You might ask yourself when planning a visit to the Netherlands: where to go? Amsterdam is great, but very busy. Care to visit some beautiful medieval Dutch towns in other parts of the country? Traveling from Amsterdam you will arrive at places like Deventer, Zwolle and Kampen within the hour. Enjoy the laid-back atmosphere, the natural surroundings and the beautiful historic monuments. In this post I’m discovering Kampen, Elburg and Hattem for you, where especially Elburg made an impact.
I am going to take you to the eastern part of the Netherlands to visit some of these old (medieval) cities, the so-called Hansa Towns. Holland in total has 19 Hansa towns of which 9 in this eastern part of the country. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised…
All good things come in threes and the same goes for my Hansa towns travel advice. Situated in a perfect triangle, only 20kms apart, you can find three Hansa town gems: Kampen, Hattem and Elburg. First we’ll be talking about Kampen with its unparalleled stories, its Kogge (special cargo boats) shipyard, and a very well preserved historic center. The other two, Hattem and Elburg, are much smaller but still offer the same unexpected awesomeness. There is so much more to discover in the Netherlands than only Amsterdam! So hop on that train and within the hour you will find yourself surrounded by unique architecture and Dutch trade history!
What are Hansa Towns?
Little bit of Hansa town history. Originating back to the Middle Ages (we’re talking 13th century), the Hansa was a league of cities where merchants cooperated and formed a powerful economic force. This Hanseatic League (let’s call it the Champions League of trading cities) actually became a defensive alliance of towns, supporting one another to not only buy and sell at a large scale but also to defend against pirates!
The Hanseatic League stretched from the Baltics to the North Sea, trading rye, malt, stockfish, fur, textiles and more. The Dutch have always been internationally orientated and the Dutch Hansa towns of Deventer and Kampen became Holland’s main cities in this powerful League. Dominating trade in Northern Europe for 3 centuries, the Hanseatic League grew to become a group of around 150 cities. 19 of these cities were Dutch.
The river IJssel connected many of the Dutch Hansa towns and in these days the river around Kampen was full of wooden trading vessels, so-called cogs (Kogge) – see picture below. These spacious ships were used for both carrying cargo and for war (defensive) purposes.
At that time the North Sea discharged into the river IJssel at the city of Kampen. The cogs were strong enough to sail out to sea, but too big to sail the river. That’s why Kampen became kind of the cog hub of the Hanseatic League. Quite an important place I can tell you!
The story of Kampen – revival of the storytellers
The 9 Hansa towns in the eastern part of the Netherlands are very well-preserved and have become popular tourist attractions: great gothic architecture, lovely atmosphere and an overall sense of historic importance. You don’t want to miss out on visiting at least one of them!
The first Hansa town on our list of three is Kampen. Kampen has some special stories to tell you, as we experienced ourselves while visiting the city recently. Kampen is a beautiful place with a spectacular waterfront. The bridge with its golden wheels is the main entrance into the city when you arrive by train. Feel free to walk around and discover the city by yourself, but special guided tours (like the ones by Kampen and Beyond) will show you places that you would not have found yourself. Seriously consider it.
When walking the streets of Kampen you can sense the grandeur of the past. In those times the city was one of the most powerful Hansa towns. Mind you that before the rise of Amsterdam, Kampen ruled the waves! From here merchants traded and ships (cogs) sailed out into the deep back lands of medieval Europe…
Kampens nautical heritage can be found in the Kogge Shipyard (Buitenhaven) where an exact replica of a medieval cog ship from 1340 can be visited (unfortunately it was not available due to renovation work when we visited). The cogs made Kampen extremely rich. In those days over 100 cog ships could easily be found on the waterfront at any given time!
In 2012 a cog ship was discovered in the river Ijssel near Kampen after having rested on the riverbed for more than 500 years! BBC, CNN and National Geographic were among the media channels who covered the event. This is the history that keeps the Hansa stories alive!
Talking about stories. The people below were all part of our guided tour and I have not earlier seen people talk so enthusiastically about their city. Ina Hup (top left) told us about her goosebumps when the cog replica sailed into the harbor for the very first time. She most certainly descents from a cog sailor!
