When I pitch out into the Dutch countryside, I often take along my copy of 52 Mooie Dorpen, a guide to scenic villages throughout the Netherlands. Yesterday, I visited Spakenburg and Baarn, two listed towns near the Emmeer waterway north of Amersfoort. However, the visit was disappointing: both are modern towns, filled with the low brick shops and two-tiered apartment complexes typical of many Dutch communities. Pleasant, but not exceptional.
Spakenburg was a major Dutch seaport before the Flevoland polder was created, and the town retains an old harbor with many traditional ships. The boat museum, or an hour's outing on the local ferry, are good destinations to enjoy on day outings, but the town seems otherwise undistinguished.
Baarn highlight's it's "natural and architectural beauty, good facilities, nice shops and excellent connections by car and train to nearby cities". My guidebook recommended finding the Hotel Promenade for high tea and gourmet meals and, indeed, the setting and the food were exceptional. But the town was, again, otherwise unexceptional.
Coming after a day of delightful discovery of Nieuwersluis and Sypesteyn, it got me thinking about my aesthetic in hunting down beautiful Dutch villages. Desirable qualities are, of course, subjective, but the villages that I most enjoy include:
- Tradition: A winding central core with close streets, historic architecture, intriguing local cafes, brick walkways, punctuated by public spaces beneath churches or city halls.
- Scale: Human and walkable: limited scope and low heights, with walls decorated in historic relief, and streets, cafe's, and window contents that reflect the local residents.
- Water: Rivers or canals that capture light and mood; bridges and parks for watching the flow of boat traffic.
- Color: Green shutters against red brick, blue sky over yellow bridges, whimsical bits of art or plantings in parks and roundabouts.
- Tranquility: Cars are kept at arm's length; the town welcomes people taking time to walk, to sit, to laugh in conversation.
- Balance: The village itself has variety, shopping and residential areas (neighborhoods), and the town blends into the surrounding countryside.
People were delightful everywhere, though. A couple taking the ferry out for an afternoon of bike riding gave me quick insight to the local waterways and the sights in Amersfoort. A group of students experimented with unique bicycle combinations. A waiter took time to find me a bit of shade for enjoying dinner. A family celebrated their daughter's return to school.
The human scale and texture of Dutch life continues to be a delight, set amidst the background of their mooie dorpen.