around the world – part 40.1 (water world)

afsluitdijk netherlands

afsluitdijk netherlands

Today was a day off and I opted for the tour of Northern Netherlands – thinking it would be primarily of Friesland. However, we went rather farther afield than I expected.   Our bus took us west towards the Barrier Dyke or ‘afsluitdijk‘ which prevents the North Sea from entering the Netherlands and has created a freshwater lake the ‘IJsselmeer’ to the south of it.   Quite a fantastic piece of engineering when you consider that the plan as implemented was conceived in 1891, with the Dutch Parliament approving it in 1918 and then building it between 1927 and 1932.  The whole dyke 32km in length and is 90m wide at the base and slopes up to be at least 10m above the spring high tide.  It carries a four lane autobahn on the lower inland side.  After a brief stop at the site where the east and west sides of the dyke met, thus completing the enclosure and creating the IJsselmeer, our bus carried us on southwest towards the village of Zaanse Schan in the district of  Zaandam, which is actually quite close to Amsterdam.

Zaanse Schan is a village preserved to represent life in the 1500 – 1600s, although with the coach loads of tourists, not surprisingly quite a few of the houses have been turned into commercial enterprises to cater to a captive audience. Think upper canada village but with the added feature of overpriced dutch trinkets for sale throughout the village. Interestingly, about one third of the houses are privately owned and lived in by families, albeit with hordes of tourists passing by in front.

Zaanse Schan

Zaanse Schan

At Zaanse Schan I discovered the answer to a question which had been puzzling me somewhat – “what is up with wooden clogs”? I mean who would willingly put their feet into uncomfortable wooden vices? There is a whole museum devoted to the story of the clog, and in short it goes something like this.

Long before there was widespread use of hydraulic machinery (the famous dutch windmills being the first of these), the locals would dig drainage ditches by hand, heaving the spoil up into the centre, creating the ‘polder‘, upon which they would build their houses, towns, farms etc.  The soil is very peaty and they learned early on that pressing the peat spoil to remove excess water would (1) improve their drainage and quality of the soil for agriculture, and (2) would produce a sort of peat coal which could be burned to heat homes.  The first clogs were in fact wooden footwells carved into flat pieces of wood, with which the locals could press water out of the soil.  Over time, the necessity to press water became less important and the flat pieces of wood became obsolete, leaving the wooden shoe, which then became a useful cultural icon, and adapted for other uses.  Notably a special clog with up to three or four inches of wood above the crown and toes of the foot was created which could be used as a fulcrum for levers being applied to move rocks in dyke building projects. The first ‘safety toe’ boot so to speak.

After two hours, a small snack and beer,  we loaded the bus and headed off to Volendam and thence to the island of Marken situated on the western edge of the IJsselmeer.  I found Volendam to be a bit more interesting than Marken, which although it is also an area of old villages, there isn’t much to do on a Sunday except to browse countless harbourside souvenir shops.  We returned to Volendam, grateful for the well stocked bar on board, and then our two hour return to Zoutkamp.

Interestingly, even around Zoutkamp, the land must be about 10feet below sea level, as the main dykes are all a minimum of at least 20feet (6m) high.  There are almost no fences between farm fields, as they demarcate fields with drainage ditches of sufficient depth and width to discourage sheep, cattle and horses from moving to the greener pastures.  Each drainage ditch, in turn runs out to meet with a signficantly larger collector ditch, which in some places is twenty feet or more across. The dutch windmills which are the cliche of this country are actually intended to move water from the lowest ditches up in succession to higher ditches, and then finally near the sea, they pump water up and out into the north sea.

around the world – part 38.3 (white knuckle bus tour – or channelling your inner dictator)

June 09 2009:

Forcing the Plebes to the side of the road

Forcing the Plebes to the side of the road

There is nothing quite like being escorted at breakneck speed along narrow winding mountain roads in a motor coach with police cars forcing the plebes off to the side of the road.   With lights flashing, paddle waving and horns blaring our escort emphatically signalled to the unlucky montenegrins that  a bus load of somewhat important persons was hammering down on them and that any time – NOW! – would be a good time to get off the road.     That might sound just a titch unsympathetic and just a bit aristocratic, but really who wouldn’t enjoy this?  The locals I suppose.

Of course, nature being in balance and all that, action counteraction etc etc, it does get a little dicey when the local cement truck decides to challenge the right of way being implemented by the local gendarmes.  Bit of toss up who would have won that, but I would have given it to the cement truck on points. 

But then again no risk, no reward right?

