Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/9 posted by hidden europe on

The North Sea littoral of the Netherlands is another fine part of Europe for big skies. Just think of van Ruisdael's pictures of his native Haarlem; all those cumulus clouds that seem to go on for ever. One gets a hint of the skyscapes of those old Dutch masters on the journey out to Middelburg, a handsome small town in watery Zeeland, a place where the North Sea pounds against dykes, from time to time still floods meadows and gives a maritime air to many communities.

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Dear fellow travellers

Have you noticed how the sky changes size? Somehow the heavens seem more expansive in the Baltic region than ever they do in southern England. The North Sea littoral of the Netherlands is another fine part of Europe for big skies. Just think of van Ruisdael's pictures of his native Haarlem; all those cumulus clouds that seem to go on for ever. One gets a hint of the skyscapes of those old Dutch masters on the journey out to Middelburg, a handsome small town in watery Zeeland, a place where the North Sea pounds against dykes, from time to time still floods meadows and gives a maritime air to many communities. Middelburg, Goes and a dozen other Zeeland towns made a good living through overseas trade, and, in their heyday, the smell of the sea defined Zeeland's urban settlements. Trade, the cultivation of madder (for a whole spectrum of reddish dyes), and the production of oysters - often brought over from Colchester in eastern England for fattening in the Zeeland canals - made for a robust economy in a part of the Netherlands that was very distant from the main Dutch cities. Malaria lingered in these marshy regions long after it was eradicated from areas well away from the sea. Wasn't it here in Zeeland that Albrecht Dürer contracted the disease? In the nineteenth century, George Bradshaw's Illustrated Handbook for Travellers offered a note of caution on the unhealthy climate of the Middelburg region. Bradshaw did not encourage English visitors, disembarking from the ferry at Vlissingen (Flushing), to linger in this swampy outpost.

Fifty years ago, this was an area of Europe still ever at risk to marine encroachment. Flooding has often taken a terrible toll in Zeeland. Nowadays more secure, thanks to the dykes, storm barriers and sluices of the Delta Project, communities like Middelburg exude that small town gezelligheid that is so distinctive a feature of Holland. With its extravagant Gothic town hall, generous market place, old abbey church and narrow streets, one might expect Middelburg to attract many visitors. But the town remains strangely unknown outside the Netherlands. Long gone are the days when regular ferries crossed the North Sea from England to land at Vlissingen. Today, visitors to Middelburg come by car or train. The ninety minute journey from Rotterdam to Middelburg is a journey into history, and Middelburg can count itself blessed: one of the finest small towns in all Europe.

hygge and gezelligheid

Was that word gezelligheid, which we used above, a new one on you? What about hygge? These are fabulous words, Dutch and Danish respectively, which admit of no easy translation into English. The English word 'cosiness' just doesn't have the same rich connotations as gezelligheid and hygge, that sort of enveloping quiet comfort that comes with history, a sense of contentment, good food and wine, the company of friends and a fire smouldering in the grate.

Words like hygge are little linguistic gems, syllables that offer insight into the soul of a nation. Take that peculiarly Portuguese version of homesickness, saudade. Or its German antonym, Fernweh, a longing for a distant place. One we especially like is the Welsh hiraeth, a sort of lure of the homeland, a return to roots, that seems to afflict those with Welsh ancestry even generations after their forbears left Wales. Wonderful words! Would that there were more of them!

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.