Zwolle’s history as an important Hanseatic League port town intrigued us, situated as it is inland in North East Holland.
Today the bustling university town has claimed the historic centre of churches, merchants’ homes and warehouses for shopping centres, leisure complexes, restaurants and modern art galleries. You can still walk the path of the original defensive walls built in a star shape and surrounded by water, but very little of the Medieval skyline of squat towers and decorative spires remains.
We found the oldest remaining corner at Broerenkerk, a quiet monastic corner and now an upmarket restaurant across the water from a row of step-gabled and pretty houses, and an old 17th century pub.
The town’s museum had an evocative collection of drawings of old Zwolle showing it to be a busy river port with traders and hawkers entering with their wares through the massive brick gateways into the maze of cobbled and winding streets, named after the various trades and crafts carried out along them.
Three huge brick-built churches still stand and all feature light and airy naves with tall stone columns supporting high ceilings painted with lime, and decorated with elegant and elaborate motifs of flowers, trailing ivy and heraldic signs. One is now a lively and light-filled bookstore.
A busy network of cycle lanes criss-crosses the town and surrounding river and canals. It was a hair-raising ride on our bikes amid packs of charging students and school children, workers, shoppers and day-trippers. The summer holidays had begun, and everyone was out and seemingly on two wheels.
Narrow cycle lanes along canal tow paths presented endless games of ‘chicken’ as we vied for space with those coming at speed towards us.
It was a relief to return to Bertha, pitched up at a pretty marina in the evening sunshine, and watch the comings and goings of small sail boats and dinghies.
Wanting to see the North Sea we visited Emden, an old fishing port at the mouth of the river Em and the gateway to a huge and sprawling commercial port that also acts as a tourist base for visits to the East Frisian Islands.
This chain of small, wind-swept and mostly uninhabited islands forms a protective belt between the coast and the vast Nordsee and welcomes thousands of visitors every summer to wander and watch wildlife along the shores.
We cycled out through the port, and alongside the islands, on the mainland.
The early morning was cool and breezy, and quiet. It was hard to imagine the noise and hubbub of the port on a work day, when all we heard were the cries of wheeling gulls and the whirring of sea-facing wind turbines above us. Sandpipers rooted about in the mudflats for cockles and gaggles of Canada Geese cygnets were herded by anxious adults into the shallow waves to practice swimming. It was peaceful.
Back in Emden cafes were opening to serve breakfasts of hot fish with fresh bread. A sadly ugly centre of block-built and glass fronted buildings squats along the historic fishing port, that once made a fortune from herring in the early years of steam ships and the canned fish trade.
The town’s burghers spent the money on an elaborate Rathaus and massive river-front hotels to service the growing tourism boom as people ventured to see the Nordsee, the islands and the vast coastline.
Unbelievably this unassuming and once picturesque town was annihilated during World War Two.
Emden was not a strategic target. After the bombing of Coventry Cathedral, the allies wrought vengeance on places held dear in Germany’s popular conscience. Dresden is the most notorious example, but there are others and Emden is one. 80% of its buildings, and population, was wiped out on 6 September 1944. It took eighteen years for the town to rebuild, and not in its former historic image. It re-opened officially on 6 September 1962.
We discovered this later, having spent an amusing afternoon seeking out a public bar in which to watch the England football game. We tried two different places, both devoid of Germans, which we put down to their abysmal exit from the World Cup.
A handful of English people cheered the two goals against Sweden but on reflection, perhaps it was a little naïve to think that the English would be particularly celebrated in the town.