The intensity of their stories and the love for their city makes these people unique. Revival of the storytellers I can tell you.
The historic center of Kampen offers 500 medieval monuments, including houses, gates and towers. Wherever you look you will be treated by lovely views and vistas. What about these lovely arches covering some of the Kampen alleys (picture below)? Houses were built on not so firm ground and these arches actually prevented the houses from collapsing. Interesting fact…
Impressed by Kampen already? You can (also) enjoy shopping (Kampen owns the longest shopping street in the Netherlands), watch ships pass by, have a local beer or just hang around and be marveled by history. But don’t forget to visit these two special places:
Kampen – The story of blacksmith Sven de Lang
This is an amazing story. This blacksmith workshop dates back to 1540. In those years the building housed the first blacksmith of Kampen. The building was almost demolished but luckily renovation started in 2000. The original blacksmith interior was completely restored; an unique place in Kampen! In 2006 Sven de Lang started his work as the local blacksmith, being the latest one in a long line of Kampen blacksmiths.
Kampen – Olifant: the story of the Dutch cigar factory
I am not kidding you: Kampen used to have over 20 cigar factories where 50% of Kampen residents worked in the tobacco industry. I for sure didn’t know that the Dutch were such fanatic cigar producers!
Can you imagine the trade activity where cog ships sailed up and down to deliver tobacco to the factories? Nowadays the tobacco is sourced in Brazil, Cuba and Java. You can visit the factory (with 10,000 visitors per year a popular activity) and even watch people at work. They call them the ‘cheerful singing employees’ because they are so in love with “their” factory… A true story about local heritage.
Kampen – how to get there?
Want to visit Kampen? Take the train from Amsterdam to the city of Zwolle (another great Hansa town by the way, check this mouthwatering story). In Zwolle you hop on the train to Kampen (10 minute ride). In order to visit Elburg and Hattem (described in upcoming part 2) I advise you to rent a car (or ask Kampen and Beyond to guide you).
When returning to Amsterdam, take a different train via Deventer. My hometown and, no surprise, another lovely Hansa town. Check out my favorite spots in Deventer and tell me if you’re still not convinced to pay the Hansa area (Hansa towns Netherlands) a visit!
Kampen: where to stay and eat?
In Kampen we can highly recommend the Boetiekhotel Kampen. A beautifully renovated historic building with 11 luxury rooms. Ineke and Jan opened their hotel early 2016 and you will be treated extremely well. The views on the river IJssel are lovely, so don’t hesitate to book a room.
For dinner go to De Stomme van Campen. You have to walk through the pub to enter the beautifully designed restaurant. Ask the waiter to explain the story of Hendrick Avercamp, the Stomme of Campen. Hendrick was born deaf (something his parents only discovered when he was already two years old). He turned to painting and became one of the city’s most famous painters. Check the restrooms in the restaurants; you’ll be surrounded by Avercamp’s work.. In Kampen stories can be found everywhere, believe me.
The story of Elburg
I am walking along the streets of Elburg. Elburg is a small, 14th century medieval Hanseatic Town in the east part of the Netherlands. What strikes me immediately are the completely straight roads and alleys, all intersecting at right angles. I recognize a miniature version of Manhattan, New York. Streets and avenues symmetrical, straightly outlined. Call me stupid, but could the founders of the iconic Manhattan grid plan have been inspired by their ancestors in Elburg?
Fact is that every street in Elburg is completely straight. It’s a mathematical square, a unique rectangular pattern. Only the Ellestreet (Ellestraat) is slightly bended. No one really knows where the grid idea came from (it’s not common in the Netherlands). Most probably it was based on how ancient Roman marching camps were set up. Or maybe the grid has to do with how people defended their city against enemies?
Let’s find out and continue our walk through Elburg, one of those typical Dutch hidden gems.
Walking the grid of Elburg I do feel protected. The grid covers a modest 350 by 270 meters (1150 by 885 feet) where cobblestone streets and alleys invite for a serendipitous discovery: just walk and see where you end up. Don’t worry, you will not get lost. Everywhere you go you will at the end bump into the ancient stone wall (rampart) surrounding the city.
