A broader horizon; islands close to home: Willemstad.

Willemstad from the rampart

The islands we carefully picked to visit in 2020 are out of reach. They require border and water crossings and long-distance travel. So we have been looking for islands closer to home, reachable by car, bicycle, foot. What more is an island but a piece of land surrounded by water? This question kept popping into our heads when we were aching for an island view, some new surroundings, a sense of space and freedom. Apparently to us the sense of an island goes together with broadening your horizon. 

We live in the Netherlands, so islands reachable to us are located in the Netherlands, a country known for its water. But what about its islands? Some are famous and very beautiful (the Wadden), some lack that inexplicable but irresistible island feel. Islands usually have interesting histories, even if they are not obviously ‘beautiful’ or wild or breathtaking. Is an island ever just ordinary? Time to explore!

Travelling apart together. Our first island destination of 2020: Willemstad, located in the western corner of our home province of Noord-Brabant. We took the car, and because we are not part of each other’s household, we had to keep our distance. Margo was behind the wheel and I sat in the back, being chauffeured to Willemstad, a small, star-shaped town, surrounded by water, steeped in history. 

We walk around the handful of quiet cobbled streets. The three main streets, Voorstraat, Groenstraat and Achterstraat, all come to an end at the small harbour, and the smell of water prevails. Not the salty seawater, but a crusty smell of the peeling metal paint of boats. The smell comes from Stadshaven with its many boats, mostly pleasure yachts. A bit further, in Hollands Diep, cargo ships pass to and from Rotterdam Harbour.

Willemstad is named after William of Orange and was ‘designed’ by his son Maurits, who granted the small town a charter. Many of the buildings reflect the history of this strategic town. An old City Hall (with a clock from the 12th century) in Renaissance style; an Armoury built by the Orange family to store weapons and ammunition; the Domed Church from the early 17th century; the prince’s residence Maurtitshuis; and an 18th century Corn Mill, its sails restored to their former glory. So much jostling history on a tiny surface area. Due to its strategic position Willemstad has been attacked, besieged and occupied countless times, the last time by the Germans in 1944, when the population was evacuated to safer regions in the province.

We walk around the almost intact city walls (we think away the modern cars) and feel transported to times past. We look out across the water on all sides and towards the forts in the southern vicinity. We remember the Sea Beggars (refugees who had left the Netherlands during the revolt against Spain in the Eighty Years’ War and who lived as pirates) and we feel happy to be free (and to be out and about)!

Isola Tiberina; a ship built of stories

Sometimes an island pops up in an unexpected spot.

In the hectic city centre of Rome, the Tiber splits in two to create space for an island: Isola Tiberina. Just as in the rest of the Eternal City, this islet is steeped in legendary anecdotes. It abounds in spectacle and horrors that dull its true history.

Isola Tiberina is moored like a ship in a bend of the river, the concrete stem riveted to one of Ponte Garibaldi’s piles.

Myths speak of Tarquinus Superbus as the central figure of the island’s genesis. Farmers threw their corn harvests in the River Tiber, furious at the iniquitous policy of their ruler. However, the stream of the river did not carry away the corn, but held it in one place and thereby formed Isola Tiberina. A more bloodthirsty version describes that not corn was thrown in the river, but the body of Tarquinius. Sludge and plants stuck to the corpse, which grew into an island.

The truth is not as sinister. Like all of Rome, the island consists of volcanic rock.

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Transit Island

People in transit wrote a large part of the history of this urban island. Refugees, immigrants, newcomers, departees, fortune seekers, expatriates, pipe-dreamers, visionaries, castaways, outcasts, illegals, emigrants, wayfarers, wanderers and exiles, they all left a story behind.

Migrants from all over Europe travelled to Antwerp between 1873 and 1934 for the crossing on one of the Red Star Line ships, that docked in the Rijnkaai. Because the shipping company had to pay the return voyage for emigrants rejected on Ellis Island, the immigration law was strictly controlled (“no idiots, cripples, infectious sick persons, criminals and pregnant women”). In what is now the Red Star Line museum, the medical checks were carried out. Off to the promised land or otherwise stay behind in the the dregs of society.

‘t Eilandje used to be called Nieuwstad (‘new city’). It’s located between the Scheldt, Kattendijk and three large docks. If all bridges and locks are open, it is still an island.

The island spells its own poetry. I do not mean the ‘Kaaiengedicht’, a poem written by Antwerp dwellers about the river Scheldt that runs along the quays like a typewriter ribbon. This new poem writes itself. While walking, you travel through unfinished urbanity. Temporariness on the move. As a current visitor you are not a tourist, but a discoverer of painted images, of buildings and destinations under construction. They come your way unprepared, you can’t know them from any travel guide, and this rough version will only remain for a while. You connect the many street artworks. Today’s Antwerp island is at odds with the one of the past.

 

The island itself has also been in transit during the centuries. The district began its existence in the 16th century as an ingenious, impoldered part of the harbour within the city walls. It grew into a flourishing port until the beginning of the 20th century, moved from the 1960s towards abandonment and decline, and blossomed into new prosperity in the 21st century.