A Dutch Hobbit Village

Have you ever dreamed to find a village that looks like in children books, so pretty that it is almost unreal? If yes, look no further: the village is called Giethoorn, and it is situated in the Netherlands, in the Northern province of Overijssel.

Despite its idyllic aspect, Giethoorn is a real village, with a long and sometimes dark history. The name derives from a Medieval catastrophe: it is said that when the settlers first arrived, they noticed an unusually large number of goat horns, left over after the big flood that had ravaged the area in 1170. So they named their settlement Geytenhorn (goats’ horns), and later the name gradually changed to Giethoorn.

The region is quite isolated, and it became the perfect refuge for all kinds of religious dissenters since the late Middle Ages. A theory states for example that its founders were a community of Flagellants, who arrived in the Low Countries from regions bordering the Mediterranean, somewhere in the 13th century. The Flagellants were a medieval religious community which practiced a violent form of asceticism and mortification of the flesh. In the 14th century they marched in large groups through Western Europe, flagellating their bodies as a form of atonement for their sins. The groups attracted all kind of social outcasts, including beggars, thieves or former prostitutes, and were often viewed by the local authorities as a potential source of troubles. The church soon came to see them as heretics. Apparently, one such group was sent to Giethoorn by the Bishop of Utrecht, in order to keep them at a safe distance from the large Dutch cities, but also to process the peat from the region.

The village owes it characteristic appearance to this activity. The peat soil, used in many areas as fuel, was dug and cut to pieces which were let to dry and then sold. The excavated areas became lakes, many of them not deeper than one or two meters. Soon the production of peat grew, and canals were dug to transport it easily, giving the village its current look. Most of the houses were built on separate islands, connected by 180 bridges. In the old part of the village, there were no roads, and all transport was done by water.

By the 16th century, the village became a safe haven for another group of refugees: the members of the Mennonite church, a radical protestant sect that preaches strict avoidance of luxury, rejects violence and baptism at birth. The community was persecuted in many areas, and Mennonites from all over northern and central Europe found shelter in Giethoorn, where they could practice their faith freely. In 1631 and again in 1646 its members were exempted from serving in any government offices, according to their strict rules, after paying a fee. In 1811 the South Giethoorn congregation petitioned the Dutch government also for complete freedom from military service.

The village became famous in 1958, when the Dutch director Bert Haanstra filmed his successful comedy “Fanfare” there. Since then, local life changed completely: Giethoorn turned from an isolated farming community into a fashionable holiday destination and tourist attraction. While the first tourists were from the Netherlands, the village’s fame soon spread abroad, and now a large proportion of the visitors are foreigners. Surprisingly, Gioethoorn became very popular with Chinese tourists: apparently, up to 200,000 of them visit the village every year.

Could this be the prettiest village in the world? It is hard to say, probably there are many candidates for this title. However, I think Giethoorn would definitely be one of the favorites. The village became so popular in recent years that it slowly becomes overcrowded, especially when weather is nice. Still, it remains one of the must-see places in the country, and a perfect summer destination.

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