Whale Hunting

If you are looking for a more quiet alternative to Volendam or Marken, here’s an option you should consider: De Rijp, situated only 20 km further, is one of the prettiest towns in North Holland, and has a surprisingly rich history too. With colored wooden houses typical to its area and beautiful small gardens, it is as attractive as its more touristic neighbors.

This small town, which never had more than 5000 inhabitants, used to be one of the main Dutch centers for whale hunting. In the 17th century, local vessels traveled regularly to Spitsbergen and Greenland, and De Rijp went through an unparalleled period of prosperity. It may seem strange since the town is situated somewhat inland, but at that time the region’s landscape was completely different: a network of large canals and lakes provided an easy access to the open sea.

The activity was very dangerous. Besides extreme weather conditions, the hunters had to cope with the perils of using primitive tools and frequent conflicts with whalers from other European countries. Another downside was that the oil used to be processed in town when the ships came back. This generated a terrible smell, to such extent that rich people would often move away. However, whaling brought significant wealth to De Rijp, and its current beauty is mostly the fruit of this affluent period.

From the 16th century onward, the town acted as a safe haven for one of the most persecuted Dutch religious groups: the Mennonites, a religious sect whose members distinguished themselves by adult baptism and a pacifist way of life. Mennonites played an important role in the local economic life, and had a significant influence on the culture and society of the region.

The surrounding lakes and marshes also stimulated people from the region to make the first steps in a process that would define Dutch landscape for the next four centuries: land reclamation. Between 1609 and 1612, local architect Jan Leeghwater initiated the reclamation of the Beemster Lake, situated right outside the town, with the help of 42 windmills. The project, which turned out to be extremely successful, transformed the area into one of the most productive agricultural terrains in North Holland. De Beemster would serve as a prototype for other land reclamation projects in the following centuries. Its grid-like structure is still intact, a perfectly ordered landscape of fields, roads, canals and dykes, and it’s worth visiting. Since 1999, the polder is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, “a masterpiece of creative planning, in which the ideals of antiquity and the Renaissance were applied to the design of a reclaimed landscape.”

Eventually, the town lost its sea- related industries, following the general economic decline of the Dutch Republic at the end of the 18th century. New competitors developed in Europe in that period, external conflicts took their toll, and the canals that were connecting the town to the Zuiderzee were too small for modern ships. The last whaling expedition took place in 1798, most members of the Mennonite community moved to other bigger cities in the same period, and afterwards the town contended itself with being a trade center for the villages around it. Thanks to this, it managed to preserve intact most of its Golden Age charm.

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