The Battle Against the Sea

For a tourist, one of the greatest attractions in the Amsterdam area is the chain of small towns spread around the former Zuiderzee. Beautiful and quiet, with countless historical monuments and friendly people, they are an unforgettable sight for whoever has the patience to visit them. I will take you today to the most isolated of them: Urk, a former island and fishermen community, connected nowadays to the mainland.

The town’s peculiar history is a perfect illustration of the constant Dutch battle with the sea. It was founded in the 10th century on an island in the middle of Almere, a sweet water lake separated from the North Sea by large sand dunes. In the 13th century the sea broke through the dunes after a series of huge storms, turning the lake into a shallow bay that came to be known as the Zuiderzee. The former dunes are today’s Frisian islands, while Urk became an isolated fishermen community. Because the island had no sea walls, in the following centuries large pieces of land were eroded away. The first walls were built only around 1700, protecting what was left of the initial land mass from the storms. As extra protection, all houses were built on the highest piece of land, a clay mound that became an intricate labyrinth of alleyways and courtyards.

Life for Urk’s inhabitants changed forever in 1932, when the Afsluitdijk was completed, closing the former Zuiderzee and turning it again into a sweet water lake, the Ijsselmeer. The town became safer, sheltered now from the storms battering the North Sea coasts. Then in 1939 a dike was built, connecting the island to the mainland and ending centuries of isolation. In the following decades, land reclamation projects united it fully to the former coast, creating the Noordoostpolder area. This new land allowed the population of Urk to double in the first 20 years after World War II. Fishing remains however an important activity. Although boats need to travel further to reach the open sea, the local fleet and fish auction are still the largest in the Netherlands.

Due to the town’s centuries of isolation, the local dialect is one of the oldest and most distinctive versions of Dutch. It deviates considerably from the standard language and has preserved many characteristics that disappeared from it a long time ago. Urk is also part of the so-called “Dutch Bible belt”, one of the most politically conservative areas in the Netherlands. Support for national parties remains quite low, while a vast majority of votes go to the three main Christian parties (SGP, ChristenUnie and CDA). Active conservative congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church play key roles in the life of the local community.

I definitely recommend a visit, even if the town is not as easy to reach as Marken or Enkhuizen. Its remote location makes it less crowded, a welcome break for whoever hopes to get away from the usual tourist invasion. Then, due to its centuries of isolation, Urk feels more authentic than towns closer to the Randstad area. Finally, it is simply a beautiful place, with great fish specialties, nice beaches and plenty of opportunities for cycling or sailing. A perfect week-end destination.

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