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)!

Schokland: old stories on new land


De Misthoorn: retired foghorn and listed building

Atop the mound, the Misthoorn blushes in a soft orange. The rising sun casts the stones of the tiny square building in a peachy light and inside the shadows of the window panes are reflected on the bare stone floor. A long line of white-tipped bollards leads to … indeed, to what or where?

In times past, the Misthoorn contained a compressor that loudly released air through a horn on the roof. To alarm ships of the nearby coast.

In times past, islanders danced on the narrow wooden planks between the bollards.

But times past are gone, and besides some visitor information boards, the Misthoorn is now a vacant space. Is there still dancing? Maybe once a year, when the descendants have their gathering in one of the villages to which the former islanders were evacuated.

Sunrise in the former harbour of Oud-Emmeloord

Harbour piers embrace a small body of water, and two lampposts stand guard. The sun cracks through the silver lining of the clouds and evaporates the low mist above the polder landscape. Slowly, a large shed made of vibrated concrete comes into sight.

In times past, the Zuiderzee’s waves bashed the island. Harbour lights piloted ships into the Oud-Emmeloord harbour: “Come on in. This is a safe place.”

But times past are gone and the sea has been impoldered. New land was won; tractors replaced ships. A flooded pit, new bollards and icebreakers give visitors an impression of what this place must have looked like in times past.

The lighthouse, once a safe haven for skippers on the Zuiderzee

The lighthouse now stands high on iron legs on a patch of grass. Its head in the clouds, but its beacon eyes have died out.  

In times past, when a storm was raging, many times a night, the lighthouse keeper would go up to put oil on the open fire that lit the harbour light to keep it burning, to prevent ships from crashing on the coast.

But times past are gone. The island became land and the mighty symbol of the Zuiderzee history was dismantled. But now a new one has arisen and the island history is once again in plain sight.

Middelbuurt, with the Dutch Reformed church and reconstructed Schokland cottages.

Take a closer look and you’ll see that nothing is as it seems. There is no sea, but a pool in a flooded field, reflecting the wooden Schokland cottages.

In times past, 650 people inhabited the island. Roman Catholics and Protestants, strictly segregated. Living on the island, fishermen, skippers and farmers all tried to keep their heads above water.

But times past are gone. King Willem III had the last islanders evacuated from the island. And Schokland became the first Unesco World Heritage Site in the Netherlands.