other side of Amsterdam Central station, there was a ticket office where, for €10 you could obtain a paper copy of this map,
and a ticket which would allow you unlimited access for a day to a network of bus routes which would take you into the Waterlands. (More information here).
They were smart red buses with comfortable seats and good visibility out, and moreover they were clearly functional transport used by locals which is always kind of fun in an inverted-snobbish, I'm-not-your-average-tourist kind of way. I think in fact you could really spend a week or two just pottering about on them and hopping off at the various Waterland towns and villages; the countryside between is, of course, flat and undramatic, but there's the odd windmill, lots of happy looking cows and sheep, and big skies. The outskirts of the villages themselves have a look of unremarkable, pleasant and prosperous suburbs (with an unusual number of watercourses running through them) but many of them have interesting old centres I think.
As we only had a shortish day, and Tom was feeling a bit rough with a cold and cough, we decided to head to Marken, once an island now joined to the mainland by an impressively long causeway.
It's a popular boaty place, with pretty lapboard former fishermen's cottages almost all a uniform dark green, and plenty of bars and ice cream stands and restaurants along the harbour.
We stopped in one of the latter and had lunch, we were quite bold: Tom had 'mustard soup' which was thick and potatoey but also quite strongly mustardy, with a good amount of smoked salmon in it, and I had smoked eel in a sandwich. I'd read about the excellence of smoked eel, that it's the best of all smoked fish, and it really was very good. We came to see a lot of it, there were stalls all over the place, and a dear little smokery selling it further on in Volendam, evidently it's something people like to sample and take back with them while visiting. The proliferation of eels did not help to inform us about the salinity of the water, since we knew eels will swim in both salt and fresh, and probably they're imported from Japan or somewhere for the tourist market anyway.
This was the view from the window anyway,
and this was the coffee we had afterwards, which I photographed because I love that shade of deep orange-yellow you often find in Dutch coffee cups:
It's not in fact a very nice colour applied to anything else, except maybe egg yolks, but it's great on coffee cups.
Then we caught the ferry across the water to Volendam. On the way we saw some more lovely boats. The white sailed ones have a kind of hinged bowsprit, and are reminiscent of Thames sailing barges or Norfolk wherries. I very much enjoy spotting connections and similarities between the east of England and the Low Countries, which reinforce what I romantically think of as an atavistic sense of coming home in both places.*
Volendam was very crowded, full of tourists, which we couldn't deny we were too. So I decided the best thing was to give in gracefully and eat some poffertjes from a stand by the harbour. I had to wait for a fresh batch, and enjoyed watching them being made,
It's very hot and they do it very fast. They were delicious too.
So, smoked eel and poffertjes I was able to sample. I had intended to try to eat a raw herring, but the moment never seemed to be right.
Although it was crowded, we were quite easily able to escape the immediate crowds by walking out along the harbour jetty, past the fish smokery, where we saw someone else enjoying the local fish:
I took quite a number of photos of this; I tend to have a compulsion that if I am unusually close to pretty much any wildlife so as to be able to capture it in photos, I must do so. I then got rid of many of them, because they are really rather horrible, though also perhaps, depending on one's personal feeling, somewhat horribly fascinating. It was particularly unsettling for us because earlier in the year we lost a couple of our garden goldfish to the local herons and the two that remain have become fearful and timid to the point of invisibility. Yes I know, they're only fish, and I eat fish. I also eat chicken but that didn't stop me being fond of our hens, and the goldfish seemed to trust us to some extent, in their limited fishy way, and now they don't. Also the mechanism of the heron's beak and the reptilian coldness of its eye are weird, grotesque and disturbing. Don't get me wrong I still admire herons, they are magnificent, prehistoric, marvellous creatures, but I don't believe, because one needs to be accepting and unsentimental about the realities of wildlife and nature, that one should deny, make light of or inure oneself to the terror, horror or general awfulness (awe-fullness) of it either, that's not doing it justice. There are more and closer pictures of this on the web album if you want to see them anyway.
In fact I didn't get the impression the fish was much alive, it wasn't struggling and the heron caught it very close to the water's edge, where I don't think it would have been if it had been OK. Though the bird was clearly not afraid of humans, and though we found it quite scary, it seemed rather unsettled by our presence too, and not quite sure what to do with such a large catch, so we left it to it.
The fish, with its red fins, looked to me to be a freshwater one. The wiki articles I've linked to above confirm that now the IJselmeer is indeed fresh water, though when it was the Zuiderzee it wasn't, being as it was a large shallow bay of the North Sea. It was capped and its name and status changed in 1932, and the rivers that fed it, including the Rhine, gradually changed it from salt to freshwater. Amazing water engineers, the Dutch, for hundreds of years, and the ones we know are all very proud of it. (Also that you have to capitalise both the I and the J at the beginning of the name, since they count as one letter in Dutch, 'a digraph, possibly a ligature').
As with much of the trip, I didn't take that many photos, Tom took more and I may yet pinch some of them. I did just get him to send me this one that he snapped in Volendam, which was one of my favourite images of the trip, and may help to take away the taste of heron-caught fish!
Tom's posted more about our Holland and Belgium trip here, here, here, here and here, with many lovely photos and foody details especially.
* My ancestors on one side did in fact originate from East Anglia and, it is said, before that from the Low Countries (maybe Dutch Jews at one point) but probably so did a lot of people's ; I'm rather sceptical about the current vogue for ancestors. A lot of people have a sense of feeling at home in Amsterdam in particular, mostly because it's such a friendly, civilised, congenial place to be, who wouldn't?