Elburg – a bit of history
At that time Elburg was one of the prosperous towns of the Hanseatic League: an alliance of towns connected through the need for trade. Trade meant money, money meant prosperity, prosperity meant enemies. And just like trade was needed to escape poverty, the wall was desperately needed to protect residents from attacks by people who wanted to have what Elburg had.
Walking passed the ancient city wall I put my hand on the stones. I feel the thick layers of protection and try to imagine the time when men piled these stones. I look around and imagine how this wall had actually prevented aggressors from entering the city. My guide explains that in early days it was not allowed to build houses within 6 meters of the wall. Why? Well, many times attackers threw burning carcasses over the wall, hoping that it would set fire to nearby houses. Welcome to the Middle Ages….
When years passed by, times did change and that kind of danger disappeared (luckily, poor animals). The wall was not needed for defense anymore.People started building houses against the wall. You have to realize that when using the city wall as the back wall of their houses, it saved people lots of money! Not much space was available, so although these houses were very small they were still housing complete families. And as you can see they are still occupied today. Aren’t they cute?
Some Elburg residents in those days picked one of the city wall bastions (towers) for their back wall. These circular bastions at least provided additional meters of living space! Smart thinking…
Elburg and its protection against enemies
Probably lots of fighting has been going on from on top of the city wall. In order to improve on their defense, the Elburg governor decided to build another protective earthen wall right behind the stone one. And around that earthen wall even two moats (canals)…. Hard to get into Elburg those days if you were not invited!
Walking the earthen wall, passing the defensive moat (canal) I have an amazing view of the big St. Nicolas church. But looking the other way there is nothing. Only emptiness. It feels like the city of Elburg stands in graceful solitude in this rural part of the Netherlands. Well, there is a good explanation for that too. It’s all about defensive tactics: the strategy of conscious emptiness. From on top of the city wall the watchmen would have a clean and open field of fire. No obstacles, clear view on the enemy approaching.
No wonder Elburg was known as a powerful stronghold. Many parts of the city wall are still visible, while unfortunately only one of the four original city gates remained standing. The Vischpoort (Fish Gate) dates back to 1592 and is the one that still offers an historic entrance into the city. The other gates were demolished because people needed the debris to strengthen the defensive walls and moats. Really…
Elburg – the harbor
Walking through the Vischpoort I am entering a different part of Elburg: the harbor. It’s not a big one, but the original Dutch boats (“botters”) are lovely. A great place to hang out. You can rent a boat if you care for a trip out onto the lake.
Walking this largely unchanged medieval town I am meeting traditional rope makers, blacksmiths, and fishermen. They are happy to chat about their job! The Elburg museum is housed in another marvelous building (former monastery). Even if you don’t fancy the collection on display, make sure to pay a visit because the interior and the backyard garden are lovely.
Walking the streets of Elburg you feel part of smaller world. A protected and fenced world, taking good care of its residents and protecting them from the big, evil world outside. Even today the residents take care of their own micro cosmos, just look at this miniature library. Probably the smallest one in the country. The green book on top carries the title: “Little people in the big world.” How appropriate.
Hattem – the story of a picturesque village
Hattem makes a great stop on the way back from Elburg to Zwolle, where Zwolle actually is the perfect place to spend the night and enjoy lively bars and restaurants. Perfect base to discover multiple Hansa Towns in the region!
Hattem is small and the fact is that its ancient look and feel has actually been maintained by poverty! Centuries ago no money was available for rebuild and restauration, so no demolishment of old buildings in favor of new ones. We thank our ancestors on our knees for keeping the picturesque town view intact.
If you visit Amsterdam and have one or two days to spare, hop on a train to enjoy the Hansa Towns. You will not be disappointed.
We were invited by Hanzesteden, NBTC Holland Marketing and Marketing Oost to visit these lovely cities. All our opinions are of course our own. Meantime don’t forget to also read about Deventer and Zwolle on this blog.