Admit it.  You know that in the darkest corner of your hearts you harbour a longing for an unimpeded route, swept along at high speed with countless locals figuratively bowing before your presence.  It awakens the inner dictator in all of us.

around the world – part 38.1 (syldavia)

June 08 2009:

Ruined Castle near Budva

Ruined Castle near Budva

Syldavia,  a land of barren hills hard by the adriatic – stark and beautiful and sometimes known as Montenegro (although I suspect that Herge might have had Albania in mind) is the scene of my latest wanderings.  I arrived here on Monday the 8th and will depart three days later having barely scraped the surface of this harsh country. In Herge’s imagination, Montenegro, Albania, in fact anywhere in the Balkans was fantastically ‘other’ in a here there be dragons sort of way. I don’t blame him. It is a country that demands your attention – blistering hot in the summer, rocky, stubble covered hills and breath taking beaches and seascapes. The women are all six feet tall, gorgeous and serious. The men, short, fat and attached to the end of a cigarette. Go figure.

Word to the wise: Montenegro Airlines is where old airliners go to die. I flew in from Vienna on a Fokker 100 – about 1000 years old yet piloted by young lads desparate to impress the stunning stewardesses (“shining like a newly minted penny” to quote the corgi). Mind you it is a bit of toss up whether one might want a new and well maintained aircraft adorned with ancient battleaxes schlepping gruel onto your tray (see Air Canada), or the crap shoot of an ancient aircraft populated with amazons –  providing that frisson of interest as one simultaneously contemplates the idea of breaking apart at 25000 feet yet accompanied by some of the best looking women one will ever meet whilst flying. 

To add even more excitement;  the pilots got in on the act as apparently, even a jet liner held together with duct tape can be made to simulate a fighter jet – our hard spine compressing landing was embellished with a couple of good hard tarmac bounces thrown in for good measure, no doubt leaving a few rivets on the runway.  So there I was in in Podgorica (bet you never thought I would wind up there!) happily confronted with the decison to immediately board the motor coach or settle in for a few pints while waiting for the attendees from later flights.  Points to those who guess how many beer I had.

here there be dragons (or war memorials in small town germany)

I had just finished reading Red Storm over the Balkans, a very detailed history of the failed Russian offensive of April / May 1944 into Romania, when Edward the Corgi co-incidentally reminded me of a small yet significant feature of the Greding town war memorial.  The memorial, like many in towns all over western Europe and North America, records the names of town folk fallen in service of their country.  The Greding memorial dates from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 with the last entries being from the Second World War. 

However, on closer inspection you notice an interesting feature.  Those who fell in battle in both the Franco Prussian war, and the Great War for Civilisation* (that would be WWI for all you ahistorical postmodernists out there) are annotated with specific locations (an exception is made for those who served in the Kriegsmarine, where the location is annotated with an ocean name), but a large percentage of those who fell in the second war are noted as having fallen only in ‘osten‘ or the east.

War Memorial Greding

War Memorial Greding

Now this is curious for a number of reasons.  Germany, being an industrial nation, and a bureaucratic state similar to those others in western Europe of the day, and culturally predisposed to following rules (alles in ordnung) surely records must have been kept.  That even during the days of their darkest regime, there must have been bureaucrats toiling away in some nameless office block of the personnel section of the Wehrmacht, filing away posting messages, keeping unit and battalion records and together these might produce at least an idea of where each individual soldier had served and fallen.

Apparently, not as easy as one might think.  Keep in mind that from January 1943 (the surrender of Von Paulus’ sixth Army at Stalingrad) the German Army was more or less on the defence (albeit a rather mobile defence with some significant reversals for the Russians at times) for the remainder of the war, fighting in ‘terra incognita’ at least until late 1944, an area for which accurate maps and other detail was largely unavailable to both sides.   To complicate matters further, the Soviets dug up/bulldozed/destroyed any Wehrmacht (not to mention Italian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Romanian) cemeteries upon retaking their ground, so that not only were the families of the dead not allowed to visit the graves of the lost, in Russia, there are  no graves to visit.  Add to this the visceral feelings of hatred amongst the two belligerents, the sheer scale of the battles and casualties, the rapid movement of the lines, it all adds up to an inability to state for certain exactly where many sons of Greding are buried.  

In contrast, visit one of the beautifully kept (by public subscription, I believe) German military cemetaries in France where the families of the fallen often conduct pilgrimages to the gravesites, and you can understand how the idea of “the East” must have taken hold, particularily when the shear size and timescale of the Eastern Front is considered, with the climate extremes etc.   Without in any way excusing the excess of the horrific regimes on both sides of this largely now forgotten war, the young German soldiers who served for years in “the Land of Dragons” had no choice in the matter, and did the best they could under conditions we cannot imagine.  They deserve better than just vague reference to the east.

But there it is: ‘osten‘.  Small comfort for the families of Greding.


*  E the C will insist.   Grateful to the shorter legged canine for all the helpful editorial comments.